It happened more than 60 years ago, but Richard Knott will never forget the day his economics class was held outside.
“I was leaning up against a huge tree and when I thought [the professor] wasn’t looking my way, I snuck around to the back of the tree and was totally out of sight,” the 1950 Rollins College graduate said.
It was there Knott promptly fell asleep, unaware of whom would be the one to wake him from his slumber on Mills Lawn.
“I was snoozing away peacefully and all of the sudden I felt this big weight on my chest and I woke up and I looked up and there was Dr. Hamilton Holt, our school president.”
With Holt’s right foot planted firmly on his chest, Knott wasn’t sure what to do next.
“I looked up at him and he looked down at me and he said to me, ‘Now this is what I like to see, a Rollins student who is not letting his studies interfere with his education.’”
Holt’s methods weren’t typical, but neither was the school he ran from 1925 to 1949.
It might be hard to believe, but it’s been 125 years since Rollins, Florida’s oldest college, first opened the doors to its campus that sits on the shores of Lake Virginia in Winter Park.
According to Rollins’ archives, it all started when Lucy Cross, the founder of the Daytona Institute for Young Women and member of the Congregational Church, decided she wanted a higher learning institution in the Central Florida region. With hope in her heart and an idea in her mind, she constructed a proposal that her pastor, Rev. C. M. Bingham, who shared her dream, would read at the first annual meeting of the Florida Congregational Association, which was held in Winter Park in 1884.
“It was sort of sponsored by the Congregational Church,” said Bobby Davis, history major and graduate of the class of 1982. “And yet from the very beginning, unlike Florida Southern and some other schools that were also founded by churches, [Rollins] maintained independence.”
After additional meetings, Dr. Edward Payson Hooker, the pastor of the newly formed Winter Park Congregational Church, and former Minneapolis business and civic leader Frederick W. Lyman, who had retired to Winter Park in 1882, outbid other cities for the future school. Much of their success was owed to Chicago industrialist Alonzo W. Rollins, who donated $50,000 in cash and real estate, which led to the school being named in his honor.
Rollins began with hopes of providing higher education for its Floridian residents as well as people from up north, who might want to spend some time in the sunshine.
“They came here for health reasons — the warmer climate brought them here,” said Rollins College Archives Specialist Gertrude F. Laframboise. “Unfortunately in the late 1800s, we had a freeze and most of these people had groves and lost everything and went back up.”
The campus grows
The beautiful 60-acre campus that students stroll through today was not where the first class of students spent their first term. The only original building that still remains is Pinehurst, which was first built in 1886 and deemed a historical landmark in 1985. Pinehurst has since undergone award-winning historical renovations.
At its opening, classes at Rollins were held in the Congregational Church, and then in White’s Hall, an unfinished loft above Ergood’s store. The second term of that year was when students began attending class where the campus is situated today.
The college might have been small compared to its northern counterparts, but with its lakeside location in the Sunshine State, numerous great professors were drawn to the campus. Many were from the north and had already developed a habit of vacationing in Florida.
“Rollins has always been able to, it seems like, attract scholars whose first love is teaching,” said Dr. Gordon E. Howell, Associate Professor of Physical Education and holder of the Raymond W. Greene Chair of Physical Education. “It’s been the people that make this college.”
Studies and socials
The college’s earlier curriculums were loaded with studies of the ancient languages of Latin and Greek. Professors even managed to incorporate the classics into their physical education classes by having students wear togas and practice Greek sculpture poses.
Despite an academically rigorous schedule, Rollins afforded their students many social opportunities. Faculty and students alike enjoyed spending time at the Pelican, the college’s beach house located in New Smyrna Beach.
Alumna Cathy Susko, who graduated in 1976 with an art history degree, remembers the fun times she had at the school, even though the Pelican was no longer around.
“We kind of made our own social opportunities. I remember we used to go to the beach all the time,” Susko said. “We also used to go out into the orange groves to have parties. I never even knew who owned those groves.”
In its 125 years, Rollins has faced adverse situations that affected the country as a whole and nearly brought the school to its end. The school saw tough times during the Spanish-American War and World War I, but thanks to the work of various financially sound and progressive thinking presidents, such as Holt, the school was able to remain solid and continues to thrive today.
“We’re ranked very high in the south and nationally. That in itself is a testimonial to what people should know about Rollins,” said Howell. “We’re bragging for every reason that’s right.”
Up next week: A look at present-day Rollins College
The Founder’s Day procession kicks off Rollins’ 125th anniversary celebration Thursday, Nov. 4 beginning at 8:30 a.m. at Winter Park City Hall, 401 S. Park Ave. in Winter Park.
The procession will head south on Park
Avenue and end at Alfond Sports Center in Rollins
College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park.