Louis J. Atkins, 1920-1997

He always came to us with a smile to light the room, an elegant phrase of optimistic encouragement, and a persistent belief in the success of our common ventures. Louis Atkins saw this world and especially his university as a place of infinite possibility for good; as a work in progress that required only our will, our effort, and our common sense to make it better, to make it right, to make it grand.

In a lifetime of work, leadership, caring, and commitment, Louis Atkins set a standard for all of us. His public record of accomplishment re-creates the itinerary of a secular missionary for good works. No group or individual appeared too small for Louis' care and interest, no group too large to benefit from his example. Whether Cub Scouts or national and state dental associations, individual students or great universities, dental patients or national healthcare boards, Louis Atkins saw each one as worthy of attention, encouragement, leadership, and motivation.

Who among us has not seen or received an Atkins-gram? One of those extraordinary posters he would find with a furry beast in an improbable position, a sunset, or a flower, each poster accompanied by a unique message or especially a verse like this one from a Calcutta poet he copied out in a card one day:

I slept and dreamt
That life was joy.

I woke and saw
That life was duty.

I acted and behold!
Duty was joy.

Louis had an extraordinary talent for taking a cliché and endowing it with new meaning and significance. An ordinary card or poster, available in a thousand stores across America, prepared with a standard and forgettable message emerged from the bold hand of Louis Atkins as a unique inspirational command. "I brim over with delight," he would say in thanking one of us for a minor job well done. "What a remarkable man you are, " he wrote another. "Leadership," he wrote, "is the key to the success of our momentous undertaking, all the rest is scaffolding."

And then, Louis' messages would end with his trademark exhortation, Cheers and Onward, from Jack Lake, Calhoun County. Not just words of good news, of good cheer, or of encouragement. No, inspirational words that commanded us to continue, to persevere, to achieve, and to believe in the success of our ventures.

Louis stood before us in countless meetings delivering grandiloquent sermonettes. Inimitable, unforgettable, each one carried the authority of Louis' beliefs and accomplishments. So great, so sincere, and so real were Louis' commitments that his words always persuaded us that we must not fail, that we must not falter, that we must put aside what would distract us from the task at hand.

Son of a pioneer Florida family, native and ceaseless promoter of his Blountstown and Calhoun County, Louis Atkins believed in education and especially in the young people who required it. His tireless commitment led to the invention of the University of Florida College of Dentistry, and his love of his Gators brought him into leadership with the Health Sciences Center, the University of Florida Foundation, and Gator Boosters among many other groups.

The Louis Atkins biography includes a stunning list of accomplishments and achievements, an array of institutions and organizations whose current success owes everything to Louis' involvement. Even more than his public record, this is a man who leaves us an indelible personal legacy. Our children and grandchildren will read of his deeds and his appointments, of his leadership roles and awards, and they will know they read about a great public figure.

But we who knew Louis Atkins have the far greater part of his legacy. We carry with us always the presence, example, charm, and unshakable commitment of a truly remarkable man. We see always in our mind's eye that open charming smile, those knowing eyes. We hear that unique voice and accent delivering to us in lilting poetic rhythms the message of optimism and cheer, accompanied by the expectation that we must do more, that we must do better because it is right, good, and satisfying.

We mourn the passing of such a great man. And we know in our hearts that we thank Louis for all that he gave us when we give to others; when we extend our enthusiasm and commitment into the good works around us awaiting our attention. We will repay his investment in us by investing in others.

This Louis Atkins legacy imposes on us a formidable obligation. We owe him and his permanently living example a commitment to do the best we can for others, for he was the best ever, for all of us.


John V. Lombardi
University of Florida
Blountstown, August 1997©