TAMPA – The third try proved to be the charm for Seminole Tribal citizen Linda Lee Henry, who passed her General Education Development (GED) test and earned a high school equivalency diploma recently.
“I want to dedicate this honor to my parents (Bobby and Annie Henry) because they were always there for me with their love and support,” she said at a gathering of family, friends and co-workers who filled the back of the Frontier Steak House on June 21 to celebrate the accomplishment of Linda, a popular Tampa senior crafts person and stomp dancer.
Born in the tiny cypress logging town of Copeland, in eastern Collier County, Linda Lee grew up in impoverished Indian camps and migrant-type housing as her family tried to eke out a living in the backwoods of Florida of the 1950s. She spoke only her native Mikasuki language as a child, “but I picked up English in school and just being around people who spoke it,” she recalled. “By the time I was 9, I could speak it pretty good.”
Linda Lee’s time in public elementary schools was broken several times when her family would move to a new area, seeking work. She said she made it through a few semesters at Naples High School, living with a Choctaw family while her family worked in the Bradenton farm fields.
“Then my dad came and got me when James Billie wanted us to move to Tampa,” she said.
In the early 1980s, Chairman James E. Billie led an effort to commercially develop a few acres of vacant property east of Tampa, which had been designated federal trust property by the U.S. government as a reservation for the Seminoles City of Tampa. He brought medicine man Bobby Henry and his entire family to live on and manage the property.
“I had to come back and help my family. My father was the only one working and I was needed in the gift shop,” Linda Lee said.
She remembers those early days proudly, especially her father operating a crane and driving in stock car races.
Over the years, as the tiny Tampa Reservation grew from village and zoo to bingo hall, hotel and, eventually the Tampa Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Linda Lee tried twice to get her GED.
“I love taking care of children and I knew I had to have a diploma to someday open up my own daycare center,” she explained. “So I tried to go after my GED.”
Distractions caused her to drop out of the program the first time, then an illness caused her tutor to drop out the next time.
“Finally, my son came to me and said ‘Let’s both do it together’,” she said with a smile, referring to her 18-year-old son Taryn. “He was having trouble in school, playing hooky, not doing his homework, so I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it!’”
It took several months, but both mom and son were successful, said Linda Lee, who credits the Tribal Department of Elder Services, headed by Lola Juarez, and her tutor, Dee Cawley, for their support and assistance in getting through the required math, English, science, social studies, reading and writing components required for the high school diploma certification. Linda Lee and Taryn now join daughter Jamey, who earned her high school equivalency diploma previously.
“One thing I learned that was absolutely true, and I wish all our children would remember this: It’s never too late,” said high school graduate Linda Lee Henry, Class of 2016. “It’s never too late to go after your dreams. Look at me.”