The First Schools in Bay County, Florida
In 1887, a two story school building was constructed at the bay entrance to Lake Huntington. There was but one teacher: Sara Emmons, the wife of the St. Andrews Echo editor. She was later assisted by Joseph Lipes, who lived across the bay near the present Navy Base. He commuted each day by rowing a skiff across the bay. The school building caught on fire and burned in 1902.
Records of the Washington County School Board show that $200 was appropriated to rebuild the new schools on a lot at Beck Avenue and Fifteenth Streets. This two story building—which housed all grades—burned in 1925.
Yet another building was needed. Trustees of the school approved a $60,000 bond issue in the St. Andrews district, and voters approved by a vote of 73 to one on July 7, 1926. The contract was let to the lowest bidder: J. R. Asbell Construction Company of Panama City, for $49,827.
The new building—St. Andrews School—was completed in 1927, and contained grades one through ten. (The final two years of high school were housed at Panama High School. Ninth and tenth grades were transported to Bay High School when it opened in 1927). Robert C. Moon was principal. Graduates of the first eighth grade class were: Howard Zediker, Mitchell Wilcox, Clarence Ware, Raymond Sheppard, Cecil Kelley, Ray Fuller, Julie Lee Williams, Martha Jane Surber, Ellen Parker, Effie Mar Moody, Nina Muriel Jones, Inez Gwaltney, George Roche and Lester Surber.
Some other principals who served the school were: Payton Yon (relative of Senator Tom Yon of Blountstown), Kenneth Williams (who later became President of Florida Atlantic University), Merrit Brown (became Bay County Superintendent), Hugh Brock, Aubrey Hood, Frances Summers, Tom Milam (later Superintendent), Erby Nixon, and Harold Conrad.
Additions were made to St. Andrews School during the term of School Superintendent Tommy Smith in 1950. It included a cafeteria, library and teacher’s work room. St. Andrews became an elementary school in 1951, when the junior high program was approved. In recent years the school has become a center for special needs students.
To this day, the community holds a reunion for all those who attended through the years. The building itself was recently officially recognized on the National Register of Historical Site.
A separate school for African-American students, as required by statute, was opened in Oak Grove in St. Andrews in 1914. It contained all grades, and met first in churches and then in a small school house. Cephus Rivers was the first principal. A permanent structure built in 1962, in the 1500 block of Frankford Avenue. This school was converted during the desegregation program in the 1960’s into a special school for mentally challenged children. The school was named Margaret K. Lewis School in honor of its principal.
The present Margaret K. Lewis School, an 18,000 square-foot facility, was constructed in 1979 from plans drawn by Norman Gross, Jr. at the time, Pete Holloman was superintendent.
The opening of Wainwright Shipyard during World War II left the shipyard buildings vacant. Meanwhile, the Florida legislature had passed a law establishing community colleges in any county with a population over 50,000. However, funds were not appropriated in Bay Bounty until 1955. Campaigning hard for Bay County’s college were Rep. Frank Allen and Sen. George Tapper. School superintendent Tommy Smith, in support of his pledge that Bay County finally became a reality. As planned, Gulf Coast was indeed the first public community college approved in Florida.
The county was required to provide both the permanent site and the matching funds. The citizen committees selected the abandoned shipyard administration building as a prospective yard building. It was immediately remodeled for college use.
The name selected was Gulf Coast Junior College.
Prior to the appointment of Dr. Ted Booker as president of Gulf Coast College, Superintendent Smith served as the school’s temporary head. He appointed the first four teachers, and recommended Dr. Booker be named college president. The teachers on the original faculty included Maurice Swann (Science), Mary Brown (Library), Louise Lewis (English), and Mary Ann Heath (Public Relations). Temporary offices were located in school board offices adjacent to Panama Grammar School.
Gulf Coast’s first students arrived in September of 1957.
The permanent buildings were constructed on the present school site in 1958, and the college soon moved into their new quarters. Twenty acres of land—previously used by the shipyard—were donated to the college by the city of Panama City. An additional twenty acres were purchased by the School Board. The first buildings housed science, administration, and general classrooms.
Following Dr. Booker as president were Dr. Richard Morley, Dr. Larry Tyree, and the current president Dr. Bob McSpadden.
After Gulf Coast College completely occupied their new site across Highway 98, the building had been used by the college was converted into a county school administration building. For the time, University of West Florida set up operations in a portion of the building. A vocational school met there, as well.
Recent years have witnessed tremendous changes in the area. The vocational school moved to its present site at Haney Vocational School on Baldwin Road. The county school administration offices recently moved to the Bubba Nelson Building on Balboa Avenue. And of course, the University of West Florida has been replaced by the Florida State University Branch.
Once again, the shipyard building found itself vacant. at the request of Panama City Port Authority, the building was donated to the city of Panama City for use by the school board.
With the closing of the Wainwright Shipyard, the remaining property not already leased to the Bay County School Board was leased to the city of Panama City.
The land was developed as the Port of Panama City. Several industries—Berg Steel, for example—immediately chose the port as a location for their businesses. Today, the Port Authority continues to make steady progress towards establishing Panama City as a leading shipping port.
In recent years, a monument was unveiled near the Port entrance by the Bay County Historical Society to commemorate General Wainwright, for whom the Port was named.