Lewis Brinson, the first principal at Benito Middle School.

Lewis Brinson had no idea where “New Tampa” was, but when he was handed the keys to Louis Benito Middle School 25 years ago, he couldn’t wait to find out. So, he decided to leave his West Tampa home and take a drive.

“I was driving and driving…and driving,” Brinson said, smiling. “When I got here, I said “Where’s the school?” All that was here was a trailer.”

Brinson, Benito’s first principal, shared the story in the school’s media center, at a celebration of Benito’s 25th anniversary, drawing plenty of head nods and laughter.

Every one of the school’s past principals attended — Barbara Hancock, Scott Fritz, Bobby Smith (who slipped in a “Benito Pride, Hard to Hide” slogan at the end of his speech) and John Sanders, who held the job the longest before retiring last year after 14 years at the school. Current principal Brent Williams, a host of teachers past and current, some Hillsborough County Schools administrators and three current School Board members joined in to mark the occasion in a small but upbeat ceremony.

(Above) Current Benito Middle School Principal Brent Williams (far left) with (l.-r.) bookkeeper Phyllis Thurman and teachers Michelle Nolan, Charmaine Jones and Barbara Lind, the staffers who have all been at the school all 25+ years it has been open, and assistant principal Kathleen LeClaire at the celebration of the school’s opening for the 1997-98 school year. (Photos by Charmaine George)

Included in the crowd and honored by Williams were Michelle Nolan, Charmaine Jones, Barbara Lind and bookkeeper Phyllis Thurman, all of whom have been at the school since Day One.

Nolan, a 6th grade math teacher, gave a heartfelt and tear-filled speech as she looked back at her 25 years.

“It’s been a joy to come to work,” Nolan said. “I’ve put my heart and soul into Benito. Tim (her husband) and I couldn’t have kids, so this became my baby.”

Jones, a 7th grade civics teacher, has worked in education for 40 years and Benito was her third job. 

“I never felt the need to leave this place,” she said.

Lind, who followed Brinson from Eisenhower Middle School to Benito, said when she started, the principal gave her one piece of advice that may have saved her a few bucks: when you get to Cross Creek Blvd., set your cruise control for 30 mph or you will get a ticket (although, technically, the speed limit on Cross Creek Blvd. was, and still is, 45 mph).

Williams promised Thurman, the school’s forever bookkeeper, she wouldn’t have to give a speech, so he gave one for her, telling the crowd, “One thing I learned as an administrator is if you don’t have a good bookkeeper, you’re going to jail…well, I’m not going to jail.”

What’s In A Name?

All five of Benito Middle School’s principals since it opened were on hand for the celebration. (L.-r.) Lewis Brinson, Barbara Hancock, Scott Fritz, Bobby Smith and John Sanders.

Benito opened in August 1997 for the 1997-98 school year, as New Tampa was beginning to explode. Although many locals had petitioned to have the new school be named New Tampa Middle School, it ended up being named after well-known Tampa advertising executive Louis Benito, who played a big role in establishing the University of South Florida (USF).

Brinson’s first year was a tough one, with problems still familiar to New Tampa residents. There were major traffic issues, an abundance of construction trucks on the roads and an overflowing student population. In fact, making use of some of its 29 portables, Benito actually housed the 5th graders from the adjacent Hunter’s Green Elementary due to that school’s overcrowding issues.

Benito was a blend of teachers from all over the county, neighborhood kids and those who took buses in from the USF area.

“It was just a matter of putting everyone together, and making them feel welcome,” Brinson said. “We tried to build a culture where everybody felt appreciated and, once we did that, everything fell into place.”

As for traffic, it was predictably a mess. 

According to a St. Petersburg Times story, one parent stood at the corner of Kinnan St. and Cross Creek Blvd. for 25 minutes one morning and counted 79 heavy construction vehicles — like dump trucks, concrete mixers and semitrailer trucks — as well as 26 school buses, along with all of the cars that were dropping kids off.

Because there were no crossing guards provided for secondary schools, Brinson took on the job himself. Eventually, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, as a temporary measure and until the construction in the area was completed, supplied a guard.

The wildlife in the area also turned out to be a big surprise to Brinson and his staff, which included then-assistant principal and future principal Scott Fritz.

“When I interviewed, Mr. Brinson went through a list of things (asking if I could handle) lockers, schedules, working with parents,” Fritz said. “What he didn’t tell me was that I was going to catch two alligators on campus. He didn’t tell me I’d have to catch a host of walking catfish. He didn’t tell me about all the snakes…but I will tell you what, it was absolutely the defining leadership experience I had working here at Benito.”

A slide show at the 25th anniversary celebration highlighted some of the school’s notable graduates, like 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion Nupur Lala, all-Ivy League volleyball player and Yale graduate Kathryn Attar, former University of Pennsylvania running back and current Team USA bobsledder Kyle Wilcox, Canadian Football League quarterback Chase Litton (who also has spent time on NFL team practice squads) and Michael O’Rourke, the founder and CEO of Tampa blockchain services startup Pocket Network, now valued at $1.5 billion.

However, those who spoke at the Benito gathering were quick to credit the teachers and administrators for creating a family-type atmosphere and making the middle school one of the best in Hillsborough County. This year was the 21st straight year Benito received an “A” grade from the Florida Department of Education.

That’s a big part of the reason Williams calls Benito a “destination” for county educators.

“You can definitely feel the sense of school community and it’s evident in the way they carry themselves in their conversations,” he said of his teachers. “They love being here and they love the kids. You can definitely feel the family vibe.”

After the speeches, folks mingled and shared stories and hugs while eating cake. Laughter filled the room. Fritz said it was like a family, and that made the celebration feel more like a family reunion.

“I knew that this community wouldn’t let this school fail,” Brinson said. “It felt good knowing that, and being able to come back and see that it is (still) thriving makes you feel proud. Sometimes you go to a place and you don’t want people to know that you used to be there. That’s not the case here.”

Recommended Posts

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Add a Comment