In the early days of racial integration in the schools, Archie Dabney watched the identity of Booker T. Washington School fade away as the school took its new name and new school colors.
Maroon and gray became blue and silver. Booker T. became Inverness Middle School.
“It was happening all over the South, all over Florida,” Dabney told the Chronicle in 2010. “Black schools were either renamed or they discontinued using them.”
When he transferred to Crystal River High School in 1968, he learned the athletic uniforms at Booker T. Washington and some of their trophies had been destroyed. Dabney retrieved the remaining trophies and kept them at his house.
In 1972, Coach Dabney was passed up for the head coaching position and some of the student athletes were planning to walk out in protest.
Dabney told them, “Don’t do it. Do not do this. I understand this town is not ready for a Black coach.”
“Teaching at Crystal River High School was just like a big family, both the kids and the staff and the administrators,” Dabney said. “People in the county accepted integration. To students, I was just another teacher. I had very few problems. There was only one incident that had anything to do with race. Other than that I was just Coach Dabney.”
“Coach was the calm in the storm; he kept everyone together,” said Melody McDaniel, one of “Coach’s kids” – those whose lives have been touched by him – and perhaps his most ardent cheerleader and his right hand for the past 35 years.
Dabney was her coach, mentor and guidance counselor in high school, and then as she began her 31-year career at Citrus Springs Elementary School, she started as Coach’s teacher’s aide.
“He and my father were very close, and I considered myself his daughter,” she said. “I couldn’t have loved him more if he were my (biological) father.”
In 2000, McDaniel’s brother, Gary Medley, wrote a Chronicle guest column about Dabney, the “tall black man” who “transcended the relationship between teacher and student.”
“The late 60s and early 70s were turbulent times for Black and white students trying to cope with forced integration,” Medley wrote. “Coach Dabney was like the calm in the eye of the storm. He was as approachable as our closest friend. We trusted him and knew that no matter what was happening in our lives, we could talk to Coach.”
Archie Dabney, the man everyone called “Coach,” died May 21 at age 95.
Dabney was born in Leesburg and was raised by his grandfather.
Like his grandfather, Dabney was tough and outspoken about what was right and wrong.
As an educator, he spent his entire career, some 40 years, teaching kids and also the adults he worked with what it means to be a person of integrity and value.
“My grandfather started the first school for blacks in Leesburg,” Dabney told the Chronicle in 2015. “I have a lot of educators in my family, and I never wanted to be a teacher. I knew the things teachers went through.”
However, after graduating from college, his coach got him a job in Bowling Green, Virginia, teaching physical education and science, and he fell in love with teaching.
At that time, 1952, Dabney earned $2,000 a year, and the next year he got a $100 raise. The year after that, he returned to Florida where he taught in Leesburg and Wildwood, making $4,500 a year, which was big money for a young teacher.
Eventually, he came to Inverness to teach and coach football, baseball, basketball and track at the Booker T. Washington School.
Under his leadership the school won state championships in football, basketball, girls track and boys track.
“But the most important thing to me was that the students would become good citizens in the community, and I was pretty fortunate – I got pretty good kids,” Dabney said.
Dabney believed sports were important because kids need something to keep their minds occupied to help them stay out of trouble.
“You need to give them an opportunity to do something that might lead to a college education, a scholarship,” he said.
Dabney said in 2015 that, in a way, leaving Booker T. was a sad time.
“We didn’t have the books or the supplies we needed, but we had student organizations and chorus and things like that,” he said. “We had camaraderie and togetherness. We were a family.”
Eventually, Dabney’s career took him to Lecanto High School as assistant principal, and later principal, and then to Citrus Springs Elementary School as a principal.
He retired in 1995.
But he never retired from being a presence in the lives of his “kids” – hundreds of them.
“He was never my coach or teacher, but he was my high school guidance counselor and a great, great friend the rest of his life,” said Luther Willis. “He was always there for advice and encouragement, and when I was asked at my church to be a deacon, I let him know that. He said, ‘I want to be there for your ordination,’ and he was.
“When he walked in – he was principal at Citrus Springs Elementary then and my church is in Citrus Springs – all the kids were all over him. But I thought to myself, ‘He’s here for ME.’ We were all his kids.”
For Dabney’s 80th birthday, Willis and friends from his 1976 Crystal River High School class had a limousine pick Dabney up at his house and they took him to dinner.
Also for his 80th birthday, McDaniel organized a “little get together” to be at Oyster’s Restaurant in Crystal River, until the guest list grew to hundreds of people.
“I called Mr. William (Bunch) and said, ‘I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do!’” McDaniel said.
Bunch took care of it. They moved the “little get together” to the George Washington Carver Community Center, where more than 300 people came to honor Coach Dabney and they used the event as a fundraiser for scholarships.
They did the same for his 90th birthday.
On his 93rd birthday, March 7, 2021, Dabney was at New Horizon Assisted Living Residence in Inverness recuperating from COVID, pneumonia, a kidney infection and an injury to his head from a fall.
But that didn’t stop Coach’s “kids” from celebrating their mentor and friend with a drive-by parade – between 70 and 80 vehicles passing by, people stopping to offer birthday cards and words of love for the beloved Citrus County icon.
The event took more than 40 minutes, with Dabney often telling his former students and others how much he appreciated them coming by.
“Coach Dabney was an institution in Citrus County,” said Gerry Mulligan, Chronicle Publisher Emeritus. “He helped bridge the integration transition in our community because he was a strong leader and a role model for all. His positive impact lives today in the thousands of lives he touched in our school system as a coach and educator.”
When Dabney’s death was announced on Facebook late Sunday night, scores of people shared their thoughts of admiration and of grief.
“Coach Dabney and our family, the McCrays of Crystal River, go back at least four generations here in Citrus County,” wrote Andrea K. McCray. “He always shared a fondness for me through my grandmother, Mrs. Annie M. McCray, because they struggled through a time and battles that I heard them talk about – and thought that I would never see in my lifetime.
“We would often briefly chat when we ran into each other at Oysters Restaurant. And he always had a huge smile,” she said. “Coach Dabney and my grandmother were both leaders in the Citrus County educational community who both started teaching during the days of segregation, broke boundaries, and were among some of the first Black teachers and leaders to integrate Citrus County public schools.
“They LOVED everyone, people of all races and every heart. They leave a LEGACY of LOVE for each and every heart, mind, and student that they impacted, regardless of race.”
“Above all else, he loved,” McDaniel said. “He listened. He remembered. He knew your family. … For his 80th birthday, we had T-shirts made with different colored handprints on them and the words ‘I am one of Coach’s kids.’ We were all Coach’s kids.”
Public viewing and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity service is from 5-7:30 p.m. Friday, May 26 at St. James A.M.E. Church, 204 N Apopka Ave, Inverness, FL 34450.
Public viewing is from 10-11 a.m. Saturday, May 27, followed by a celebration of life for Coach Archie Dabney at 11 a.m. at the Crystal River High School gym.
Burial is at 10 a.m. Tuesday, May 30, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.