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Built on determination

By Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler, Times Staff Writer
Published February 20, 2008


Eckerd College: the 50th anniversary

ST. PETERSBURG - Plenty of people thought the college's founders were just plain naive. To start a Presbyterian college from scratch, after two other attempts had failed? And at a time when the state was investing millions in new public institutions? But the men who established the liberal arts institution eventually named Eckerd had faith and determination. They envisioned a college that would be innovative and daring in its approach. "My idea of a vision is, you don't know the way, but you know you're going to go for it," said founding admissions director Tom West, 82, who still teaches there. "That's what we did. None of us had ever done what we were called to do here. So we all came not with a whole lot of baggage, we just came with an idea of, 'Let's make it work.' I think we worked well together because we were kind of naive." First president William Kadel literally prayed inside his office closet when the bills came due those first years, asking the good Lord to bless the college with a timely donation or two. Eckerd never missed a payroll.

West spent the year before inaugural classes touring the state in search of students. He found 155.

Kadel famously asked his secretary on his first day at the helm, "What do you think we should do first?" Her reply was practical, and indicative of the uncharted, sometimes bumpy road ahead: "I guess I'll go out and buy some pencils and paper."

Half a century later, current president Donald Eastman III is kicking off a year of activities to honor Eckerd's past and celebrate its potential.

The college now has more than 1,800 students who enjoy a unique curriculum that emphasizes international study and lifelong mentoring relationships with the faculty. Finances are stable after a 2000 endowment scandal that ended the tenure of longtime president Peter Armacost. A record $25-million donation, a 2006 gift from trustee Miles C. Collier and his wife, has Eckerd administrators planning academic and physical improvements for the institution. Meanwhile, the college continues to raise money through a $75-million capital campaign.

"We're stronger than we've ever been," Eastman said. "We're not thinking, 'Are we shaky?' or 'Are we going to make it?' Now it's, 'Are we going to be smart enough to use our position to move into the top ranks of liberal arts colleges?'"

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3403.

Then and now 

Full-time students: 151 vs. 1,806

Faculty: 22 vs. 113

Location: On 141 acres on Bayboro Harbor in downtown St. Petersburg vs. 188 acres on Boca Ciega Bay off of 54th Avenue South, plus four remote locations in Palm Harbor, Sarasota, Seminole and Tampa.

Cost to attend: About $1,500 a year for tuition, room and board vs. $37,474.

Degree programs: 18 vs. 39

Students who are Florida residents: 74 percent vs. 25 percent.

Endowment: $0 vs. $28-million

Clubs/student groups: 17 vs. 79

Key dates

June 19, 1958: William Kadel is named first president of Florida Presbyterian College.

1977: Following a few years of declining enrollment and faculty departures, second president Billy Wireman, president since 1968, resigns and is soon replaced by Peter Armacost.

2000: Armacost resigns following a scandal over unauthorized spending of a majority of Eckerd's $34-million endowment.

March 20, 2001: Donald Eastman III is named Eckerd's fourth president.

May 20, 2006: Eckerd receives $25-million from trustees chairman Miles C. Collier and his wife, the largest gift in Eckerd history.

Defining moments

Fall 1960: Classes begin for 155 freshmen and 22 faculty members in downtown St. Petersburg.

Summer 1962: The faculty resigned in protest, after trustees voted not to admit the college's first black student.

June 11, 1971: Board of trustees member and alumnus Jack Eckerd, founder of the drugstore chain, donates $10-million - the largest gift to that date.

1987:U.S. News & World Report names Eckerd one of the five most innovative colleges in America.

July 2006: Eckerd is one of 40 liberal arts colleges profiled in Loren Pope's Colleges That Change Lives.

Celebrations planned for the year

Thursday, 7 p.m., McArthur Gymnasium: Opening convocation with keynote speaker Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate

March 5, 7 p.m., McArthur Gymnasium: "Gloria Steinem and Friends." The feminist activist who first spoke at Eckerd in 1971 joins Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner in a discussion. $5 for alumni, $10 for public.

April 15, time to be determined, Galbraith Marine Science Laboratory: Celebration marking the lab's 15th anniversary, and the marine science program's popularity and success.

May 1, 6:30 p.m., Tribeca Grill, New York: Eckerd alumni celebrate the anniversary in conjunction with Tribeca Film Festival.

Sept. 13: "50 Parties Around the World" - Alumni chapters from Seattle to London will have parties.

Nov. 14-16: "50th Extravaganza Weekend" - includes a golf tournament, alumni awards celebration and Eckerd's capital campaign kickoff.