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By Lura Readle Scarpitti
Photos courtesy of Flagler College
The place was crumbling. There was a pervasive smell of mold wafting throughout the building. Paint was peeling off the walls. By 1960, the former glory of Henry Flagler’s gem, the Hotel Ponce de Leon, was barely recognizable in the state the building had fallen into.
But someone looked at this now-decaying, once-grand structure and said “This could house a college.” At the time, some people thought it was delusional. Today, with the success of the school that was eventually established, it can only be seen as visionary.
That believer, Lawrence Lewis, applied for a charter, which was granted in 1963. Five years later, Flagler College was founded as a four-year college for women. In 1971, Flagler became co-educational, a move which was desperately needed to keep the college alive by expanding its recruiting base. Dr. William Proctor was hired as President and the process of trying to make Flagler a serious institution of higher learning began in earnest.
As Dr. William Abare, who was hired by Dr. Proctor as Director and Dean of Admissions that same year, says, “I think you could characterize the first ten years as survival years. Considering all that we were up against, we were just fighting every day to stay alive.”
Abare continues, “I can’t say enough about the early students who came here before the renovation of Kenan Hall. Think about coming to a college that doesn’t have a library, real-looking classrooms, real-looking faculty offices, with dorm rooms that used be hotel rooms. Our faculty offices were bedrooms in houses scattered all over the place.”
Continuing in that vein, Abare asserts, “The second most important milestone in the history of the college was the renovation of Kenan Hall.”
Linda Bevilaqua Farber, a student who came to the small private college just 12 years after its founding, can attest to the veracity of that statement. She remembers what it was like before, and after, Kenan Hall was renovated.
“Classes were held in various buildings on campus. I even had a Spanish class on the second floor of the beautiful Markland building, in one of the old bedrooms. When the renovation of Kenan Hall began, we really didn’t know what to expect. I returned for my Junior year and walked into a state-of-the-art building with real classrooms and formal lecture halls. I immediately felt the thrill of being more academically focused. It was a thrill to have most of my classes in one wonderful building and to have lockers on the ground floor to store our things.”
That was 1982. 14 years after the founding of the college, the campus finally had a building with standard classrooms and faculty offices like a “real college.”
It’s as if that event, and the accreditation of the college in 1973 (which Dr. Abare calls “the most important event in the school’s history” because of the much-needed legitimacy it gave to the institution) set the stage for success which can only be described as astounding. Look at the numbers: the first graduating class numbered 35; this year, it was 577 (1983 was the first year that enrollment topped 1000). There were only 8 majors offered; today it’s 34, and the faculty has jumped from 17 in 1968, to 121 today (not including a multitude of dedicated staff). And now, with the addition of a Masters program in Deaf Education, the school is looking at establishing post graduate studies as well.
Intense dedication and focus on not just getting more students attending the school, but on improving the quality of the educational experience has made the difference. They’re not just throwing spaghetti at the wall. Back in the early ‘70s, Dr. Proctor hired William Abare because he knew that he was not only a top recruiter, but also a person who could take over the mantle when the time came and continue the mission of building something really special here in the city. He was right to believe so.
Abare took over as President in 2001 and every move he made in his tenure as head of the school was carefully planned to improve the college. From the decision to join the Division IIA Peach Belt Conference, significantly increasing the amount and quality of scholarship sports offered by the school (which was 0 in 1968 to 13 today); to increasing the endowment to over $50 million in 2015 (a substantial increase over the $4 million when the endowment was established in 1975); and continuing to expand and increase programs and majors offered in both number and quality, Abare left the school in far better shape than when he had first arrived 46 years earlier. Even the physical campus itself benefited greatly from Abare’s presidency. Over his 17 years in office, major renovations were undertaken and completed along with several new buildings constructed and older ones purchased, refurbished and repurposed. The once-former grand hotel is grand once again.
And it’s not just that, in only a 50-year span (a relative blink of an eye in the academic world), these extremely important numbers have skyrocketed. It’s also that the student body reflects a growth in quality and stature as well. The recent first place performance of the ENACTUS Team (an international student entrepreneurial organization) in 2017 is only one of the many things which show that this “little private school in St. Augustine” is making its mark in the academic world. On their way to the title, they beat out competition from much larger and more established institutions, including Florida State University — a competition standout for many years. And this is only one of the many ways Flagler has excelled in the arena of academic competition (see our milestone sidebar for more on this and other advancements over the school’s 50-year lifetime).
Flagler’s Alumni also reflect the school’s excellence. Martin Guntrip, the Secretary of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (think the place that Wimbledon is held each year) is a former Saint. Brad Brewer, a former touring player on the PGA Tour, and now a respected and trusted member of The Golf Channel, is too. Frank George, one of the three prosecutors in the Casey Anthony trial, got his undergraduate degree in History at Flagler before heading to Law School in Michigan. Closer to home, well-respected long-time St. Johns County Judge Chuck Tinlin has Flagler College listed on his resume, as does the Vice President of Communications for the PGA Tour, Laura O’Neal. Here in town, it seems like you can’t throw a rock without hitting a business owned by or influenced by someone with a degree from Flagler College hanging on their wall. Even this story that you are reading now, and the entire entire magazine itself, was laid out by Flagler alum Brian Hornung, who has been art director of Old City Life since Castaway Publishing, Inc took over the magazine in 2013.
50 years…it seems like such a short amount of time, especially when looking at what this “little school that could” and its alumni have done in those 18,250 days. It’s a success story like no other and, if the trend continues, it looks like the world will continue to be shaking its head in amazement for a long time to come. It’s exhilarating to think of what the next 50 years will bring.
Happy 50th Birthday, Flagler College! You’ve never looked better.