If education “is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire,” as William Butler Yeats said, Daron Hawkins lit quite a few fires in his time as a drama teacher at Riverview High School.
Those fires are burning bright in New York City, Hollywood, Miami and Riverview High classrooms where his passion for inspiring young people still smolders among those who count themselves lucky to have known him.
Hawkins, 38, died Sept. 25 after a long illness.
A hard-driving taskmaster who accepted nothing less than 100 percent effort from his students, Dawkins spent 16 years fanning the embers of youthful aspiration into self-confidence and hope, according to those who gathered to celebrate the teacher’s life Nov. 24 at Riverview High School.
“We knew our son touched many lives but we had no idea he touched this many,” said Hawkins’ father Barry, who joined more than 250 friends and former students for Love and Laughter … a musical celebration of Daron Hawkins’ life.
Hawkins was the best drama teacher Bob Heilmann’s ever known.
“In his craft, as a total educator, he was the best,” said the Riverview High principal, an educator with more than four decades of chalk under his fingernails.
“He could do it all: the books, the grades, the sets, the dance, the costumes and he could read children and children believed in him. His dream was to get a child and help them become the star some day,” Heilmann said.
Hawkins not only nurtured talented students “but he also had this knack of having children who were not talented believe in themselves, that they were talented and they could perform. He had a passion and vision and could see things nobody else could see.”
A stickler for academics, students had to earn the right to take the stage at Riverview, Heilmann said. “He would not allow his students to be in productions if their grades weren’t good. Just like a coach benching his star player, he would do it.”
Singers, dancers, actors, colleagues and former students, some of whom flew in from as far away as New York for Love and Laughter, paid tribute to Hawkins during the show.
Brian Kleinschmidt, 31, a successful businessman and a member of Hawkins’ first drama arts graduating class at Riverview, credits the teacher with giving him the confidence to pursue his dreams.
“I always wanted to play football so I took Daron’s drama class to get that requirement out of the way but I ended up falling in love with the stage,” said Kleinschmidt, who worked in TV news and also appeared on the TV show The Amazing Race.
“He taught me how to sing, how to dance, but the biggest thing he taught me, and the biggest thing he taught his students, was self-confidence. When we graduated from his program we felt like we could accomplish anything we wanted.”
Today, Kleinschmidt runs his own business, Anytime Fitness. The newest gym opened recently across the street from Riverview High.
A graduate of East Bay High School, Hawkins lived in Riverview teaching in local schools since 1998. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida in 1997 and his Master in Arts degree from New York University in 2006.
Watching him put on magic shows when he was 5 years old, Barry Hawkins knew his son had an interest in drama but he was also a leader, organizing blood drives at East Bay, where he became student body president.
He went on to be a charter staff member of Riverview High and founded Riverview Little Theatre, a community service project of the Riverview High School Theatre Department. He also served on the Florida State Thespian Board of Directors.
Hawkins produced and directed more than 85 shows over the years, three to five each year with either the school’s theater department or Riverview Little Theatre. His directorial credits include Chicago, Cabaret, Evita, Metamorphosis, The Sound of Music, Gypsy and Into the Woods.
Barry Hawkins knew from an early age his son would “do something with his life,”
That something turned out to be changing the lives of others like Melinda Watson’s son, Dylan, a young actor now living in Hollywood.
“When my son came to Riverview in his sophomore year it was Mr. Hawkins who changed his whole attitude about attending high school. The kids all loved him. He was very personable and real with them; he treated them as equals,” Watson said.
“He taught them to expect more from themselves because that’s what he expected from them. He was a father figure to my son. He inspired him to move to Hollywood and pursue his dream of being an actor.”
Before meeting Hawkins, Dylan was not overly enamoured with school “but after meeting Mr. Hawkins he wanted to be in school every day. It helped him all around academically. Daron touched everyone. I was heartbroken when I heard he had passed.”
Hawkins’ influence extended far beyond the classroom, said Deanna Johnson whose daughters Chelsea (a New York actress who flew in to perform at the show) and Carly both took classes with the teacher.
“No matter what each student went into, he always supported them. He always wanted them to believe in their dreams and themselves. He stayed tough on them with grades and encouraged them to do everything. He just brought out the best in so many kids,” Johnson said.
Daron Hawkins: In their words
“You would never see him do things halfway. He always had a vision. He always did things 100 percent and if you didn’t give 100 percent he didn’t want you to be a part of it. He never gave half of himself, he always gave you his full self. He was the one who made me confident enough to pursue acting.”
– Laura Ashley Robaina, 20, a former student of Hawkins now studying drama at college in Miami.
“He would always be there for me. He was a great mentor and supporter. He was like a parent to me.”
– Carly Johnson, 19, a former student of Hawkins who is studying musical theater at college in Orlando.
“He was a very different man from most that I have met. When he wanted something he got it just because of the effort he put in and the passion that he had. Although he could be strict and stern he also put his passion into you. He gave me a love for the arts.”
– Jared Robbins, 17, senior at Riverview High.
“He was unusually motivated and driven. He had a way of communicating with kids and making you feel as if he was talking to you on an adult level.”
– John Barnhart, 22, college student and former student of Hawkins