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Bronson recognizes distinguished alumni

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By Sean Arnold

The eight individuals that populate first-ever Bronson Distinguished Alumni list boast an impressive list of accomplishments.

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Many of them are households names around Levy County, and all of them have legacies that transcend the Town of Bronson. There were, after all, the first eight chosen from the more than 100 years of Bronson Middle High School’s history.

But for the living members on the list, being name a distinguished alumnus of their alma mater in Bronson is at or near the top of their proudest distinctions. And in their submitted acceptance videos and messages, they stressed their educational foundation at Bronson Middle High School and the teachers and mentors that brought out their best.

The honorees were celebrated at the first Bronson Distinguished Alumni Banquet Dec. 8 at Bronson Middle High School. It’s part of a new initiative from the School Board of Levy County, aimed at shining a light on distinguished alumni from the county.

School Board member and Bronson alumnus Cameron Asbell, who hosted the banquet, said all of the alumni have led through their service to their communities. A committee of Bronson representatives made the final choices from a list of over 20 nominees, Asbell said.

“They were chosen based on leadership roles and citizenship roles and academics,” he said. “Not only have they succeeded in business in their profession, but they have been people who have continually given back to their community, either through service, the armed services or serving their fellow man in setting a fine example of just what a Bronson Eagle should be.

“It was pretty well unanimous who these eight people would be tonight,” he added.

The eight honorees were: Dogan Cobb (Class of 1929); Amelia Erwin (1930); C. Doyle McCall (1947); Don Duden (1956); Al Qualls Jr. (1961); Luther Drummond (1961); Jeff Miller (1977) and David Funk (1981).

BMHS principal Gary Masters said plaques representing the alumni will be displayed at the school, “so our students over the years will have information about those who have gone before, and it’ll be an encouragement to them.

“We will continue to have students graduate and do great things, it’s a blessing to work with the young people here,” Masters later added in his closing remarks.

“It’s just a humbling experience to look at the lives that these alumni have lived,” Superintendent of Schools Jeff Edison said. “It’s great to be here tonight and we look forward to many more.”

While the honorees’ accomplishments are in various walks of life, their contributions have helped shape Levy County, and sometimes well beyond.

The families of the late Cobb and Erwin attended to accept plaques on their behalf.

Asbell gave a special thank you to Clayton Lott for helping compile biographical information on the honorees. “Clayton has a great grasp on who we are,” Asbell said. “If it weren’t for his devotion and belief in the heritage and history of Bronson High School,a lot of the facts about our honorees tonight I wouldn’t have.”

The plaques were presented by BMHS assistant principal Cheryl Allen and assistant superintendent John Lott.

Dogan Cobb, Class of 1929

Cobb’s name is perhaps the most synonymous with Bronson, as a long-serving Bronson councilman and mayor, and the namesake on the Dogan S. Cobb Municipal Building, but a highlight of his accomplishments took place overseas.

He volunteered for the U.S. Army and served in World War II, where he earned all five battle stars and saw active duty at the Battle of the Bulge. Before leaving, he was elected Levy County Tax Assessor (now known as Property Appraiser), and served in the position for 32 years unopposed, becoming the only person in the history of Levy County to be re-elected while serving on foreign soil.

While later serving on the Bronson Town Council, he was a crucial part of expanding the town’s infrastructure. “He had the ability to get things done without bankrupting the town,” said Asbell, who served with Cobb on the council. Cobb also opened the Western Auto Store, where Ace Hardware now stands, and was a church deacon since the 1940s, until 2003, and taught Sunday School until he was 102. He was also a fixture at fundraisers for schools, youth sports, FFA, etc.

“Anything that needed help, he was there,” Asbell said. “And he was often frying hush puppies.”

Cobb’s daugther, Mary Bird, granddaughter, Amanda Huber, great granddaughter Allie Huber, and Amanda Huber’s mother, Sandra McKoy, accepted the plaque on behalf of the late Cobb, who lived to be 105. Amanda Huber’s mo

“I so wish students of today, the selfie generation, could understand how fulfilling a life Granddaddy (Cobb) lived because all he did was live to serve other people,” Amanda Huber said.

Amelia Erwin, Class of 1930

Erwin’s story is inspiring on a personal level as well as for Levy County and its connection with local history. After the death of her husband, Lewis Thomas Erwin, she suddenly found herself with the responsibility of raising four young children during a time when women’s career opportunities outside the home were far more limited.

Undeterred, she went on to earn a Master’s degree in education from the University of Florida, and eventually moved back to Levy County, from Jacksonville, to serve as principal of Williston Elementary and then Williston Middle School in the 1960’s and 1970’s. During that time, she was selected to help lead the transition into school integration.

“It took a very special person – we are the Deep South – to take that challenge,” Asbell said. “She took her Bronson education and turned it into passion to help students succeed. She broke barriers to impact real change.”

