TAMPA - They're called the Big Eight, a group of professors at the University of South Florida's School of Art and Art History that, among its members, has about 300 years' worth of teaching time. And the whole group is retiring.
"This group is among the very first faculty in the art department," said Wallace Wilson, director of the school. "They founded the place and have seen it to its current place."
The group - Alan Eaker, Diane Elmeer, Charles Fager, Robert Gelinas, Jeffrey Kronsnoble, Mernet Larsen, Bruce Marsh and Theo Wujcik - was feted May 23 at a special event in the theater of the Tampa campus with family, friends and colleagues. Among the former students and faculty members who participated was Harrison Covington, longtime dean of the College of Fine Arts who hired many of the professors and retired in 1982.
The exodus isn't what it seems. Some, such Fager and Gelinas, already have retired, and Kronsnoble and Eaker have chosen a "phased" retirement, meaning they will teach for a few more semesters.
"But with all the folderol organized," Wilson said, "we decided to throw in everyone and take care of the big show all at once."
For most, he said, "the financial incentives (to retire) are significant" because of the state Deferred Retirement Option Program. It allows veteran state employees to declare their retirement and remain at work while the state invests the equivalent of their retirement payments for up to five years. When they retire, they receive those savings with interest.
The vacuum at USF has created an opportunity, and a challenge, to reshape the visual arts program, which is losing all its painting teachers, Wilson said.
"The most obvious change will be new and different directions," he said. "In general, we'll replace them with the same type of teacher, beefing up photography and electronic digital media, which reflects art today. It's been painter-heavy, which made sense 35 years ago. There will still be an emphasis on skills development at the undergraduate level."
New hires include two painting professors, a photographer and a ceramicist, and Wilson anticipates hiring another painter and probably a sculptor.
Kronsnoble, whom Covington hired in 1963, three years after the arts program was established, already spends a good part of the year at a home in Georgia he shares with his wife, Jeanne, an authority on folk art. He'll continue to paint. Like many of the faculty, his work is prized by local collectors and is part of the permanent collections of several museums.
In retirement, Kronsnoble also will "play golf and cook," he said.
Of the collective retirement, Wilson said, "This probably won't happen again. I have such respect for these people."