February 26, 2021

Leadership: The New Blue Key

Mike Vogel | 2/1/2004
Fall-term presidents of Florida Blue Key are judged by how prominent a speaker they land for its annual homecoming banquet at the University of Florida.

By that measure, Blue Key President Karen Persis, a second-year law student, did well. She brought to Gainesville a high-profile, controversial speaker whose appearance brought out protesters and made the national news wires -- Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Yet the Blue Key banquet, for reasons beyond Persis' control, wasn't the affair it was in days gone by. Once, Blue Key banquets were a must-attend for Florida politicians. But Gov. Jeb Bush doesn't go. Once, the banquets were held at UF's basketball arena to accommodate the 1,500 who came. Nowadays, with smaller crowds (the Ashcroft dinner, one of the best in years, drew 600), the banquets are held in a ballroom at the student union.

Blue Key's status these days mirrors that of the shrunken banquet, reflecting the evolution of the state from the days when the doors to the governor's mansion, Legislature and judiciary in Florida all seemed to unlock with a Blue Key.

Blue Key began on a quaint scale. In 1923, Dean B.C. Riley tapped a few Big-Man-On-Campus types to organize a "Dad's Day" (the precursor to homecoming). Florida Blue Key was born.

Florida Blue Key sealed its identity as a leadership organization when it broke with the national Blue Key National Honor Society that Riley founded -- in part over the national's desire that members have at least a 2.5 grade point average. The Florida men -- and they were all white men for decades, as was the UF student body -- felt that leadership, not grades, counted and wanted a 2.0 GPA. Grades aside, membership was select, with members pledging loyalty to the group's fundamental purpose: To "serve the University of Florida."

That service came to include running the top high school speakers and debate tournament in the Southeast and the Miss UF pageant, in which drama student Faye Dunaway finished second before going on to fame in "Bonnie and Clyde." Blue Key's signature event was homecoming -- the parade, banquet and Gator Growl show.

Growl, which started as a simple bonfire, is now a three-hour extravaganza at the football stadium, which at times has drawn up to 60,000 spectators who pay to see student skits, fireworks and such headliners as Jay Leno.

Blue Key's service to UF, of course, became as much about maintaining UF's preeminence in the Legislature and Board of Regents as conducting successful skits and bonfires. The homecoming banquet preceding the Gator Growl became the largest and most important political gathering in the state -- former state Sen. William Shands once called it the unofficial state Democratic Party caucus. Dinner was thick with in-state political powerhouses like Claude Pepper, George Smathers and others.

Blue Key connections also brought in as guest speakers Vice Presidents Alben Barkley, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and George H.W. Bush; Sens. Edwin Muskie, "Scoop" Jackson, Lloyd Bentsen, William Fulbright, Howard Baker, Evan Bayh, John Edwards and both John and Teddy Kennedy; and Congressmen Richard Nixon, Wilbur Mills, Carl Albert, Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich, among others.

Adept at steering influence and favor to UF, Blue Key "tapped" for honorary membership those it had overlooked as college students or who went to schools other than UF. As the GOP began to prosper in Florida, Republicans such as then-U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, then-Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan and then-Florida Senate President Toni Jennings were tapped.

Over time, Blue Key developed "an outstanding reputation for being the ultimate network for future Florida leaders. The reputation of the alumni was outstanding," says 29-year-old U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, who was tapped in 1994. "Anybody who was anybody in Florida politics had been in Florida Blue Key -- and not just politics but business, the law, agriculture."

Take J. Hyatt Brown (tapped in 1959) and Charles Wells (tapped in 1960), fraternity brothers and roommates. Through Blue Key, they became friends with the likes of future U.S. Sen. Bob Graham (tapped in 1958) and Key alum Lawton Chiles (tapped in 1954.)

Blue Key members "were kind of a community by reason of that common experience," Wells says. When Brown ran for the Legislature in 1972, he turned for help to Graham, who already was serving in the Legislature with a "whole bunch" of other Blue Keys. Brown, later Florida House Speaker and chairman of Brown & Brown, one of the nation's largest insurance firms, returned the favor to subsequent generations of Keys who came to him for advice, campaign contributions and jobs. Decades after they met, Gov. Chiles appointed Wells to the state Supreme Court.

