EarlyCampusAgain

The Rollins campus in the l890s was built around what is now Mills Lawn. An early catalog touted the college’s studious environment, describing Winter Park as “a community of unusual culture, being without saloons and other places of doubtful amusement.”

When Thaddeus Seymour Insists that Rollins College is the oldest institution of higher learning in Florida, few argue. First of all, Seymour stands 6-foot-6 and, despite his 82 years, remains an imposing presence. Apart from that, Seymour, a gentle giant who was president of Rollins from 1978 to 1990, has done his homework.

When Rollins celebrated its centennial in 1985, Seymour was surprised to learn that Stetson University had marked its 100th year in 1983, which would have made Rollins the state’s second-oldest college. Seymour was having none of it. “I discovered that Stetson was founded as the DeLand Academy in 1883,” says Seymour, now a president emeritus of the college and a beloved campus and community icon.

“I found an advertisement that specifically said Stetson was an academy, not a college,” he adds. “In fact, they didn’t offer their first collegiate course until 1887. So I began to jokingly tell my Stetson friends, ‘I don’t dispute for a minute that you’re the oldest high school in Florida but you are not the oldest college in Florida.’”

That distinction goes to Rollins, and in 2010, the 1,773-student, liberal-arts college celebrated it with events marking its 125th anniversary. The year-long commemoration offered local residents, especially Winter Parkers, a chance to reflect on the impact Rollins has had on the community and to learn about the quirky visionaries who founded and nurtured it.

“Rollins is such a fundamental part of our city,” says Winter Park Mayor Kenneth Bradley. “If there was no Rollins in Winter Park, we would be Winter something else.”

Few colleges are as entwined in every respect with the cities in which they’re located. The lushly landscaped, 70-acre campus, with its elaborately detailed Mediterranean buildings and such offbeat attractions as the Walk of Fame and the Beale Maltibe Shell Museum, hugs the shores of Lake Virginia at the southern terminus of the posh Park Avenue retail district.

There was some talk of the city just letting the celebration go because of current economic conditions,” Bradley says. “But we decided it was just too important.” During an old-fashioned anniversary parade that included city officials, Bradley recalls, he “walked with my chest a little further out than usual. It was one of my proudest moments to be a part of an event that honored excellence and education.”

To Park Avenue’s retailers and restaurateurs, the economic impact of Rollins is profound. Peter Moore, the assistant director of economic development for Winter Park and a Rollins graduate — he earned his MBA from the college’s renowned Crummer School of Business in 2004 — sees this symbiotic relationship reinforced daily in his role as liaison between the college, the city and the local business community.

“The way we look at it, we have a 2,000-person hotel at the end of our commercial district,” says Moore. “The students and their parents are a huge driver of business. The merchants, during the summer when school is out, are always asking us, ‘When are the students coming back?’”

Just as important as the college’s impact on the city’s business environment has been its impact on the city’s cultural and intellectual life. Plays, lectures, exhibitions and concerts have for generations brought prominent politicians, artists and intellectuals to campus.

From Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings to Maya Angelou; from H.G. Wells to Salman Rushdie; from Franklin Roosevelt to Justice William O. Douglas; visitors to Rollins have included figures of historic importance. In Stockholm accepting his Nobel Prize in literature, journalist Sinclair Lewis listed Rollins as first among all colleges in the U.S. doing the most to encourage creative work in contemporary literature.

Rollins has three academic divisions: the College of Arts and Sciences, the Crummer Graduate School of Business and the Hamilton Holt School. The College of Arts and Sciences offers 28 undergraduate majors and a variety of interdisciplinary programs that allow students to design their own courses of study.

The Crummer Graduate School of Business offers an MBA through four different programs, including three designed specifically for working professionals. The Hamilton Holt School focuses on the non-traditional student and holds most of its classes in the evening. Both undergraduate and graduate degrees are offered.

The five most popular majors for Rollins undergraduates in 2010 were: social sciences (32 percent), psychology (15 percent), business management, marketing and related support services, (12 percent), visual and performing arts (10 percent) and biological and biomedical sciences (6 percent).

Former Rollins President Hamilton Holt once described the college he led from 1925-1949 as “an institution of achievement and promise.” Six decades after his retirement, the description is still apt. Rollins ranks No. 1 among 118 regional universities in the South in the annual rankings of “America’s Best Colleges,” released by U.S. News & World Report.

It’s the seventh consecutive year that Rollins has been named to the top spot in this category. For 10 consecutive years prior, it had held down the No. 2 position. Rollins was also ranked first in the South in the Best Value Colleges category, which relates academic quality with the net cost of attendance for a student who receives the average level of need-based financial aid. In the category of Best Undergraduate Teaching, Rollins ranked second in the South.

“We’re especially pleased that Rollins has been recognized for our dedication to providing higher education of the highest quality,” says Rollins President Lewis Duncan. “We continue to rise in national prominence in applied liberal learning, international programs and community engagement.”

Janis Hirsch, a sitcom writer who graduated from Rollins with a degree in theater arts in 1972 and now lives in Beverly Hills, was invited to speak during the college’s anniversary celebration as part of a panel of alumni discussing the value of a liberal-arts education.

“The theater department at Rollins prepared me for everything in my life,” Hirsch says. “When I was young, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew how I wanted to feel. And where I felt the most alive was in the theater.”

Hirsch’s theater experience taught her to listen , a skill that’s particularly important, she says, to “a writer in a collaborative environment, feeding off the thing that the last person said, not stuck in your own head.”

Like many Rollins students over the decades, Hirsch came to Winter Park from the Northeast. She says she remembers trudging through slush in Trenton, N.J., and telling her mother, “The next time I fall in this stuff, don’t pick me up, just shoot me.”

Being able to learn and grow in such a beautiful school while enjoying the fringe benefits of the Florida weather was something she came to relish.

“I can remember saying to a classmate: “Boy , are we lucky. Our parents did us a big favor.’”

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English-born stage actress Annie Russell whose professional heyday was in the 1890s, retired to Winter Park in 1918 and became a professor of theater arts, teaching and directing student performances. The campus theater bearing her name was completed in 1932, four years before her death.