50 Years of Better Tomorrows
The story of Valencia College, from a modest beginning to real, lasting impact in the Central Florida community.
Valencia College celebrates its 50th anniversary this year — marking five decades since the college opened its doors in 20 portables set up on a field on Oak Ridge Road.
Valencia has come far since those fledgling days — growing from 500 students to more than 60,000; from one makeshift campus to five campuses (with a sixth opening in August).
Yet despite the many changes, Valencia’s mission remains the same: To provide students with a quality education close to home — with small class sizes taught by master’s level instructors at a fraction of the cost of a private college or a public state university.
To understand how far Valencia has come, consider the times in 1967.
When Valencia Junior College opened its temporary campus, situated on a muddy parking lot at Mid-Florida Tech in 1967, Orlando was poised at an intersection — on the verge of great change. The city, once a sleepy citrus town, had begun to buzz with activity. In 1957, the Glenn L. Martin Company opened a missiles factory in Orlando, to fuel the space race at Kennedy Space Center, and soon dozens of subcontractors set up shop in Central Florida. In 1965, Walt Disney announced that he was planning to build Walt Disney World on the outskirts of Orlando, and the stage was set for a growth trajectory that today’s urban planners could only dream about.
Orlando’s mushrooming population — along with growth throughout the state of Florida — created both challenges and opportunities. With large numbers of Baby Boomers prepared to enroll in college, Florida’s state universities could not handle the swelling tide of freshmen and raised admissions standards to limit the number of students they would accept. Suddenly, many prospective college students couldn’t get in the front door of their state universities.
More than a dozen community colleges opened across Florida in the 1960s — yet Valencia was among the last to open because of many of Orlando’s power brokers objected to a junior college that was open to all students, regardless of race or religion.
Although the state legislature approved a plan to create a network of community colleges in 1957 — and approved plans for a white community college and black community college in Orange County as early as 1961 (neither of which got off the ground) — Valencia faced long odds and many delays.
That’s because many of the city’s most powerful people — led by Martin Andersen, publisher of the Orlando Morning Sentinel and the Orlando Evening Star newspapers — preferred to support Orlando Junior College, a private college “for white Christians” located near what is now Lake Highland Prep. Andersen and his supporters also argued that any new community college might siphon state funds away from their plans for a state university in Orlando — which would become Florida Technological University (now the University of Central Florida.)
For more than six years, from 1961 to 1967, a political battle ensued — as the newspaper publisher and the school board faced off against a handful of community members who believed Orlando needed a public community college. Those backing the new college included Martin Company officials and the owner and general manager of WFTV, Joseph Brechner.
Brechner, originally from Michigan, waged a six-year campaign for a community college in Orlando, often reading editorials on the air and, at one point, urging viewers to start a letter-writing campaign to state representatives and the governor.
Meanwhile, in Tallahassee, state education officials were exasperated by the logjam in Orlando, which they blamed on “local politics, short-sighted business leaders and a local newspaper.” While the power brokers in Orlando remained at an impasse, Brevard, Volusia and Lake counties had already started community colleges — and across the state, community colleges’ enrollments were growing 50 percent per year.
As the debate about Valencia raged, Martin Company officials were frustrated too. Aside from the engineering jobs — which often went to engineers trained out of state — Martin had to hire technicians from outside the Orlando area too, because there was no technical training available here. At one point, Martin offered the board of Orlando Junior College $1 million to add technical training classes — and open its college to black students and Jewish students. The OJC board refused.
Several factors finally broke the stalemate. When the Civil Rights Act of 1965 passed, OJC still refused to open its doors to minorities — and lost its eligibility to receive federal financial aid, a decision that crippled the college financially. Not long thereafter, the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce endorsed the idea of a public community college. And when new UCF President Charles Millican also backed the idea of a community college for Orange County — and Sentinel publisher Andersen sold the newspapers — the local school board finally acquiesced.
