TAMPA – Stacey Gimson smiled broadly as she stepped onto the stage, accepted a diploma and hugged the principal tightly.
More than 500 Steinbrenner High School graduates looked on, some wiping their eyes, many wearing blue arm bands with the words “Frank the Tank.”
Gimson made the walk Thursday afternoon at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall in place of her son Frank Vasquez, whose death in a hit-and-run car crash last fall cast a shadow over the school’s north Hillsborough community.
Vasquez was a larger-than-life character, a heavyweight on Steinbrenner’s wrestling team for three years known to most everyone at the school.
A still-grieving Gimson was touched that her son was being honored Thursday at such an important time in the lives of his friends.
The whole community has wrapped their arms around our family,” she said. “It’s an amazing way to continue his legacy.”
Gimson has stayed close with Frank’s friends and the school. They exchange text messages and share meals and she is even paying for a student to go to wrestling camp this summer.
“She’s really been an inspiration to all of us,” said graduate Patrick Wasp, Frank’s friend and teammate. “She’s helped us get through it more than anyone else. We lost a friend, but she lost her son and she’s been so strong and she’s helped us so much. One thing he couldn’t wait for was to graduate.”
The passing off of the diploma to Frank’s mom was just one of the ways students and faculty at Steinbrenner have come together to keep his memory alive since his death eight months ago.
“Frank’s passing touched our school like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Principal Kelly King said.
Throughout the year, the wrestling team yelled “1, 2, 3, Frank!” instead of “1, 2, 3, warriors!” after practices and warm-ups for matches.
The team wore socks embroidered with Frank’s initials and weight class.
Some students wore their arm bands so often that the words began to fade. On Fridays, they wore T-shirts that read “Frank Fridays.”
No one parked in his parking spot at school and no one sat in his seat in the cafeteria.
“At first, it was rough,” said Bret Byler, a friend of Frank’s who graduated Thursday. “But it brought everybody together. We all got through it.”
In addition to the diploma, wrestling coach Paul Noble on Thursday presented Frank’s mom with a yearbook, filled with notes from his friends.
Wasp, 18, remembers Frank as the first friend he made at Steinbrenner, when he transferred there two years ago.
“It would have been amazing to have him here today,” Wasp said.
His friends and family say Frank wasn’t sure what he wanted to study in college.
“Whatever it had been, he’d be trying to make people happy,” she said. “He was absolutely amazing. Always had this infectious smile.”
At the end of her graduation speech, valedictorian Isabelle Puppa reminded her fellow graduates to be proud of their accomplishments, but that this is just the beginning for them. She encouraged them to strive to make others smile.
“Do it for Frank,” she said.