Darren Glover made the move in 1997 from Eisenhower Middle School in Gibsonton to a brand new high school opening in New Tampa.

A quarter of a century later, he’s still a Wharton Wildcat and has no plans to ever leave. He was one of more than 200 current and former Wildcats who gathered Nov. 5 in the school’s cafeteria to celebrate the school’s 25th anniversary.

Glover is one of just five teachers at the school that opened the school and has remained there, along with paraprofessional Sherry Hargin, guidance counselor Cindy Rogers and English teacher Merrill Connor.

Others, like current principal Mike Rowan, assistant principal Eddie Henderson and guidance counselor Tommy Tonelli, were at Wharton in 1997, but left for other jobs before coming back to stay at the school.

While Glover may not have expected to spend the next two-plus decades at Wharton, he confesses to having loved every minute of it.

He met his wife Elizabeth, a social studies teacher, at the school (well, technically, at happy hour at Durango Steak House, which is now Hungry Crab Juicy Seafood). They had two sons – Riley, who graduated from Wharton in 2021, and Aubrey, who is currently a senior.

“I built a family here. It has been really great,” says Glover, a driver’s education teacher and athletic department business manager. When the school organized the 25th anniversary gathering, he was eager to reconnect with past Wildcats.

The celebration included the school’s first principal Mitch Muley and assistant principal (AP) Carmen Aguero (top left photo on next page), plus the four other principals who have led the school — George Gaffney, Brad Woods, Scott Fritz and current principal Mike Rowan, who was an original teacher at the school (all of whom are shown on page 1). 

Also on hand were original staffers and athletic coaches Marcie Scholl, David Mitchell (2nd photo from left on next page), Henderson and Tonelli (both in far right pics on next page). The celebration was held prior to Wharton’s football game against Hillsborough High, and many of the dignitaries stuck around for the 27-7 win, as the ‘Cats head into the playoffs. Many of the original staffers were recognized on the field during halftime.

“I was really looking forward to seeing everyone,” Glover said.. “They weren’t coming back for a free hamburger (or, in this case, Mediterranean food from The Little Greek); they were coming back for a reason. — to see their old high school, to be a part of it again. It’s a great thing.”

The original staff at Wharton.

During the pre-game meal, not only did the 200+ people in attendance hear from Muley and Rowan, but current Wharton math teacher Carlos Rosaly read a number of recollections of the early days of the school written by those original staffers:

“From Carmen Aguero,” Rosaly read, “one day there was a huge squirrel that climbed up the building outside the cafeteria and Mitch yelled to Junior (former head custodian Tirso ‘Junior’ Cintron), ‘Get the pressure washer and shoot that thing. So, Junior did exactly that. Meanwhile, the bell rang and out from the cafeteria came 200 children who all of a sudden were getting showered on.” 

Rosaly also read an anecdote from former Wharton AP Pam Peralta, “Some of Pam’s favorite memories are coaching swim team with Marcie Scholl and winning Districts in our first year, and attending sporting events and watching Wharton’s finest cheerleaders at the spring pep rally that first year.”

Rosaly said Aguero also recalled when interviews were being conducted in the trailers on BBD and Muley was upset about something and “started spewing profanities…in front of a visiting parent. Carmen said to the parent about Muley, ‘Man, you never know what you’re getting into with these construction workers.’”   

Starting Out…

In December 1996, Mitchell Muley was named Wharton’s first principal. He had already opened Ben Hill Junior High on Ehrlich Rd. 10 years earlier, and he had a good relationship with long-time Hillsborough County Schools administrator Paul R. Wharton, for whom the school was named. Muley, then 49, was the perfect fit.

Mitch Muley, the school’s first principal.

He worked out of a trailer on Bruce B. Downs Blvd. near where the school was being built. 

Muley spent his first six months ordering equipment, interviewing potential teachers and visiting potential students at junior high/middle schools like Van Buren and Buchanan that weren’t really close (Benito Middle School, which also opened in ‘97, provided a much closer option for New Tampa kids, too), and King, Chamberlain and Hillsborough high schools.

He put together a committee of those students who, in March, picked a school mascot — as the Wildcats beat out the Wolves.

In April, the school’s colors were selected – navy blue and white, with black trim – and the school hired its first head football coach, Dan Acosta.

The first football team had to practice that spring at Greco Middle School on Fowler Ave. They had to practice without equipment.

That was followed by selecting cheerleaders, a band director, a fight song and an alma mater song, as well as more coaches and teachers.

On August 17, 1997, Paul R. Wharton High swung its doors open for the first time. The traffic light on BBD across from the entrance to what is now Live Oak Preserve hadn’t yet been installed. Fences and walkways weren’t quite completed. Some painting still had to be done. The auditorium wouldn’t be ready until Oct. 1.

“We were still trying to get our certificate of occupancy two days before opening,” Muley recalls. “Just trying to get everything ready, to get it open, is what I’ll remember from that first year.”

Wharton is now the neighborhood school, but communities like West Meadows and Cross Creek were fairly new, so many of its original 1,400 students were driven or bused in from previously attended far-away schools like Hillsborough and Chamberlain.

“What I remember was the diversity,” says Kedric Harris, currently an assistant principal at Gaither who attended Wharton that first year. “It was the first time being at a school that had a real world atmosphere. We had no seniors, but it was an interesting mix of white, Black and Hispanic students.”

Harris dove right in. He loved being at a new school. He ran for, and was elected, treasurer of the student government, and played on the basketball team that won 20 games. 

What he remembers most is that while the school’s colors were blue, white and black, the school itself looked lavender and purple when he first arrived. 

Harris was likely the first Wharton student to ever return to the school as a teacher. After graduating from Florida A&M, he became an English teacher at Wharton from 2004-11, and then an administrative resource teacher before moving to Gaither.

Tonelli, who retired as the super-successful boys basketball coach but continues as a guidance counselor at Wharton, says there is always something special about a new school, and you could feel it in 1997.

“It’s the excitement of everything being the first,” Tonelli says. “You are helping to establish the tradition, helping set the pride and create the enthusiasm for the school. That was an exciting time.”

Tough Times, Too…

There were tough times early. More than $19,000 of video equipment (76 VCRs and 14 camcorders) were stolen the weekend before the school opened, and a fight between students the first semester captured a significant amount of media attention.

The fight helped tarnish Wharton’s image, and other similar issues over the years have helped prevent the school from shaking it. 

“Wharton, from the beginning, because of some of the fights, got a bad rap and a bad name,” Tonelli says. “But, a lot of really good things have gone on at Wharton the last 25 years. It has been unbelievable, really — really successful in so many areas. Academically, we’ve had some unbelievable kids that have gone on to do great things. From the school paper, the culinary program, the yearbook, the athletics, we’ve had a lot of really good things happen and a lot of good things continue to happen.”

Glover agrees, which is why it meant a lot for the past students, teachers and administrators to gather to celebrate 25 years of wonderful moments, he says

“I think Wharton bound the (New Tampa) area together,” he says. “We’ve had some bumpy times, but it’s a great school. We have some great families here, and there are some great things always happening. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

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