Humphries leaves indelible legacy as FAMU president

Col. Gregory Clark, president of FAMU National Alumni Association presents the organization’s Medal of Service to former FAMU president Frederick S. Humphries.
Photo submitted FAMU NAA
Former FAMU president Frederick S. Humphries always took command when he made a public speech.
Photo submitted
Former FAMU president Frederick S Humphries left a remarkable mark on the university.
Photo Submited by Vaughn Wilson

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

With everyone of the condolences issued since the death of former FAMU president Frederick S. Humphries, his commitment to education rung through along with his passion for the university where he was president for 16 years.

“There was never anybody else like him in terms of his energy, his creativity, his dynamism, his determination to take FAMU beyond equal,” said Eddie Jackson, who was vice president for University Relations under Humphries. “He wanted to win. He wanted the best students, the best faculty and the best programs.”

Humphries, whose tenure from 1985 to 2001 made him the third-longest serving president at FAMU, died last Thursday at his home in Orlando. He was 85.

 FAMU supporters were encouraged in the Rattler National blog to simultaneously raise a glass to salute to Humphries on Sunday evening. The university said in a release last week that a memorial was being planned to take place on campus.

 Meanwhile, current president Larry Robinson last week ordered that flags on the main campus and satellite locations be flown at half-staff. 

During the upcoming fall season, FAMU sports teams will also wear decals in honor of Humphries.

Robinson called Humphries “one of FAMU’s favorite sons,” in a statement, adding “he committed his life to the advancement of higher education, in particular within the HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) community, and changed the trajectory of FAMU.

Humphries rose from the little Florida fishing town of Apalachicola just South of Tallahassee to become a trailblazer for his work in attracting the best Black minds to a HBCU. He did that primarily by creating the Life Gets Better Scholarship, one of his many initiatives that impacted how FAMU was perceived and led to the university being selected in 1997 as TIME Magazine/Princeton Review “College of the Year.”  

That was a first for any HBCU. Just as huge was Humphries’ ability to put FAMU in a position where it topped Harvard University and Stanford University for having the highest number of National Achievement Scholars. That was a feat achieved three times under Humphries.

During his first eight years of occupying the president’s office in Lee Hall, FAMU experienced an enrollment increase that jumped from 5,100  to 9,876.

“It raised the consciousness level of Black college presidents all over the country in what was possible for their institutions,” said Jackson. “The best Black students in America would come to HBUCs if they could get scholarships and the schools have great programs.”

Humphries’ ties to FAMU go back to his own college days. He graduated with honors in 1957 with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry. Later he earned a master’s and a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh, becoming the first Black Pittsburgh graduate to obtain a Ph.D. in his discipline. 

Humphries first returned to FAMU as a professor of chemistry in 1968. A year earlier, he directed a 13-College Curriculum Program for HBCUs, leading a team of educators to create the “Thirteen College Curriculum Program.” The first-year college academic program was created to improve learning achievements and retention of African Americans in their freshman year.

“His dedication for the betterment of all HBCUs was evident in the legacy he has left,” said Congressman Al Lawson, who was a state senator during Humphries’ tenure. “He was committed to the personal success of every student and faculty member he came in contact with.”

Humphries put in many long hours of work on a fund-raising approach that he mastered over time. He relied heavily on the university’s national alumni association to be successful.

The association honored Humphries with its Presidential Medal of Service, an accolade that Col. Gregory Clark, president of the National Alumni Association, bestowed on Humphries.

“When I think of Dr. Humphries, I think of two words: leadership and legacy,” Clark said. “Dr. Humphries always led from the front in his love for FAMU. Because of his work in the higher education space, his legacy will never be duplicated.”

Humphries’ personality was as large as the challenges that he successfully took on to make FAMU the HBCU by which many others set their standards. Those who spent time close to him said his voice carried as much authority in meetings as it did when he spoke publicly.

