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Brooklyn native Hamilton Holt was renowned president of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida

Brooklyn Footprints in Florida

October 22, 2015 By Palmer Hasty Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Hamilton Holt (center) with President Harry Truman and Florida Governor Fuller Warren in Orlando, Florida (1949). Photo: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
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Two Brooklyn natives currently hold presidential positions at two of Florida’s prominent, well-ranked institutions of higher learning. Wendy Libby, president of Stetson University, who has already been interviewed for the Brooklyn Eagle’s ‘Brooklynites in Florida’ feature, and Dr. William D. Law Jr. (to be interviewed), who is the current president of St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Precursors to current Brooklyn educational footprints in Florida go as far back as the Great Depression when Brooklyn native David Sholtz served as governor of Florida. In addition to creating the Florida Parks Service and the Citrus Commission, Sholtz passed a Workers Compensation Law and signed two pieces of legislation that has had a lasting impact specifically on education in Florida; free textbooks for public school students and funding for public school teachers’ salaries.

Another Brooklyn native who has made a lasting impact on education in Florida can be traced back to 1925, when the controversial liberal thinker Hamilton Holt accepted a job offer to become president of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Holt came to be the most celebrated president in the history of Rollins. He was the eighth president and served in the position for 24 years, from 1925 to 1949.

In 1987, the Rollins College School of Continuing Education was renamed the Hamilton Holt School in honor of the Brooklynite. At the time, then-Rollins-president Thaddeus Seymour said, “Hamilton Holt is the towering figure in the history of the college, shaping its student-centered style of education and its reputation for academic excellence and educational innovation.”

The website The History Machine characterized Holt’s impact on Rollins College this way: “Hamilton Holt redefined education at Rollins with the Rollins Educational Conference system. The impact of Holt’s changes are still evident in Rollins education today. Holt created a system in which students had an eight-hour day… Holt held discussions between schools and scholars so they could discuss what should be learned in the classroom… Holt transformed Rollins from a struggling school into a striving liberal arts college with the reputation it has today. This is why Holt Avenue, Holt Building and the Holt Night Evening School are all named after him. His impact on Rollins is arguably greater than that of any other president.”

Holt was born in Brooklyn in August, 1872, into a prominent Brooklyn Heights family. He died in 1951 in Woodstock, Connecticut. Holt’s father, George Chandler Holt, was a federal judge appointed to the Southern District of New York by President Theodore Roosevelt. According to a March 3, 1903 article in The New York Times, the elder Holt’s name was also twice placed on a list to be nominated for the Supreme Court. George C. Holt owned a residence in Manhattan, but because of his sister’s illness, he lived for many years with his wife (Mary Louisa Bowen Holt) at the Bowen Homestead on Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights. They had six children.

Holt’s maternal grandfather, Henry Chandler Bowen, headed the lay managers at Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church when the famous Henry Ward Beecher was hired as the pastor. Bowen became wealthy through his publishing ventures and his dry goods business in Brooklyn. He was one of a group of men who funded the purchase of the original building on Cranberry Street in the Heights that would become the historically important Plymouth Church. 

It was also Bowen, along with other church laymen, who founded The Independent magazine, which started out back then as a religious publication known for its anti-slavery stance.

Prior to entering his career in education in Florida, Hamilton Holt was the outspoken editor and publisher of The Independent, which had become by the early 1900s a very high-profile liberal weekly magazine. Holt owned and edited the magazine while living on Willow Street in the Heights from 1913 until it folded in 1921.

Holt was a serious pacifist and gave several speeches around Brooklyn on one of his favorite topics — international peace. The Brooklyn Eagle covered these speeches. (See graphic of original Eagle article).

One way he brought attention and prominence to the magazine was by offering editorial space to several presidents. According to a new student publication at Rollins College (that was coincidentally named The Independent without knowledge of Holt’s original publication in New York) every president of the U.S. from 1896 to 1921 contributed a column to Holt’s weekly publication.

Holt apparently shared his grandfather’s anti-slavery views and by extension, became a founding member of the NAACP in 1909. He was also an advocate for prohibition, immigration rights and, as pointed out above, international peace.  

Holt had an official residence in Woodstock, Connecticut, and three years after The Independent folded, in 1924 he ran for a Senate seat as a Democrat from that state. He was defeated by a landslide.  

A year later he was invited to serve as President of Rollins College (see graphic of original Eagle article).  Even though Holt had no administrative experience related to education, he had a lot of ideas about what he believed were problems with the traditional formats for learning, and decided the presidency of a college would allow him to experiment with those ideas.

  

As an educator, his leadership was considered revolutionary and controversial in the late 1920s and 30s. He implemented what was called the “Conference Plan” approach to education, wherein students worked closely with professors and were given more say-so in deciding what type of teachers could be hired. Holt’s approach included limited school enrollments.

He is credited with implementing the practice of inviting proven role models in their respective fields to the college to speak and interact directly with the students. Some of the role models that visited Rollins College during Holt’s tenure as president were U.S. Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman; poet Carl Sandburg; inventor Thomas Edison; military leader Omar Bradley and entertainers James Cagney and Mary Pickford.

Perhaps it was some kind of inevitable fate that caused a group of students at today’s Rollins College to inadvertently name their new student publication “The Independent”.

 

 


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