BRADENTON -- For Barbara Harvey, it's always been about the children.
But Monday night at a surprise celebration for the outgoing Manatee County School Board member, it was all about Harvey and her service to the Manatee County School District.
"This is wonderful," Harvey gasped upon entering the function hall at Pier 22, where board members, district officials and community members gathered to surprise her. One of her daughters escorted her in under the guise she was attending a church function.
"I knew nothing about this," Harvey said after regaining her composure and while making her way to the seat of honor, shaking hands and hugging people along the way. "I don't know how you did this without me finding out about it."
The event was put on by developer Pat Neal, law firm Blalock Walters, Superintendent Rick Mills, and school board members Julie Aranibar, Karen Carpenter and Bob Gause and his wife, Kris Gause.
Harvey, a member on the school board since 1998, will attend her last meeting Tuesday night. She's worked in the district since 1961.
The board was originally slated to meet Nov. 11 prior to the Nov. 18 reorganization meeting, but canceled the meeting because it coincided with Veterans Day.
So, after almost two full decades on the board, Harvey will cast her last vote Tuesday as a Manatee County School Board member.
"They're losing their heart," said Caroline Zucker, a member of the Sarasota County School Board and president-elect of the Florida School Board Association, who has known Harvey for 20 years. "You know whatever she does or says, it's coming from the heart."
Monday night was a celebration of Harvey's service to the district, which extends far beyond her time on the board. Harvey was a classroom teacher and a principal in the district before serving on the board and participated in a number of different organizations aimed at helping children thrive.
When addressing the crowd after a program full of speakers, Harvey stayed her usual course.
"We can do this," she said. "Every child is at risk and every child needs your support."
Harvey has often served as a board historian. No other board members have her institutional knowledge.
A religious woman, the board often turns to Harvey for invocations at the beginning of a meeting. Harvey reminds board members, district officials and the public why they are gathered for the meetings, which have been contentious and often dysfunctional as of late.
They're there for the children.
To help the children succeed.
Harvey has six children herself, but many in the audience counted themselves one of her unofficial children after Natasha Hogan, Harvey's eldest daughter down from Orlando to surprise her, asked the audience to show just how influential her mother's 50 years in the district have been.
"If you think you're her child, would you please stand?" she asked, as almost the entire room stood up.
Harvey made her retirement announcement quietly at a June board meeting. She opted not to run for re-election to spend more time with her family and other activities.
Although she's stepping down, she's not going to be stepping away.
Charlie Kennedy, who beat Rodney Jones in the August election, will take Harvey's place. He'll be sworn in at the Nov. 18 board meeting.
"It's a little overwhelming to be stepping into the shoes of someone who has been here for so long," Kennedy said. "It's impossible to replace a legend."
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.