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Education

Essrig was a tower of strength, love

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 07:20 PM
TAMPA -

Everywhere she turned, whether at home or in the community, Cecile Essrig loved being surrounded by children.

Girl Scouts.

The Children's Home.

Tampa Oral Preschool for the Deaf.

And, of course, the children of Hillsborough County's public schools, whom she served for 21 years as the first female member of the school board member after her election in 1967.

Essrig, a gracious, sweet, Southern woman who lived her life to help others, died early Friday at Tampa General Hospital. She was 89.

To those who knew and loved her, she was more than a trailblazer and a pioneer battling her way to sit alongside men during the tough times of desegregation. She was a doting mother and grandmother. She was a friend.

"She was an outstanding woman and a leader in every sense of the word," said former County Commissioner Jan Platt, who came to know Essrig in the 1960s in the Girl Scouts. "She just gave of herself and we are far better for it."

It was the late 1960s when Essrig decided to run for school board — previously considered a man's world — after being heavily involved in PTA as a mother of three.

"I think there is definitely a place for women in politics," she told a group she was speaking to decades ago. "Diplomatic, capable women with dignity, women with the time and interest in people and a special ability to help various viewpoints work together toward a common goal.

"Women are important. We can be the towers of strength and love that can bring order out of confusion."

It was a viewpoint that was not widely held in those days.

"At that time, there was quite a bit of opposition to women on the school board," said Pat Frank, the Hillsborough clerk of court who served alongside Essrig on the school board in the early 1970s. "It was viewed as a business entity that handled a lot of money. The belief was that men could do that better than women."

Essrig, who has an elementary school named in her honor in northwestern Hillsborough County, taught them that was not the case.

"They just didn't know what to make of her," said Candy Olson, who now is school board chairwoman. "I would say in a lot of ways she was a traditional Southern woman, very gracious, very courteous, but with the 'Steel Magnolias' piece.

"She was easy to underestimate because she was quiet, but underestimating her was a really dumb thing to do."

Like the time the men on the board skipped her for the rotating chair position because she was a woman. She was not happy with it and let them know in no uncertain terms.

"It never happened again," Olson said. "Knowing Mrs. Essrig, that doesn't surprise me."

Born Cecile Waterman in Tampa on June 15, 1923, she attended Gorrie Elementary, Wilson Middle and Plant High schools. She was raised in the Hyde Park area and later lived in Palma Ceia. She graduated from Sweet Briar College in Virginia with a degree in government and economics and later studied at the University of Pennsylvania.

"She was not afraid to speak her mind about what she thought was right," said her daughter, Katherine Essrig, a judge in the 13th Judicial Circuit in Hillsborough County. "She always had a real sense of fairness and treating people with respect and dignity. She was not worried about the politically right thing to do."

MaryEllen Elia, the current superintendent of Hillsborough schools and the first woman to hold that position, credits Essrig for breaking those gender barriers long ago.

"I think she did champion having people who were dedicated to children being involved in the school board, whether they be male or female," Elia said. "She didn't let the fact that she was a female detract from the important work that needed to be done in the school district.

"She was a great leader."

Survivors include her two daughters, Katherine Essrig and Lee Essrig, of Tampa; a sister, Gena Bragin of Largo; and one granddaughter, Emma Napper.

Arrangements are pending at Blount & Curry Funeral Home.

CECILE WATERMAN ESSRIG

Born on June 15, 1923, in Tampa.

First female elected to the Hillsborough County school board, 1967; served 21 years.

Involved in the Children's Home, the Lighthouse for the Blind, the Girl Scout Council, the American Cancer Society and many other organizations.

Cecile W. Essrig Elementary School named in her honor.


rshaw@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7999

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