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Beloved Florida High School teacher dies of COVID-19

Laura Finaldi
lfinaldi@heraldtribune.com
Winter Haven News Chief

Robert Shackelford was a force of nature.

Family members said he was the kind of person who turned heads when he walked into the room. He was tall — 6’4 to be exact — and muscular with a big, deep voice. He carried himself in a way that exuded intelligence and chivalry — values he held and instilled into the thousands of students he taught over the years.

“Everyone said he looked like Richard Gere. He carried himself in a way and had this posture that told you things were different about Daddy,” his daughter, Kari Shackelford, said. “He was sophisticated — very obviously.”

Shackelford, a social studies teacher at Sarasota High School for 27 years, former football coach and player, father, grandfather, son, brother, friend and unabashed patriot, died July 22 after a battle with COVID-19. He was 61.

To “Coach Shack,” as he was known, teaching was undoubtedly a calling. He was an avid reader and a lover of history who would spend his free time traveling to Civil War battlegrounds. He would have a friend bring in a Ford Model T to teach his students about American ingenuity during the Industrial Revolution. And he was the kind of guy who would spend his lunch hour entertaining the special needs kids by dressing up as Elvis Presley or Arnold Schwarzenegger and doing impressions.

He expected a lot from his students and they respected him for it.

“For some classes, students just kind of meander in, but kids would run to not be one second late for his class,” David Jones, the principal of Sarasota High School, said. “He would go bell to bell with great content. He was always trying to find ways to liven up what he did.”

And he was effective. Jones said Shackelford’s students scored among the highest of any high school students in the state. He was so beloved that a Facebook group called “In Memory of Robert Shackelford ‘Coach Shack’” had more than 600 members as of press time on Friday.

Robbie Rosnack, 21, had Shackelford as a teacher for three years in high school. Shackelford had high expectations of his students — he wanted them to be organized, Rosnack said. His former students still recall his notorious binder checks.

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“There are certain levels of teachers. Some that tell you things, others that try to explain things. But he was truly a teacher that inspired every student in this class,” Rosnack said. “It’s so hard to put into words, but he was the most genuine teacher I ever had. No other teacher I’ve ever had has had such an impact on me as a student and improving every part of my academic life.”

Gina Barresi, a social studies teacher at Sarasota High, said that she and Shackelford became fast friends 12 years ago when she was new and he helped her move a filing cabinet into her new classroom.

They spent years hanging out on her lanai overlooking the golf course at the Sarasota Country Club. He became part of her family and a regular fixture at Sunday dinners.

“He fervently believed that the way he taught — using the Socratic seminar and lecture-based teaching — was ideal to give kids a knowledge base, and I think he was right,” Barresi said.

Barresi said that Shackelford would want people to know that he was a patriot who loved his country through thick and thin.

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“We could spend countless hours together talking about history and politics. What I respect and value most in people is character, who they are as a person, and intellect, and Robert had both,” Barresi said. “He was one of the most intelligent men I ever met, and one of the most principled men I ever met.”

Shackelford became sort of a surrogate father to Barresi’s children. He was planning to teach her 13-year-old son how to mow the lawn this summer.

His daughter Kari said he also wanted to teach his grandson — Christian Robert, named after his grandfather — to play football, since Robert had played professional football himself and coached for years. It was important for Robert for Christian to become a Green Bay Packers fan.

Kari Shackelford also said that even though her father loved teaching, he was looking forward to his retirement a year from now. He was planning to move to Kentucky to be closer to her and her son.

Kari said her father tested positive for COVID-19 after visiting some Civil War battlefields in Tennessee. He wanted to take a COVID-19 test when he came back as a precautionary measure before he went to see his parents again. But before he got the results back, he was in the Intensive Care Unit, his daughter said.

“For Daddy to call an ambulance and to not walk himself into the hospital — calling an ambulance is a big deal for Daddy,” she said. “It happened so quickly.”

His sister, Jolyce Lumpkin, said that it was particularly devastating because the family couldn’t be in the hospital with him.

“Four weeks ago, I didn’t know anyone who had COVID, or know anyone who knew someone who had COVID. Now four weeks later I’ve lost a brother and I have to watch my parents mourn their son, which is excruciating,” she said.

Lumpkin said he was dedicated to caring for his family, including his younger brother, Steven, who looked up to him. Steven, who has physical and mental disabilities, had a difficult health episode several months ago. Kari Shackelford said her father would help his elderly parents care for Steven at their home in Brandon, spend the night and get up at 4 a.m. to drive to Sarasota the next day for school.

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Shackelford’s death shocked colleagues, friends and family, because he was in good health. Kari said he once scoffed at her for suggesting they get his grandson chicken nuggets as a snack. He was known to be a healthy eater — although he did have an affinity for Peanut M&M’s.

His daughter said that he frequently sent her cards, something that meant a lot to both of them. She always got a postcard when the football team he coached was traveling, and she got cards on holidays just because.

The last card he sent her came on Valentine’s Day this year. It reads: “Kari, I am so very proud of you. You’re a great mom and a caring loving person. Life is very precious. Make every moment count. Give back to others. Follow your dreams. Treat others with kindness. Forgive and move on. Finish what you started. Love till it hurts and then love some more ... Dad.”

To Kari, this card sums up so much that she loves about her father.

“I knew that if anybody was in my corner, it was Daddy,” she said. “It wasn’t just me. If Daddy was your ally, then you had nothing to worry about.”

In addition to Kari, Christian, Steven and Lumpkin, he is survived by another sister, Elizabeth Baker of Georgia, his parents, retired Col. Bill Shackelford and Clareen Shackelford of Brandon, and two nieces.

The family plans to hold a celebration of life once the pandemic has subsided and regulations have been relaxed.