No marching band, tumbling cheerleaders or ribbon-cutting dignitaries marked the birth of USF St. Petersburg.
In September 1965, several hundred young men and women inauspiciously began college classes at Bayboro Harbor. They lived, studied and took classes in musty wooden barracks that once housed apprentice merchant seaman training for duty in World War II.
USF Tampa took over the mothballed military complex on July 1, 1965, and in several months, work crews converted the barracks to four-person dorm rooms, classrooms and study lounges. The transformation allowed burgeoning USF Tampa to accommodate an overflow of freshmen students on the newly established Bay Campus, as USF St. Petersburg was then known.
The campus grew slowly at first. For a couple years, Peace Corps and VISTA volunteers prepared for assignments at Bayboro. In addition, the Pinellas school district offered its teachers an opportunity to earn graduate credits through evening classes taught on campus. In 1967, three professors of marine science were hired and moved into the Maritime Service administration building, where they set up labs and taught graduate courses, paving the way for today’s renowned USF College of Marine Science and the scientific community that sprouted around it.
Pinellas County leaders, buoyed by USF’s presence in St. Petersburg, hoped for more —a permanent campus to bring higher education close to home. At the time, USF Tampa was in its infancy, admitting it first class of students in 1960. The founding president of USF, John Allen, offered to develop Bayboro as an official branch campus. In the late 1960s, he dispatched Lester Tuttle, a College of Education professor, to put plans in motion and head the campus as its founding dean. By the mid-1970s, the campus offered a variety of upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses and degrees through accredited programs based in Tampa.
For many of these early students, the St. Petersburg campus was as a convenient, welcoming place to earn a college education while holding down a job and raising a family. There were day classes, to be sure, but the campus came most alive at 6 p.m., when students straight from work poured into classrooms, carrying a sandwich and a thermos. The part-time evening students — a persistent lot — earned degrees course-by-course, a term at a time.
USF St. Petersburg’s identity and distinctiveness emerged during these formative years. The tranquil harbor setting encouraged thoughtful reflection. Classes sometimes met along the waterfront in view of passing dolphins and manatees. In those days, faculty from every discipline knew and worked with one another. An English literature professor occupied an office next to criminologist; an accounting professor shared coffee with his next-door neighbor, a psychologist. By happenstance, a spirit of interdisciplinary study became a hallmark of the campus. The compact grounds and small classrooms contributed to a close-knit community, in which students and faculty learned together. With businesses, hospitals, public schools, marine scientists, theaters and museums surrounding the campus, USF St. Petersburg found community involvement and partnerships a natural calling.
From its founding on, USF St. Petersburg benefited from enthusiastic local support. Among the key backers was Nelson Poynter, publisher of the St. Petersburg Times. In 1978, Poynter joined a group of officials to break ground for a major, two-phase construction project comprising two classroom buildings, Davis and Coquina halls, and a library, now Bayboro Hall. Sadly Poynter died a few hours after the ceremony. The present-day USF St. Petersburg library is named in his honor.
In the 1980s, a new campus activities center (now the Student Life Center) opened and two historic buildings, the Snell and Williams houses, were moved to campus and restored. The curriculum expanded as well, with courses added in education, criminology, business, psychology, history and journalism. During that period, the position of “campus dean” signified the chief administrator and academic officer. Two key leaders, Dean Lowell Davis, for whom Davis Hall is named, and Dean Bill Heller, tirelessly promoted the campus, rallied civic support and lobbied the legislature.
With a substantially larger operating budget, an unprecedented recruitment drive in 2002-03 resulted in the hiring of 59 additional faculty members and an array of administrators to oversee the expanding campus. In 2004, the Department of Journalism and Media Studies became the first independently accredited department at USF St. Petersburg. The following year, the first campus residence hall broke ground.
Through innovative planning and creative use of resources, USF St. Petersburg has become an institution of beauty, vibrancy and academic stature. Its profile enhanced with the opening of a sparkling four-story building, Lynn Pippenger Hall, made of patterned glass and coral — the home of the Kate Tiedemann College of Business.
USF St. Petersburg’s past — the contributions of its founders, supporters, faculty,
students and staff — remains the foundation of the institution’s mission, values and
personality. The barracks are long gone, but the old Maritime Service headquarters
building, with its 14-inch poured concrete walls, still stands to remind us of where
and how USF St. Petersburg’s story began.