Asbell quoted Erwin, “I wanted to be a teacher all my life,” Erwin said. “I love school, I love children, and I love to see a child progress. I love to encourage children, and to build them up to into all they are capable of.”

Accepting the plaque for the late Erwin were here daughter, Margie Rawls, son Wofford, son-in-law Dr. James Rawls, and daughter-in-law Shirley.

C. Doyle McCall, Class of 1947

Asbell especially enjoyed introducing honoree C. Doyle McCall, one of Chiefland’s most beloved figures, who came by way of Bronson.

McCall, a legendary coach and educator who is the namesake of C. Doyle McCall Field at Wayne Pridgeon Stadium, led Chiefland Middle High School to a state championship in football in 1961, and coached the Indians for more than 35 years.

As chairman of the Florida High School Coaches Association, he helped lead Florida in adopting a state playoff system for high school football. He is a two-time hall of fame member of both the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) and the Florida Coaches Hall of Fame.

“I find this humorous,” Asbell started in his introduction of McCall’s award. “Coach McCall is the pinnacle of the Chiefland Indians. They named their football field after their favorite Chiefland Indian, who is actually a Bronson Eagle.

“I’ve said it before – the real leaders come from Bronson High School. You throw a rock in Chiefland and you’ll hit somebody that Coach McCall had an impact on. He may be the best thing Chiefland ever had, but we’re the ones that produced him.

“Chiefland is home,” Asbell clarified. “We kid each other, but it’s home.

“(McCall’s) most impressive record isn’t on the football field, it’s his lasting impact on the young people who went to Chiefland High School.”

Asbell also noted that McCall, born in 1928, was the first baby born in Gulf Hammock after it was renamed from Gun Town.

McCall was unable to attend due to health.

Don Duden, Class of 1956

Duden started an educator and coach, like McCall, but ended up being a key figure in the state’s modernization of environmental policy in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

He served as the assistant executive director of the Florida Department of Natural Resources under four governors, both Republican and Democrat. Duden was credited for helping develop many of the initiatives that help protect the fragile ecosystem of Florida, Asbell said.

“The Governor could choose who served as (assistant executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, so that shows you how much he was respected,” Asbell said. “It was the lead state agency for protecting the environment. Amid political changes at the top, Don Duden was the steady force to be reckoned with.”

Duden is the member of the University of Florida Hall of Fame, where he earned a Master’s degree.

Duden was unable to attend the banquet because he was granting his 96-year-old brother’s only birthday wish, to receive a visit from Don in San Fracisco. Duden submitted a video message to play at the banquet.

“I would like to say Bronson and Bronson High School mean a lot to me, and the more I think back, the more real it becomes,” he said. “Our teachers were so great, they taught us the basic curriculum that was available at the time. But more than that, they taught us to study, to reason, to apply logic, to think, to plan, and to have great discipline. Those are the tools the served me at UF and to Tampa, and then to Tallahassee. I want to tell the students: you can do it the same way we did it – apply yourself and stay out of drugs and you can make it.”

Luther Drummond, Class of 1961

As the chairman of Drummond Community Bank, and a ubiquitous figure behind so much giving to Levy causes, Luther Drummond may be a household name in Levy County, but his avoidance of the spotlight helps obscure his personal story.

“Our next recipient is one that we all know,” Asbell said of Drummond, “and it’s kind of weird when you know a guy so well and you ask him, ‘I need to know some information about you.’ I have determined he may be reclusive. He didn’t want a lot of attention brought to himself.”

Asbell used the example of Drummond to remind attendees that some of our best learned lessons come when we start out from the bottom. He recalled a story about how the Drummond had to clean toilets at his grandfather’s bank, Levy County State Bank, and work his way up through every job at the bank before eventually becoming chairman. Levy County State Bank was later purchased by Capital City Bank, and Drummond went on to found Drummond Community Bank.

“There have been people we know in that situation, they become vice president when they walk in,” Asbell said. “But his grandfather said, ‘If you’re going to run this bank, you need to understand every aspect of this bank.’”

Asbell noted that Drummond, a Board member of Florida State University, is a lifelong supporter of Levy County schools. “Every student who has come through here and has ever shown a hog or played a sport, can always look around and see Mr. Drummond and his bank has contributed. He bought several of my animals at FFA.”

Asbell said he was surprised at how humbled Drummond was when informed of the Distinguished Alumni award.

“Here’s a guy who has won many awards, has been named one of the top 10 bankers in Florida for multiple years, and he’s humbled by receiving an accolade from where he went to high school.”

Drummond informed Asbell he could not attend the banquet due to a prior commitment, and issued a message to be read in which he encouraged “each and every student at Bronson Middle High School to chase their dream, because (they) can attain them.”

