Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Epilogue | J. Thomas "Tom" West

Professor Tom West helped build Eckerd College, then devoted his life to it

ST. PETERSBURG — Their dream was to build a liberal arts college where none stood before, to teach the most visionary curriculum in the nation. Professors risked giving up tenure at other schools to make Florida Presbyterian College a reality.

They needed just one more element to make it work: students.

So J. Thomas "Tom" West hit the road in 1959, barnstorming across the state, knocking on doors, persuading students to come to a school that had no tradition, no accreditation, no campus.

"In retrospect he laughed because he said he had never done anything like this," said Grover C. Wrenn, 67, one of the founding students. "And yet the fate of the college in many respects was in his hands."

Professor Tom West succeeded, of course. There were 155 students in that first freshman class. He would go on to devote half a century to what would become Eckerd College.

Mr. West died March 13 after a long fight with cancer. He was 84.

His name is writ large throughout the history of the college, which changed its name after Jack Eckerd's $10 million donation in 1971.

Mr. West was the first director of admissions, first dean of men and first director of counseling. He helped establish disciplines in psychology and human development. He started the Program for Experienced Learners and was its longest-serving professor. He received the Robert A. Staub Distinguished Teaching Award and last year was awarded a doctor of humane letters, honoris causa.

Mr. West was man of many facets: a veteran of the Army Air Corps in World War II; director of mental health education for Tennessee; an activist for Tibet; and a tennis coach. And at Eckerd, a pioneer.

"He was devoted to it," said Wrenn, vice chairman of the college's board of trustees, "and he was devoted to the students."

Mr. West was a young father then, the first of his four children having just been born. His son's Nov. 22, 1959, baptism was the college's very first religious service, conducted by founding president William Kadel.

But a college needs students. So it gave Mr. West an old, light blue Ford to go find them. "We didn't see him very much that year," said his former wife, Shirley "Ann" West, 74. "But he was excited at being on the cutting edge here, of starting a new college."

At churches and high schools and homes, he pitched the "daring, different, and innovative" new college overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. The founders' creative vision had Newsweek and Time dub the college the "little Princeton of the South."

And Mr. West relished that he helped make it all happen.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be at the beginning of something very exciting and very important," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1989. "It was mostly going on a dream."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.


J. Thomas
"Tom" West

Nov. 19, 1925.

Died: March 13, 2010.

Survivors: Sons James Frazier West and Mark Thomas West; daughters Julia Kathryn West and Wendi Elizabeth West; and grandchildren Julia Nichole Bower, Nathan Thomas West.

Service: 11 a.m. April 10, Fox Hall, Eckerd College.

Professor Tom West helped build Eckerd College, then devoted his life to it 03/18/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 19, 2010 11:43am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Three-hour police standoff ends, thanks to a cigarette


    TAMPA — A man threatening to harm himself was arrested by Tampa police on Tuesday after a three-hour standoff.

  2. Jones: Rays' Kevin Cash doesn't mind following in Joe Maddon's steps

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — On this particular night, he's the other guy. He's like a talk-show guest scooted to the end of the couch. He is Kevin Cash. And the Rays manager is standing in the home dugout at Tropicana Field.

    ST. PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 17: Manager Kevin Cash (L) of the Tampa Bay Rays reacts to action during the game against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field on September 17, 2017 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty Images) 700012494
  3. 7.1 magnitude quake kills at least 139, collapses buildings in Mexico


    MEXICO CITY — A magnitude 7.1 earthquake stunned central Mexico on Tuesday, killing at least 139 people as buildings collapsed in plumes of dust. Thousands fled into the streets in panic, and many stayed to help rescue those trapped.

    A woman is lifted on a stretcher from of a building that collapsed during an earthquake in Mexico City, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. [Rebecca Blackwell | Associated Press]
  4. Hurricane Maria's winds hit 175 mph as it aims at Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands


    SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hurricane Maria barreled toward Puerto Rico on Tuesday night after wreaking widespread devastation on Dominica and leaving the small Caribbean island virtually …

    A boat lays on its side off the shore of Sainte-Anne on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, early Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, after the passing of Hurricane Maria. [Dominique Chomereau-Lamotte | Associated Press]
  5. Another Hollywood nursing home resident dies. It's the 9th in post-Irma tragedy.

    State Roundup

    The Broward County Medical Examiner's office is investigating another death of a resident of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills — the ninth blamed on the failure of a cooling system that became a stifling deathtrap three days after Irma hit.

    Carlos Canal, pictured at 47 years old, came to Miami from Cuba in 1960. Above is his citizenship photo. [Courtesy of Lily Schwartz]