Valencia’s founders faced closed doors and closed minds, but persevered to create a college for the community.
When Valencia Junior College opened its doors in 1967, in 20 portable classrooms set in a field behind Mid-Florida Tech, not many would have bet on its future.
From the moment that legislators in Tallahassee began drawing up plans for a network of community colleges across the state, Orlando’s power brokers strongly opposed the idea of a public community college in their backyard. And while other community colleges began popping up—and were straining from their growing enrollments—Orlando had none.
There was no need for a community college, said Valencia’s opponents, who preferred to support Orlando Junior College (OJC), an existing private college (located on the grounds of what is now Lake Highland Preparatory School) that was only open “for white Christians.” Community leaders also argued that a new community college might siphon state funds away from a proposed state university in Orlando—which would become the University of Central Florida.
But the times—and Central Florida—were changing. While debate about a community college raged—one that would be open to students of any race or religion—Orlando was poised at an intersection, about to embark on a decade of great change.
Once a sleepy citrus town, Orlando 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 booming population—along with massive growth throughout the state—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 admission standards. Suddenly, many prospective college students couldn’t get in the front door of their
To cope with this growth, more than a dozen community colleges opened across Florida in the 1960s—yet Valencia was among the last to open because many of Orlando’s power brokers objected to a junior college that was open to all students, regardless of race or religion.
For more than six years, from 1961 to 1967, a political battle ensued — as many of the city’s power brokers 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 waged a six-year campaign for a community college in Orlando, often reading editorials on the air and urging viewers to start a letter-writing campaign to the governor and state legislators.
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, statewide, community colleges were growing dramatically.
As the debate about Valencia raged, Martin Company officials grew frustrated. Aside from the engineering jobs—which often went to engineers trained out of state—Martin was forced to hire technicians from outside the Orlando area too, because there was no technical training available locally. At one point, Martin offered Orlando Junior College $1 million to add technical training classes—and open its college to black 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, the local school board finally acquiesced.
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.”
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, August 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,” 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.”
Indeed, in Valencia’s early years, many black college-bound students bypassed Valencia for Florida A&M University or Bethune-Cookman 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. Former state representative Alzo Reddick was also hired during that time to focus on recruitment and retention of African-American students.
At Valencia, there were many uphill battles. And in the beginning, even choosing a name for the college was tough.
Naming it Orlando Community College was out of the question, 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 none impressed them like Dr. Albert Craig, then executive vice president of St. Petersburg 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 in six months.
The small team of administrators—who still had families and houses in St. Petersburg—rented an apartment on Colonial Drive and spent many evenings planning the college around the small kitchen table. Among them was Jim Gollattscheck, who started 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 used 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.
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.
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 at Orange County high 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, which had
just opened, and the New College in Sarasota,” recalls Julia Ribley, who was hired in 1969 to join Valencia’s counseling department.
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 enroll at 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 in a poor Orlo Vista family, began to explore politics and student government. “My family wasn’t politically active. My first interest in politics was sparked at Valencia,” says Batchelor.
For others, Valencia provided a taste of culture. During the first few years, the college gave students tickets to traveling Broadway shows—and, in 1969, the college paid a Boston-based opera group to come to Orlando to perform “La Traviata” at the Orlando Municipal Auditorium and opened the event to the community. “Students served as ushers,” recalled 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, sports teams played and practiced all over Orlando. Baseball games were held at Tinker Field in downtown Orlando; basketball games were played at Evans High School and other nearby 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.
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.
“Valencia gives students an opportunity to get a quality education close to home,” says Melnick, who started teaching 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.”
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.
Today 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.”