The $15.6 million, 12,000-seat activity center may look imposing and indestructible, but it’s not as noteworthy as the man for whom it’s named, University of Florida’s sixth president, Stephen C. O’Connell. The first Florida alumnus to lead the University, O’Connell was born in West Palm Beach on January 22, 1916, and attended public school there and at Titusville. He enrolled at Florida in 1934, served as sophomore class president in 1935-36, and as president of the student body in 1938-39. He was a member of Florida Blue Key (President, 1939), Alpha Tau Omega (President, 1938), and the Newman Club (President, 1937). As a middleweight on the boxing team (Captain, 1938) he went undefeated. He was enrolled in an interdisciplinary Business Administration and Law program and received his B.S.B.A. and LL.B. degrees in 1940.
O’Connell began his law career in Fort Lauderdale in 1940 but soon left to accept a civilian appointment as director of physical training for the Third Air Force at Tampa, Florida. He was called to active duty when the United States entered World War II. He finished the war with the rank of major and was executive officer of a bomber group in Okinawa.
After returning to Fort Lauderdale and his law practice in 1946, O’Connell married Rita McTigue the same year. O’Connell was active in the Democratic Party in Broward County and served on several senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns. In 1955, he was appointed to the Florida Supreme Court by Governor Leroy Collins and was later elected chief justice of the court in July 1967.
O’Connell’s selection as President of the University was announced on September 1, 1967, and he took office in October. His inauguration was held October 7, 1968.
Campus unrest was reaching its peak nationwide in the spring of 1968. In an effort to control disruption and maintain a sense of community, O’Connell initiated an Action Conference in May 1968, composed of student, faculty, and administrators, to discuss student concerns. An Advisory Council, similar in composition to the Conference, was later created to sustain the dialogue. Some progress was made, particularly in relation to the university’s policy on controversial speakers, housing, and student counseling. However, neither O’Connell nor the University of Florida could escape the upheaval of the times.
As elsewhere, the Vietnam War ignited most of the disturbances. Numerous demonstrations, both peaceful and militant, were held. Faculty-administration relations were also tested during this period. The youth counter culture brought more controversy. The most damaging conflicts, however, were of a racial nature. The University of Florida had integrated in 1958 without violence or with little protest. By fall of 1970, though, there were still only 343 black students enrolled and many were foreign students. African-American students experienced a sense of alienation in a campus culture shaped by generations of white students and faculty. A general feeling that too little was being done to encourage black enrollment, despite protests to the contrary from university officials, further heightened tensions. A sit-in at the president’s office by the Black Student Union in April, 1971 culminated in the arrest of sixty-six students. When O’Connell refused to grant total amnesty to the demonstrators, approximately a third of the black student population and several black faculty members left the University.
Although they were largely overshadowed by other events, improvements and enhancements in the University’s academic program and physical plant continued to be made. Total enrollment rose from 19,004 in 1967 to 23,570 in 1973. A 1970 evaluation of graduate programs by the American Council on Education gave national ranking to twenty-two departments compared to eleven in 1965. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the reorganization of the Alumni Association and the creation of an Office of Development staffed by professional fund raisers. The result has been the enrichment of the University’s endowment fund.
The increase in enrollment during his term created a need for more classrooms, offices and laboratories. Several buildings initiated or completed during his tenure included the Holland Law Center, the Space Center Research Building, several libraries, the Museum of Natural History and the completion of the Reitz Union. O’Connell’s building campaign focused on the need for additional student activities facilities. On February 4, 1970, the student body voted down an increase in student activity fees to support construction of a sports and activities center. Eventually, the Board of Regents decided that the student activities reserve fund could be used to build student-related facilities. In 1975, O’Connell’s successor, Robert Q. Marston, submitted plans for a sports arena and activities center. Construction was completed in 1980, and the Stephen C. O’Connell Student Activities Center was dedicated in 1981 in recognition of O’Connell’s service to his alma mater. The “O’Dome” is the site of Gator basketball games as well as other sporting events and a venue for entertainment programs.
President O’Connell announced his retirement on June 28, 1973. Executive Vice President E. Travis York, Jr. served as interim president until August, 1974. After stepping down, O’Connell returned to his home and law practice in Tallahassee, where he remained active with the University of Florida. He died on April 14, 2001 at the age of 85.