By Linda Chion Kenney
From farm to schoolhouse, county fair to boardroom, Earl J. Lennard is remembered as a “humble, homegrown icon” whose teachings, kindness and leadership leave an indelible mark.
The namesake of Lennard High School in Ruskin died on December 23, at age 77, after a prolonged illness that led to his hospitalization since Thanksgiving 2018.
Lennard entered the Hillsborough County public school system as a first grader at Palm River Elementary and left as its superintendent of schools upon retirement in 2005. Four years later, Gov. Charlie Christ appointed him Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections, to replace Phyllis Busansky, who died that year. Lennard served out the remainder of her term and then ran unopposed for his own four-year term.
Under his watch as superintendent, Hillsborough grew from the 11th largest to the eighth largest school district in the nation, necessitating the addition and renovation of more than 90 schools. He contended with the fears and budget shortfalls in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and in his wake left a contingency fund of more than $300 million. Court-ordered desegregation ended during Lennard’s tenure and he led the development of the school choice and magnet school program.
“He’s going to be remembered by the education community, but his roots were in agriculture,” said Tom Umiker, manager of the Hillsborough County Fair, which Lennard served as a board member and past president. “Everybody knew him and I never heard a negative word about him. He’s a humble, homegrown icon.”
One of nine siblings, Lennard worked on his family’s farm and tended to the details of its roadside vegetable stand. A longtime member of Riverview United Methodist Church, he taught Gleaners Sunday School there up until his illness. His daughter, Missy, in 2009 became the charter principal of the elementary school in FishHawk named for Richard “Dick” Stowers, who died in January.
“Earl and Dick are probably the two best historians of this area and I loved hearing their stories,” attorney B. Lee Elam said. “Earl was a totally selfless person. Any talent he had, any information he had, any way he could help, he would, and he wanted to take no credit for it. Stowers, of course, was cut from the same cloth.”
Senator Tom Lee, a Brandon High graduate, agreed.
“Over the past 20 years we’ve lost many of Brandon’s greatest generation,” he said. “Together they built this town and it was an honor to have lived and served in their time.”
A lifelong history buff, Lennard taught at Ruskin Elementary and at East Bay and Tampa Bay Technical high schools. He received numerous awards for decades of service and lent support and leadership to, among other groups, the Greater Brandon and Greater Riverview chambers of commerce and the Boys & Girls Club in Brandon and Riverview.
“Dr. Lennard was a part of us in the field of education working with youth and community, who gave us the idea we could do this work and make a difference,” said Jefferson High graduate and former NBA player Ricky Gallon, now metro community liaison for Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay. “He could see something in you that you couldn’t see yourself, and help you quantify it and put it to good use.”
East Bay graduate Tanya Doran, the Riverview chamber’s executive director, agreed.
“He saw something in me I did not see in myself,” she said. “Earl is a man who inspired generations.”
A Celebration of Life is set for 2 p.m. January 11, at Dr. Earl J. Lennard High School in Ruskin. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Riverview United Methodist Church, general fund, for a scholarship program in Lennard’s name, soon to be announced.