By LINDA CHION KENNEY
For a third year Earl J. Lennard High senior Olivia Knight has painted a rain barrel in tribute to her school’s namesake, a man she never met and whose story she never will forget.
On display at the Hillsborough County Fair, where it earned this year’s First Place and Best in Show ribbons in the Florida Conservation Coalition contest, Knight took a moment to describe the barrel she painted on behalf of the Lennard High FFA Club, which she serves as president.
The fair theme this year is “Rooted in Tradition,” and Knight said she wanted her art to showcase aspects of the Hillsborough County Fair, what draws people to the Hillsborough County Fairgrounds and the events hosted there, including livestock shows, midway rides, rodeos and demolition derbies.
Moreover, Knight and her FFA peers wanted to pay tribute to Dr. Earl J. Lennard, whose impact is far-reaching, and, especially so, among teachers. Lennard’s many jobs with the school district included ag teacher and supervisor of agricultural education.
“It really means a lot to me that we continue to honor Earl Lennard’s legacy,” said Nate Cooley, Lennard High ag teacher and FFA club supervisor. “From the first time he met me, he remembered my name. “He had an uncanny ability to make a quiet impact.”
Many people over the years have offered a similar set of sentiments about Lennard, of Riverview, who entered the Hillsborough County public school system as a first-grader at Palm River Elementary, taught as both a social studies and agriculture education teacher, and advanced through the administrative ranks to retire as superintendent of schools.
The plaque outside the Little Red Schoolhouse at the Hillsborough County Fairgrounds, dedicated posthumously to Lennard last year, notes that he served as superintendent of schools from 1996 through 2005 and as Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections from 2009-2013. Also, he was past president of the fair and a dedicated supporter.
“Earl had the ability to be on your level, to kind of really personalize himself, even if he didn’t know you very well,” Cooley said. “His legacy was always to do what’s best for the kids and the community, and I think that’s really important to pass on to my students.”
In agreement is Knight’s mother, Ruth McKeefer, who said as a student at East Bay High, who became a teacher herself, the Lennard name carries a lot of weight.
“He is an integral part of our community, for our profession and also for the students,” said McKeefer, a teacher at Doris Ross Reddick Elementary School in Wimauma.
Knight can attest to that. “The memory of what Dr. Lennard did in this community, we want to continue to honor him and to make sure kids today and tomorrow remember him,” she said.
To that end, Lennard FFA members as a team agreed to the theme for the first rain barrel, which depicted in part a wise owl and a rendering of Lennard sitting underneath a tree, reading a book.
Last year’s rain barrel, in keeping with the contest theme, “Our Favorite Pollinators,” depicted flowers growing in meadows, and in one such meadow, the Little Red Schoolhouse, which Lennard was instrumental in establishing to showcase school district history as well as the work of Hillsborough students.
Knight said she worked last year in the artwork with Lennard FFA student Crystal Keen, who last year won recognition for the portrait she drew of Lennard, unveiled in the Little Red Schoolhouse at its dedication ceremony.
As for engaging in the rain barrel contest year after year, “It’s a good way for us to get our name out there and to help us look after our past,” said Elissa Deblasio, Lennard FFA’s vice president. “We love that Dr. Earl Lennard is being represented, and it’s a good way for us to get our name out there, to spread joy and to show the history of our past, which is something we look after.”
This year’s rain barrel, a last-minute entry spearheaded by Knight, pays tribute as well to the history and merits of the fair itself, whose 2023 theme heralds all that is “Rooted in Tradition.”
Knight painted a Ferris wheel, to depict the draw of the fair’s midway rides. The large, flowing flag represents love of country and freedom. The student wearing an FFA jacket and standing in front of a pig signifies youth livestock shows. And there are depictions of both the junior harvest queen and the senior harvest queen, who this year is Knights’ friend, Cameron Ipock, a student at Newsome High. Claire Thomas, a freshman at Seffner Christian Academy, sports this year’s junior crown.
As for the numbered car, Knight said it represents the demolition derby, which this year is set to begin at 3 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 12. Onlookers watching the bronco-riding cowboy signifies the rodeo, held three times last week at the fair and scheduled next for the fairgrounds April 12-13 and July 12-13.
The bountiful collection of Christmas lights gives a nod to the annual Tampa Bay Festival of Lights, which this year runs Nov. 23 through New Year’s Eve.
The lights for Knight and her family have become a deeply rooted family tradition, she said, just like so many other offerings for so many people at the Hillsborough County Fairgrounds, home of the Hillsborough County Fair, which ends its 11-day run Nov. 12.
For more on this year’s fair and upcoming events at the fairgrounds, visit www.hillsboroughcountyfair.com or call 813-737-3247.