Former UF president dies at 85
By Times staff and wire reports
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- Stephen C. O'Connell, who sat on the state Supreme Court before serving as president of the University of Florida during the most turbulent years of its history, died Friday. He was 85.
A heavy smoker all his life, Mr. O'Connell suffered from lung cancer.
"Under his steady and skillful leadership, this institution rose to national prominence during turbulent times in our country's history," UF President Charles Young said.
"Today our state and our people honor the passing of a great jurist, a great leader and a great Floridian," said Gov. Jeb Bush.
Mr. O'Connell spent 12 years on Florida's high court, the last 10 as chief justice, while the state was struggling with integration. He was a member of the Supreme Court in 1957 when it decided against allowing a black man, Virgil Hawkins, into the University of Florida's law school.
Mr. O'Connell moved to the University of Florida on Sept. 1, 1967, at the beginning of student unrest associated with the Vietnam War.
Mr. O'Connell was seen by many as a law-and-order fix for the turbulence.
"He was faced with the dual dilemmas of a mushrooming protest against the Vietnam War and a growing fervor over civil rights," said Ron Sachs, who was editor of the student newspaper, The Alligator.
In 1971, nearly 70 angry blacks stormed Mr. O'Connell's office complaining about what they felt was discrimination. He had them all arrested.
Three years earlier, Mr. O'Connell balked at black efforts to stop playing Dixie at Florida games. He told reporters that students could "play it, sing it, whistle it or hum it."
His six years at the university included 15 months of controversy surrounding the student newspaper, The Alligator. It began in October 1971, when the newspaper published against state law a list of abortion referral services.
When Mr. O'Connell was told by the state attorney general that he lacked the power of prior censorship, he began moves that launched The Independent Florida Alligator in 1973.
After leaving the university presidency in 1973, Mr. O'Connell returned to Tallahassee, where he culminated his long career in a new role as a bank president and spent time on his farm, Turkey Roost.
"It is our plan to begin living a different kind of life," Mr. O'Connell said when he retired from the university at age 57. "To do those things we have put off ... to build that raft and float down the Suwannee River."
The O'Connell Center, home of Gator basketball and swimming on Florida's campus, was named after him.
Mr. O'Connell, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Leroy Collins in 1955, began his political career as student body president at the University of Florida in 1938-39. He later became a confidant and adviser to several governors.
Former Gov. Collins, in a column in the St. Petersburg Times in 1987, said of Mr. O'Connell:
"He came to personify to me what I liked to find in all our people: a keen mind, a love of God and country, sterling character and integrity, compassion, a respect for the rights of all people and a new vision of what our state could become. All these values were reflected by him, with a personality of rare and sparkling wit and endearing charm."
A Democrat, Mr. O'Connell was trusted by the members of both political parties.
Stephen Cornelius O'Connell was born Jan. 22, 1916, at West Palm Beach, one of five boys and two girls in the family of Nora and Daniel O'Connell. One of his brothers, Philip, was state attorney in Palm Beach County.
After attending public schools in Titusville and West Palm Beach, he enrolled in 1934 at the University of Florida.
A champion middleweight boxer in college, Mr. O'Connell earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and a law degree from Florida. He served in the Army Air Forces from 1941 through the end of World War II in the Pacific. He left the service with the rank of major.
Survivors include his wife, Cindy, and three of the four children he and his late wife, Rita, adopted. Arrangements announced Friday included a viewing in the rotunda of the Florida Supreme Court building on Tuesday from 2 to 5 p.m. The funeral is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Blessed Sacrament Church in Tallahassee.
- Times Obituaries Editor Craig Basse and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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From the Times state desk
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