Friends, family, former students and colleagues will gather this week to remember Vince Sussman at a memorial service inside the Plant High School gymnasium that bears his name, on the campus where he made his mark as coach, teacher and principal.
The long-time Hillsborough County educator died early Monday morning at his home, in his sleep. He was 63.
The memorial service is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday in the Vincent Sussman Gymnasium at Plant High, 2415 S. Himes Ave.
When he retired in 2008, Sussman had logged 36 years with the Hillsborough County school district, finishing his career as director of resource management.
He had no regrets about his career or his life, said his wife of 42 years, Meg.
“Vince was very into helping kids,” she said Tuesday afternoon. “That was what he was most about. They all had a lot of respect for Vince. He was loved.”
She said students and football players kept in touch with their coach and principal long after they graduated.
His death was a surprise to them, she said, as well as to her.
“It was not expected,” she said. “We had no reason to believe this would happen. He had had some health issues in the past and he was in the hospital every so often, but it was never anything life-threatening. He wasn't ill, but he was not in very good shape for quite some time.”
The couple met when they were 18 at college in Kansas.
“We clicked right from the start,” she said. “We were married in 1971 and came here in 1973. We both were becoming teachers. Once we moved here, we pretty much knew this would be it.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Sussman came to Tampa 40 years ago to teach physical education and assist coaching the Panthers' football team. “Coach Suss” went on to become assistant principal, athletic director and then principal in 1993.
In 1997, he suffered a life-altering injury. He had just returned home from a faculty meeting when he climbed to his roof with a bucket of patching material. He lost his balance and fell, pushing two vertebrae into the spinal column but not severing the cord. The accident made Sussman, a former defensive tackle for Kansas State Teachers' College, a quadriplegic.
He returned to work just eight weeks after being paralyzed and remained at the helm of the South Tampa school for three years, leading from a motorized wheelchair and a voice-activated computer.
Larmon Furniture owner Jimmy Kalamaras first met Sussman in 1975, when Kalamaras was a junior varsity football player. The impression the coach made has lasted nearly 40 years.
“He always was there for us as players and students,” Kalamaras said. “He was a wonderful mentor for a lot of us, and we admired his courage after the accident.”
Sussman, Kalamaras said, led by example.
“We never heard any negative words come out of his mouth,” Kalamaras said. “He always was trying to lift other people up. Here he was in this situation; he had no (self-) pity. He taught a lot of life lessons to us all.”
Kalamaras said news of Sussman's death was surprising.
“It was not expected because he's a tough man,” said Kalamaras, who has organized golf tournaments to raise money to help in Sussman's rehabilitation. The first couple of years, he said, the tourney raised about $150,000.
“He always was able to fight through infections and setbacks in the past,” he said. “I guess God wanted him with him.”
A former Plant High lineman, J.D. Dowell, now a Tampa attorney, kept in touch with Sussman since the late 1970s.
“We had the opportunity and honor to play under him,” Dowell said. “He was one of the most feared and loved coaches at the same time. He was larger than life. He had a deep voice that bellowed across the field and we were all a little afraid of him. But, once you got to know him, you got to know how much he cared for us. He'll always be our coach. He led us as players and as young men. The people he coached were as loyal to him as he was to us as we got older.”
After the accident, the deep seated respect grew, Dowell said.
“He set an example that I'm sure none of us will forget,” he said. “I never once heard him complain or feel sorry for the situation he was in. His goal was always to do better. I remember when he came back to Plant, it was one of the greatest achievements not only for someone who endured that tragedy, but for all of us to see that even in the face of something like that, you've got to stand up, do your best and show up.''