Member of Flagler's founding class celebrates the College's inspiring story of transformation
Aug 18, 2023
by Nancy Moreland
Alone and barely out of high school, Kathryn Trillas ‘72 took a bus from New York City to St. Augustine to begin her Flagler journey among the College’s founding class of students.
“Where Georgie’s Diner is today, was the bus station where I got off,” Trillas said. “I dragged my suitcase down the street from there to Flagler College.”
Entering her dorm room for the first time, Trillas discovered the magical character of the former Hotel Ponce de Leon.
“All the hotel furnishings, heavy drapes, and wallpaper were still there,” she said.
As for classrooms, there were only a total of five when Trillas arrived. But since she graduated in 1972, Trillas has seen the College progress from a newly developing institution into a regionally top-ranked, accredited college.
It’s an inspiring story of transformation that Trillas couldn’t have predicted when she stepped off that bus. It’s a story in which she, and other founding students, played a pivotal role. Years later, Trillas continues to play an important role today as a generous donor. Her financial support creates opportunities for generations of students to come.
From a big city to a small town
As a college-bound teen living in New York, Kathryn visited a “college search agency” where she received brochures on three small liberal arts colleges, one of which was Flagler.
“My mother didn’t want me to get lost in a big city college, so I chose Flagler,” Trillas said. “St. Augustine was a natural choice since my parents were history lovers.”
Her choice was a wise one. Young Flagler College went on to be accredited in 1973, just one year after Trillas graduated, and continued it trajectory of growth. But the other liberal arts colleges she was initially recommended did not hold the same fate.
“Within less than 10 years, the other two colleges in those brochures didn’t exist,” she said.
Reinventing the College
Flagler’s growth was not without an immense amount of effort from the College’s community.
Founded in 1968, the College was struggling financially by Trillas’ junior year in 1971. She remembers students meeting with David Redding, who acted as the College chaplain and pastor of Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church at the time.
“Two student representatives went to see Pastor Redding to get the College on track,” Trillas said.
According to “The First 50 Years of Flagler College,” Pastor Redding, the students, and Lawrence Lewis, Jr., “forged a path for the future of the College.”
Faculty and other members of the College community also voiced their concerns.
“They all had the same feeling,” Trillas said: the College needed significant support to stay afloat. Flagler could have become another failed attempt at higher education; instead, it took a decisive turn.
“Lawrence Lewis set up a proper trustee board and turned Flagler into a proper college,” Trillas said.
Lewis, the great-nephew of Henry Flagler, helped reorganize the College as a coeducational institution of higher education and served as chairman of the Board of Trustees for 20 years.
“We reinvented the College in my third year,” Trillas said. “Shortly after I graduated, Flagler became accredited, which allowed me to pursue a master’s degree at another institution.”
As a member of Flagler’s founding class, she emphasizes the “we” in the College’s reinvention story.
“In the beginning, it was all hands on deck,” she said. “We didn’t just go to class. We were always talking about the next thing to do. Everyone got involved. It’s still that way today.”
An Empowered Education
This hands-on approach to learning, life, and service stayed with Trillas after graduation.
“Flagler taught us how to be an adult and make things happen,” she said. “You got the feeling you could do things if you put your mind to it; that is why I did well in every job I had. Flagler gave you that gumption.”
Some of Trillas’s most treasured memories from her early time at Flagler involve the professors who defined the early academic experience.
“Professor Hugo Ohlms took us to the beach to learn to draw waves and taught us raku pottery using an old kiln the size of a house,” she said. “Professor Enzo Torcoletti arrived in my third year to teach sculpture. He was a skinny, long-haired hippie but very enthusiastic.”
Being a part of the College’s founding class was something Trillas and her peers savored as a uniquely exciting experience filled with many “firsts.”
“I toured the Lightner before it was even a museum with Dr. Robert Hall, the head of the Arts Department,” she said. “I had the feeling we were all experimenting and learning together.”
After receiving a master’s degree in library science, Trillas went on to work at the Smithsonian and Corcoran Museums in Washington, D.C. She eventually landed a job in the U.S. Patent Office and helped that agency open a London branch.
“Flagler was, and still is, a launching pad,” Trillas said.
A grateful alumna
Throughout her working and traveling years, Trillas never forgot her alma mater.
“It was always in my mind if I could do something to pay it back, I would,” she said. “When they started the Alumni Association, I joined and started giving small amounts annually.”
In 2007, she returned to Flagler for her 50th year class reunion, the first time she had been on campus since the 1970s.
During the last seven years as a federal employee, Trillas accumulated savings. Those hard-earned savings along with an inheritance allowed her to purchase a home in St. Augustine. She retired and moved back to Florida full-time in 2013. It was a full-circle moment as Trillas thought back to a commitment she made to herself during her last year at Flagler.
“I walked down to the pier and promised myself I’d try to get back to St. Augustine,” she said. “When I returned, it felt like I’d never been gone. It was a lovely place to be.”
Strengthening the Arts
Flagler College and the Lightner Museum are beneficiaries of Trillas’s IRA. She designated $75,000 of her IRA for Flagler’s Visual and Performing Arts Fund for Excellence. By supporting scholarships and program needs, the fund creates student opportunities and learning experiences outside the classroom that tuition and fees don't cover. Donors like Kathryn Trillas make that possible.
“Up until four or five years ago, there wasn’t much going on in Flagler theatre,” she said. “The recent Cinderella Theatre Gala was the most professional production I’ve ever seen, and I’ve attended theatre in New York, London, and D.C. You would never have known those were student actors. The faculty’s connections outside Flagler help the department and get students fired up.”
In addition to financial support, Trillas serves on the Visual and Performing Arts Board. She turns 75 this October and remains integral to Flagler’s transformation. She is grateful that students today receive the same encouragement she felt as a student.
“Look at what the graduates go and do,” Trillas said. “They are running major corporations. I remember Viv Helwig ’08, telling students, ‘Wherever you are, whatever you do, you have backup, you have the alumni.’” (Viv Helwig is founder and owner of Vested Metals in St. Augustine, and a member of the Alumni Board.)
Fortunately for students of today and tomorrow, Flagler College has backup from generous donors like Kathryn Trillas.
To build strong student programs at Flagler College, contact Mercedes Arensberg, director of Development and Family Engagement, at 904-819-6240 or MArensberg@flagler.edu.Tagged As