Thomas Kent "T.K." Wetherell, president emeritus of Florida State University and former president of Tallahassee Community College, lost his 16-year-battle with cancer Sunday.
Wetherell would have turned 73 on Saturday.
Wetherell had been in treatment at the Duke University Medical Cancer and returned home for Thanksgiving. He had been hospitalized at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare until Thursday
He told his wife, Virginia, and doctors he requested treatment be stopped and was admitted to Big Bend Hospice.
He is remembered as one of the champions of Florida, finding his niche in education and politics.
Wetherell is respected as one of Tallahassee’s most powerful leaders, serving as president of Florida State University from 2003 to 2010.
He also is credited with transforming Tallahassee Community College, where he was president from 1995 to 2001.
Wetherell served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1980 to 1992, presiding as House Speaker his final two years. It was in the Capitol arena that he also chaired the coveted Appropriations and Education committees.
Wetherell was the first alumnus of Florida State to become its president and brought a wealth of experience and dedication to the institution that raised its stature on many levels.
After retiring from the presidency, Wetherell served as a professor in the College of Education and director of the Center for Higher Education Research, Teaching & Innovation.
“As a veteran lawmaker, tireless supporter of higher education and then as president, T.K. used his energy and intellect to not only lead FSU through a severe budget crisis but to make sure it flourished in so many ways,” said FSU President John Thrasher. “He was a remarkable person and a great friend.”
Under Wetherell’s leadership, Florida State embarked on a major transformation. He is credited with increasing the academic profile of its students, increasing the number of doctoral degrees awarded, increasing research dollars, and most importantly, leading to millions of dollars in construction projects on campus.
“T.K. was an amazing man who was able to accomplish so much because of his boundless energy and his ability to focus and continue working through any challenge,” former FSU Provost Larry Abele said. “He was always optimistic that whatever project he was working on would be successful.”
Wetherell took charge of the Pathways of Excellence initiative, resulting in the hiring of new faculty, major investments in graduate-level programs and $800 million worth of new construction and renovations, including state-of-the-art chemistry, biological science, psychology and medicine buildings, turning the northwest corner of campus into a research quadrangle.
Also under his leadership:
In 2005, FSU lured the Applied Superconductivity Center from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where it had been housed for two decades. The center became the materials research division of the National High Magnetic Field LaboratoryHe oversaw a new Alumni Center, new general classroom buildings, parking garages, residence halls and dining halls.He was instrumental in the $33-million renovation of Ruby Diamond AuditoriumHe established the Office of National Fellowships in 2005, and the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors, now called the Center for Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement, which resulted in improving retention and graduation rates.The College of Medicine graduated its first class, in 2005, opened six regional campuses and established research collaborations with the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville and Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare.He forged a stronger relationship with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Under his leadership, the university created a Seminole history course, began a new tradition of tribe members participating in every commencement ceremony and unveiled a bronze statue at the University Center depicting a Seminole family during the wars of the 1830s, the university said.
“Beyond expanding academic programs and facilities, T.K. made sure that space for student life kept pace,” said former Vice President for Student Affairs Mary Coburn.
Examples include the Dunlap Student Success Center, the Center for Global and Multicultural Engagement and the Health and Wellness Center.
“He was a tireless advocate for students and valued the importance of growth and learning beyond the classroom,” Coburn said.
Bill Smith, chairman, president and CEO of Capital City Bank Group, said Wetherell was “the greatest fundraiser FSU ever had.”
He said Wetherell will be remembered for the new construction completed at FSU during his presidency, his sense of importance of FSU to the Tallahassee business community and his success in creating the University Center.
“He was the right president at the right time for Florida State,” Smith said. “He brought incredible energy to every endeavor.
“When you think of Doak Campbell Stadium, T.K. was able to take the erector set to one of the most beautiful structures in Tallahassee," Smith said. "Think of what he did to preserve the architecture at Florida State and the use of brick. What a wonderful legacy to leave to the Tallahassee community.”
Lee Hinkle served as vice president for university relations during Wetherell’s presidency at FSU. She said he arrived to work early and ran at two speeds, “wide open and shut off.”
“T.K. always embraced life,” she said. “He was tenacious, visionary and shrewd. He was always three steps ahead of everyone in the crowd and that’s what made him so successful. All of us who knew him are inspired by his life and the battle he fought against this disease. We are going to miss him.”
