Ocala’s timeless wonder is also Florida’s most historic school venue
The myriad Victorian structures and other historic venues evoke more than just feelings of nostalgia, but also a love and pride in one’s own moment of this glorious timeline. Rarely, though, is a true connection made between a person and a building beyond the mere glimpse into what life may have been like in earlier times.
At least one old building in Ocala does just that by providing a real-life connection to the thousands whose lives were once inexorably shaped there. That would be the current Eighth Street Elementary School building in which many future leaders of this community were reared.
Built in 1914, the structure itself has acted as a schoolhouse on different levels without interruption, making it the state’s longest continuously operating school building.
Today, other schools across the state may be housed in older buildings, but none have housed a school the entire time.
Upon its completion, the current Eighth Street Elementary was the first home of Ocala High School, which relocated to the site of the current Osceola Middle School when that structure was built in 1925. At that point, it became Ocala Grammar School, then Ocala Junior High in 1942. In those days, the school was for grades 4-8, with seventh- and eighth-graders located upstairs and all others downstairs.
In 1965, the school became known as Eighth Street Elementary School—and with several renovations—appears to have a long future still ahead of it.
Through its doors saw the likes of Buddy McKay, who would go on to become a representative in the United States Congress and was lieutenant governor to Lawton Chiles, then Florida’s 42nd governor upon Chiles’ death in 1998. Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn and former police chief Morrey Deen are also listed among Eighth Street Elementary School’s “Star Alums.”
Through the years, the school has evolved from one where no fans or air conditioning gave comfort to students or teachers, to one in which the $2.6 million renovation project in 2001 have upgraded it to be on par with modern facilities.
Inside, one can view pictures of all the past principals, who seem beloved in a way most particular to this school. Standing out among them is Helen Ingrao, who started at Eighth Street as a curriculum coordinator in 1973, then became principal in 1982. Her tenure of 20 years is longest of any in school history and would have been longer if not for her death in 2001.
Ingrao’s death at age 58 came as a shock to the citizenry and the large headlines and number of stories written in the local paper at that time served as testimony to her importance in the hearts of Ocalans.
A memorial to Ingrao exists at the school’s flagpole, dedicated in her honor.
In 2014, the school celebrated 100 years with all the pomp required of such an occasion – speeches from local and state dignitaries and even presentations from students past and present.
What exists now is a building that sees children whose great-grandparents walked the halls and one that is poised to host the next several generations as well.