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Distinguished alums recall things that make Manatee High School great

A teenage crush on a teacher.

Cutting classes to go surfing. Or shoot pool at Council’s.

Reverence for a legendary football coach and those glory days in the old Western Conference.

They are but a few of the fond memories of several recipients of Manatee High School’s Outstanding Alumni Award, voted on annually by members of school’s alumni association.

Some went to school there when it was Manatee County High.

The rest as it is known today.

It makes no difference.

Manatee High still holds sway on them on its centennial celebration.

“There’s not another school I’d have wanted to go to,” said Rodney Potter, a 1954 MCHS graduate and the 2011 outstanding alum.

There are presently 18 who share the honor -- five are deceased -- which recognizes an alum for outstanding achievement, distinguished service and leadership.

Of course, some recipients exhibited other amusing qualities while at Manatee.

“I tried to stay out of trouble, but I wasn’t always successful,” said Gene Page, the 2010 honoree -- one of four recipients from the Class of 1957 -- who roams the sidelines at Hurricane football games taking pictures.

David McDonald, a 1971 MHS graduate and outgoing director at Port Manatee, still marvels at his selection.

“I’m in austere company,” said the 1995 recipient.

Among them are:

n 1994/Gene Witt, Class of 1948. Now 82, the former MCHS tackle was an educator for 38 years including 11 as Manatee County’s school superintendent:

“All of it was great. I remember servicemen coming back from the war and finishing high school. That was an interesting time. We were all so poor, we didn’t know anything different. I came from a neighborhood in the city of Manatee called the ‘Crate Mill.’ That’s where people who made crates and boxes and hampers lived in company houses. To grow up there to become superintendent couldn’t have happened without the help of a lot of people -- Mary Alice Harllee, J. Hartley Blackburn and many others, including the teachers at Manatee.”

n 1995/David McDonald, Class of 1971. Now 58, the former Manatee High trombone player is retiring after 36 years at Port Manatee, 20 as director:

“We moved here from Melbourne, where we’d watch rockets go off at Cape Canaveral from our front porch, to a community with a much slower pace of life. Still, it was the greatest time. I played in the school band and orchestra and traveled with the Raisin’ Canes dance band. We went to New York City and out west. It was fun, a big part of our lives.”

n 1996/Bob Sweat, Class of 1957. The 73-year-old former tackle has been Manatee County’s supervisor of elections for 27 years:

“Wheeler Leeth was a father figure for all the players. A mentor for girls and guys, too. He was a disciplinarian, tough, but fair, a good Christian man, who instilled in us the importance of being good people. He let us know right quick we got out of football what we put into it. Even as tough as he was on players, we might’ve griped about it, but we knew he was right.”

n 1999/Dan Miller, Class of 1960. Now 69, the former U.S. congressman and Harvard Fellow is a guest lecturer on politics and teaches lifelong learning at the University of South Florida/Sarasota-Manatee:

“Being part of the high school’s exchange program under Jeanne Parrish was a bonding experience. When we went to Wrentham, Mass., our exchange partners, our train stopped in Washington and we had a picture taken on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. I was 18. I had that same picture in my office when I was a member of Congress at 50.”

n 2001/Daniel C. Zoller, Class of 1957. Now 71, he’s a former backup quarterback, pole vaulter and hurdler, as well as a retired engineering firm owner, a profession in which he spent 40 years:

“We had a super class, did everything together and had some good times. We’d go on hay rides, which you don’t do anymore. I rode a Harley and I thought that was the greatest thing in the world. It was an amazing time in our lives and those memories are never far away. It’s got a special place in my heart.”

n 2003/Rev. J. Sterling Forrester, Class of 1951. Now 78, he has been a Baptist minister for 54 years, served at Bayshore Baptist, First Baptist of Bradenton and Southside Baptist. He’s also a retired military chaplain:

“That school was home in many ways. All my family went there. The wonderful faculty, the students, they were part of a very special atmosphere in a small community where you knew everybody. That’s changed, but what continues is I still see a lot of people I went to school with around town and we still have much in common. It’s that sharing of life, the personal things you may have taken for granted before, that becomes more meaningful as the years go by.”

n 2004/Ruth Pierce McCormick, Class of 1967. Now 62, the Bradenton native taught math 25 years at her alma mater, retiring in 2004:

“One of my best classes ever was just being awful one day. I never used bad language in class. They were passing notes and they were whispering. I could not understand it. I slammed my book down and I said, ‘Damn!’ It turns out they had been collecting money that day for an Escher book of tessellations (a pattern of shapes that fit perfectly together) and they gave it to me on the last day of school.”

n 2007/Gene Gallo, Class of 1957. Now 72, Gallo is in his 20th year as a Bradenton city councilman and spent 31.5 years with the city fire department including chief:

“I had a crush on Jeanne Parrish. I think all of us did. Not only was she a fine English teacher, maybe the best I ever had at Manatee, but she was a sweetheart.

“When you go back to the ‘50s, life was simple, a great time to grow up. There was no peer pressure like kids face today. Manatee was just a little old country high school in a population of 13,000.

“Wheeler Leeth was the football coach and dean of boys. I was such a ‘good student’ my home room was the dean’s office.

“One day I cut class and hitchhiked downtown to shoot pool at Council’s. Who picked me up but Ruth Leeth, Wheeler’s wife. She said, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be in school?’ I confessed and she turned around and drove me back to Manatee.”

n 2009/Brad Steube, Class of 1972. Now 57, the Manatee County Sheriff has been in law enforcement 35 years and was a three-sport athlete as a Hurricane:

“It was all about the sports program for me. I’m not sure what I would’ve done every afternoon without football, basketball and baseball. Every waking moment when I wasn’t doing schoolwork, I was practicing or playing. I made the choice to stick with basketball senior year, because I was better at it and I committed to it 100 percent. The life lesson that taught me as I grew up and got into law enforcement was if you’re going to do something, do it 100 percent. Whatever I try to do, I am committed to it.”

n 2010/William E. “Gene” Page III, Class of 1957. Now 72, he’s the scion of the prominent newspaper family that owned the Bradenton Herald for almost 50 years and learned the business from the ground up:

”It was a wonderful era where we were not really aware of anything but having a good time, the essence of the 1950s. This was after Korea and before Vietnam. Everybody from Manatee County was at one high school. So you got to meet and cultivate friendships with people all over the county and what a blessing that is.”

n 2011/Rodney Potter, Class of 1954. Now 75, the former Manatee County Distinguished Citizen is general manager at Pro-Build lumber, where he’s worked 57 years:

“Those were some of the best years of my life. We had great teachers who took a personal interest in you. Some of the things I learned then have stood me in good stead my whole life. I made friends for life, too, a bunch who started kindergarten with me at Ballard Elementary. There’s a special type of love you share. You grew up with war, rationing, all those things. If somebody couldn’t afford something, as a school you raised money to help out. We were a family.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055.

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