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Gulf & Main Magazine

Getting Schooled - 130-year history, Lee County’s newest set to open, generational glue

May 22, 2017 12:10AM ● By Kevin

The last incarnation of Fort Myers High School opened in 1949. Photo by Craig Garrett.

Fort Myers Beach Elementary principal Jeff Dobbins plans a photo wall at the school. A.J. Bassett helped in selecting historic pictures. Her mother, Mildred, is a former principal/bus driver/custodian. Photo by Craig Garrett.

Jeff Estes in August will occupy an administrative seat held by a predecessor almost exactly 130 years ago.

Estes is the first principal of Bonita Springs High School—Lee County’s newest school—which opens in August to the freshmen class. The original Lee County Board of Public Instruction formed in August 1887. Its members were named and class supplies were selected, including the Spencerian Penmanship copybook and Kizer & Murdock Noiseless Slates. Teacher pay was $25 a month.

The common glue throughout ensuing generations was school, where families followed one another and were suddenly discharged into adulthood.

That orderly and natural march is not lost on Estes and his modern counterparts. Understanding and appreciating the historical significance of his new role, Estes says, “It is an honor [to be named principal of Bonita Springs High School], sure. It’s very exciting.”

While there are American school systems more historic than ours―the Boston Latin School dates to 1635, for example―Lee County is one of Florida’s oldest, certainly large with more than 120 buildings and a nearly $1.4 billion spending budget. When Lee County authorities convened on Aug. 27, 1887, the Civil War was still fresh and Thomas Edison had just rolled out a sound device, recording on it the words “Mary had a little lamb … ”

Since breaking away from Monroe County and forming Lee County in 1887, local authorities ambitiously built the education network. Lee County in 1920 counted some 9,500 of us, the population tripling by 1950. Many schools from that period remain, which is a plus and also necessary, as the new Bonita school is estimated to run $50 million. Besides, says Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson, administrators running older Lee County schools work to keep the character of the buildings. His now adult children attended historic Edison Park Elementary, an elegant structure in Fort Myers that opened in 1927. “One of the things that struck me—the principal at the time would pipe classical music during the day,” the mayor says. “It gave a sense of sophistication and a certain comfort level, too.”

Schools in Southwest Florida had the added nuance of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, world figures and friends in Fort Myers. Edison and his wife, Mina, for example, celebrated his birthday with pupils at Edison Park. The mythic Barbara Balch (Mann) as a child was presented with a basket of flowers by Mina Edison, and received her 1929 Fort Myers High School diploma from Edison himself, for instance.

The Andrew D. Gwynne Institute building remains in downtown Fort Myers. It opened in 1914. Photo by Craig Garrett.

Edison Park pupils still celebrate Thomas Edison’s birthday in February, explains Cherise Trent, principal of the school that in 1999 was listed with the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. “I love this school,” Trent says. “The original flooring remains, the authenticity, the feel, it’s a beautiful place to be.”

Jeff McCullers appreciates history, his office in the former Andrew D. Gwynne Institute building in downtown Fort Myers. It was Lee County’s first accredited school, opening in 1911, and built with funding from the wealthy former Confederate colonel whose name remains stamped over the entryway. “We build houses, then a church and a school,” says McCullers, the school district’s director of grants and program development. “That’s when you know you have a town.”

David LaRosa views himself as a gatekeeping principal at Fort Myers High School, which dates to the 19th century. The building he runs was erected in 1949. “I drop whatever I’m doing,” he says of former students who return for a visit, “and go meet them. This school is special because our history has been preserved.”

As principal of Fort Myers Beach Elementary, Jeff Dobbins is researching historical photos and documents to build a memory wall at the school. He has met with A.J. Bassett, curator of the Estero Island Historic Society and whose mother, Mildred, was a principal at the local school in the 1940s. Mildred Bassett also drove the school bus and broomed away sand in the classrooms―few children in her time came to school with shoes, A.J. Bassett tells Dobbins during their visit.

“We get lost in the concrete jungle,” adds Dobbins, while flipping through photograph albums in a former one-room schoolhouse behind the modernized elementary school that he runs. “We must hold on to old Florida.”

Written by Craig Garrett, a Group Editor-in-Chief for TOTI Media.

School Colors

In 1911, when the Andrew D. Gwynne Institute opened, purple and white were selected as the school colors. Green was selected a few years later. Then, in 1919, red and white were chosen because that was the only color of basketball uniforms available. Students were not happy with this merry-go-round of colors—nor the colors themselves. They felt their school needed a permanent color to promote better school spirit. On Oct. 12, 1920, the students adopted (by unanimous vote) the colors green and white for their school colors.

Source: Fort Myers High School