Sam Himmel and I had a pact.
The first came many years ago, early in her political career. I can’t recall whether Sam was running for re-election to the School Board or her first run for Superintendent of Schools.
“You know,” I told her one day, “you can’t be Sandra Himmel. You can only be Sandra ‘Sam’ Himmel. That’s how we know you. Don’t change.”
She didn’t. Sandra “Sam” Himmel served two terms on the School Board, was elected Superintendent in 2004, and led the county’s school district for 20 years before telling me Thursday morning of her decision to announce her retirement the next day.
And that leads to the second pact.
Sam considered leaving in 2020. She served four successful terms as superintendent and was closing in on retirement age.
I asked her to stay another term until 2024. “Then we can retire at the same time,” I told her.
I doubt my opinion had anything to do with Sam’s decision to stay another four years, but she kept a promise made to me back then that I’d be the first to know when she was ready to retire.
Thursday morning, in her second-story corner district office, that’s exactly what happened.
We sat and reminisced.
Sam is an educator. She’s a politician. A parent, churchgoer, grandma, and very close friend to hundreds.
Her dad was the late Walt Connors, a political icon in Citrus County. Walt would be very, very proud of his daughter who used his combination of charm, wit, smarts, and political know-how to run the most significant constitutional office in Citrus County for two decades.
I was 10 years into my Chronicle career before being handed the School Board beat. Listen. The School Board isn’t like the County Commission. I love my commissioners, but the issues they face aren’t nearly as complicated as those in public education.
The stakes are much different. Yes, commissioners must deal with a hot-and-cold voting public and trying to maneuver growth. Frankly, though, if your biggest p.r. headache is making sure backward-thinking fools don’t take over the libraries, that’s not a bad deal.
Give these commissioners 15,000 students, their parents, hundreds of school employees, state legislators who think they’re smarter than anyone else in the room, a government-mandated budgeting system that defies logic, and we’ll see how well it goes.
Sam did all that with a sense of humor and humility.
Sam likes to tell a story that’s totally unrelated to education, but she brings it up every so often. She and her husband were in Daytona Beach in their hotel room, when Sam looked down out the window and saw me walking along the boardwalk.
“There’s Mike Wright!” she exclaimed to her husband, who probably couldn’t care less.
Another fun: We regularly texted one another during School Board meetings. Nothing major; in fact, we avoided that.
One board meeting, I followed someone out of the board room for information. I was in the hallway for 20 seconds when my phone beeped. It was Sam texting.
“Where did you go? Get back in here!” she wrote.
Sam and I both shed a few tears Thursday. She pointed lovingly to a photo on her desk of Sam goofing it up with her grandchildren: Ella, 11; Rorie, 7; Palmer, 2; and 1-year-old twins Peyton and Lawson.
That’s why she’s retiring. Sam still has that fire in her gut for the kids, parents, teachers and entire school community. But her fire burns brighter for her own grandchildren, and we should be happy for her.
Remember the second pact — we would both retire the same year?
Had it not been for Just Wright Citrus, that probably would have occurred. So, I’m still writing while Sam prepares for retirement.
They don’t cut Sandra “Sam” Himmels out of the political cloth much these days. Most people in office today couldn’t hold a candle to her expertise, sense of fairness, good nature, and uncanny ability to put one in one’s place whether it’s the governor, sheriff or former legislator.
We still have many months before Sam’s retirement. Something tells me it’ll be here before we know it.
So, I’m just going to say it right now. For the kids, parents, coaches, teachers, bus drivers, custodians, aides, administrators, and this beautiful community, we owe more than I can express in a simple blog.
You’re one of a kind, Sam. Our kind.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.