From Airbase to Campus

In the beginning, there was an airbase – the Boca Raton Army Air Field, to be exact. This facility, one of the few radar training schools operated by the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, opened in October 1942 in the sleepy coastal resort town of Boca Raton. The base, which eventually covered more than 5,800 acres, did its part to help win the war, teaching the relatively new art of radar operation to thousands of airmen, including those who were aboard the Enola Gay on its fateful run to Hiroshima in 1945. By the 1950s, however, the base had outlived its usefulness; the radar training school it once housed had moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, and weeds grew tall around the landing strips that once saw a steady stream of arriving and departing B-17 and B-29 bombers. The war was over, and America was facing new challenges, including the imminent coming of age of the first wave of Baby Boomers. Members of the most economically privileged generation in U.S. history, they were going to seek higher education in record numbers, and Florida’s colleges and universities were in no way prepared for the onslaught.

In 1955, the Florida Legislature authorized the creation of a new public university to serve the populous southeast region of the state. The new university would be the fifth in the State University System, joining the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida State University and Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, and the University of South Florida in Tampa. Community leaders in Broward and Palm Beach counties stepped forward to suggest possible sites, none with more enthusiasm than Boca Raton’s Tom Fleming, who made a convincing case for converting the vacated airbase to this exciting new use.

Fleming was a true visionary who recognized the many benefits a state university had to offer Boca Raton. The son of a prominent Fort Lauderdale attorney and bank president, he had arrived in Boca Raton in 1941 to help manage the 4,000-acre Butts Farm, which was owned by the family of his wife, Myrtle, and he often referred to himself as “a bean farmer.” His educational credentials included a bachelor's degree from the University of Florida, where he had been a member of the prestigious Blue Key leadership honorary society, and an MBA from Harvard.

Tom Fleming was successful at everything he did, and everywhere he went he made influential friends. By the time he was heading up the drive to establish the new state university in Boca Raton – under the rallying cry of “Boca U. in ’62” – he had many friends in Tallahassee and Washington who would prove to be powerful allies.

On January 18, 1957, Fleming stood before the Board of Control, which was the body that governed public universities in Florida at that time, and presented his proposal. When one member objected that the 400 feet of beachfront property owned by the city was insufficient to accommodate large groups of collegians, another member replied: “We want to educate them, not give them a bath.” By the end of the meeting, the Board had unanimously endorsed Fleming’s idea, disappointing proponents of the other proposed sites.

Next came complex negotiations in Washington to get the federal government to lift use restrictions off the land. Ultimately, the Civil Aeronautics Administration agreed to permit the state to build the university on 1,000 acres of the former airbase, reserving another 200 acres for airport use. Boca Raton Municipal Airport was built on a 200-acre site adjoining the campus and remains in active use to this day.

In 1960, the State Cabinet, sitting as the Board of Education, gave final approval to the Boca Raton site. The Florida Legislature passed the enabling legislation on July 15, 1961. The new university’s opening date was set for September 1964.