Palm Beach State College, Florida's first public community college, will be celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2023.
From its humble beginnings in 1933 with 41 students in a building next to Palm Beach High School, Palm Beach State College has grown to become one of the largest institutions of higher education in Palm Beach County. Currently serving more than 40,000 students annually, the College offers classes at five locations.
Over time, the College's mission has become more comprehensive to serve the educational needs of Palm Beach County residents. Palm Beach State College now offers bachelor's and associate degrees, professional certificates, workforce development and lifelong learning.
Learn all about the College's history and view images and videos from the past. You are invited to re-connect with the College by posting your memories and photos on the Time Passages history blog.
A Brief Chronicle
Establishing Florida's first public two-year college in the depths of the Great Depression may have seemed like folly in 1933. Large government expenditures were out of the question. Still, civic organizations and local citizens lobbied the County Board of Public Instruction to open a two-year public college for the area's high school graduates who were unable to find employment and couldn't afford to leave home to attend a university.
County School Superintendent Joe Youngblood and Howell Watkins, principal of Palm Beach High School, consulted with the University of Florida and the Florida State Women's College (Florida State University) and based the College's curriculum on that of the two universities. Because of the Depression-era budget, teachers at Palm Beach High School volunteered to teach at the College for free.
A total of 41 students began classes on Nov. 14, 1933, at the new Palm Beach Junior College adjacent to the high school in downtown West Palm Beach. Youngblood and Watkins (the first dean of the College) founded and nurtured the fledgling institution until John I. Leonard became its first president in 1936. Leonard was affectionately known as "Mr. Junior College" because of his dedication to the students, the College and the two-year college system.
By 1948, the College had outgrown its original building and moved to Morrison Field, a retired Air Force base used in World War II, where the library was housed in a vast airplane hangar and the Officer's Club became the perfect Student Union Building. Just three years later, though, the Korean Conflict erupted, and Morrison Field was reactivated. The air base later became Palm Beach International Airport.
In 1951 Palm Beach Junior College moved yet again, to Lake Park Town Hall, where the quarters were so cramped students had to be turned away, and enrollment dropped significantly to less than 200. Chemistry class was held in the jail. The local media dubbed it "the little orphan college," but the Lake Park location is remembered fondly by its alumni for the camaraderie that existed there. Master English and Speech Professor Watson B. Duncan taught classes in the nearby church and even in the hallway.
Almost five years later the Board of Public Instruction of Palm Beach County donated 114 acres in Lake Worth to the College, and the state gave PBJC $1 million for buildings. The College finally had a permanent home. Harold C. Manor, Ph.D., became president in 1958 directing extraordinary growth in enrollment, services and offerings, including many technical and vocational programs.
In 1965, the state legislature ordered that black and white two-year colleges be merged, and the mostly white Palm Beach Junior College and the all-black Roosevelt Junior College became one. Six professors and staff members from Roosevelt were transferred to PBJC, and other faculty members were transferred to the school district.
In the 1970s and 80s the College established satellite centers, then permanent locations in Belle Glade, Palm Beach Gardens and Boca Raton. Edward M. Eissey, Ph.D., president from 1978 to 1996, was the driving force behind the building boom and the name change to Palm Beach Community College in 1988.
Dennis P. Gallon, Ph.D., served as president for 18 years, beginning in 1997. Dr. Gallon expanded the College’s comprehensive mission with more workforce education programs and expanded business and industry partnerships. In 2008, the College received State Board of Education approval to offer its first baccalaureate degree, a Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision and Management. Upper-level courses in this degree program began in 2009, and the College was renamed Palm Beach State College in 2010 to reflect its expanded educational offerings.
Ava L. Parker, J.D., became Palm Beach State College’s first woman president in 2015.
