Thad and Polly Seymour were told that they had been invited to a “unity party,” the purpose of which was to heal divisions that had resulted from a contentious city election.
Of course, they probably knew better.
But the revered Rollins College president emeritus and his wife of 57 years were gracious enough to attend anyway — and to feign surprise when it turned out that the party was to honor them.
In fact, the “unity party” descriptor wasn’t entirely untrue. Affection for the Seymours — who were president and first lady of Rollins College from 1978 through 1990 — is one of the few things on which all Winter Parkers can agree.
In early May, a handful of community movers and shakers led by public relations consultant Jane Hames organized the “surprise” celebration for the couple, both of whom have become iconic local figures for their community service.
“The Seymour Family Reunion” brought several hundred of Winter Park’s most prominent civic, cultural, business and political leaders to the shores of Lake Virginia, behind the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens and the adjacent Capen-Showalter House.
There they listened to a Dixieland jazz combo, enjoyed tricks from strol-ling magicians (Thad is an accomplished amateur illusionist), feasted on catered cuisine from Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, and shared seemingly countless stories about the ways in which the Seymours had inspired them, led civic improvement efforts or assisted their organizations with good works.
The Seymours, at turns deeply moved and laugh-out-loud entertained by the sometimes tongue-in-cheek (but always sincere) presentations, accepted one plaudit after another with their usual combination of modesty and good humor.
Thad, still a towering physical and intellectual force at 87, was even persuaded (actually, not much persuasion was required) to belt out a satirical 1880s musical ditty that saluted the Dinky Line, a notoriously unreliable train service that connected Winter Park and Orlando.
Polly, whose dry humor complements her husband’s unabashed exuberance, told the crowd that she and Thad had at first been uncertain about taking the job at Rollins. “I had never heard anything about Florida that I was impressed about,” she said.
But the canny Hugh McKean, another legendary Winter Parker and a past college president, arranged for the Seymours to take a boat ride on Lake Virginia and see the campus from the water. McKean rightly figured that no one could resist such an extraordinary view. The ploy had the desired effect.
“I saw it and I said, ‘Well, we may have stumbled on to something,’” Polly recalled. It was clearly the good fortune of Rollins — and the community — that the beauty of the campus lured the Seymours away from Indiana’s Wabash College, where Thad had been president for the previous nine years.
At Rollins, Thad led the college’s centennial celebration, rededicated the Walk of Fame and raised funds for the construction of the Olin Library and the Cornell Hall for the Social Sciences.
He also eliminated operating deficits while concurrently abolishing a popular undergraduate business major, vowing that “if you’re going to be a liberal arts college, then be a liberal arts college.” On a lighter note, he reinstated Fox Day, a random holiday from classes during which students are encouraged to participate in a community service activity.
But Thad and Polly became best known for their wide-ranging civic involvement. Under the Seymours, Rollins became not an isolated and insular island of academia, but an institution thoroughly enmeshed in the surrounding community.
In fact, of the nearly 20 speakers at the Seymour Family Reunion, all but a few represented organizations unrelated to Rollins.
During the event, Winter Park Mayor Steve Leary declared May 1 Thaddeus Seymour Day, presenting the Seymours with a key to the city. Hal George, president of Habitat for Humanity of Winter Park-Maitland, then began introducing speakers. George co-emceed along with Patrick Chapin, executive officer of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce.
“We should be done by about 9 tonight, I think,” joked George at the late-afternoon beginning of the program.
It didn’t take quite that long, but only because presenters were urged to keep their comments brief. And that was no easy task when talking about the positive impact the Seymours have had on Winter Park.
Grant Cornwell, the current Rollins president, gave the couple a framed silver coin. During his presidency, Thad randomly handed out silver coins on campus when he saw students doing good deeds.
Fred Jones, Rotary Club of Winter Park board member, gave Thad a small statue of Rotary founder Paul Harris. Thad had previously won the Paul Harris Award, the club’s highest honor, and remains an active member of the local organization.
Debbie Komanski, executive director of the Polasek, gave Thad a small replica of Man Carving His Own Destiny, a sculpture on the property. The figure represents Thad’s indomitable spirit, said Komanski. She reminded the crowd that Thad had been instrumental in raising funds to save the 130-year-old Capen-Showalter House, and recalled how he kept her spirits up with his unflagging optimism. “Thad always manages to bring out my silly side,” she said.
To honor Thad’s role as chairman of Habitat for Humanity of Winter Park-Maitland, George announced the next home built will be dubbed the Thad Seymour House. “We’ll try to do a better job on that one,” George deadpanned.
And Diana Silvey, program director for the Winter Park Health Foundation, noted that Thad was a longtime volunteer for the not-for-profit organization. But, she added, “we know that the wind beneath his wings this whole time has been Polly.”
Polly was recognized for her time as the Winter Park Public Library board of trustees’ president. She started the library’s New Leaf Bookstore, which continues today. “This is the most wonderful community,” she said. “This has been the most wonderful tribute to my husband.”
Thad, who described the event as “heart-bursting,” apologized for “making you all stay out in the hot weather for so long.” But in typical fashion, he got a laugh with a recollection.
Early in his presidency, the Rollins theater department decided to stage Equus, which featured full-frontal male nudity, much to the horror of some locals. “We had picketers in from of the theater,” Thad recalled. “And I remember my favorite sign. It read, ‘Seymour wants to see more!”
Below, in the order in which they appeared, are the Seymour Family Reunion presenters and the organizations they represented, as well as the commemorative items they brought and the announcements they made. In some cases, space limitations don’t allow room for elaboration. But all the gifts have special significance for the Seymours and the organizations represented.
• Mayor Steve Leary, City of Winter Park, key to the city and declaration of Thaddeus
• President Grant Cornwell, Rollins College, framed silver coin.
• David Odahowski, Edyth Bush Foundation, pedestal of coquina stone used to build the Archibald Granville Bush Science Center.
• Betsy Owens, Friends of Casa Feliz, original line drawing of the Casa Feliz Historic Home and Museum and sponsorship of the Dixieland band.
• Sharon Line Clary, Winter Park Memorial Hospital, his-and-hers embroidered lab coats.
• Mike Haye, Westminster Winter Park, announcement that a tree would be planted on the Westminster’s grounds in honor of the Seymours.
• Janna Ricci, The Mayflower, announcement that residents would contribute to a scholarship fund in honor of the Seymours.
• Fred Jones, Winter Park Rotary Club, statue of Rotary founder Paul Harris.
• Gail Sinclair and Billy Collins, Winter Park Institute at Rollins College, framed cover of Animated Magazine commemorative program.
• Kimber Saint-Preux, Independent Transportation Network (ITN), “Star” trophy.
• Peter Schreyer, Crealdé School of Art and Hannibal Square Heritage Center, inscribed copy of The Hannibal Square Heritage Collection: Photographs and Oral Histories, published by the Florida Historical Society.
• Diana Silvey, Winter Park Health Foundation, flowers and framed photograph.
• Randy Noles, Winter Park Magazine, sponsorship of photography and announcement of a story about the event.
• Susan Skolfield, Winter Park History Museum, dedication to the Seymours of its current exhibit, Winter Park: The War Years 1941-1945 — Home Front Life in an American Small Town.
• Shawn Shaffer, Winter Park Public Library, gold hard hats.
• Mike Marlowe, Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, lifetime chamber memberships.
• Debra Hendrickson, Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, honorary graduation certificates from Leadership Winter Park.
• Debbie Komanski, Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens and Capen-Showalter House, replica of Man Carving His Own Destiny.