It has been nearly 65 years since Robert Beach last set foot in this room.
He remembers the brick walls that were once painted a gray blue. The circular space, only as big as an office cubicle, once held his bed, which was really just a mattress and box spring.
One light hung from the wall, but the long, rectangular windows surrounding the room provided ample illumination during the day.
With his white floral Hawaiian shirt, deep tan and that last name, the 88-year-old Beach seems to be the epitome of a Floridian — though he’s not a native.
He is one of the state’s longest-serving judges. His impressive career in the Pinellas-Pasco Judicial Circuit includes a brush with Scientologists and the murder trial of Raymond Robert Clark, who was later executed.
Even in retirement, Beach has been consistent in his love of one activity—swimming. In fact, he swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco for his 87th birthday.
Recently, he has unearthed yet another distinction: He is one of only a few University of Tampa students who have lived in the school’s iconic silver minarets.
Now, years later, Beach has returned to the place he once called home.
“I think I want to move back in,” he says, gesturing to those of us in the room with him — a Times reporter, photographer and a university spokeswoman. “So, ladies, it’s been nice knowing you.”
From the outside, the minarets resemble two cone-like domes essentially stacked on each other.
On the inside, they reveal multiple chambers — small, circular floors connected by wooden staircases.
A landmark of the past, the minarets are rarely entered these days. They are generally only open to students, parents and alumni on special days.
This month, Beach had the opportunity to return to the minarets as part of a tour set up after the Tampa Bay Times published a story about their history.
Yet he ended up at the University of Tampa purely by accident.
At the time, he had a decision to make. He was 19, living in Malibu, Calif., running that area’s only liquor store — located in a fish market — and attending classes at Santa Monica College. A professor there encouraged him to go to college and Beach talked it over with a liquor salesman who spent his winters in Miami.
“You’ve got to go to Miami,” the salesman told Beach. “There are a lot of pretty girls there and you’ll like the University of Miami.”
So Beach agreed. But when his professor contacted the school, they said they were closed to potential applicants during that period. University of Florida? Same thing. Finally, he found the University of Tampa, which he fondly calls “Tampa U.” They were “always open.”
When Beach arrived in the early 1950s, he thought Tampa would be just like Miami. He spent two semesters adjusting. He first traveled to the state in the midst of a hurricane — not the best way to make an introduction. He ate at the Columbia restaurant, the Californian in him expecting to taste Mexican food.
He returned to California after those two semesters. There, he worked as a bartender, went to Las Vegas, lost money, had Frank Sinatra buy him a drink. Finally, he had an epiphany: ‘I can’t stay in Vegas. I’ll be broke the rest of my life.’
Eventually, Beach remembered his mother’s refrain, “They can take everything from me, but they can’t take my degree,” and was inspired to go back to school.
Back in Tampa, Beach got a gig bartending at the Chesterfield Show Bar, a place he called a “strip joint,” where he was able to make enough money to subsidize his schooling.
So how did he end up living in a minaret?
While working at the bar and going to school, he suddenly found he could no longer afford his apartment. He recalled a morning spent at Plant Hall, once UT’s only campus building, where he snuck up the minaret stairs, down a tiny passageway from the men’s dorm.
At the time, the minarets were somewhat open to students. A 1968 article from The Muezzin, UT’s alumni publication, indicates that they were “easily accessible.” Occasionally, students would climb into the minarets to watch the auto races when the Florida State Fair was located by the school’s campus.
But when Beach climbed up as a student, he found something a little less pleasant.
“The place was a mess,” Beach said.
There were pigeon droppings everywhere he looked and broken windows.
But he wasn’t in a position to choose. So he appealed to M.C. Rhodes, then the dean of administration, and asked for a deal. “I’ve been up in the minarets, it’s a mess,” he told him. Beach offered to paint and put new window panes in if he could live there for free.
The minarets came with their benefits. The tiny room became the “center of fun” for the university’s male students. They would ascend into the minaret’s first landing and play cards with Beach, who only slept three hours at night and three in the afternoon.
Compared to the guys who lived in the dormitories, Beach had it made. Sure, he had to go down the stairs to go to the bathroom or shower, and sometimes he heard the tapping of pigeons against the windows. But he had his own place.
When he finally showed Dean Rhodes what he’d done with the minaret, the school administrator wrinkled his nose, Beach said, eyeing the walls Beach had painted.
“This is the color you like?” Rhodes asked him of the smoky blue.
“He didn’t like it,” Beach says, recounting the story. “But he wasn’t living there.”
Things have changed since 1951, when Beach was a freshman at the school. He graduated in 1955. Tuition then was $175 a semester. It’s now about $28,000 a year.
“I wouldn’t have seen half of what I’ve seen now,” Beach said of the view. “Most of this was all yard over there.”
After climbing several flights of stairs, Beach waits a beat to take it all in.
The view from the very top of the minarets is expansive. There is the Hillsborough River, framed by the minaret’s walls. The Riverwalk and the iconic Sykes Tower lie in the distance, while on the other side UT’s campus stretches out before us.
“This is impressive,” he says, punctuating his words with a slight chuckle.