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Dr. Maxwell King `50 didn’t consider the words of his college professor to be life-changing or role-defining immediately after hearing them. If anything, the statement made during a leadership course taken during his junior year at Auburn bewildered him.
“In a sentence from a lecture, she said, ‘In the final analysis, students, the only way to lead is to lead,’” said King, a general education graduate. “I had this kooky feeling in my head, ‘What in the world did she mean?’”
The more King thought about his teacher’s statement, the more he identified with the message. Those words influenced his actions as a classroom teacher, a principal, a soldier, a college president and a community philanthropist. King, who visited Auburn University in November 2011 as the College of Education’s ninth Keystone Leader-in-Residence, expounded on the meaning behind his professor’s statement more than 60 years ago.
“Do something with the information you have,” King said. “Get through the bureaucracy and the things that slow you down. When you see that something needs to be done, do it.”
In King’s case, it meant seizing those moments in which a difference could be made in the lives of the students he served during his time as a high school educator and in 38 years as a junior college administrator. It meant thinking creatively and acting courageously as the nation’s youngest college president at the age of 32 as the newly-formed Indiana River Junior College took shape. It meant pushing for the desegregation of Florida’s junior colleges and creating new educational opportunities for minority students and women. It meant seeing the possibilities of evolving technology and the potential for distance education.
More than anything, it meant living the words that George Petrie outlined in The Auburn Creed, of believing in hard work and education, of behaving in a way that would “win the respect and confidence” of his fellow man, of providing “the human touch” to bring “happiness for all.”
Trained on the Plains
Despite growing up in humble surroundings, as one of eight children in a family that made the most of it had, King had his pick of colleges as a senior at St. Lucie County High School in Fort Pierce, Fla. He happened to be a highly productive halfback on a successful football team, and caught the attention of coaches at Florida, Georgia Tech, and Duke, among others. Auburn, then known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute, offered a scholarship as well.
In order to see all that Auburn offered, King had to hop aboard a train for the first time in the summer of 1946.
“That train ride sold me on Auburn,” he said.
On his first carry for the Auburn freshman team, King ripped off a 65-yard gain but sustained a season-ending collarbone injury after being ridden down by tacklers. A severe knee injury before his sophomore season ended his football career, but the Auburn coaching staff kept him on scholarship as an assistant trainer and water boy.
“They could have let my scholarship go,” King said, “but they kept me. I will always remember the people who made that decision to not let this kid go somewhere else and fill his position with somebody who had two good legs.
“I’ll always be indebted to the university for that.”
King returned to Fort Pierce after graduating from Auburn and accepted a position as a middle school math and science teacher, as well as an assistant coach for the high school football and track teams.
“Strange enough, the teachers were proud of one of their own coming back,” he said.
The students weren’t particularly excited by the prospect of one of their own leaving after King, a former ROTC student at Auburn, received a call to service from the Army in 1951. Before King’s deployment, students in his class staged an elaborate prank in which the local sheriff had the teacher “arrested” and taken into custody so he couldn’t leave them.
“My hometown people treated me the way Auburn people treated me,” King said.
King served as a tank commander in the U.S. Army’s First Armored Division and met his eventual wife, Doris, while stationed in Texas.
King continued his education after fulfilling his military obligation, earning a master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Florida. He returned to Fort Pierce, teaching and eventually becoming principal at Dan Carty High School and starting a family with Doris.
In 1957, King laid the groundwork for future career growth by attending the University of Texas’ post-doctoral program in junior college administration and learning from some of the nation’s foremost authorities on higher education management. This became especially important after King’s superintendent, Ben Bryan, asked him to conduct research and construct a report on whether a junior college was needed in St. Lucie County.
King’s project, which outlined the educational and economic benefits of placing a junior college in the community, helped persuade the state to expand its system by creating Indian River, Brevard, Miami-Dade and Broward Junior Colleges. When the Florida Cabinet established Indian River Junior College to serve Fort Pierce and its surrounding areas in 1959, the advisory committee created to select a president quickly turned its attention to the young man who helped set the process in motion.
When King was appointed as Indian River Junior College’s founding president in December 1959, the hometown Fort Pierce News Tribune celebrated the decision:
“The choice of Dr. King could not be termed a surprise … the surprise would have come from any other choice. His outstanding educational background; his untiring efforts in working for the location of a junior college here; his close association with, and thorough knowledge of, junior college work; and his active participation in various types of public affairs; all these things make Max King the man for the presidency.”
