Yvonne C. Clayton: A champion of education

Yvonne C. Clayton

BY DEXTER MCCREE, Feature Writer

PETERSBURG — Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church was filled last Saturday with former students, colleagues and community leaders who came out to pay their last respects to Yvonne C. Clayton. The attendance exhibited the impact she made in the community at her homegoing celebration.

An educator for more than 50 years, she was a champion of education who saw greatness in those who could not see it in themselves.

“You give me the student who everyone says can’t learn and I’ll give back to you an educated student who has learned to read,” Clayton told parents nearly 50 years ago. Many parents will testify that she stayed faithful to her word.

On Saturday, June 22, Clayton went home to be with her Lord. Many came out to celebrate her life on Saturday, July 6, and to make a joyful noise.

The Spirit of Tampa Bay Choir and The Alumni Singers sang songs that reminded the audience of the tremendous soprano voice she had. The congregation was inspired by the choir and joined in the singing.

There were hand clapping, feet stomping and hand waving in praise as they remembered the years shared with Clayton. As one of the original member in 1980, she sang second soprano in the Alumni Singers.

Born in Greenville, Fla., on July 4, 1939, she was the fourth of six children born to Berton and Mary Clemons in a tiny town located 42 miles east of Tallahassee on Highway 90. Clayton attended Bay area schools, graduating from Gibbs High School in 1957.

She earned a scholarship to Florida A & M College (now University) in vocal music. She graduated from FAMU in 1962 with a degree in elementary education. Her first teaching job was at Melrose Elementary, teaching third grade.

“This is a tough one,” said Tondrick Jones from Atlanta. “My auntie was like a second mother to my sister and me and was always there for the entire family. She would give you the shirt off her back.”

Jones shared stories of how his Auntie Yvonne would open her home to people who needed a helping hand or temporary shelter. It was done without much fanfare. In fact, most people never knew. She felt the integrity of the people was important, and she didn’t want others to look down on someone who simply needed a hand to come up.

Clayton taught and headed programs in the Pinellas County School system for more than 30 years, and in 1996 when then-Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church pastor Rev. Henry Lyons asked her to start a school, she quickly retired and opened the Yvonne C. Reed Christian Academy in 1998, which she retired from in 2012.

Specializing in teaching students that the system labeled as “unteachable,” her most famous quote was, “I always listen to children. You have to listen to children, love them and work with their parents. My philosophy is that I know kids can learn; it’s up to teachers to find the mode or method.”

With 22 students and $10,000 of her own money, the first student she registered was a boy having difficulties in public school. Clayton paid the tuition for several years out of pocket for some of the students whose parents were unable to afford it.

Clayton worked very closely with former Governor Charlie Christ in launching Florida’s Step Up for Students Program — an initiative of the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program — to provide K-12 scholarships for low-income children throughout Florida.

Her oldest sister Elesta Pritchett from Greenville, Fla., had the church crying with laughter when she shared a story of how Clayton tried dipping snuff as a child. As the disciplinarian of the siblings, Pritchett waited until the two of them were alone and she forced young Yvonne to eat it until she got dizzy and felt sick. She never wanted to dip snuff again.

Clayton was a woman of God, a pillar in the community, an entrepreneur, a gifted vocalist and a philanthropist who always had an encouraging word. Although the community has lost a champion, Clayton’s legacy will live on forever in the children she taught and encouraged.

To reach Dexter McCree, email dmccree@theweeklychallenger.com

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