The Missionary

Shawn Beightol's education crusade is seeking believers

"If you're the valedictorian today, do you think you're going to go into teaching?" asks Karen Herzog, a librarian at G. Holmes Braddock High School who is preparing for retirement. Off the top of her head, Herzog mentioned three young teachers at Braddock, one of the county's top schools, who are plotting their routes out — one to a better contract in Broward and the others to higher-paying careers.


Harbor West Marina in North Bay Village has been all but abandoned since Hurricane Wilma rolled through in October 2005, obliterating most of the houseboats docked there. This past Christmas Eve, Beightol was standing on one of the marina's docks amid snapped power outlet boxes and splintered wood beams, waiting for a guest to squeeze through an opening in the locked chainlink gate. Beightol wore jeans and a sweat-stained blue T-shirt bearing a chemical map of sucrose and the words "I never met a carbohydrate I didn't like." A short rowboat ride away, past yellow floating oil booms and occasional masts of boat skeletons sticking out of the water, was Beightol's home.

Math teacher Hector Lopez during a lull in his Miami Edison classroom
Jacqueline Carini
Math teacher Hector Lopez during a lull in his Miami Edison classroom
Lopez struggles to inspire his students under constant FCAT pressure
Jacqueline Carini
Lopez struggles to inspire his students under constant FCAT pressure

The 40-foot wooden Taiwanese sailboat Beightol lives on is anchored amid a phantom community of mostly derelict boats inhabited only by the occasional pelican. A solar cell and a gas generator supply energy when needed, but there's no refrigerator and the stove gets little use. A paperback copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude lay open on a small table in the galley. Briefly thumbing through the book, Beightol sighed. "It's amazing, man."

The boat — cramped with boxes of food stacked on shelves and under tables, and clothes hanging from the ceiling — shows its 30 years. The paint has worn down in most places, and Beightol has been forced to tear out rotting plywood and do homemade fiberglass patch jobs. Sitting on the deck in a sun-bleached canvas folding chair, he was still for the first time all day. Between sips of Coke, he recalled Christmases past and a childhood filled with wonder.

The oldest boy of five children, Beightol grew up in Apollo Beach, a small town south of Tampa, hiding out in tree forts in the woods behind his family's home, building telescopes from kits, and attending Baptist church three or four times a week.

His father scraped money together by fishing for mullet, working construction jobs, and, occasionally, selling marijuana out of his van. To make ends meet beyond monthly welfare checks, Beightol's mother cleaned houses most days, dropping her children off at the library for the bulk of the day on weekends. Beightol devoured books about weather and astronomy, chemicals and space travel. "I was always a geek. I was a science fiend."

Beightol's younger brother, Neal, remembers it a little differently. Far from a geek, Shawn was a burly kid with limitless energy and curiosity, Neal said recently. Shawn was always up early, first to fix any piece of machinery — "he was the problem solver" — constantly messing around with chemicals, experimenting on the fly. Neal, a dermatologist in Naples, recalled coming back from elementary school one day to find his big brother, home sick from third grade, electroplating pennies with a contraption he had jerry-rigged in the family fish tank. "Somehow he had heard about electroplating."

When Beightol was twelve years old, his parents divorced and his father all but disappeared, marrying a Creole woman and setting out cross-country. Beightol last saw his father eight years ago when they met up in the desert outside Las Vegas. "As far as I know, he's panning for gold in Utah." Beightol turned to his teachers for inspiration. He worshipped some of them, like Ms. Colding, the first-grade teacher who taught him how to spell. There were Ms. Lump, who kept a blue jay in her third-grade classroom, and Mr. Moore, the high school algebra teacher who helped Beightol go from a C to an A in math. "They all inspired me in different ways."

In seventh grade, Beightol fell madly in love. The girl's apparent lack of reciprocation didn't dissuade him from pursuing her to private school when she transferred. Without the money to pay tuition, the thirteen-year-old Beightol persuaded the school's headmaster to admit him in exchange for a few hours of scrubbing buses and mopping classrooms each day. "I'm such a romantic sop."

Without a plan after high school, Beightol figured he'd join the navy. A chance encounter with a dean at the former Miami Christian College changed everything. Armed with a full academic scholarship, Beightol set out for Miami, his first visit to a big city. "I jumped in a Camaro with $100 and a suitcase."

He didn't exactly make an ideal seminarian. Intellectually querulous, Beightol refused to sign a document swearing off various temptations, including drinking. He cited Proverb 31 in his defense: "Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish." He was seen as a rebel and placed under special supervision. At his ordination, he wore a wrinkled suit and boat shoes without socks.

During his time at Miami Christian, Beightol attended weekend Bible studies at Central Alliance Church on 106th Street. He became a missionary in Liberty City, working with kids making the transition from juvenile detention back to inner city life. Beightol's intense earnestness could be overwhelming, said Jack Edwards, a former elder at Central Alliance. "He would sometimes take over in [Bible] class and I would have to slow him down," Edwards remembered. But his energy meshed with the troubled teenagers. "He just sort of had a gift where he could speak to kids and bring something out of them," Edwards said. "He was always one for the underdog."

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