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Schools

He leaves a legacy of caring

A Zephyrhills High assistant principal is retiring after decades of making a difference, in his friendly but firm way.

By MOLLY MOORHEAD, Times Staff Writer
Published December 18, 2005

[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
Ron Cherry slaps hands with seniors during a clapout held in his honor in the gym at Zephyrhills High School on Friday.

ZEPHYRHILLS - Three times in her 28 years at Zephyrhills High School, Diane Nelson has needed an intervention in her classroom when a student got to be more than she could handle - stopped listening, became inattentive or unruly.

Each time Nelson arranged a brief sit-down between the student and Ron Cherry, a ubiquitous but unassuming assistant principal.

For 45 minutes, Cherry listened and talked, about how kids have choices, and how their choices can determine their success.

"By the time we finished, the boy said the things himself that I had been trying to get him to understand," Nelson said.

Cherry, 59, is retiring this week after 35 years at Zephyrhills High, first as a math teacher then an administrator. And that doesn't count his years there as a student.

"I think he has an incredible legacy," said Gerri Painter, principal since 2004. "He's never been at any other school."

Quiet but unimposing. Friendly, calm and firm. A listener. Cherry is the kind of man who can't walk into a local drugstore or restaurant without being recognized by a former student. Small wonder, more than 10,000 of them have passed through the halls of ZHS during his tenure.

He shed his embarrassment years ago at not remembering every name. Now he just asks.

He's the kind of man who hands down discipline but still enjoys the admiration and friendship of the kids he has to punish.

He's the kind of man whose eyes tear up at the memory of certain, special ones.

Two years ago, a boy graduated from Zephyrhills whom Cherry had identified early as having some extra challenges. He was clashing with teachers. He didn't live with his own family. A football player, Cherry used that as leverage to keep the young man in line.

"In taking hold of him, I got to the point where I could say "you're not going to do this,' and he would listen," Cherry said. "He knew that I cared about him."

He continued: "When everything is said and done ... I would just hope that I made a positive difference in student's lives."

Evidence? Some of the kids whom Cherry has helped out financially - paying for yearbooks or athletic fees or just lunch - returned a year or two later to pay him back.

That's also the kind of man he is.

Cherry was raised in Zephyrhills in a house on a lot now paved with tennis courts in Zephyr Park. The youngest of seven children, he was the only one to go to college. He bounced around for a little while after graduating in 1965, but when he did return with his degree, Principal Raymond Stewart was waiting for him.

"He told me when you finish, I've got a job for you," Cherry said. "So really I've never interviewed for a job."

* * *

His first salary was $6,100 a year. To boost it, he got into the home-building business. But he left that when his daughter turned 9 and Cherry realized half her childhood was over.

He's also the kind of man who chokes up talking about his family. His wife, Shirley, is a math professor at Pasco-Hernando Community College. They also have a son, Scott. Both kids went to Zephyrhills High.

Outside the classroom, Cherry also coached football, basketball and baseball. One year he was the cheerleading squad's sponsor. He became Dean of Boys in the late 1970s, a title that denotes on its own the kind of changes Cherry has seen in his career.

As the school's population has ballooned to more than 1,500, Cherry regrets the personal distance that has been imposed. His own sixth-grade teacher once took him to a basketball game to try to inspire him. (He later played on Zephyrhills' state championship team in 1964.)

"You couldn't do that today. We won't even give a child a ride home," he said. "That's sad. These are some of the freedoms we've lost."

Corporal punishment, he also said, used to be an effective tool to keep kids from acting up.

"I'll run into people and it's almost like they brag about it that they got paddled by Mr. Cherry," he said.

Some things, though, have remained constant.

"Every year the faces change," he said, "but teenagers are the same. I think I've been able to keep focused on the needs of the students over time."

Cherry's departure comes at a time of high turnover at Zephyrhills. Painter is in just her second year at the school. There are 22 new faculty members.

For decades, Cherry has been one of the constants. Even the freshmen are sad to see him go.

Jim Davis was principal for 11 years before becoming an assistant superintendent. Of his former assistant, Davis said: "He wanted to do what he could to help kids. Just that simple."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at 352 521-6521 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6521. Her e-mail address is moorhead@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 18, 2005, 01:02:23]


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