Personal stories of growth at Eckerd College

Laura Meacham Keane ('83)
Reflections on the professional life of Robert C. Meacham, Ph. D.

I came home from Mound Park hospital (now, Bayfront Medical Center) to a red brick house on Serpentine Drive South, a house where the hall clock was always set to chime 10 minutes early because that's how long it took to get to "The College."

The College. No other identification was needed because none other existed.

It was such an integral part of our lives that it's hard to find family memories that do not, somehow, also include The College.

In 1959, my father was a newly tenured professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Teaching was always his first love and he loved teaching upper level and graduate math. My mother was happy in Gainesville. Roots grew quickly. All that changed when a man my father had never met walked into his life, told him about a dream, and asked him to be a part of it.

John Morgan Bevan was the Founding Dean of Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College). He found Daddy through the Faculty Christian Fellowship & his reputation as a teacher and person. Daddy fit the bill for the individuals he was collecting from prestigious academic positions across the country and seducing into coming to St. Petersburg. In Jack Bevan, Daddy found a dear friend -- a hero, even. In my father, Jack Bevan found a man of high integrity, deep passion and complete devotion.

Mama tells me that Daddy steadfastly refused to consider a move away from UF and Gainesville; so Dr. Bevan asked him to come to St. Pete for the sole purpose of planning the math curriculum at FPC. Once here, Daddy couldn't leave. He called Mama and said this was the most exciting, dynamic group of people he'd encountered and that we (which did not yet include me) needed to be a part of it.

So at the age of 40, my father reached his fork in the road. He made the choice to take the path untraveled -- to be a pioneer and to give his professional life to this institution.

As far as I was concerned, The College was my personal playground, built entirely by my father (there was proof in the form of pictures of the Founding Faculty digging the first foundation, shovels in hands, wearing their academic robes) and functional only because of him. After all, he was Chairman of the Math Department - perhaps the most important position on the face of the earth. Now Jack Bevan gave him a race in my book; but my father pretty much hung the moon. Handsome, tall, with that million watt smile, I can still see him striding all over the campus with his perfect military posture and a happy, peppy step. He never, ever hesitated to stick his nose into anything he felt needed his involvement. No issue was too small or too removed to escape his notice. Crises arrived like clockwork but Daddy loved it. Always, after careful discussions with my mother, he would produce "A Letter." This letter would outline his analysis of the situation and his proposals for resolution.

He didn't always win his battles. The first time I ever saw him sobbing in grief was the night he learned one of his colleagues would be "let go" as a result of the budget crisis in the early `70's. But never did he contemplate "giving up." When he handed in his resignation in the late '60's, together with the rest of the faculty, it was not out of a desire to leave - it was a dramatic, unified gesture of support for racial integration and equality.

Throughout my childhood, Students were a part of our everyday life, too. Every Sunday, Daddy would drive our VW camper to the library to pick up any students who wanted to go to Lakeview Church. Often, a couple were waiting. But sometimes, no one would show up. That didn't stop Daddy. He'd turn down Dorm Drive, driving ever so slowly. If any unlucky student happened to be spotted, they would be coerced or cajoled into coming to church. Afterwards, like it or not, they would be taken to Serpentine for Sunday Dinner. Before long, they would be regulars at church, or our dinner table, or both.

Daddy's love for any and all Students didn't end with a semester or even graduation. He never judged those who dropped his courses (I should know: I dropped him and so did my two best friends), nor did he judge those who flunked (as my brother Robert almost did -- once; when my father told him that his midterm grade was an F, my brother Robert quipped: "I hope my parents don't find out!"). As the years passed, former students would arrive on our front porch, holding the hand of a new spouse or a new baby. And Daddy would revel in their successes or do everything in his power to help with their difficulties.

Every day, he demonstrated what it meant to live a life of service and devotion. And while I now understand that Daddy didn't, in fact, build all the buildings here, nor did he run every aspect of the institution; still, I cannot set foot on this campus without a swell of pride that my father gave his professional life so that this College could emerge from dreams to reality, and that a piece of it exists because of him. And I'd like to believe that Eckerd College will be all the stronger going into the future for what my father gave.

He and his Founding Faculty colleagues made real the ideal which they referred to as Camelot.