“It was a fact members of the Orange County School Board would commit political suicide if they voted in favor of a junior college because of the power Martin Andersen had in the community,” Ed Fallon said at the time. Fallon was a vice president at the Martin Company.
Finally, in December 1966, the Orange County School Board voted unanimously to open a public junior college in the fall of 1967.
“Valencia Community College had the longest gestation period of any of Florida’s public community colleges,” recalled Lee Henderson of the Florida Department of Education. “But I’ve often thought that maybe that wasn’t all bad, because when it finally came into being, it came as one of the best-planned and finest community colleges in the country.”
Opening the door for minorities
Until Valencia opened its doors in 1967, blacks who couldn’t afford to move to Tallahassee to attend Florida A&M University or to Daytona Beach to attend Bethune-Cookman College, both historically black colleges and universities, had little choice at home.
But many blacks in Orlando didn’t earn enough money to go away to school.
“There weren’t a lot of jobs for blacks in Orlando at that time. You worked for the post office or the military, but a number of (black) people worked for these families that were in power — and so you would hear the conversations at dinner. And it was no dark secret that there were those in leadership who did not want to see Valencia open,” recalled Reggie McGill, who began attending classes at Valencia in 1973. “That’s why the historically black colleges played such a major role. FAMU and Bethune-Cookman were the avenue to higher education in the early ’60s and before.”
Before Valencia opened in 1967, McGill recalled, his older sister wanted to attend nursing school. As a light-skinned African-American woman, she applied to Orlando Junior College, hoping the registrar wouldn’t realize she was black. But she was turned down — and instead had to drive to Brevard Community College every day.
For whites, Orlando Junior College may have been convenient, but it wasn’t cheap. In 1961, tuition was $450 a year, which state officials noted was four times the cost of Florida’s public community colleges. As a result, many white students were shut out too.
Although Valencia opened its classrooms to minorities from its first day, Aug. 21, 1967, the new community college struggled to attract African-American students at first. Orange County Public Schools hadn’t even fully integrated by that time — and many black students opted to go to college elsewhere.
“Those were really just the early days of integration. For perspective, I look back to when I went to the University of Florida (in 1958–1962), the only black in the entire school was one black man in law school. There was not another African-American student in the entire school,” recalls Don Shaw, former superintendent of Orange County schools, who grew up in Central Florida and later taught at Evans High School.
“I’m not sure how welcome (black students) may have felt in a school with all white students,” Shaw said. “They were transitioning through many, many decades of history. I’m sure many of them felt, ‘They say I’m welcome here, but I’m not sure I really am.’ “
And money was a factor. “There just weren’t that many job opportunities for African Americans at that time — certainly not many jobs that would provide enough income for college. Many were just barely making necessities. That fortunately has changed,” said Shaw.
Indeed, in Valencia’s early years, many black college-bound students bypassed Valencia for Florida A&M University or Bethune-Cookman College.
“Then — and now — there was a bias against community colleges in academia, and students were aware of that,” said Alzo Reddick, a former state senator who worked at Valencia in the 1980s. Black students, he said, were keenly aware that degrees from more established historically-black colleges were considered more prestigious than a degree from a community college.
But by 1970, black students formed Valencia’s Black Student Union. The college also offered a limited “Black Studies program,” including two classes on Afro-American history taught by Mrs. Fannie Butler. Almost 80 students signed up for the classes; the majority were white students.
And in 1971, the Black Advisory Committee held a community meeting at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church to teach minority students and their families about Valencia’s programs and degrees. More than 600 people attended.
Valencia continued to court black students, however, and hired several staffers to conduct outreach in the black community. In 1983, Geraldine Thompson launched Valencia’s College Reach Out Program to motivate minority students to plan for college. Reddick was also hired during that time to focus on recruitment and retention of African-American students. Among his achievements: Reddick helped negotiate a transfer agreement between Valencia and four prominent historically-black colleges: FAMU, Bethune-Cookman, Tuskegee Institute and Talladega University.
