Last Thursday, I attended a remarkable event at FSU’s Panama City campus – the celebration lunch that is part of the campus’s annual beginning-of-the-year symposium at which all of the faculty and staff come together for retreats and reflection.
Even though the event is held every year, last week’s was special because it was the first beginning-of-the-year gathering for FSU-PC since Hurricane Michael struck Panama City on October 10th last fall. The campus, which is located at the east end of the Hathaway Bridge that connects Panama City with Panama City Beach, was heavily damaged in the storm. Repairs to the campus are continuing – including in the ballroom space where the lunch event was held.
And it wasn’t just the campus that was damaged: Members of the faculty and staff continue to deal with damage – some severe – to their homes.
It took a tremendous all-hands-on-deck effort to get the campus operating again quickly – first via online courses and then in physical classrooms – so that students at the campus and others being served remotely online could continue timely progress toward graduation.
Even though my office is on FSU’s Tallahassee campus 120 miles away, part of my heart is permanently located in Bay County, where I’ve been involved with students, teachers, parents, counselors and administrators since the fall of 2015. The progress made by Bay County’s schools since 2015 in preparing students for college STEM majors has been extraordinary because of the courage shown by many of those who I’ve met there. And of course that courage has been on display since the storm. It’s been both difficult and inspiring to watch my Bay County friends and colleagues get up off the ground and begin the marathon task of rebuilding their community.
As the lunch began, FSU-PC Dean Randy Hanna called the caterers for the event, Shane’s Rib Shack, to the podium to be recognized for their contribution to the campus in the days after the storm. The campus’s Holley Center features a lunch facility where students and faculty often eat. A short time after the storm, Shane’s took over the lunch facility and made sure that students and faculty could get an excellent meal during their time on campus. For some, it might have been the only substantial meal they could get in the course of the day because of damage to their homes. A group of students including the student body president came to the podium to help thank the Shane’s staff. It was a reminder of how difficult the most basic functions were in the days after the storm.
Then FSU-PC Director of Development Mary Beth Lovingood sang the national anthem. I have never been particularly sentimental about the anthem, but this time surrounded by people from professors to maintenance staff who had been through so much adversity and who had worked so hard together to restart their community, I started to tear up. (“Damn, am I going to spend this entire event weeping? Really??”)
While the faculty and staff members ate, Dean Hanna moved through a series of recognitions of students, staff and faculty toward the featured event, which was a motivational talk by recently-retired FSU baseball coach and legend Mike Martin.
Just before Coach Martin’s talk, the Dean announced there would be a “Special Recognition” and called my chief co-conspirator, FSU-PC STEM Institute Director and Bay District School Board Member Ginger Littleton, to the podium along with FSU-PC STEM education professor Elizabeth Crowe. And then he called me up and presented me with a lovely plaque to recognize my work with Bay County’s students, teachers, parents and leaders.
Afterward, several people told me I must have known this was coming. At the beginning of the day, all I knew was that Ginger had asked me to come out to Panama City for lunch. She had said we would be meeting with “movers and shakers”, but had offered no details. Before leaving Tallahassee that morning, I had steeled myself for another of the difficult discussions I often have with leaders about the importance of the hard work of preparing students for the modern economy, and I wondered who those leaders would be that day. I was still mystified when the lunch event started, but joining this group of people who had been through so much and who had responded with such fortitude seemed privilege enough for the day. The idea that these people would be honoring me – who had not gone through anything they had – would have seemed incongruous and perhaps even ironic.
So I said as much when I was offered the microphone at the podium. I told the audience that working with Ginger has been one of the greatest honors of my career. And then I described – and not very coherently I’m sure – how I was feeling right at that moment. That the importance of this lunch event had hit me when Dean Hanna described the role that the Shane’s Rib Shack folks had played in the recovery of the campus in the days after the storm. How I had teared up while Mary Beth sang the national anthem. And how I was deeply humbled to accept a recognition from a group of people who had shown such extraordinary strength together.
Coach Martin’s talk was entertaining and uplifting, and a local TV station showed up to cover it. But the stars of the show were those in the audience who picked themselves up after being hit by one of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the U.S. mainland and who found the strength to get their students back on track and to help rebuild the broader community.