J. Wayne Reitz (1908-1993)

 

WHO NOW SPEAKS FOR THE SPIRIT OF THIS UNIVERSITY?

When we came to Gainesville, we recognized immediately that this university has a different spirit, a different character than its peers. In most ways, America's great public universities share the same features: many students, beautiful campuses, quality faculty, excellent facilities, lively campus and cultural lives, and often college towns. We in Gainesville have all these.

Even so, this place has a different quality about it. Our enthusiasm for the university and its work seems greater, our anger and resentments muted; our optimism seems stronger, our aspirations higher, our compassion deeper. The faculty, assembled from the best the nation can provide, give us strength and intellectual depth; the staff, committed to the university's mission, give us support; the students, drawn from the most optimistic state in the nation, give us hope and energy; but how, I wondered, does all this produce our special character?

Then I met J. Wayne Reitz. Formal, gracious, charming, and low key, Wayne demonstrated the sense of purpose and the core values that symbolize for me what is so powerfully attractive about the University of Florida. My continuing conversation with J. Wayne Reitz over almost four years contained no secrets, no special knowledge, nothing but the core values of a great university. A treasury of stories and anecdotes, of the living history of this university as it began its expansion into the ranks of major American public universities, J. Wayne Reitz saw this place not so much with the analytical eye of the empire builder as with the enthusiasm of the inventor.

Of course he understood about academic quality, about student quality, about the need for buildings, support, libraries, and a dynamic campus and community life. Of course he knew about the finances of the university and the need to insert this provincial institution into the mainstream of American and international academic affairs. Of course he hired good faculty, supported the development of the university's fundamentally critical research base, and brought the university into the contemporary mainstream of academic and intellectual affairs.

For eleven years his work on these fundamental university issues reinvented us as a place of substance and created the opportunities for his successors to move this university into the top rank of American public universities. Were that his only contribution, we would celebrate his achievements with enduring enthusiasm.

J. Wayne Reitz did more than a great job, he lived a great life, and he lived it with the university. For over a quarter century after leaving the presidency, his constant involvement and presence provided a reference point for all of us. Never meddling in the administrative affairs of his successors, never involving himself in the daily controversies, he nonetheless stood at the center of our affairs, living a commitment to the quality of the university's life that served us all as a guide.

Every story, every anecdote, everything he did led to one core commitment: that this university and its students, faculty, and staff, its alumni and friends, deserve the focused attention of every one of us. He came to every event on campus, and by his presence and his enthusiasm for the moment, he told us all that each student, each faculty member, each alumnus, each university friend deserved our commitment.

He spoke always of the successes of each of us, of the possibilities for all of us, of the university's achievements and goals, of the state of Florida's opportunities, and of the limitless potential in us all. His criticisms came as recommendations for improvement, and always in the most graceful of tones. Firm convictions, strong values, an unshakable commitment to this place and its people, these qualities, combined with academic vision and achievement, made him a University of Florida icon.

A university in formation, a university growing and changing, a university in search of its identity and its future, needs a strong set of core values that help it adjust and adapt as it seeks to improve and succeed. A few universities find in one of their own a hero whose life becomes a metaphor for the university's values and spirit.

J. Wayne Reitz is our hero. His life, energy, and commitment to the University of Florida oriented all of us as we came to live with him the life of this place. He claimed no credit for his accomplishments, but we who are here and participate in the unique character of this place, we inherit the obligation to live our university life in harmony with his values, the obligation to enrich and sustain the unique character that J. Wayne Reitz's life gave to the University of Florida.

Now that he is gone, we must all speak for the spirit of this university.

John V. Lombardi
December 29, 1993

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