Former Secretary of State Jim Smith served as chairman of the FSU Board of Trustees during part of Wetherell’s tenure. He and his wife, Carole, are longtime friends of Wetherell and his wife, Virginia. Smith conducted their marriage vows in 1988.
“A highlight for me was to serve as chairman of the Board of Trustees during part of his presidency of FSU, where he did many wonderful things for Florida State and the Tallahassee community,” Smith said. “His passing leaves a big hole in our lives.”
It was during his tenure in the legislature that Wetherell learned to combine his belief in advancing higher education and knowing where to find the money in tight state budges to make it happen.
It proved to be especially beneficial to Florida State – where Wetherell earned three degrees – and in his quest to make Tallahassee Community College one of the best-positioned community colleges in the country.
James Harold Thompson served in the Florida House from 1974 to 1986. Wetherell, he said, was especially adept at the legislative budget process, which later served him well at FSU and TCC.
“He was very attuned to the appropriations process,” said Thompson, a senior attorney at the Ausley McMullen law firm. “It qualified him for the positions that he held later as president of Tallahassee Community College and Florida State University. He was known as being diligent, knowledgeable and direct.
"He set in motion a recognition of excellence in higher education that has been carried over by others inside and outside of the Legislature.”
Wetherell, a native of Daytona Beach, attended FSU on a football scholarship and played for the Seminoles from 1963 to 1967. His position coach was Bobby Bowden.
As president of FSU, it would be Wetherell who made the decision to ask for the legendary coach’s resignation in 2009.
Wetherell earned his bachelor’s degree in social studies education in 1967, and his master’s in social studies education in 1968. He would later earn a doctorate in education administration in 1974.
He started his career as an academic counselor for student athletes at FSU and left to work at Florida Technological University in Orlando. He served as assistant to the deans of housing and administrative assistant to the vice president.
Wetherell also served in several positions at Daytona Beach Community College, and before that, was associate professor of education at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach.
After leaving the Legislature, Wetherell became president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida from 1988 to 1995, where he advanced higher education programs in Florida’s private colleges.
“I’ve known T.K. for a long time,” said Ed Moore, current president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida. “It’s hard when a giant in Florida falls down. T.K. Wetherell served in so many roles in very high places and that is very rare. He was humble, friendly and people who knew him loved him. He showed other people how you should behave in high office and high responsibility.”
In 1995, Wetherell was named the fourth president of Tallahassee Community College. He held the post until 2001, when he left and became a lobbyist at Southern Strategy Group.
At TCC, he immediately reorganized the administrative team, improved diversity and streamlined administrative duties.
He embarked on an ambitious new building construction plan and introduced several new academic or certificate programs to meet local workforce needs. It resulted in TCC becoming one of the top state colleges in the country.
By 1999, the college completed $17 million in building projects in two years, including a Student Union ($8 million), a new building for health studies ($4 million) and three second-floor additions for extended studies, English and security offices, totaling $4.5 million.
“We’re five years ahead of where we thought we would be,” Wetherell said in June 2009.
Having received another $2.5 million that year for construction, Wetherell was seeking permits for building a new $10 million classroom building. The T.K. Wetherell History and Social Sciences Building sits prominently on campus.
He also oversaw the further development of the Pat Thomas Law Enforcement Academy. Under his direction, TCC implemented 50 major workforce development programs, a GED/Adult Education program, an online Associate in Arts degree and significant technology innovations, the college said.
He also made it a priority to have TCC actively involved in the community.
“T.K. had a way of making the impossible possible,” said Marjorie Turnbull, a former Florida House member. Wetherell hired her as executive director of the TCC Foundation, which she headed from 1995 to 2006.
“He had a background in community colleges, and when he combined that with his political savvy, he was so good at that," Turnbull said.hb/ "He, in many ways, did transform the campus. He made sure TCC had access to funding that it never had before.”
Wetherell’s wife, Virginia, was by his side when he passed Sunday afternoon at the Margaret Z. Dozier Hospice House. Virginia Wetherell is a former state legislator, former Secretary, Department of Environmental Protection and lobbyist who Wetherell married in 1988.
Wetherell’s son from a previous marriage, T. Kent Wetherell, is a 1st District Court of Appeal judge.
Service information had yet to be finalized by Sunday evening.
Contact senior writer Byron Dobson at email@example.com or on Twitter at @byrondobson.
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