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.