A peaceful protest demonstration nearly disrupted Saint Leo College’s 1969 commencement ceremony.
This is the eighth in a series of feature stories, profiles, and anecdotes recounting the significance of important events or programs in the history of Saint Leo University, which is currently commemorating the 125th anniversary of its founding in 1889.
By Kim Payne, University Communications
Dateline: April 1969
Despite threats from dissident student groups from other colleges in Florida that intended to demonstrate and disrupt the day’s festivities, Saint Leo College was preparing to stage its third senior class baccalaureate and commencement exercises.
On April 30, 1969, President Richard Nixon urged school officials nationwide to “have the backbone to stand up against” revolutionaries bent on taking control of their colleges and universities. His position was reinforced by Secretary of State William Rogers and Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Ironically, the president’s recommendation on “irresponsible” dissent had been neatly demonstrated on the Saint Leo campus on April 26, four days prior to the story making front-page news and appearing on living room televisions throughout the nation.
Even more ironic was the fact that the commencement’s main speaker was Melvin Laird, U.S. secretary of Defense, a choice that was applauded after he accepted. However, the Cabinet member’s impending visit created protest rumblings from other campuses and area locations that continued to mount daily.
The Saint Leo College Board of Trustees made it crystal clear that they would “not tolerate any discourtesy or any attempt to embarrass any of our guests” at the commencement exercises. The trustees declared in a prepared statement: “We will not permit any demonstrations on this private campus. Demonstrators must remain in public areas outside the campus,” they declared.
As a result of these actions, about a mile down the road in San Antonio, about 250 unhappy dissenters were frustrated at a roadblock manned by Pasco County and state law enforcement officers. For several hours, the protesters persisted in their determined efforts to reach the Saint Leo campus with their placards, beads, and bull horns to conduct a previously announced “peaceful demonstration.”
Nearly 3,500 people attended the old-fashioned “God and Country” Baccalaureate and Commencement, including 181 graduates, family, and guests, plus many visiting dignitaries. Also in attendance to receive honorary degrees were State Representative Robert Sikes, dean of the Florida Congressional delegation, and two men endeared to the college – movie star Lee Marvin, a Saint Leo alumnus, and Robert Andrew Brown, long-term benefactor of the college and a member of its Board of Trustees. The bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, the Very Reverend Charles McLaughlin, presided over the baccalaureate Mass.
A final touch of festivity, dignity, and unity was assured when the college received the gracious permission of Florida Presbyterian College to display its impressive collection of the 50 state flags, placed in a majestic array on both sides of the speakers’ platform.
The music was provided by the 589th Air Force Band, MacDill AFB in Tampa, and the color guard was comprised of multi-service military from U.S. Strike Command Headquarters.
In the final analysis, a safe and successful commencement was conducted due to proper planning and safeguards. Not a single person was injured on or in the vicinity of the campus. Several dignitaries, visitors, and Saint Leo community residents expressed their pleasure at having attended such impressive ceremonies under such strong leadership.
Media accounts of the day’s proceedings reported an overwhelming approval in editorial comment from the print, radio, and TV media. Alumni, faculty, and friends of the university applauded the firm stand taken by the Board of Trustees, which made this commencement a success.
Board of Trustee Chairman Raleigh Greene summed up the situation in an editorial that appeared in the Dade City Banner: “…St. Leo’s College is a private school, and the commencement is a private ceremony. Protestors have no more right there than they would to come parading through your living room to insult one of your guests.”
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Kim Payne joined Saint Leo’s University Communications office in 2013 as the staff writer and media coordinator. A 30-year professional communicator, he has worked in environments ranging from corporate to health care to advertising agencies and non-profits. Outside the office, he and his wife, Sue, enjoy playing golf and are huge hockey fans. You can reach Kim in UC at 352-588-7233 or email@example.com.
Source: Information excerpted from Saint Leo Commencement Exercises 1969 produced by the Development and Public Relations Office, Saint Leo College, May 1969.