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Longtime Riverview High drama director dies too soon

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Metro section of The Tampa Tribune on Sept. 27. We include it here for readers who may have missed it.

TAMPA — Daron Hawkins, drama director at Riverview High School, died Wednesday after a battle with pneumonia. He was 38.

“There is that old saying that everyone is replaceable,” said Riverview Principal Robert Heilmann. “Not true. I don’t know how you replace someone like Daron.”

Over the course of his 16 years as drama director at Riverview High School, Hawkins oversaw more than 80 shows and built his department into one of the finest in the area.

What made Hawkins so special, said the principal, was the ease in which he directed complicated shows such as “Evita,” “Les Miserables,” “Chicago,” and “High School Musical.” He said Hawkins was able to do so because he had a knack for getting the most out of each student’s potential.

“He would find their talent, whether it was on stage or behind the curtain,” said Hannah Rush, a senior at Riverview who studied drama under Hawkins for four years. “And he made each student feel equally important.”

She said some students would grudgingly join Hawkins’ drama class when all other electives were filled. They pouted in the back of the class in the beginning but by show time were as excited as those with dreams of Broadway in their futures.

“He seemed to know how to teach everything to every student,” said Riverview senior Tre Wilkerson, also a four-year student of Hawkins’. “He was brilliant.”

“He was by far the best drama teacher in the county, probably the state and maybe in the country,” said Heilmann.

A graduate of East Bay High School, Hawkins earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of South Florida and his master’s degree from New York University, both in theater education. According to Heilmann, he was Riverview High School’s first and only drama director.

Hawkins was also the founder of Riverview Little Theatre and state director of the Florida State Thespian Society.

On Thursday, close to drama 100 students gathered on the school’s stage to honor their mentor. Heilmann reminded the students how much Hawkins loved each one of them and how proud he always was of their efforts. The students then formed a circle, sung spiritual songs, and prayed.

“He affected my life in every way possible,” said Rush. “He taught me to embrace life and make most out of everything. He always said that everything you do shapes who you are. He will always be with me.”

Ellen Kleinschmidt worked with Hawkins for 13 years.

“Daron was a creative genius who took normal people like me and turned them into stars,” she said. “He was my friend, mentor and teacher. He lit a spark in me, which has become my lifelong passion.”

When Hawkins started the Riverview Little Theatre in 2000, he took a chance and casted Kleinschmidt in the lead role of Maria in “The Sound of Music.” That’s when her journey as an actress began.

“I didn’t even know stage right from stage left,” she said. “Patiently he taught me everything he knew about the theater – and a bit about life as well. He was a perfectionist... expected nothing but 100 percent from himself and his actors. He helped me become the confident actress I am today.

“Daron was an absolute treasure.”

On Nov. 23, students, former students, parents and actors who worked with Hawkins will gather at 7 p.m. at the Riverview High School auditorium for a celebration of his life. A full house is expected to honor him.

Reporter Lois Kindle contributed to this version of the story.

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