MANATEE -- After a week in hospice care, friends and family members of Manatee County School Board member Mary Cantrell say her condition is improving.
But as with any time hospice care is involved, friends and family are cautious, as they know change can come at any moment. At the moment, Cantrell's condition is unchanged since Friday. Cantrell is very tired, but she has a small appetite and is very aware of her surroundings and her situation right now.
The 71-year-old longtime educator, former Manatee Technical College director and current Manatee County school board member has been battling bone marrow cancer, but was doing well and received her doctor's blessing before running for school board. Since the election in November, Cantrell's health has taken a turn for the worse and hospice care began last week.
Friends were hesitant to discus the situation until this week.
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"I think it's time. We've had a week to soak it up," said Minnie King, a retired school district administrator and close personal friend of Cantrell. "It's time to let other people know because other people love her, too."
Despite her health, her friends say she has no intention of resigning from the board. Health permitting, she'll participate in the shade meeting scheduled for July 14. The next regularly scheduled board meeting is July 28.
"She will be a school board
member until the day she dies," King said.
Often quiet in meetings, she ran a heater behind the dais to keep warm, but patiently sat through long meetings and voiced her concerns when necessary.
"She's tough. She grew up in an orphanage, you didn't complain because you didn't get anywhere anyway," said Judy Bayer, a retired principal and a close friend.
Bayer and a group of other retired educators campaigned heavily for Cantrell during the election, saying Cantrell's expertise and school-based management style were what the district needed to move forward. Cantrell defeated incumbent board member Julie Aranibar in November.
Outside the world of academia, Cantrell and Bayer would often go thrift shopping together.
A lifelong educator, Cantrell first retired in 2004, but returned to the district under the Deferred Retirement Option Program to lead Manatee Technical Institute, later named MTC. Cantrell, who had been at the school for 18 years, led the campus move from Bradenton to East Manatee off Caruso Road. In April 2014, she learned her contract would not be renewed.
"That broke her heart," King said.
Shortly after that, she decided to run for school board.
Cantrell was born in Texas, the youngest of four children. Her father died when she was 3 and her mother left her and her siblings at an orphanage soon after. Cantrell went on to finish both high school and college early, earning a bachelor's degree in education from University of North Texas, a master's degree in education from the University of South Florida and doctoral degree in career/technical education from USF.
Cantrell is a staunch supporter of education being the key to lifting children out of poverty.
Mike Barber, Manatee district spokesman, said district officials are aware that Cantrell is in hospice care.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with her," he said.
Cantrell and her husband, Louis, have been married for almost 50 years. She has five children and two grandchildren. Family members have been caring for Cantrell since hospice was brought in and are not yet comfortable speaking to the media. But her friends are optimistic about the situation overall, citing Cantrell's strength and determination.
"If anybody could ever rebound and come back from this, it's her," King said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.