8:16 am 3 notes
June 13, 2012 8:34 PM
Early Wednesday morning, a post from Wendell Griffith — educator, activist and eager commentator on all things political — appeared on Facebook.
“My good, true and constant friends,” the post said. “Sara Lynn is posting this for me as I can no longer reach the keyboard.
“My body is no more. My spirit is still very much here. When you think of me I want you to smile, laugh out loud, and know that each of you does the same to me. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you all.”
With those words, Griffith, in ever unique fashion, said goodbye, his two-year battle with cancer finally behind him.
His wife Sara Lynn said he died shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Griffith, 56, began his teaching career at what is now Northwest Florida State College 24 years ago, according to his obituary, which, like his goodbye post, he composed himself.
“There I had thousands of students, and, not colleagues, but true and constant friends,” he wrote.
Those students, those “true and constant friends” began calling the Northwest Florida Daily News as soon as word got out that a story was being written about Griffith’s passing.
“I can remember the first day of our 10th grade history class. He said no one got 100’s in his classes,” Katherine Henz recalled when she was a student at Collegiate High School on the NWF State campus, where Griffith volunteered. “I got 100 on every single test I took that year, because doggone it, he gave me a challenge and I was going to beat it.”
Henz, 24 and now a history teacher, credits Griffith with pushing her in that direction. She even told him that when he retired she was going to fill his position.
“He was the kind of person, if you didn’t love history, you would when you left his class,” she said. “His ability to tell stories was amazing. The classes were never just facts and dates, but real people. He could tell stories like no one else I’ve ever met.”
Henz remembered another of Griffith’s admonitions: “Do your own damn thinking.”
She said she could tell by reading the Facebook comments following Griffith’s death that his students took his tidbits of wisdom to heart.
“In this day and age, when so many young people are not going to the polls, we are, in large part, because he lectured us if we didn’t plan on it,” Henz said.
Thomas McCoy remembered the fragrant smell of cigar smoke that greeted students as they neared Griffith’s classroom, and that the proud former Marine never allowed anyone to wear a hat in class.
“He had a story about everything he taught,” McCoy said.
“He was that very rare teacher that comes along once in a lifetime that left a mark on you. I don’t know any students he taught that didn’t have contact with him afterward, somehow,” he said.
Kelli Ordonia changed her college major from journalism to history, and is now seeking a master’s degree in history.
“I think he’s probably one of the most influential people in my life,” Ordonia said of Griffith. “You don’t find an educator very often that teaches you, but also influences your life in some way. He really taught us how to be good people as well.”
Charla Cotton, who was director of Collegiate High School from 2000 to 2011, recalls students coming to her to complain they had been late to class and Griffith had locked them out
“His subject was American History, but what he really taught was life lessons,” Cotton said. “He taught students to be proud of America and to respect the Constitution. The Constitution, that was his baby. He was at his best in the classroom.”
Cotton called Griffith “a character.”
He liked to attend political rallies with students and never shied from speaking at events, either.
He was an early advocate of the grass-roots tea party movement and was often quoted in the newspaper on political matters.
Griffith’s fervor for following the Constitution and disgruntlement with the Republican Party led him to join the Whig Party shortly before he was diagnosed with cancer. He actually held a regional post with the Whig Party for a brief time.
Sean Flynn, a former college employee, was one of hundreds who posted on Facebook after hearing of Griffith’s death.
“Y’know,” Flynn wrote, “I can’t help but imagine that when Death arrived to escort Mr. Griffith to his eternal repose, Wendell probably gave him a right ass-chewing about infringing on the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
NWF State President Ty Handy called Griffith’s passing “the end of an era at Northwest Florida State College.”
“Revered by students and colleagues for his intelligence, wit, and passion for history, politics, and the academy, his influence on generations of OW (Okaloosa-Walton College) and now NWF graduates cannot be overstated,” Handy said.
“A wonderful man and an excellent professor, he will be missed and he will always be fondly remembered.”