When King began serving as president of Indian River in January 1960, he had just celebrated his 32nd birthday. He was the youngest junior college president ever appointed, a distinction that was lost on him at the time for the simple fact that he was too busy searching for classroom space and preparing for an influx of 348 students. Fittingly, the school’s athletic mascot was – and still remains – the Pioneers.
Indian River, which hosted its inaugural courses in local elementary and high school classrooms, now exists as a four-year state college with five campuses, more than 150 academic programs, and a combined enrollment of more than 33,000 students. But Indian River’s present prosperity can be traced back to the energy and force of will exerted by King in the early days.
King viewed junior colleges as havens of opportunity for students from middle- and low-income families. He also believed in putting the “community” in community college by leading efforts to desegregate Florida’s system. King worked with Leroy Floyd, then the president of all-black Lincoln Junior College, on a merger in 1963 that became a model for other colleges to follow.
“We had no problems,” King said. “It worked out well and was an asset to the community.”
While several former Florida junior colleges have evolved into four-year state institutions, King said there remains a great need for localized, as well as vocational, learning.
“When I was a principal in high school, we had an auto mechanics program, an electronics program, home economics, cosmetology,” he said. “These were all chances for high school kids to get job opportunities. That kind of moved out of the high school and into the junior college. Now, in Florida, of what were community colleges, 20 are now state, four-year colleges. They’re not offering many of the vocational job opportunity programs that people are looking for. It leaves a lot of people on the sideline not getting to play at all.”
A new direction and a lasting legacy
In 1968, lured by the buzz surrounding nearby Kennedy Space Center, the promise of the local business community, and the growth potential of the institution, King left Indian River to become president of Brevard Community College in Cocoa Beach.
“To serve the community which included the space program had a great appeal for me,” King recounted in “The Only Way to Lead: The Life and Times of Dr. Maxwell King,” written by Brevard Community College colleague James Ross. “Having the allure of the space program, I felt, could allow us to make the college one of the very best in America as the space-age junior college. I also felt the space program was going to be the reason other high-tech firms would locate in Brevard [County], which would make the community and the college even more prominent.”
Over the course of his 30 years as Brevard’s president, King remained active in developing distance learning programs at his school, as well as at other institutions throughout the United States and South America. He also created opportunities for high school students to earn community college credits before graduating and embraced the “two-plus-two” model that encouraged many students to spend two years at a junior college and two more at a four-year university.
King also built close relationships with Kennedy Space Center and the major contractors for the space program. Brevard Community College provided training for some of the space program’s welders and even offered Russian language training for astronauts involved in the Soyuz mission.
King also pursued international educational opportunities and partnerships on behalf of Brevard and other junior colleges. In 1975, King was the lone junior college president among a group of university presidents invited to Europe through the Fulbright program.
“We had great conferences,” he said. “We talked about how we were going to start an organization that would involve more of our students in international understanding, foreign exchange and so forth.”
When none of the other university presidents followed up within a year, King worked with his assistant, Robert Brueder, to establish Community Colleges for International Development. They outlined goals for community colleges to explore international partnerships for student and faculty exchange, as well as economic development. The CCIC eventually became a consortium of junior colleges. Now in its 36th year, the organization is based at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa.
Once again, King demonstrated that there times in which the only way to lead is to simply take charge of the situation. King’s legacy of visionary leadership can also be seen on Brevard Community College’s Melbourne campus. The Maxwell C. King Center for the Performing Arts of Brevard Community College, a six-story, 100,000-square-foot facility, opened in 1988.
“We used to have a small auditorium on campus,” King said. “One year, we had Vincent Price and he gave a nice talk to about 400 people. I took him out to dinner and he said, ‘Mr. King, why don’t you have a big, fine performing arts center?’ I went to the county commission, went to the city, and they said, ‘Let’s study it.’”
Having already seen countless examples of projects left undone by prolonged study and committee discussion, King visited a state senator and continued to build support for the facility. King’s work paid off in the form $12.3 million from the Florida Legislature and $2.5 million in donations. A sign on Interstate 95 bears the name of the facility named in King’s honor.
“Most of the people’s names you see on I-95 are gone,” he joked.
King’s work as an educator, administrator and community advocate will long be remembered, however. Former Florida agriculture commissioner Doyle Conner provided an appropriate appraisal of King’s efforts during a 1989 celebration honoring his selection as the nation’s top education administrator by the American Association of University Administrators.
“[His] accomplishments can all be characterized in four words – they improved people’s lives.”
Last Updated: Dec 02, 2011