|Ava L. Parker, J.D. became Palm Beach State College’s fifth president, and its first female president, on July 1, 2015. Read her bio.|
|Dr. Dennis P. Gallon became Palm Beach State College's fourth president in 1997, continuing the College's expansion by adding an array of workforce training programs, implementing a contemporary technology infrastructure, expanding distance learning opportunities through television and the Internet and creating partnerships with business, education and other agencies in the community.|
|Dr. Edward M. Eissey became the College's third president in 1978, supervising the College's building boom at the Belle Glade, Palm Beach Gardens and Boca Raton locations. Following Dr. Eissey's recommendation, the Board of Trustees voted to rename the college to Palm Beach Community College in 1988 to more accurately reflect the College's comprehensive mission.|
|Dr. Harold C. Manor became the College's second president in 1958. During Dr. Manor's tenure, the College experienced outstanding growth in enrollment, staff, course offerings and services to the community.|
|Dr. John I. Leonard served as the first president of Palm Beach Junior College from 1936-1958 and was the catalyst for the College's accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 1942.|
Roosevelt Junior College President
|Britton Sayles was president of Roosevelt Junior College prior to its merging with PBJC in 1965. Under the leadership of Sayles, RJC was responsible for ensuring higher education opportunities for the African American community.|
Palm Beach Junior College Co-founders
|Joe Youngblood, superintendent of schools for Palm Beach County, promoted the junior college concept through civic clubs and related organizations and is credited with being a co-founder of Palm Beach Junior College along with Howell L. Watkins.|
|Howell L. Watkins was both principal of Palm Beach High School and the first dean of Palm Beach Junior College. Watkins is credited with being a co-founder of Palm Beach Junior College along with Joe Youngblood.|
1933 - Palm Beach Junior College opened at Palm Beach High School (the historical building
downtown) in the depths of the Great Depression, the first public junior college in
Florida. County school superintendent Joe Youngblood and Howell Watkins, principal
of Palm Beach High School, who became the College’s first dean, were instrumental
in opening the college to high school graduates who desired additional training because
so few jobs were available.
1936 – The first PBJC graduates were Charlotte Cross, Virginia Cunningham and Frank Kamiyo.
1936-1958 - John I. Leonard, county Superintendent of Public Instruction, became PBJC’s first president. He was affectionately known in the community as “Mr. Junior College.”
1948 – PBJC moved to Morrison Field, a deactivated Army-Air Force base, which is now the Palm Beach International Airport.
1951 – PBJC relocated to Lake Park Town Hall. The facilities were so cramped, the college had to lay off faculty and staff and cut enrollment to 200 students. Newspapers referred to PBJC as “the little orphan college.”
1955 – The County Commission gave the college 114 acres in Lake Worth, and the state legislature passed a bill funding over a million dollars for buildings. The college reopened there in the fall of 1956.
1958 – Roosevelt Junior College for African American students was established under President Britton Sayles.
1958 – 1978 - Dr. Harold Manor was PBJC president.
1965 – During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Roosevelt Junior College merged with PBJC, a mostly white college.
1968 – PBJC, which had been legally governed by the Palm Beach County school district, came under the legal custodianship of a Board of Trustees.
1978 – 1997 - Dr. Edward Eissey was PBJC president.
1978 – PBJC in Belle Glade opened.
1980 – PBJC in Palm Beach Gardens opened.
1983 – PBJC in Boca Raton opened.
1988 – The Board of Trustees approved a name change to Palm Beach Community College to more accurately reflect the broad scope of College programs and services.
1997 – Dr. Dennis P. Gallon became PBCC’s fourth president.
1999 – PBCC assumes responsibility for more than 40 post secondary adult vocational programs in a transition from the Palm Beach County School District.
2008 – State Board of Education gives approval for PBCC to offer its first baccalaureate degree, a Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision and Management.
2010 – The college is renamed Palm Beach State College to reflect the expanded educational offerings.
2014 – PBSC broke ground on its fifth campus location in Loxahatchee Groves.
2015 – Ava L. Parker, J.D. became Palm Beach State’s fifth president.
As Palm Beach County's first higher education institution, Palm Beach State College has seen thousands of students pass through its doors. If you ask students who attended the College from 1948 through 1991 what they remember most, chances are many would mention the same professor - Watson B. Duncan III, who taught English literature. To many people, Watson B. Duncan not only was their most memorable teacher, but inspired them to pursue careers in acting, writing and teaching. Now almost a quarter century after his passing in 1991, 2015 would have marked his 100th birthday.
Watson Boone Duncan III was born February 16, 1915, in Charleston, South Carolina. His grandfather, Dr. Watson B. Duncan I, was a well-known Methodist minister who authored books on religion, poets and poetry. Duncan's father, Watson B. Duncan II, also was a Methodist minister who traveled the South teaching the Gospel. It was hoped that the youngest Watson, who was affectionately called "Boonie" by the family, would also become a minister. But he soon discovered that his life had a different calling - to become a teacher of literature and to bring his beloved English literature to the classroom in a style all his own.