Al Qualls Jr., Class of 1961

Asbell described Qualls, who graduated with Drummond in 1961, as “a person we do not have time to go into all of his accomplishments.”

Qualls is the President and CEO of Quallsco Inc., a financial consulting firm from Fort Walton Beach. He’s an Army veteran, a graduate of Brevard Engineering College, a license general contractor, a member of the society of American Military Engineers as well as the Florida Bankers Association, and Chairman of the Board of First National Bank of Northwest Florida.

Asbell cited the five awards Qualls is most proud of: a selection to the Florida Allstate High School Basketball Team in 1960; the Children’s Home Society Friend of a Child Award, which was presented by the late Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, and the late film actress Jane Russell; being named 2010 Alumni of the Year by the Levy County Schools Foundation; his 2007 induction to the Distinguished Brigade at the U.S. Army Hall of Fame; and, finally, his selection as one of the first Bronson Distinguished Alumni.

Asbell added that Qualls has personally funded scholarships for students at BMHS and in Levy County and was a key figure in making sure the new middle high schools in Williston and Bronson received funding, and promises to do the same for the new planned Chiefland Middle High School.

“It’s what makes a Bronson Eagle alumnus so special,” Asbell said. “We do not forget where we come from, we do not forget to give back, because we were given to. Al Qualls is a perfect example of that. He loves this little town. He loves this school.”

Asbell relayed that Qualls said he’s “in awe of being in the company of our distinguished alumni, and attending Bronson Middle High School, with its teachers and mentors, was the greatest experience anyone can have from the ages of 6 to 18. Older students were the best role models, and still worthy of me looking up to them to this day.”

Jeff Miller, Class of 1977

Of the former U.S. congressman, Class of 1977 Bronson graduate, Asbell said, “Those of us that have known him for so long, you just knew it was going to happen. You knew he was the most capable, the smartest and you’d follow him. He’s considered by many folks to be the most distinguished alumni from Bronson Middle High School.”

In Bronson, Miller was the valedictorian of his class and the first from Bronson to serve as state secretary in FFA, and also the first national officer candidate. He studied journalism at UF, where he was later selected to its hall of fame, and then served on the Florida Commission of Agriculture until 1988. He was a Gilchrist County Sheriff’s Deputy, a radio disc jockey in Chiefland, a weekend TV weatherman, and a real estate broker.

He entered politics in 1988 when he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives. When he was done serving there in 2001, he was elected to the U.S. House, where he served until 2017. Miller, who was the chairman of the Veterans Administration Committee, was asked by the Trump Administration to serve as Secretary of Veterans Administration, but decided to retire from political office.

In a message read by Asbell, Miller said, “Of all the recognition I have received, being honored by my alma mater means the most. It gave everyone an opportunity to succeed. Every teacher worked hard to bring out the best in each of us, from the ag shop to the football field.”

Miller asked the current FFA members in attendance – Hayden and Jackson Asbell and Elise Lozada – and his former FFA teacher, Buddy Deas, accept the award on his behalf.

Deas recounted a humorous story in which he accidentally put a lump on Miller’s head in his classroom with a broomstick. Deas said Bronson produced three straight FFA state public speaking champions, including Miller and fellow Distinguished Alumni honoree David Funk as well as Williston educator Cheryl Quincey Futch.

David Funk, Class of 1981

From near homeless to Commandant of the U.S. Army War College and vice president of a logistics company, Funk’s story stands out as an inspiring one.

“I hope that his story goes back to our schools,” Asbell said. “This inductee is a shining example if there ever was one of a person who came through Bronson without a snowball’s chance.”

After spending a time sleeping in a car while in high school, Funk went on to become the first and only Bronson alumnus to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). He served four combat tours, earned a Master’s Degree from the Command and General Staff College as well as from the U.S. Army War College, and was a recipient of such awards as the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Ranger Tab and Airborne and Air Assault Wings. He retired from active duty in 2016 as Colonel following 30 years of service.

Funk was unable to attend due to work obligations, but delivered a video message crediting everyone who helped him in Bronson. He thanked Deas, as well as his family and those who helped provide for him in school, and teachers and administrators.

When I look at the names of some of the other people (on the Distinguished Alumni list), it boggles my mind my name should be mentioned in the same sentence,” Funk started.

“If you’ve ever had a teacher make a difference and show you he cares, it’s Mr. Deas,” he said of his FFA instructor. “My teachers and administrators at Bronson saw something in me I couldn’t see for myself, and would never let me settle for mediocrity.”

Funk also had a message for current students who might not think they have the ability required to do great things.

“Thirty-six years ago, I’m you,” he said. “I was, in point of fact, a man of marginal intelligence and questionable athletic ability. What I had, though, was an intense desire to always be the best I can be in anything I did.

“And I had teachers and coaches and administrators who believed in me and pushed me.”