Dorothy. may have said there is no place like home but Principal Jim Davis clearly feels there is no place like Zephyrhills. He is thankful for the opportunity to have served a cohesive community such as Zephyrhills that was concerned about young people and showed warmth and caring. “I would do it all again!” said Jim.
We had the distinct pleasure this week to interview James E. Davis who served as Principal of ZHS, Zephyrhills Junior High and Director of Employee Relations for the School District and his wife of 42 years, Claudette who also retired as an educator from Pasco County Schools. Many alumni asked us to interview Mr. and Mrs. Davis for a countdown tribute.
Mr. Davis served ZHS from 1966 to 1975 and was principal from 1973 to 1975. He had the unique situation of assuming the principalship in 1973 when previous principal, Raymond Stewart was appointed by Florida Governor Reuben Askew to complete the term of Rodney B. Cox, Superintendent, who died suddenly. It was an emotional and tumultuous time and Mr. Davis was the man for the job to bring a sense of normalcy and caring to the school during the transition. Later after Raymond lost the superintendent’s election, James became principal at ZJHS (now R.B. Stewart Middle School) from 1975 to 1984. Prior to becoming principal, James was a dean of students, assistant principal, math teacher and coach for hundreds of students at ZHS.
He retired in 2003 after serving for 19 years as the chief negotiator for the school district in the position of Director of Employee Relations. This unique leadership experience is indicative of the character of the man; Jim voluntarily stepped down as high school principal when Ray Stewart was out of a job because he felt it was the right thing to do. Undoubtedly that character has impacted many students, in fact generations, and enriched our community!
As we interviewed Jim and Claudette we found several recurring themes in their recollections: memories of students, pride in teachers, fondness for the community and commitment.
STUDENTS: “I enjoyed every one of them, and I remember them all,” Jim said. “I always tried to treat students the way I would want people to treat my kids.” Claudette added, “The students always knew that Jim cared.”
The life of a principal is one of self-sacrifice. Often Jim supervised students until midnight after ball games making certain that every student was safely picked up. Being a dean was a tough and grueling job as well; Jim recalled that he would telephone parents if students were absent (before the automated phone systems of today). He recalled making a phone call to the home of Mark Penney from the Class of 1971, a running back on the ZHS football team and talking with his mother. After the mother said Mark was refusing to come to school, Jim made a home visit, ousted Mark and was invited for breakfast. After this incident Mark never missed another day of school.
A few personal anecdotes that Jim shared, were representative of the impact that he had on families. During his first year of teaching at ZHS after having taught in Tampa for one year, a group of his Van Buren students skipped school to make an excursion to Zephyrhills just to visit Mr. Davis. He recalls being called down to the principal’s office to meet with the group. One member of that first group of students, Bruce Kidd, telephoned Jim a couple of years ago to let him know that he had become a math professor at St. Petersburg Junior College.
Reuben Odom was another story that came to mind as Jim recalled Reuben phoning him at 2:00 a.m. a few years ago while on leave from the Navy to let him know that he was getting married the next day. He just thought his old coach would want to know and characteristically, Jim felt honored to receive the call, even in the middle of the night.
Claudette and Jim said that they see students everywhere they go. Jim particularly enjoys the multi-generational groups. Even while serving as principal, he said it was quite extraordinary to work with a student whose parent you had also taught. Not only do they see students in the local community, they said they have run into former students in other locations, Louisiana and elsewhere. The impact is truly far-reaching not only in geographic but personal impact. Jim is proud that several of his students later became teachers; Jerry Pricher and others keep in close contact with him.
BUILDINGS: Jim reminisced about the former ZHS campus. He said he remembered walking in to the vintage 1926 brick building each morning and just absorbing the character and history of the place. When the school was on double sessions, he would usually arrive at 6:00 a.m. and do a regular walkthrough. The auditorium and the hallways held many memories. Jim began teaching at ZHS in the first portable that the school district ever built. He said his portable was beside the classroom of Jean Murphy who was one of the first reading teachers in the school district. He personally constructed sidewalks along with Ray Stewart and tore down one of the Physical Education sheds. Lots of labor was poured into those buildings and the principals used to perform a great deal of it themselves.
COMMUNITY: “Zephyrhills was a fine place to work and an excellent place to raise your family,” said Jim. People had different concerns and positions but they worked through them without personal animosity. So many key people made a difference; he recalled Jack Linville, Phil Shaver, Don Robinson, George Neukom, Bill Eiland, Bob Howell Bernie Wickstrom, and Irene Dobson. “I think the community supported the school because they saw good people who cared about students.” Jim was principal of ZHS during integration and when asked about that time frame, he said that although they had a few situations, it was a smooth time. Openness with the students and creating an atmosphere of acceptance was essential. He credited Irene Dobson and the first African American Assistant Principal, Melvin Denard, as being instrumental in assisting with the process as well.