Watson attended the Epworth Boarding School in South Carolina where he worked in the print shop. He attended the University of South Carolina where he earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in English. He also did graduate work in 1961 at the University of Birmingham in England at the Shakespeare Institute and Royal Theatre. In 1948, he began teaching at Palm Beach Junior College, whose campus at that time was located at Morrison Field in the old Army Air Corps complex. When the College was displaced by the field's reactivation during the Korean War, the College relocated to the Lake Park Town Hall. Duncan's classes were so popular that it was difficult to find a classroom large enough for the many students who wanted to take his classes in English literature.
His nicknames among students were many. Some called him "The Pied Piper of English literature," or simply "The Third." Once the College found its permanent home in Lake Worth, Florida, the only classroom big enough for the popular professor was the College's theater. It allowed Duncan to lecture from the stage and make literature come alive for students. He also guided the College's newspaper, The Beachcomber, for many years, as well serving as head of the theater department and directing student plays during the evening. Duncan was also well known in the community for his book reviews, where a small admission fee was charged to fund student scholarships.
So what made Duncan so memorable to students? How did he touch so many lives? The man himself gave the answer during an interview: "In instruction you must hold the interest of the student. The cardinal sin of an instructor is to bore the class - an instructor has no right to bore a class." During each class, students were treated to a performance; Duncan did not just read the classics, he performed them, in his booming voice with just a touch of Southern drawl. Many students even remember what he did during exams to break the tension - be on stage with pencils in his ears, sighing loudly. When class began, he would begin where he left off, and students could not wait for the story to continue, whether it be a Shakespeare classic or an older work such as Chaucer. He would say "We were so rudely interrupted by the end of the class..." and continue his teaching. Duncan was also a well-known Shakespearean actor at the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario, Canada. He also made many a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare. As all former students know, Duncan called Shakespeare "The Big S."
But the true mark of his teaching is alluded to in a book dedication written by John A. Vance, one of Duncan's former students - "For Watson B. Duncan III - A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." He inspired nationally known figures such as actor Burt Reynolds, actor Monte Markham and writer Terry Garrity to their professions. Reynolds even gave Duncan a small part in his 1976 film Gator. But perhaps to Duncan, the true mark of influence may come from those he inspired to teach. Many former students said that they teach today because of Duncan: "I became an English teacher because of him. I knew if he had that much passion for the spoken word, I could too. We were so blessed to have him at our school!"
Videotape of him teaching has been preserved in the Palm Beach State College archives, and a sampling of the magic that made him memorable can be seen in the film "Good Night, Sweet Prince," which is linked below. The theater at the College's Lake Worth campus was named in his honor. Duncan was still actively teaching when he passed away February 21, 1991; his service was held in the theater bearing his name. A middle school in Palm Beach Gardens was also named in his honor.
On a personal note, I too was a student of Duncan's. Even though it has been over 30 years since I sat in his classroom, I can still hear his voice in my mind. The passion he had for his craft is something that all students felt. His magic changed us all, and caused me to understand the power of teaching to transform, to challenge and to inspire.
Quotes from former students:
"Best teacher I ever had. Always looked forward to his class because you never knew what he would do next to make the material so fascinating."
"He would walk the aisles during exams coughing and making all kinds of weird noises, just to lighten the moment. Everyone would crack up, while we were supposed to be serious and taking a test. THE BEST!"
"He brought Shakespeare and Chaucer to life! I adored his class. One of the most memorable professors I ever had. Sometimes he was so good at engaging us in his lectures that I forgot to take notes. Then, I'd quickly recover and continue because you had to know DETAILS to pass his tests! Loved, loved, loved his Brit Lit classes."
"My favorite quote: "There may be snow on the mountain but there's a fire burning below"..."
"Best teacher I ever had, and also served as my advisor when I was President of Phi Rho Pi. Every time I drive by the theater that bears his name, I say a little word of thanks!"
- Distinguished Floridian of the Year, 1980
- National Community College Professor of the Year, 1985
- Palm Beach Junior College names theater for Watson B. Duncan, 1986
- Golden Deeds Award, Exchange Club of Lake Worth, 1987
- Vincent Safuto - The Greatest Teacher I Ever Saw
- Karen's Korner - Watson B. Duncan III
- Our Century from the Palm Beach Post - Gladly would he learn, and gladly teach
- Ginger L. Pedersen, January 29, 2015
Watson B. Duncan and his wife Honey Duncan made a cameo appearance on the 1989 television show B.L. Stryker with Burt Reynolds.
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