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The Inaugural Vyrle Davis Student Achievement Awards
L-R, Timothy Johnson, Rene Flowers, Mayor Kriseman, Mozelle and Celeste Davis, Daniel Sanders and Superintendent Michael Grego
BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – A giant among men, Vyrle Davis was a passionate advocate for education. With his retirement from Pinellas County Schools 22 years ago and his death in 2013, his legacy continues to grow stronger and stronger with each passing year.
The love of education ran in his family. His mother taught him and other African-American students in a small, one-room schoolhouse and his grandfather started the first school in Jackson County for black children.
Just as he stood on the educational shoulders of his family members, thousands of residents in Pinellas County have him to thank for their education and careers.
The Inaugural Vyrle Davis Student Achievement Awards were held Saturday, April 8 at the historic Coliseum in downtown St. Pete. With the theme of “Standing on the shoulders of giants,” the awards were to recognize and honor the hard work, dedication and academic achievement of South County elementary, middle and high school students.
“He would be so pleased. He loved being celebrated for the good things that he did for children,” said his wife Mozell Davis. “He had the audacity to believe that there were children in this community who could achieve, who were achieving and were going to go on to do great things for this community and in life, and he never lost that passion.”
Superintendent Michael Grego told the award recipients that Davis believed in them even if they hadn’t met because “he knew you could create a legacy that could carry on long after he was gone.”
Davis’ legacy continues on in his former student Congressman Charlie Crist, Pinellas County Urban League President & CEO Watson Haynes and Senator Darryl Rouson.
A Tampa native, Davis went to Florida A&M University. His first teaching job in Pinellas County was at Sixteenth Street Junior High, now John Hopkins Middle School. The year was 1960, the same year he married Mozell Reese.
It was a fortuitous alliance for many reasons – one of which was the new Mrs. Davis’ talent for making a good lunch. Back in that day, teachers were expected to raise money to help supply their students with basic materials such as pencils and writing tablets. Davis raised his share by selling her chicken sandwiches.
He soon went up the professional ladder. He became assistant principal at Gibbs High School, and in 1973 became principal at St. Petersburg High School, which had been an all-white school steeped in tradition.
Moreover, the county’s school desegregation policy had been in effect just two years, and sometimes the atmosphere turned tense on campuses. Davis was up to the task. St. Pete High experienced much less trouble than other high schools around the city.
Davis founded Ebony Scholars in 1984 as a motivational tool. The organization targeted elementary school pupils who were maintaining a high grade point average. If the youngsters carried a 3.0 by the time they reached high school, they joined the Ebony Scholars Academic Club, which discussed career options, examined college opportunities and studied social etiquette.
They also completed an eight-week Toastmasters International youth leadership program to develop their communication and leadership skills – and each year, graduating seniors received scholarships.
Mayor Rick Kriseman was proud to say that he has three members of the original Ebony Scholars Program in his administration: Director or Urban Affairs Nikki Capehart, Director of Education and Community Engagement Leah McRae and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin.
The mayor said the number of young people who he guided, taught and mentored throughout his lifetime as an educator is in the thousands, and one such person is School Board member Rene Flowers.
While attending high school, Flowers became a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Leadership program that was run by Davis and educator Clarence Givens. This program was a precursor to the Ebony Scholars where young African-American students came together and mapped out their futures.
Flowers said she took his advice back then and still relies upon it today.
“What stuck out most was: “Be a statesman; hold your head up high; always speak well even if you disagree—live to speak another day.”
Flowers is credited with resurrecting the Ebony Scholars and renaming it in Davis’ honor.
Davis became Pinellas County’s first black area superintendent in 1986, and although he retired in 1995, he continued to push for academic success for students. In 1998, he founded Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, and organization that is going strong today.
Keynote speaker Timothy Johnson, II, a senior at The Boca Ciega High School, told the award recipients that everyone has someone in their lives that have affected them in a passionate way.
“In my life, my father is my giant. I am his legacy. He passes on to me his rich heritage, his knowledge, his love.”
Johnson said his father stressed education and the fact that no one can take it away from you. He called his father his best friend and praised him for always being there.
“Over the years he’s done his absolute best in raising me to become the man that he is proud of, the community is proud of and more so that I am proud of.”