Blue Key was where future leaders learned their skills. "It taught you one thing: You make your friends before you need them," says Dexter Douglass, Chiles' general counsel (tapped in 1950). Tallahassee Assistant City Attorney Michael Spellman (tapped in 1986): "An incredible training ground. You learn some real skills I was able to use and still use today -- compromise, negotiation, coalition building."

Members also learned hardball politics. "An intensely political organization," says Putnam. "It's probably more political than the Florida Legislature. The knives are just as long. It's outstanding preparation for political campaigning, the good and the bad."

Rarely did someone outside the Key system win the student body presidency. Long drawing most of its members from fraternities and sororities, Blue Key summoned those blocs to win campus elections.

Fraternities and sororities, anxious that no rival house achieve dominance over Blue Key, horse-traded over who got tapped for membership and for leadership positions in student government. The dealing led to bitter contention and students of merit being shut out while others of less merit got in. Blue Key would reject worthy applicants from Greek houses that didn't toe the Blue Key line in campus politics.

Sarasota lawyer Dan Lobeck (tapped in 1972) was student body vice president in 1975 when he decided to run for president. Blue Key leaders told him he couldn't; someone else from his fraternity was slated for a leadership post, and rival houses didn't want his fraternity to hold both jobs. Lobeck ran anyway. Blue Key students wore "Don't Hire Dan" buttons to a dinner with alumni. The day the student newspaper endorsed him, the papers were stolen from the campus.

Lobeck won anyway and credits the experience for shaping his career fighting establishment and pro-development forces ["The Spoilers," June 2001, www.FloridaTrend]. The election opened his eyes to how elites can control a system and turn it to their own ends rather than the common good.

Says Lobeck: "It appalled me Florida's public leaders were getting their training in such a corrupt system."

He'd get no argument from UF graduate student Charles Grapski, who calls Blue Key "a political machine that operated in the shell of a leadership honorary." Grapski ran independent of Blue Key for student body president in 1995. Fliers posted around campus defamed him, claiming falsely that he had a criminal conviction for sexually assaulting a minor. Grapski sued Blue Key. The case, in the words of then-UF President John Lombardi, became a "cause celebre" at the university and in Gainesville and a de facto trial over Blue Key's political power at UF.

Helped by testimony from Blue Key members, Grapski won a $250,000 jury verdict. (Grapski settled with Blue Key for $85,000, but he's still trying to collect judgments from two Blue Key alumni.)

Because of the Grapski affair, "but more importantly by a pattern of behaviors over many years," according to Lombardi, UF pondered ending Blue Key's control of homecoming. Instead, the university demanded reforms.

The Grapski incident stained Blue Key's reputation, but changing times have had a greater impact. Some changes Blue Key weathered, though not gracefully. UF went co-ed in 1947, but Blue Key didn't tap a woman until 1974 and didn't have a woman president until 1990. The first black member was tapped in 1970, and the first black president, James C. Cunningham Jr., now a Miami attorney, was elected in 1978.

Other changes it couldn't handle. Blue Key rose to power when Florida had just one public university for white men and one public law school -- UF's. Now, Florida has 11 public universities and 10 public and private law schools.

Florida's soaring population brought new leaders and diluted the impact of Blue Key cadres. When Florida had only 10 congressmen, seven were Blue Keys. Today it has 25 congressmen, only four are Blue Keys.

And the "long generation" is passing. Former Florida State University President "Sandy" D'Alemberte offers the theory -- actually, wife Patsy's, he says -- that the Blue Key phenomenon owed to the college generation whose education was interrupted by serving in World War II or Korea.

After World War II, Florida giants such as Chesterfield Smith, who founded the Holland & Knight law firm and was president of the American Bar Association, became contemporaries with much younger men through law school and Blue Key. It made for a vast and potent network. "Had Blue Key not existed as an organization, I personally think that phenomenon would still be in place," says D'Alemberte, a University of the South grad who was tapped for Blue Key while at the UF law school.