When Humphries succeeded Walter Smith as president, he inherited a university that was on the verge of being merged with Florida State University. Ironically, he lived through a similar scenario previously when he was president at Tennessee State University.

However, Humphries fought successfully against the FSU-FAMU merger which came a decade after he had merged TSU, a HBCU, with the predominantly White institution University of Tennessee-Nashville campus. 

“Our hearts are heavy, but our opportunities are brighter based on the life and doors opened by Dr. Humphries,” said Kelvin Lawson, FAMU Board of Trustees chairman in a statement.

 Humphries made another important move almost immediately after he became president at FAMU. He insisted that FAMU was deserving of the law school in Orlando and went on to prove his case that the College of Law should not have been shuttered in 1968. 

Humphries launched such a convincing campaign, calling on alumni and other supporters that led to then governor Jeb Bush authorizing the reopening of the College of Law in 2002.

A year later, Humphries was named a Regent Professor at the College of Law.  

“The College of Law is committed to sustaining that legacy by demonstrating Excellence with Caring across the law school campus,” said Deidré Keller, dean and professor of law.

If any of Humphries’ bold moves caused any dust-up among members of the Board of Trustees it wasn’t obvious. The board seemingly trusted even his most controversial moves without second-guessing.

“His leadership led the university to places and spaces that were unprecedented and aspirational,” said Rev. RB Holmes, who was on the board for the last few years of Humphries’ tenure. “He was a gifted orator, skilled administrator, student oriented, successful fund raiser, a brilliant recruiter of the best and brightest African American students in the country, hired the most prestigious faculty and staff anywhere and an astute political leader.”

 Holmes, like many other FAMU supporters, recommended a bronze statue on campus to cement Humphries’ legacy. 

Humphries’ legacy goes beyond what he did for academics to the playing fields, tennis court and gymnasium. It wasn’t unusual to see his 6-foot-7 figure at a sports venue on campus.

Humphries took the lead in helping to revive the Florida Classic after FAMU and Bethune-Cookman University couldn’t decide where they’d play. He also had a hands-on approach to hiring coaches, positioning the Rattlers to win championships, said Alvin Hollins, who was sports information director under Humphries.

“He just had an eye for good talent,” Hollins said, recalling how he hired Billy Joe away from Central State to coach the football program. Joe was hired to replace Ken Riley, who Humphries kept on as athletic director.

Between the Joe hire and Riley’s fiscal management, Humphries found the remedy for making FAMU  a perennial power in HBCU sports.

“He took a very strong interest in athletics,” Hollins said. “He knew, as president, that was going to generate support for the university (and) the alumni were going to be engaged. He understood that if the athletic program was successful, it would be a whole lot easier to go to the alumni and say we need support.”

Humphries left an indelible mark on pre-game ceremonies on football game day with his rendition of “The Rattler Charge.” His booming voice has been unmatched since the first day he delivered his version of the charge that former president George W. Gore penned in the 1950s.

The charge always generated loud stumping and cheering when Humphries bellow out the words:

 “When the dark clouds gather on the horizon, when thunder and lightning pierce the skies, when fate is but a glare in the eye of a fallen Rattler, and hope …. a lost friend, when the sinew of the chest grows weary from those hard-charging linebackers, and the muscles in the legs grow tired from those hard-charging running backs, you must always remember….the Rattlers will strike, strike and strike again!”

Humphries’ awards and commendations are many. Here is a short list: The 1991 Thurgood Marshall Award for Higher Education (Sponsored by Johnson Publishing Company) … The 1993 Drum Major for Justice Award for Higher Education (Sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – SCLC) … 1997 Floridian of the Year (Sponsored by the Orlando Sentinel) … 2001 The Trumpet Award for Education (Sponsored by Time Warner-Turner Broadcasting Systems) … The 2001 Lifetime Achievement Award for contributions to African Americans in Engineering (National Association of Black Engineers) and numerous honorary doctorate degrees.

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