Name change for Reitz Union?
Nonbinding referendum seeks change
Published: Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 5:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 5:01 p.m.
The late J. Wayne Reitz presided over the construction of more than 300 campus buildings as University of Florida president, including the student union that bears his name.
The building, finished shortly after Reitz resigned in 1967, is about to undergo a major renovation and expansion. At the same time, Reitz's legacy is getting a second look.
UF students likely will vote in October on a non-binding referendum to rename the Reitz Union after Virgil Hawkins, whose lengthy legal battle ended segregation at the university.
The referendum cites two reasons for the name change: Reitz's delay in integrating UF and his collaboration in the purging of gay students and professors from the university.
"It would be a great gesture if we used the heart of the university to commemorate someone who allowed others to come here rather than kept others from coming here," said Ford Dwyer, a UF student senator behind the referendum.
The effort coincides with the release of a new documentary about the so-called Johns Committee. The state legislative group investigated gay employees and students at UF, leading to them being fired and expelled.
The documentary features Chuck Woods, a retired UF faculty member who as a university student in 1959 was interrogated by a committee investigator. Woods called Reitz a "homophobe" in the documentary.
"I think in this day and age it's inappropriate" for the union to be named after Reitz, Woods told The Gainesville Sun last week.
UF Vice President for Student Affairs Dave Kratzer cautioned against applying values from today to the tumultuous historical period during which Reitz was president. Others question whether Reitz should be held responsible for the Johns Committee's actions, although Reitz made no qualms about its work in an oral history interview done years later.
"As a matter of fact, I'll be the first to admit that anyone who was a homosexual was a complete aberration," Reitz said in the 1988 interview.
The late state Sen. Charley Johns of Starke ran the committee, officially known as the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, from 1956 to 1964. Johns had served as acting governor from 1953 to 1955, after the previous governor died, before returning to the Senate.
The committee first investigated civil rights activists for supposed Communist ties, before targeting gays in state universities. Hundreds of faculty, staff and students were forced out of UF and other state schools.
The new documentary, "The Committee," was created by University of Central Florida faculty members Lisa Mills and Robert Cassanello along with students in their honors documentary class.
It was shown at the Gasparilla International Film Festival in the spring and is scheduled to appear at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in November.
Woods is featured in the documentary alongside John Tileston, a former UF police officer who interrogated Woods on behalf of the committee. The documentary shows an amiable reunion between them, with Tileston saying the work "bothered (him) a great deal."
Tileston told The Sun that Reitz was "appalled" by the committee's work but felt he had no choice.
"He just happened to be president of the University of Florida at the time," Tileston said. "I don't think for a minute he liked it."
Kratzer said he thought the referendum's wording provides "pretty thin information" without context about the historical period during which Reitz was president. The vote might be used as a learning tool, he said, with educational events being held about that time period.
"We need to be cautious when we start to apply the values that we know and love and respect today to other decades," he said.
Reitz, an agricultural economist by training, served as UF president from 1955 to 1967. UF history professor Jack Davis said Reitz should be credited for the campus building boom and tightening academic standards, but he did not create an inclusive campus.
Hawkins was denied admission to the UF law school based on his race in 1949. After a prolonged legal battle, he withdrew his application in 1958 in exchange for a court order desegregating UF's graduate and professional schools. That year, UF became Florida's first state university to integrate.
In UF's official biography of Reitz, he's credited with achieving racial integration with less turmoil than most Southern colleges. But Davis said Reitz stonewalled federal desegregation orders and, while not responsible for the Johns Committee, didn't try to stop it.
In contrast, he said, Reitz battled with Tallahassee on other issues.
"He doesn't bear any responsibility for the Johns Committee itself, but he was complicit with some of its activities on the UF campus," Davis said.
The focus of "The Committee" goes beyond UF, noting that the University of South Florida's president resisted the Johns Committee's work in later years. A documentary about the committee released in 2000, "Behind Closed Doors," puts more of a focus on UF and Reitz.
That documentary, created by then-UF graduate student Allyson Beutke DeVito, includes Reitz's interview in which he said that anyone who was gay was an aberration. It also tells the story of a UF geography department chairman forced by Reitz to quit who later attempted suicide.
Dwyer, a history and political science major, said he first learned about the Johns Committee in Davis' Florida history class and saw that documentary there. He consequently came up with the idea for the referendum.
He collected more than 500 signatures to qualify the measure for a student vote. The signatures were verified as being from UF students, and now technical details must be reviewed before the referendum is placed on the Oct. 2-3 student government ballot.
The timing is right for the name to be changed, Dwyer said. The design of the union's 100,000-square-foot expansion starts this fall, and construction is to begin next summer. The $69 million project, funded in part through student fees, is scheduled to be completed in 2015.
Dwyer acknowledged that UF has ignored the results of previous referendum votes, including a vote against student fees paying for the union expansion. But he said the fact that students fund the union's operations gives weight to student opinion on the facility's name.
"We pay for it, and it's supposed to belong to us," he said.