TAMPA — The lifelong friends can still recall the first time they met.
Sue Parrish and Mary Garrison were waiting to register for classes at the fledgling University of South Florida in 1960 when they struck up a conversation. They chatted about life and the new university and instantly hit it off.
"We started talking right over the girl between us," Parrish recalled. "She said, 'Why don't y'all sit next to each other? You seem to have a lot more in common.' "
Today, along with another college friend, Jane Keegan, they will walk across the stage in their caps and gowns and receive a gold medallion honoring the 50th anniversary of the university's charter class.
As an added bonus, they'll watch Parrish's granddaughter receive her degree as part of the 2013 graduating class.
"It's very special to share this day with her," Parrish said. "She's ready. She works full time and paid her way."
In honor of the first 50-year class, the USF Alumni Association created the Golden Guard Society to induct a new class each year.
Founded in 1956, USF opened its doors to students in 1960. The first graduation ceremonies were held in a campus parking lot in 1963. Since then, the four buildings have multiplied to more than 100. A large, sprawling field was filled in with dorms and class buildings and state-of-the-art athletic facilities.
"I can't believe the size of the campus now," fellow graduate Dell Shadgett of Winter Park said. "It's very spread out. It's beautiful. The size, the programs, the curriculum — it's wonderful."
USF's current graduating class of 4,276 will be significantly larger than the original 325.
Graduates from the first class include Earl Lennard, Hillsborough County's former school superintendent and supervisor of elections; and David C. Jordan, who served as assistant director of USF's Fort Myers campus, which closed in 2007.
The group of more than two dozen graduates spent Friday touring, visiting colleges, watching a historical presentation and meeting coaches. The day culminated with a cocktail party and a 1960s-style dinner and dance.
"It was nice to see where USF has gone in the past 50-some years," said junior Natalie Pearson, a USF ambassador who spent Friday with the honorees. "On the bus, they were going around comparing student ID numbers. " 'I'm five,' one said. 'Well, I'm three,' said another. It was definitely inspiring."
Parrish, Garrison and Keegan traded jokes about the extravagant athletic facilities as they toured the campus.
"Oh, hot tubs," Garrison said, pointing at the whirlpools in the athletic training room. "Are they going to give us a free massage?"
"There's nothing here for me," Parrish said as they stepped into the massive weight room.
"Except maybe him," she said, pointing at a young man sitting on a workout bench.
As they snapped photos on their iPhones — Parrish with Garrison next to Rocky the Bull, Keegan shooting a photo of a tennis player, hoping to inspire her grandson — they laughed about the memories they shared and the way things have changed.
They spent the years after graduation teaching at Brandon High School. Keegan would move to Gainesville and Garrison to South Carolina, but they always found time to reunite. In preparation for the anniversary weekend, Garrison drove down from South Carolina and picked Keegan up on the way.
"Everything has been so well organized, and they've had so many special arrangements for us," Garrison said. "We're just so excited to be back."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.