Education advocate honored

Pinellas county school board member Lee Benjamin will be awarded an honorary doctor of education degree at the USF St. Petersburg campus Dec. 15.

Bill Heller, dean for the St. Petersburg campus, has worked with Benjamin since 1992. He said nominating Benjamin for the honorary degree was talked about for a long time before it became reality. A colleague on the school board suggested the idea, and Heller moved forward by nominating Benjamin.

Heller said many people including friends, associates, city commissioners and even judges rallied for Benjamin by writing letters of support.

“We could have literally hundreds of letters,” Heller said. “Just about everyone said this (honor) is a long time coming.”

Benjamin’s son Jack wrote a letter of support for his father, Heller said.

Heller said there are many qualities that stand out about Benjamin, but most notable is his work in education.

“He’s been a significant factor in St. Petersburg,” Heller said. Heller said Benjamin helped Rollins Elementary and their writing magnet program and the move into Palm Harbor University High School.

“One of the things you look for is how people contribute to the university,” Heller said. “Some do it financially and others don’t, but every day he is the leader of the school board and allows us to be in those schools.”

Heller said Benjamin has had a good relationship with schools over the years.

“He is a good communicator to the rest of the board and has been significant to USF and the College of Education,” he said.

To nominate a person for an honorary doctorate, faculty members must make a case for a specific individual and submit their nomination to the honors and awards committee. Then the College of Education reviews the recommendation. Once the case was made for Benjamin, it was put into a folder and sent to St. Petersburg professor Sonia Helton and interim CEO Ralph Wilcox, who both approved the nomination. Then honors and awards committee member Margaret Hewitt had to convince her colleagues that Benjamin was worthy. While the committee deliberates over a number of nominations, it is President Judy Genshaft who reviews the nomination and makes a final decision.

A month ago, Benjamin received a phone call from USF President Judy Genshaft notifying him of the honor. Heller said they tried to keep the nomination a secret from Benjamin. “I was totally surprised when I got work from President Genshaft,” Benjamin said. “I had no idea I was even up for it, it was totally unexpected. I’m very excited to be considered for that type of honor, it’s one of the most exciting times of my life,” he said.