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UCF turns 50 years old

Rita Reutter was the nation’s oldest homecoming queen at 58-years-old, escorted by Lee Constantine in this 1977 photo, before he became a state senator and county commissioner.

Rita Reutter was the nation’s oldest homecoming queen at 58-years-old, escorted by Lee Constantine in this 1977 photo, before he became a state senator and county commissioner.

Brittni Larson

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There he was, Charles Millican, puffing on his pipe and reflecting on the university he had created.

From scrub trees and fields of grass, to 60,000 students and a stadium that can be filled with more than 45,000 screaming fans. From bulldozers and dirt parking lots, to the largest university in the state. He was the father of the University of Central Florida (UCF). Maggie LeClair, a friend of Millican for years — her granddaughter called him uncle — couldn’t help asking him that day, “Did you know that this is what would’ve happened?”

“‘Yes I did,’ he said, and you knew deep down inside he had no idea,” LeClair, a UCF faculty member for 39 years, said.

For more information about the University of Central Florida, visit ucf.edu. To see an in-depth timeline of the school’s history, photos from the past and stories told by the community, visit ucf.edu/50

She imagines a serious man on the outside, but a little boy on the inside, heart and feet stomping for joy — and certainly astonishment — over how a little school called Florida Technological University (FTU) could turn into UCF as it stands today. The university celebrates its 50th anniversary this June, when Legislative Bill 125 was signed to create FTU an official state university in 1963.

Out in the middle of nowhere

LeClair remembers galloping her horse along the grassy areas on either side of the two-lane Alafaya Trail. Her walks around campus then featuring the buildings she’d seen time and time again, now she’s amused at wondering when this or that new building even sprouted up. Every day the school surprises her.

It wasn’t uncommon to catch a long glimpse of an armadillo or some other little critter crawling by as you, even then, struggled to find a parking spot in the dirt lots on campus, said Roger Pynn, who graduated from FTU with a communications degree in 1973. There were only a few buildings then and joining any club and actually contributing to it, not being one of a hundred members, was simple and fulfilling.

When Richard Crepeau, who’s worked in the history department at UCF since 1972, would tell people in Orlando he was a college professor, they’d look at him with a question.

“The University was, in fact, out in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “Many people in the city didn’t know it was even here; it was an unknown entity.”

But Bill Beekman always knew about FTU, and knew he’d head there when it was time to go to college.

“I was brainwashed as a kid by my parents,” he joked.

Zaney UCF Facts

-The university started in an office in downtown Orlando with Charles Millican as its only employee

-The university’s first newspaper was temporarily called F.T.U. until a contest decided the name, The FuTUre

-The first theater was a bubble structure shelter that looked like a blimp, with horrible acoustics to boot.

-The first functioning theater was a flameproof canvas tent with 200 plastic chairs.

-Vincent the Vulture was an unlikely mascot possibility for a time, hoping to “strike fear in the hearts of the opposing team,” said The FuTUre’s editorial staff.

-In 1976 student Rick Lanham unofficially broke the world’s shouting record in his Speech 101 class yelling, “Soooo-ey! Hog hog hog!”

-FTU had the U.S.’s oldest Homecoming queen with Rita Reutter at 58 years old.

They’d head there for picnics while he was in junior high, watching the school progress, and dreaming of the future. He graduated in 1975 from FTU, and attended a total of 12 consecutive fall terms at the university from his start through a master’s degree.

“I just kind of fell in love with it watching it grow up,” Beekman said.

Amazing growth

Ask anyone, and they’ll say that growth has been something that’s been amazing for the university over its 50 years. It’s the obvious quality to point out about how UCF has changed. It began as a small school of less than 2,000 students, now it has 60,000, and is the second largest university in the nation. And before it actually existed, it was just an office above a drugstore on Church Street and Orange Avenue in downtown Orlando, with one employee named Charles Millican, and a vision.

His vision, and the school’s motto, have made the school what it is today, Pynn said.

“The message behind the motto ‘Reach for the stars,’ I believe, has been an inspiration to a couple generations now,” he said.

The school’s smallness and student population, which was older than an average college’s because of its commuter students and service to veterans and residents heading back to school rather than for the first time straight out of high school, gave FTU a unique atmosphere, Crepeau said. They were straight laced, conservative and focused. It had that 1950s feel, he said in a UCF Forum piece he wrote about his early days there. That conservative nature led it to be one of only two schools suited for a visit by President Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War in 1973 when he gave the commencement address. Crepeau, a more left-leaning man compared to the students, didn’t attend out of protest.

But Pynn was there as a graduate that day, sitting in the drained Reflecting Pond staring at the president who’d landed on campus in a helicopter. One benefit of his arrival, Pynn said, was that the Secret Service men who’d set up headquarters in WUCF’s radio studio, fixed the wiring that had before given a constant and annoying hum noise.

Attention for UCF

The students made a giant departure of their conservative ways, and catapulted UCF into the spotlight for the first time, when they chose Rita Reutter as their Homecoming queen in 1977. She was the oldest one in the U.S., escorted by Lee Constantine, who is now on the Seminole County Commission. She was 58, had 14 grandchildren and worked on an airplane assembly line in World War II all before her crowning. It was special enough for a spot on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, and she was hilarious, LeClair said. She also made an example of UCF standing for opportunity, not the traditional student.

“She highlighted that,” LeClair said. “And at the time I don’t think we knew that.”

Looking toward the future

Since then, the students at UCF have become more dynamic along with the school. It’s changed its name from a confining Florida Technological University to a name that it could grow with.

“UCF was a name that we could live with forever,” said Pynn, who works in marketing now and was on the Alumni Association Board taxed with making the decision then. “The decision to change the name was critically important to our future.”

There’s the massive campus, which yet still feels connected and friendly, alumni said. There’s the incredible diversity in its students, its status moving from second tier school to being one of the best in the state and ranking as an up and comer, the thousands of jobs and billions of dollars it adds to Central Florida’s economy, and the UCF College of Medicine, one of the only medical colleges built from the ground up in decades. It’s a school and a body of students and faculty looking toward the future.

There are international festivals, farmers markets outside the Student Union, and a piano right inside, waiting for inspired college students to walk by and brush the keys with a song, LeClair said. It’s a free for all of ideas, with a faculty that encourages it all along the way. There’s an energy that can’t be beat.

“Whoever I am and whatever I’ve done, it’s essentially been shaped by this school,” Crepeau said.

“All the good things in my life have happened since I’ve been at UCF,” LeClair said. “All of that has helped shape the person I’ve become.”