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C Student Who Makes the Grade : David Florey's Academic Victory Attracts the Media

May 01, 1987|LARRY GORDON and JEANNINE STEIN | Times Staff Writers

David Florey opens the door to his apartment at 3 p.m. and blinks into the sunlight. After being followed by a camera crew all morning, the 17-year-old John Marshall High School senior has taken refuge at home.

"I had to get away from school for a while," he says, explaining his disappearance.

Florey, a senior, achieved instant stardom when his team from Marshall took first place at the U.S. Academic Decathlon in Dallas this week and Florey as an individual scored highest among the nearly 400 students from around the country. Since then he's been a media star and even Joan Rivers called to say, "Can we talk?"

'He's a Free Spirit'

But earlier that day Florey was nowhere to be found on the 3,000-student Los Feliz campus. The NBC news crew that had him wired for sound and dogged his every move for half the day is gone, and so is Florey. "He's a free spirit," principal Donald Hahn said with a grin and a shrug. "That's why he's good."

Some say he's an unlikely candidate for celebrity status, this 17-year-old nonconformist who sports a small silver hoop in his left ear, hates to wear shoes, runs track, writes poetry, was glad he wasn't born rich ("I like to strive a little"), practices martial arts, is openly critical of school regimen and is cynical about America's political system.

Florey is undeniably smart, although his grades haven't always reflected that. Last year, he pulled a C average, making him a valuable catch for the Marshall decathlon team. According to the rules, a team must have two students each from the A, B and C grade level. And very smart C's are hard to find, especially one like Florey, whose competition scores kept improving through the grueling months of city, state and national testing.

This year Florey found motivation through the team and its coach, David Tokofsky, and has brought his grade average at Marshall up to an A-minus (3.8). Yet Florey and his team are proud of the fact that they are not a bunch of unathletic nerds. ("A 4.0 geek could not get on this team," he once said.) Several team members are varsity athletes as well as being decathlon scholars. Florey is a track hurdler, and his tightly muscled body shows it.

But now he is missing. He's not in his fifth period advanced placement government class, where Tokofsky is discussing next week's exam. The classroom reflects Tokofsky's unconventional wisdom: Pictures of the presidents line the walls and in one corner is a rowing machine, an exercise bicycle and a trampoline where students can work out their frustrations. "We like to sweat while we're studying," explains Matthew Elstein, a B-grade decathlon team member who, like Florey, won a $5,000 scholarship at the national finals.

'He's Philosophical'

Tokofsky is confident that Florey will show up in class. Asked what all this fame might do to the 17-year-old, he said, "Dave won't pull his roots out of the ground. His feet are not in the air, they're on the ground. And they're going to be on the ground next to the team. He knows who he is, and he'll never let anyone else define him. He goes right to the heart of the something. He's philosophical and practical, straightforward and honest. Any university professor would give his right arm to have him in class.

"David's the kind of kid," he added, "who, when the teacher asks if there are any other questions, will raise his hand and say, 'Yeah, why are we here?' "

According to assistant decathlon coach Ann Choi-Rho, Florey was often late for her first period modern European history class. That never bothered her, even when he'd eat his breakfast in class, an idiosyncrasy that got him into trouble with some of the other teachers.

After this class comes a meeting of the decathlon team, and Florey is a no-show. An ABC news crew is looking for him. Elstein offers to show the way to Florey's house, across the street from campus. "He's the only guy I know," Elstein said, "who lives right across from school and is always late."

Florey and girlfriend Stephanie Shelton, a fellow decathlon teammate, are cleaning up the remnants of their Mexican food lunch. Florey is wearing a Live Aid T-shirt, black sweat pants and no shoes and says he really doesn't mind the intrusion.

Cache of Gold Medals

A photographer snaps pictures of Florey in his room, littered with school papers, books ("Light in August"), clothes and barbells. Someone mentions that with his cache of gold medals he could be the Mark Spitz of the academic world and Florey replies casually, "I have more than he does." He came home from the competition in Texas with 11.

Florey seems to look at the world with amused and even cynical eyes. At times he may look like a party animal. But in quieter, more private moments he appears to be more introspective and moody than others his age. He has been known to slip away from the team pressures for a solo walk in nearby Griffith Park. ("I like to go somewhere where there are no people," he said during a final studying bout. "Trees never lie to you.")

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