Ponte Vedra High School principal loses battle with cancer

Grief counselors to be available, school to take place as scheduled on Monday

By Ashley Harding - Reporter, Chris Robbins - Producer, Marques White - Reporter

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - Students and teachers are mourning the death of Ponte Vedra High School principal Craig Speziale, who lost his battle with colon cancer on Saturday morning.

Speziale was 51.

Students left flowers, signed cards and released balloons Monday morning and also observed a moment of silence in memory of Speziale.

Even though he'd been sick for a while, students said they weren't prepared.

"I think the students that never maybe personally talked to him, it seems like it's already hitting them also," said student Leila Sabet.

Speziale led Ponte Vedra High School since it opened in 2008. Students described him as the kind of person they could go to when they needed them, someone who was strict but at the same time, they could share a laugh with him.

"He has this big jar of shark's teeth. At graduation ceremonies he always collects a shark's tooth from all of the graduating seniors when they would go to collect their diplomas. He'd put them in his pocket and he takes them back to his office and puts them back in there. That was something very cool that he did," Sabet said.

Not only students loved Speziale, so did faculty and parents, who said no matter what obstacles came up, Speziale always put the kids' needs first.

"There was a hiring freeze in the county and he wasn't able to hire the football coaches that he had hoped to," said Otto Gruhn. "So he went out there and coached himself at the start of the new school year. Just a very commendable guy."

Some Ponte Vedra High School students said they plan to hand out blue ribbons for colon cancer awareness.

Even though Speziale's gone, there's no doubt he leaves behind a lasting legacy.

"Even though he won't physically be there with us at our graduation ceremony, he will be there with us in spirit," Sabet said.

Renee Farrell with the Parent Teacher Organization in St. Johns County fought back tears as she spoke about the death of her friend and colleague.

"We were so lucky to have him as a part of our school. His wisdom, his leadership, his dedication, was remarkable."

"He could just listen to an opinion that wasn't his, but he could see the bigger picture. He just always had, he thought outside the box," Farrell said.

As students go through the grieving process, the school system says they will be there for them.

"Creating a stable school environment for students and staff is imperative. The district's crisis team as well as district administration will be onsite at Ponte Vedra High School to provide support for as long as is needed. We are all grieving the loss of a treasured member of our district family and an outstanding leader."

Speziale leaves behind a wife and two children.

School was scheduled to go on as planned Monday, but grief counselors were on hand for students.

Speziale graduated with a bachelor's degree from Barry University in 1990. He was the principal at South Miami Senior High from 2002 to 2006. He then served as principal at Miami Jackson Senior High for one year before moving to Ponte Vedra High School.

Speziale's funeral is scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday at San Juan Del Rio Catholic Church. After the mass, people are invited to gather in the Ponte Vedra High School auditorium from 5 p.m.-7p.m.

The Speziales have asked that in lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Craig Speziale Memorial Scholarship. Contact Ponte Vedra High School for more information on the scholarship fund.

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