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Remembering the Early Years

Jan 4, 2019
by Tonya Creamer

Faculty and staff look back on the college’s beginning, and its strong sense of family

A student sits with Enzo Torcoletti for discussion in Ponce dining hall.

One of Robert Carberry’s earliest memories of Flagler College is a campus in “shambles.” The unaccredited, upstart college was in an attractive setting, with its terracotta tiles, ornate murals and the Spanish Renaissance architecture of the former Hotel Ponce de Leon.  

But the Ponce was also in need of major maintenance and restoration work, and the college that had only been open for two years was still unaccredited and suffering as much from termites as a need for new students.  

Carberry, who had been invited to interview as dean in 1970, also saw something else on his visit that would ultimately convince him to take the position: family.  

Memories were made together. Kids of faculty and staff were being raised alongside one another. Not only were the employees working together during the day, but socializing together on the weekends and after work. 

“If these people are here, then it must be worth staying,” Carberry told himself after meeting early faculty like Robert Hall, Phyllis Gibbs, and Tom and Jean Rahner, who like many others, became pivotal in the success of the college. “It clicked,” he said.  

The success of Flagler College over the past 50 years is often attributed to a sense of camaraderie and connection that existed between faculty, staff and even students from the very founding of the institution.  

Many, like now-retired Theatre Department Chair Phyllis Gibbs, spent their entire careers at the college.  

“The Flagler of old ... its faculty, administration and students all contributed to what is now a rich heritage and foundation on which rests the college of today,” said Gibbs, who spent 45 years at Flagler.   

The college was founded during rocky times. Theater professor Tom Rahner called it “the worst of times.” The year 1968 was a tumultuous one marked by war, race riots and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The fledgling college in St. Augustine, Florida, had its own hurdles to climb. But what others might have seen as insurmountable, Rahner and his colleagues saw as an opportunity.  

Many describe the decision to come to Flagler in those formative years as something akin to a calling: a mission to make something great out of nothing. Dr. Tom Graham, Professor Emeritus of History, also described it as naiveté. 

“A big element was ignorance” he said, noting many people didn’t even think to ask about the college’s accreditation status before signing on.  

For him, the alternative to working at Flagler was to acquire a teaching position in the junior state college system. “But here, you knew you were getting in on the ground floor of something,” he said, adding that he wanted to be a part of that. 

Current Chancellor and former President Dr. William L. Proctor, who joined the college in 1971 during its reorganization, had a similar sentiment: “Why did I do it? In my career I’ve learned you only take something at the bottom because there’s nowhere to go but up,” he said. 

Carberry stressed that there were definitely growing pains, whether it was the bumpy times that led up to the reorganization of the college in 1971 or the more basic need for adequate classrooms.  

“We all felt we were in the same boat and determined to make a success of the institution,” said Rahner. His stories of April Fool’s hijinks, where faculty switched classes to confuse students, bring to life the stories of a lighthearted and playful campus that made the hardships easier to bear.  

Graham remembered the excitement for new classroom space when Kenan Hall was finally opened. Rahner remembers cans used for lighting in the theater. Don Martin, retired professor of Fine Arts, recalled primitive facilities. He said that because of everyone’s perception of shared struggles, a spirit of ingenuity emerged to make things work.  

“Each year things got a little better,” he said.  

It also gave faculty the chance to work closely with students, fostering the college’s reputation for a personalized education focused on students.  

“We lived in the dorms, spent so much time with the students and we were very much a family ... eating together and participating in all events together,” said Gibbs. 

“The art studios were quite makeshift,” remembered sculptor and professor Enzo Torcoletti. “But the small number of students was a big deal to me, because it allowed for one-on-one teaching. So I was challenged and took the bait.” 

Graham admits that he was never “the warm and fuzzy type,” but he and other faculty took to heart a belief that personalized student attention, combined with showing a genuine interest, yielded a better student experience. 

And student experience was always the heart of Flagler’s mission. Carberry echoed that sentiment, reflecting on the general enthusiasm for launching a new college: “We were gonna’ sink or swim based on our own efforts.” 

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