As other schools, particularly FSU, rose in stature, Blue Key's strength diminished. New political leaders -- including many Republicans or immigrants or residents of the state's urban centers -- with no Blue Key or UF connections were happy to steer power in a different direction. "People would tell me ... 'If you didn't go to Florida and you didn't belong to Blue Key and wanted to get involved in politics, you wouldn't amount to anything,' " says FSU grad John Thrasher, who amounted to Florida House Speaker. "Definitely, that tradition has been broken."

The proximity of FSU's law school to the Capitol, 1st District Court of Appeal, Supreme Court and internships and staff jobs in Tallahassee opened something of an FSU ascendancy.

Like Thrasher, Seminole grads look out for FSU. "It's OK to do something for your alma mater," Thrasher says. "The University of Florida did it for years." Thrasher's influence was key to FSU's effort to open the state's fifth medical school. A predecessor and FSU grad (now FSU president), T.K. Wetherell backed a large classroom complex there.

Thrasher sees a challenge ahead for both UF and FSU as the state's urban universities crank out new generations of leaders and political players who will watch over their own alma maters.

The latest generation of Florida Blue Key differs from its predecessors. In the fall term, for the first time in its 80 years, every Blue Key officer was a woman. But its members have the same sense of legacy as their forebears. (The legacy stares down at them in the form of alum photographs on the Blue Key office walls in the student union.)

The new generation wants to perpetuate that legacy. Its members have the credentials. Persis, the outgoing president who invited John Ashcroft to speak, was high school valedictorian in Deerfield Beach, Delta Gamma sorority president, homecoming queen finalist and is in the top 10% of her law class. Alexis Lambert, the outgoing vice president, was a high school debater in Palm Beach Gardens and a UF actress who obtained her undergraduate degree in three years and is completing work on a law degree and master's.

Roommates, they took different paths to Blue Key. Persis was director of women's affairs for the student government, arranging seminars on rape awareness, eating disorders and other topics. Lambert was a Gator Growl volunteer leader; she's in charge of next fall's entire show. She'll spend the months ahead marshaling about 500 volunteers and staff, raising funds and handling a $750,000 budget.

Interest in being a Key is still high, they say. They routinely get calls from high school kids or their parents asking how to get into Blue Key. They are encouraged as they thumb through the Blue Key directory of alums at all those prominent in the judiciary and politics.

The quantity of Keys relative to the state may be less, but, Persis says, "the quality is the same." And future Keys can count on her to continue the rolling network: "Definitely always be a soft spot for Florida Blue Key members."

Notable Blue Key Members
The ranks of Blue Key members inducted while in college or law school include a who's-who of the state's political and public policy scene over the past decades. Among prominent Blue Keys:

U.S. Senators
Bob Graham
Bill Nelson

Reubin Askew
Lawton Chiles
Buddy MacKay

John Mica
Jeff Miller
Adam Putnam

Education Leaders
Marshall M. Criser
, former UF president and Board of Regents chair
Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, former FSU president
Chester Ferguson, Lykes family chief and former Board of Regents chair (deceased)

Jose A. Gonzalez Jr.
, federal court judge
Stephen H. Grimes, Florida Supreme Court chief justice
James L. King, federal court judge
Stephen C. O'Connell, Florida Supreme Court chief justice (deceased)
Glenn Terrell, Florida Supreme Court chief justice (deceased)
Charles T. Wells, Florida Supreme Court chief justice

Edward L. Jennings Jr.
Perry C. McGriff Jr.
Former Legislators
J. Hyatt Brown
Richard Pettigrew
T. Terrell Sessums

William Hamilton
, political pollster
Julia Johnson, businesswoman, former Public Service Commission chair
Alan Levine, Gov. Jeb Bush's deputy chief of staff
Bill McBride, former managing partner, Holland & Knight, former gubernatorial candidate
John Morgan, personal injury attorney
Chesterfield Smith, American Bar Association president, Holland & Knight founder (deceased)
Steve Spurrier, former UF football coach, former Washington Redskins coach
Larry S. Stewart, past president of Association of Trial Lawyers of America

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