On a warm day in 1997, in Fort Myers, Fla., there was a traffic backup along a quiet, two-lane road called Ben Hill Griffin.
People slowed as they approached the congestion, wondering what the issue might be. It turned out an alligator was sprawled out in the middle of the road. Cars inched past, getting as close as they could to try and scare it off the road, but the sunbathing reptile would have nothing of it. It just lay there lazily, ignoring the intrusions and absorbing the late summer’s heat.
“So, Win Everham went out there, put a noose around it, wrestled it, and pulled it off the road,” said Dr. James Wohlpart, dean of Undergraduate Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University. Everham, like Wohlpart, has been at the school since the very beginning. Wohlpart remembered the incident with a smile.
“There was no one to call,” he said. “There would be alligators on all the sidewalks in the morning … that was a regular occurrence.”
Such was life at FGCU in the late 1990s.
Starting the University involved years of setbacks and controversy: It was formally established in 1991, but a site was not chosen until a year later. Construction did not start for three years, until 1995. Wohlpart arrived in South Florida in 1994, and came to FGCU in its first year, 1997.
“I had just finished my Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee,” Wohlpart said. “I was teaching for a year as a lecturer, and I was applying to several positions that looked really interesting,” he said.
One of those positions was an opportunity to teach for three years at a branch campus of University of South Florida, located in Fort Myers and to start a new university in the same city in 1997.
“When I came down from Tennessee, which has rolling hills, four seasons, beautiful falls, amazing springs, winters with snow,” Wohlpart said, “I came down and I thought ‘Man, it’s just hot all the time, and green all the time — I gotta leave.’”
He figured he’d be gone within two or three years. It’s been 19.
The small size of the school played a big role in his decision to stick around. Now, with more than 13,000 students and a growing faculty and staff, a name is just a name. But in FGCU’s first years, every name came with a face, and everyone knew everyone.
“We all hung out together; we all worked very closely; there was a lot of camaraderie, a lot of collegiality; we were all very close,” explained Wohlpart. “All of our kids knew all the other faculty, and I had lots of students that I would bring into the house, and I still do.” He added, “It was just a really tight community.”
Roy E. Mc Tarnaghan, the first president of the University, wrote extensively on the school in his book “On Task, On Time,” and it’s easy to see why the faculty was so close-knit: There were only nine deans initially hired to head nine different departments and find additional faculty.
“Each dean was to function as an all-purpose leader,” Mc Tarnaghan wrote, “one who could speak to community groups and help in fundraising, handle budget and finance issues for their unit, start multiple searches and personally lead the recruitment and interview process, and work as part of the overall academic and student service team.”
The FGCU staff had their responsibilities stretched widely, and there was little anyone could expect in terms of a predictable schedule.
“I’ve had lots of different roles,” Wohlpart said, “and in those roles, I’ve worked lots of different hours. For the first three years, we put up a lot of hours getting things up and running.”
The long hours weren’t helped by the fact that before a reliable, universal school web program was developed, faculty had to take care of business in a more traditional manner.
“There was no Gulfline as we know it, or ANGEL,” said Jessica Rhea, who saw her first semester in 1999 and is now the director of the Service-Learning Department, “so I had to keep track of attendance in an old-school grade book.” She added, “To be honest, I don’t even know when the computer podiums made it into each classroom.”
This wasn’t unusual – Fort Myers in the late 1990s was a very different place than it is today.
“We were in the middle of nowhere,” Wohlpart said. “There was nothing here. All right? Remember this: No Miromar mall, no Gulf Coast Town Center – there was nothing up and down Ben Hill Griffin. Nothing.”
Unfortunately, with the majority of the undeveloped land being marsh, swamp or protected by conservation laws, building the school didn’t come cheap. According to McTarnaghan, the school’s high price tag meant that there were financial shortfalls, especially in terms of building development.
But since then, the school has grown enormously. Since it opened, 2012-13 is the first academic year that there has not been a new facility under construction. It’s a sign of how FGCU has grown. And growing with it are the people who have been there since the beginning and have played a direct hand in how the school has succeeded.
“The best part was that they asked us, including me, who was all of 25 when I started, what MY ideas were, and in what ways we could enhance this required [service-learning] class,” Rhea said. “It was amazing then and is amazing now that we are asked to be contributors to the continuing development of the University.”
It wasn’t just the teachers who contributed. The students shaped FGCU, too. As Wohlpart sat in his large office, located in one of the newer buildings, he remembered a turning point for the school. In 2006, writer and conservation activist Terry Tempest Williams was invited to speak on campus, but was uninvited at the last minute by then-President William Merwin. So the students fought back, and invited her again.
“And they paid for the whole thing,” Wohlpart said. “That was the point at which people came to me and said ‘We’re a real university now.’”
“We are really doing things that matter and make a difference,” he said.