EAST MANATEE — Five years ago, Gary Holbrook, the only principal Freedom Elementary School has ever had, knew he faced mandatory retirement in 2009.
But he hoped somehow there would be a way to extend his 37-year-career in the Manatee County school district.
Now, even though his passion remains undimmed at age 60, he is preparing to turn over the principal’s office to someone else.
Since Freedom opened in 2003, it has been linked to serving the rapidly growing East Manatee population and to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
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The school’s name, Freedom, comes from the desire Americans have to defend their liberties. From the start, the school has strongly supported men and women in uniform fighting America’s wars, and the first responders who put their lives on the line in domestic emergencies.
On Thursday, Debbie Steube, who retired two years ago as a teacher at Freedom, arrived to pick up 14 large boxes of supplies to be shipped to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Twice a year, the school gathers snacks, letters and comfort items to send to troops overseas, selected because for their connection to school families.
“I feel that this is a mission that must continue,” Steube said.
Holbrook says the shipments started the year Freedom opened.
Freedom is also known for its “Let Freedom Ring Courtyard,” estimated to have cost $60,000, all of it donated, Holbrook said.
He attributes the success of those programs to parents like Sharri Cagle, who was named Manatee School District volunteer of the year.
The school opened with an enrollment of 425 in its first year, and had double that number last year, when it had to use portable classrooms to accommodate all the students.
The school district took action to redistrict the attendance zone and moved some of the overcapacity to Gullett Elementary at Lakewood Ranch. Freedom now has an enrollment of about 700, Holbrook said.
“We have a diverse group of students. We are very proud of these kids,” Holbrook said.
Holbrook also praised his teachers, many of whom toil for hours on weekends preparing lesson plans and stay late after school.
One of the keys at Freedom has been to have family-friendly events that have no or little cost.
“That would be my advice: Don’t forget your friends or family — along with your faith,” Holbrook said.
Like anyone, Holbrook said he sometimes has bad days, but all he has to do to pick himself up is to visit a classroom and see teachers and students.
Prior to coming to Freedom, Holbrook was principal at Abel Elementary. But his long career also took him to Manatee, Bayshore and Southeast high schools, and Miller and Orange Ridge-Bullock elementary schools.
He is a graduate of Manatee High School, where he was the county 880-yard dash champion. He is a graduate of Manatee Community College and Florida State University.
He and his wife, Terri, a teacher at Gullett Elementary, are parents of two sons, Kyle and Kasey.
Holbrook continues to indulge his love of sports as an announcer for Lakewood Ranch High School football games.
He’s not sure what retirement holds, but he plans to stay busy. “I’m not done yet,” he said.
Margi Nanney, spokeswoman for the Manatee County school district, said the school board is set to consider replacements June 8 for principal positions at Freedom, Bashaw and McNeal elementary schools, Buffalo Creek Middle School and Palmetto High School.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 708-7916.