Assembling a Dream Team
At Valencia, there were many uphill battles. And in the beginning, even choosing a name for the college was tough.
“Orlando Junior College had been established for many years and was still in business. The idea of another O.J.C. could not be tolerated, but an Orange-Osceola Junior College (OOJC) would have been fatal,” wrote Orville Davis, former superintendent of Orange County Schools, in his book, “Orange County’s Good Fortune: Fifty+ Years of Junior College.”
“The idea of naming it for a type of orange was tested. Parson Brown, Hamlin or Pineapple did not seem quite appropriate, but Valencia quickly fell into place,” Davis wrote. “I scanned rosters of colleges in the United States and found none by that name. We were all pleased with this selection for the motif and the spirit that could be developed around the name ‘Valencia.’ ”
Meanwhile the school board interviewed candidates to be president of Valencia Junior College — but no one impressed them like Dr. Albert Craig, then executive vice president of St. Petersburg Junior College, which had in 1965 merged with predominantly African-American Gibbs Junior College. Before the interview, Craig had already assembled a “dream team” of administrators from St. Petersburg Junior College — people who could hit the ground running and help him build a community college from scratch in six months.
The small team of administrators — who still had families and houses in St. Petersburg — rented a bachelor apartment on Colonial Drive and spent many evenings planning the college around the small kitchen table. Among them was Jim Gollattscheck, who came on board as vice president of academic affairs and in 1970 became Valencia’s second president.
“We took catalogs from junior colleges around the state and would see who had the best description of a class — and use that. We copied and pasted and put together Valencia’s first catalog,” Gollattscheck recalls.
With only months before classes were scheduled to start, and no time to build a campus, Valencia officials borrowed an idea from Brevard Community College — and bought 20 new, air-conditioned portables, which were placed on the property of Mid-Florida Tech, on Oak Ridge Road.
Faculty members laughingly called it “Shoebox U,” says retired counselor Eugene Simmons.
Students and faculty didn’t mind the portables, but griped frequently about the parking lot — which was never paved. After a heavy rainstorm, it turned a swampy, muddy mess.
Valencia officials couldn’t pave the parking lot because they would be moving in less than three years. “It’s a field. Everybody knows it’s a field and it will always be a field,” James Kellerman, then dean of student affairs, told the student newspaper. “But we will try to make it a nice field.”
In the classroom, some of the professors weren’t much older than the students.
“I was just a young whippersnapper. I was 23. Some of the students were older than I was,” recalled Professor Stanley Melnick, who’d earned his master’s degree from Florida State University and worked for the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., before getting hired at Valencia in 1968. “I wanted to look older, so I grew a beard to look older.”
Many of the faculty members had been recruited from master’s degree programs throughout the state — or were established teachers from Orange County Public Schools. “I was part of a caravan of graduate students from FSU who went visiting the new colleges and universities throughout the state. We visited Valencia and UCF [then Florida Technological University], which had just opened, and the New College in Sarasota,” recalls Julia Ribley, who was hired in 1969 to join Valencia’s counseling department.
An experiment for students and faculty
When Valencia opened in August 1967, many students were unaware of the political tensions that had been simmering behind the scenes. Dick Batchelor had grown up in Orlando and attended Evans High School. When he returned to Orlando in 1968 after serving with the Marines in Vietnam, he went to OJC with his G.I. Bill benefits. But when he learned the college didn’t admit blacks, he walked out.
At Valencia, he — like many students — found his voice. Batchelor, who’d grown up as a poor kid in Orlo Vista, began to explore politics and student government. “My family wasn’t politically active. My first interest in politics was sparked at Valencia,” says Batchelor.
On campus, Batchelor initially joined the pro-Vietnam veterans — a sizable contingent, as veterans on the G.I. Bill constituted about one-third of the student body, according to the school paper. But over time, Batchelor’s attitudes about the war would change — and he joined the anti-war forces on campus. In 1969, he organized Valencia’s first Earth Day celebration.
