Home » News » August 19- Stetson University College of Law celebrates 50 years in Gulfport

August 19- Stetson University College of Law celebrates 50 years in Gulfport


Contact Frank Klim
Executive Director of Communications
(727) 562-7889

Gulfport, Fla. – Fifty years ago this fall, Stetson University College of Law moved across the state from the University’s main campus in DeLand to Gulfport. A variety of events have been scheduled to celebrate the golden anniversary of Florida’s first law school’s move to Tampa Bay.

Events will include the unveiling of a historic marker from the Florida Division of Historical Resources recognizing the Gulfport campus as a heritage landmark, tours of campus, a history lecture series, a film series, alumni reunions and an antique car exhibit. Also, a book chronicling the school’s 104-year history is being written.

“Stetson is excited to celebrate 50 years at our magnificent campus in Gulfport, 50 years of volunteering and working with the Tampa Bay community, and more than a century of producing outstanding lawyers, judges and community leaders,” said Dean Darby Dickerson.

Stetson University opened Florida’s first law school in 1900 in DeLand. The first class consisted of only five students. Enrollment and the quality of education increased gradually until the start of World War II, when the college closed briefly. The war’s end and the G.I. Bill brought a surge of enrollment. The law school outgrew its facilities on the main campus and moved to Navy barracks outside DeLand. When those barracks proved unsuitable for a permanent home, the College started looking for another Florida location and contacting leaders in several communities. A group of prominent St. Petersburg-area citizens, including Florida Power President Bill Clapp, enticed the University to move to the College to the expansive grounds and buildings that had served as the former home of a grand resort, the Hotel Rolyat, and later the Florida Military Academy. The land and facilities, which had fallen into disrepair and were in foreclosure, were valued at more than $1 million in 1953; the College purchased the property for $200,000.

The first classes at the Gulfport campus took place on Sept. 20, 1954.

The University purchased 17 buildings and approximately 21 acres, composing a gorgeous, architecturally distinct campus. The buildings had been part of the hotel, which was built in 1925 by promoter Jack Taylor and named after him (“Rolyat” is “Taylor” backwards). The hotel was styled after a medieval Spanish village, complete with appropriate towers, arches, walled enclosures and imported brightly colored antique-tiled fountains. The main entrance to the Plaza is a reproduction of the Aleantara Bridge in Toledo, Spain, and the main tower is based on Torre del Oro in Seville, Spain. The resort changed ownership after the collapse of the Florida land boom and later served as the Florida Military Academy from 1932 until 1951.

Not only did the relocation to Gulfport result in a unique and colorful campus for the College of Law, but it invigorated all connected with the school. Stetson President Dr. J. Ollie Edmunds appointed Florida Supreme Court Justice Harold L. “Tom” Sebring as dean soon after the move. Sebring had a diverse professional background, having spent time as a farmer, military officer, athlete, head football coach at the University of Florida, and circuit, then Supreme Court, jurist. Justice Sebring also served as a presiding judge at the Nuremberg Nazi war tribunals.

As dean of the College for 13 years (1955-1968), Sebring oversaw major expansion: the student body grew from 95 to 295, the faculty expanded from three members to 12, and 40,000 volumes were added to the library. Sebring established a Board of Overseers to help run the College, and he also established a public defender clinic. With Sebring’s guidance, the College of Law was on the path to legal excellence.

Since 1968, the College of Law has continued to grow and flourish. Following Dean Sebring, the law school was led by deans Richard T. Dillon, Bruce R. Jacob, Lizabeth Moody and W. Gary Vause. Darby Dickerson is the current dean.

Stetson Law graduates have included six Florida Supreme Court justices, several federal district and appellate court jurists, scores of state judges, numerous public officials, nationally recognized trial lawyers and corporate executives.

Today, Stetson University College of Law has approximately 850 full- and part-time students; 51 full-time faculty (including three chaired professors); approximately 100 part-time faculty; and a support staff of almost 200. The library has grown to house more than 390,000 volumes. The

College offers programs leading to the J.D., M.B.A. and LL.M. degrees. The part-time program and the Tampa Law Center offer new opportunities.

The Tampa Law Center is a major hub for legal activity in downtown Tampa and houses evening law classes, the Tampa branch of the Florida Second District Court of Appeal and continuing legal education programs.

This unique combination makes the William Reece Smith Jr. Courtroom only the third location in the country, and the first in Florida, where a law school and sitting court share space.

The College of Law’s curriculum includes international programs; one of the nation’s top-ranked trial advocacy programs (placing first in six of the nine annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report); and recognized programs in trial advocacy, elder law and international law and business. The College is also a leader in the field of higher education law and policy.

A variety of events and presentations are scheduled to celebrate the College of Law’s golden anniversary in Tampa Bay.

Golden Anniversary special presentations:
Sept. 18:

Noon-4 p.m. 1950s Classic Car Exhibit – Stetson parking lot
Free and open to public
Noon-4 p.m. Campus Tours and trolley rides-Free and open to public

Oct. 5: History of Gulfport by author Lynn Brown
Noon Great Hall – Free and open to public

Nov. 9: Panel Discussion on Architectural History of College of Law
Noon Great Hall – Free and open to public

The Golden Anniversary Film Festival
The festival will feature movies that are associated with Stetson University College of Law. All films are free and open to the public. All movies will play in Stetson’s Great Hall at 7 p.m. on the following Wednesdays:

Gideon’s Trumpet Sept. 8
The Strange One Sept. 22 (Filmed on Stetson’s Campus)
Judgment at Nuremberg Oct. 13
A Deadly Business Oct. 27