PARENTS: Forging a bond with the parents was also a key principle that he followed. Jim said, “When parents realize you will protect and teach their children, and that you are headed in the same direction, you are a team. I believe in getting to know the parents. In those days the auditorium was jammed full when we had parent meetings. The parents really viewed the principal and teachers as extensions of themselves as well.”
TEACHERS: Jim often brought the coaches home for dinner, said Claudette who is known to be a fantastic cook. They recalled a time when Jim interviewed a teacher applicant, Carl Waldron and Jim invited him home for lunch; Jim said Carl called his wife, Mary, right there and said “I want this job because the principal even took me to his house for lunch.” Jim said that he had the type of teachers that you wanted to teach your own children. “They all liked kids!” He reminisced about Business/Language Arts Teacher, Constance Kaylor and recalled the day that she came to school and as they were chatting over a cup of coffee, mentioned that she had tripped on the sidewalk on the way to school. As it turned out she had broken her arm on the way to school but was concerned that Mr. Davis might not be able to find a suitable substitute, so wanted to make sure her students were taken care of before going to the hospital.
Throughout the interview Jim shared vignettes on some of the outstanding staff. Recognizable names were George Scudder, Cora McCreedy, John Clements, Jean Murphy, Ron Jeffries, Lisa Gude, Jake Redmon, Melvin Denard, Joyce Snow, Jane Reams, Stan Kendrick, Victor Smith, Liz Geiger, Victor Smith, Marion Crawford, Ann Crawford, Bill Kustes, Bill Worthington, Hazel Massey, Cora McCreedy, Dan Thomas, Mary Lou Massey and countless others. He said an outstanding secretary, Evelyn Lail, contributed to many smooth years as well.
Jim shared that as Director of Employee Relations, he negotiated the teacher contact for nearly 20 years with the Union President, Liz Geiger, who had been one of the best math teachers he had known and always enjoyed a friendly camaraderie. He laughed about recruiting lunchroom manager Mary Lou Massey away from colleague principal, Ferd Renninger. It was obvious in the interview that Mr. Davis was a leader who inspired his staff.
As authors, we both had numerous encounters with Mr. Davis. Clereen was a student of his under his principalship and shared with him that she vividly recalled the location on the campus where she was caught in a public display of affection (PDA) and received her one and only detention. She chuckled as she recalled, “Mr. Davis, it must have been a great kiss because Jim Brunty and I have now been married 35 years.” Madonna also shared that she was proud to recall that Jim hired her in her first teaching job and had a profound affect upon her career as well. “He and Claudette are just the best!”
Claudette Davis served for many years in the Pasco County School System as well. She is perhaps best known as the principal’s secretary for West Zephyrhills Elementary where she retired a few years ago but also helped to open Centennial Elementary School, Woodland Elementary School and Weightman Middle School. She fondly recalls working at Moore-Mickens Middle School in its final year as a middle school. Claudette is known as a wonderful care-taker for children and a tremendous child and parent advocate. Pitching in with fundraisers, joining in to serve at school dinners for the community and hosting celebrations for FCAT successes are memories that many have of Claudette. Always the first one to greet new students and parents coming to retrieve their children for an appointment or early dismissal, her warmth and nurturing spirit set the tone for the school. All remember her lovely smile. Asked to share some memories, Claudette recalled her friend the Rev. Cora Hill whom she worked with at Moore-Mickens.
Mr. Davis is a 1959 Brandon High School graduate who served in the Army Reserve and graduated from the University of South Florida (its first graduating class) with a Bachelor of Arts in education in 1964. He taught and coached one year at Pasco Junior High and one year at Van Buren Junior High in Tampa, before coming to ZHS in 1966 as a ninth grade teacher. He coached track five years and assisted in football two years and was appointed as Dean of Boys in 1968. He became Stewart’s assistant in 1971. He earned a Master’s Degree in Administration from Western Carolina University in 1971. Claudette and Jim have three children: Kimberly, Kelly, and James Jr. They are very proud of their children’s accomplishments. Kimberly Cassarelli is a cadet in the Police Academy and the parent of two children, Devon and Erin; Daughter Kelly Padilla is a graduate of USF and employed by Well Care and the parent of Frankie; and son, Jimmy is a graduate of the University of Florida where he is employed and currently working on his Master’s Degree. All are graduated of ZHS.
Clereen and I could not resist asking about the obvious love affair between this handsome and devoted couple. With a chuckle, they said their first date was the ZHS senior prom at the Zephyrhills Municipal Auditorium. Jim said, “Can you imagine? The first date and I was supervising the students?” Claudette laughed and said, “Not to worry, it was love at first sight.” They both agreed that acclimating to Zephyrhills was assisted by the gracious support of Beanie Clements and Betty Hall who would leave a gift or share a kindness to help them feel more a part of the Zephyrhills community!
Thank you Jim and Claudette for all of the lives you have touched. The legacy will stretch to further generations. We are humbled by your service and want you to know you serve as an example to all of us!
Next week we would like to share alumni recollections of Jim and Claudette. Please write in!
All rights reserved. Photos © Madonna Jervis Wise