“I remember another professor telling me, ‘Watch this young man, he’s going places in politics,’” recalls former Valencia professor Susan MacManus, now a University of South Florida political science professor and political analyst for National Public Radio. “When he told me that, I kept my eye on Dick Batchelor. We’ve always remained friends over the years. He went on to be a commentator and I went on to become an analyst.”
Batchelor was active in Valencia’s student government association and later helped organize Young Democrats clubs at Valencia, Seminole State, Stetson and UCF. In 1974, at age 26, he ran for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives and won with two-thirds of the vote, becoming one of the youngest individuals to ever serve in the statehouse.
For others, Valencia provided a taste of culture. During the first few years, the college provided students with tickets to traveling Broadway shows — and, in 1969, the college paid a Boston-based opera group to Orlando to perform “La Traviata” at the Orlando Municipal Auditorium and opened the event to the community. “Students served as ushers,” recalled Eugene Simmons, who was head of the counseling department. “And many of them had never seen an opera or been to the theater.”
With no real campus, in the beginning the sports teams played and practiced all over town. Baseball games were held at Tinker Field in downtown Orlando, basketball games were played at Evans High School and other nearby high schools. Students took golf lessons at a golf course on Oak Ridge Road; students taking bowling classes met at a bowling alley on Orange Blossom Trail and archery was taught in the college parking lot.
“It was small and everybody wore more than one hat,” recalls Ribley. “But our mission was the same. The mission has always remained the same…And the beauty to me is, we offer a second chance and a third chance and sometimes that’s what it takes for people to succeed.”
For early faculty members, and the first students, the community college was an experiment. But for the generations of students who have come since, Valencia has been a pioneering college — dedicated to serving students.
In 2001, Time Magazine named Valencia one of the nation’s best schools at helping first-year students excel. In 2007, the New York Times named Valencia one of the best community colleges in the nation. And in 2011, Valencia was the first to win the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.
“Valencia gives students an opportunity to get a quality education close to home,” says Dr. Stanley Melnick, who started at Valencia in 1968 and retired in 2004 — and still teaches as an adjunct. “I still believe that the professors here at the college were just as good or better at teaching — or teaching in the classroom — than going off to a university and getting graduate students teaching. It’s a quality education.
“Everybody has an opportunity to do well. That’s what Valencia offers. It doesn’t mean everyone’s going to do well. But everyone has the opportunity to do well.”
And Valencia was determined — in the beginning, just as today — to give everyone a chance to attend college. When Valencia opened its doors, students from every background walked through them, including those historically overlooked and excluded by traditional higher education. Today, Valencia continues to open the doors of opportunity to Orlando’s growing and changing multicultural community — last year, 51 percent of Valencia graduates were minority students. And the college continues to be a champion of innovation, just as it was in the beginning.
“Great institutions don’t just happen; they are intentionally and carefully built,” says Sandy Shugart, who has served as Valencia’s president since 2000. “I am continually moved by the importance of the individual contributions of many, many people to founding, building and nourishing Valencia. None of the founders had anything to gain personally from the creation of Valencia, but they were willing to suffer public controversy and invest thousands of hours of personal time to bring the vision to fruition.”
Today, just as in 1967, Valencia stands again on the precipice of generational and societal change. At Valencia, the college’s faculty and staff continue working to change Central Florida for the better.
“We are focused on looking forward, not looking back,” says Shugart. “We want to transform Central Florida into an engine of opportunity, by raising educational levels and training for everyone on the income ladder. We are looking ahead to this exciting new chapter in Valencia’s history, as we demonstrate our heart and our character — and the change we can achieve.”
Our students tell our story better than we ever could. If Valencia College has played a part in your life, share this anniversary video as we celebrate 50 years of Better Tomorrows.