Southwest Florida's 'Father of Higher Education'

Oct 10, 2016

EDITOR'S NOTE: To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Florida Gulf Coast University, WGCU Public Media presents "FGCU: The Beginning." The series chronicles the key founders and events that led up to Aug. 25, 1997, when the campus first opened.  As the finale for the series, a half-hour television documentary will air on Aug. 24 at 8pm. Learn more about the series here.

It’s no coincidence that Florida Gulf Coast University and Florida SouthWestern State College both have a Howard Hall.  The buildings named after William Thomas Howard, affectionately known as “Tommy” Howard, carry his namesake not for millions of dollars he donated, but for the time, passion and determination he gave to his cause.

“He was a legend in his own time,” said Charlie Edwards. “He was the chief advocate for higher education in our area and was very good at it.”

Gov. Bob Graham welcomes Howard and his wife, Mary Frances, to Tallahassee in the 1980s.
Credit The Howard Family

In 1987, Edwards, a prominent Fort Myers attorney, was appointed to the board of regents, the governing body of the state university system.

“At my first board of regents meeting, Tommy Howard had attended so many regents’ meetings that he knew all the regents by first name. And, he personally introduced me to the few that I did not already know,” recalled Edwards.

Howard, who was CEO of the former First Federal Savings & Loan in downtown Fort Myers, came to be known as the “father of higher education” in Southwest Florida. He passed away two years before the doors opened at FGCU, where he's remembered as a key founder in making the university a reality.

Hometown Roots

Born in Fort Myers in 1911, Tommy Howard graduated from Fort Myers High School at a time when Lee County was a small community, with a population of only 14,000 compared to a more than 700,000 today.

“Thomas A. Edison gave him his diploma at graduation,” recalled Ann Howard Hamilton, Howard’s daughter and a current board member of the FGCU Foundation. “He actually knew Mr. and Mrs. Edison. They lived in the same neighborhood when he was growing up.”

Howard worked during World War II at the Buckingham Army Airfield base where he met his wife, Mary Frances Howard. While he went on to become a successful banker despite his lack of higher education, he always viewed it as something that should be more attainable for Southwest Florida residents.

Howard with his daughter, Ann, at home in Fort Myers in 1952.
Credit The Howard Family

“My father never completed college, and I think that was one regret and why he realized how important a college education is to an individual,” said Hamilton.

“Starting in the early 1970s, he realized that this area needed a comprehensive 4-year university, because up until that time, students would have to drive either to Tampa or Miami, or even further away to get a 4-year degree, or Master's or Ph.D.,” she added. “So, he organized a group of civic-minded people and political leaders to form a committee to lobby Tallahassee and attend the board of regents meetings.”

By 1974, that lobbying resulted in a branch campus of the University of South Florida that opened with classes at Fort Myers High School. Several years later, Howard’s activism helped achieve an $8 million legislative appropriation to build a branch of USF, which shared a campus with what was then known as Edison Community College.

Howard receives an honorary degree from University of South Florida in 1980.
Credit The Howard Family

At the 1980 groundbreaking, Howard was awarded an honorary degree. And, two years later, the area’s first Howard Hall was dedicated as USF’s administration building. Today, Howard Hall serves students at what’s now known as Florida SouthWestern State College (FSW).

The Tenth University

While a branch campus of a state university was considered a big success at the time, it wasn’t enough to satisfy Howard or the community’s hunger for a full-fledged degree program. Without skipping a beat, he kept at it, advocating for a 4-year university in the region.

Meanwhile, 23-year-old Keith Arnold was elected to the state legislature, becoming the youngest representative in the state House. Also a native of Fort Myers, he was a natural cohort for the effort to bring higher education to the region.

“Tommy wanted a new institution. He wanted a freestanding, new tenth university, which is what a study called for,” said Arnold. “And, so the discussion of a new university began.”

During that time, Howard kept attending board of regents meetings and relentlessly lobbied legislators in Tallahassee. He had a quiet public presence, but was also known as a bulldog. Regent Phil Lewis described Howard’s ways of persuasion in a 1997 Orlando Sentinel article.

“He used the drip method…He just kept dripping that water on you so you had to notice. You had to finally give in.”

The location for the tenth university was the focus of his drip in those days.

“At the time, it was thought that that tenth university would be the last one to be built in the entire state, so he felt it was imperative that it be placed here in Southwest Florida where it was most needed,” said Hamilton.

Howard shaking hands with Gov. Lawton Chiles after he signed the bill authorizing the 'Tenth University.'
Credit The Howard Family

By May 4, 1991, Gov. Lawton Chiles was on the steps of the Lee County courthouse, signing a bill authorizing the “Tenth University” in Southwest Florida. The very next day, Howard held the first fundraiser at Bonita Bay Golf Club and raised $19,000 for what would become Florida Gulf Coast University.

You might say it was also the result of Howard’s “drip method” that Roy McTarnaghan, who was the vice chancellor of academic affairs for the university system, became the first president of FGCU.

“He was insistent…because I had been involved with all the planning. So the day before the search closed, I submitted my name,” said McTarnaghan. “And, it worked out. I’m happy. It was a wonderful experience. “

Person of the Year

In December of 1995, after working to get a settlement agreement that permitted the placement of FGCU at the Alico site, both Howard and Arnold shared the Fort Myers’ News-Press Person of the Year award.

Not one to seek the spotlight, 74-year-old Howard had already passed away in May 1995, so he wasn’t present to receive the award. Nor was he able to attend the groundbreaking of FGCU in November 1995.

But, his spirit of enthusiasm and his legacy were there.

On a rainy evening in 1998, a ceremony marking the dedication of Howard Hall was set to begin on the FGCU campus.

“The rain stopped; the full moon came out, and it was perfect,” recalled Hamilton.

Howard is also remembered for serving as the first president of the FGCU Foundation, which brought in more than $38 million from the community before the campus even opened in 1997.

What would Howard think if he could see how both FGCU and FSW have evolved?

“He would be most pleased, just by walking through and seeing young people carrying books, having the opportunity to receive an education that many people of his generation didn’t have the opportunity,” said Bill Howard, his son.