The Secret History of Our “Sweet” Accreditation
Dateline: Florida Tech 1964
By 1964, Jerry Keuper knew that Countdown College’s survival hinged on the college’s winning accreditation. In 1959, Gordon Sweet, executive director of Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), had told Keuper that the school was not ready for accreditation. Undaunted, Keuper hired a consultant familiar with SACS policies. Jim Stoms recalled that Keuper invited the president of Armstrong College in Savannah, Georgia to come to Melbourne and prepare a plan for BEC’s accreditation campaign. Keuper agreed to pay three hundred dollars plus the expenses for the evaluation. At the end of the day, the consultant told Keuper that in fairness he could not accept the fee. There was no way that BEC was going to be accredited.
Keuper persisted. On one track, he cultivated a friendship with Gordon Sweet. When he learned that SACS‘s executive director was an avid golfer, Keuper sent Sweet a new set of golf clubs. Sweet, who was renowned for his churlish temperament, told Keuper that he already had five sets of clubs. Furthermore, the set Troy State gave him was nicer. By 1963, Keuper and Sweet had become friends. When pressed to itemize what BEC would need to do to win accreditation Sweet told Keuper that the school must have a new library before SACS would consider making an accreditation visit. The problem was that the school had no money for such a substantial project.
Building a Library
Support for the college’s accreditation came from unexpected sources. First, Melbourne’s city commissioners passed a resolution conferring their “whole-hearted endorsement” for the college. “Brevard Engineering College is the biggest asset the city has,” Commissioner James Beach declared, “and we’ve completely ignored it for five years.” “It’s about time,” City Commissioner George Kaufman agreed, “the city recognized the college. It should have been done years ago.” Two months later the Melbourne City Commissioners backed their words up with a resolution establishing a $5,000 yearly allocation to the college. Nineteen months elapsed before the commissioners honored their commitment.
The commissioners’ praise was a hopeful sign. It demonstrated that BEC had succeeded in winning the community’s approval. Equally, the endorsement signaled a change in local officials’ opinion of the proposed public “Space University.” Tallahassee’s decision to locate the new, public university in Orlando was lambasted in Brevard County. “I protest the use of the term “Space U” for the proposed college,” Pat Swatek wrote in a letter to the Melbourne Times. “This is merely,” Swatek continued, “the deluded leading the deceived….We are better advised to support the Brevard Engineering College. This school, privately run, has a far greater capacity and capability to become a space university and a superior one at that!”
The Junior Women’s Club to the Rescue
The women of Brevard proved Countdown College’s staunchest ally. In January, the Melbourne Junior Women’s Club announced that they would spearhead the library campaign. Their goal was to raise $100,000 for the library’s construction. Keuper was ecstatic. “I know,” he declared, “that we will get it [accreditation] if we have a new library.”
During the next few weeks Keuper and the leaders of the Junior Women’s Club hammered out a strategy. The Junior Women’s Club opened their fund-raising drive for the school with a proclamation calling for a “Brevard Engineering College Day.” During February and March, Keuper and BEC’s Board of Regents solicited contributions. The culmination of the fund-raising drive came on April 4, 1964 in a formal dinner dance which would be hosted by the Junior Women’s Club. The plan was to begin the day with ground-breaking ceremonies for the library and end it with a gala celebration on the beach.
With these plans in motion and Keuper’s promise that the library would be built, Gordon Sweet agreed to send a SACS accreditation team to BEC. The team would arrive in Melbourne on May 10. Keuper acknowledged that accreditation was unlikely “unless the library is under construction at that date.” By March, the Junior Women’s Club had raised close to $20,000. The library’s fate depended on the formal dinner dance to be held in the Gold Room at the Ramada Inn on the April 4.
The ball was a stunning success. Leaders of local aero-space industries and government officials rallied to the college’s support. Old friends of the college like Denton Clark at RCA and George Shaw, Homer Denius, and Joe Boyd at Radiation Inc. whole heartedly supported the campaign. Shaw and Denius pledged one per cent of their company’s annual income before taxes to BEC. “Nothing could have pleased us more than Radiation’s move,” the editorial writer for the Melbourne Times declared. Others like General Leighton L. Davis, commander of the National Range Division at Cape Kennedy and Dr. Kurt Debus, NASA’s Director at Kennedy Space Center, led the government dignitaries who raised their voices in the college’s behalf. General Davis declared “his active support for the private college, which is devoted to teaching future scientists, engineers and mathematicians who no doubt will be employed at Cape Kennedy upon receiving their bachelor and master degrees.”
On May 10 the five member SACS visitation team arrived in Melbourne. Jim Rathman, a local car dealer and former Indianapolis race car driver, placed a brand new, white Cadillac at the visitation team’s disposal during their visit. Keuper put the car to good use. A year earlier a young man named Allan Green had appeared on campus and asked for a job. Keuper hired him at seventy-five cents an hour as his office boy. Keuper put a white shirt on Green and made him the visitation team’s chauffeur. Since the majority of BEC’s classes were at night, Green was instructed to drive the distinguished visitors wherever they wanted to go in the daytime. In the afternoon Green was to bring them to campus so they could see the new library.
The problem was that Keuper had only enough money on hand to launch the construction. “Go ahead and start the library,” a BEC trustee had advised, “and let the funds catch up with us.” That was what Keuper had done. As he watched the white Cadillac pull into a parking place, Keuper undoubtedly wondered if a concrete slab would be enough to win the team’s approval. After exchanging pleasantries, Keuper led the SACS team to the construction site. This was the critical moment. The foundation had been poured. The walls reached the beginning of the second story. There was no roof. Birds merrily chirped from their perches on the rafters. The group stepped through an opening in the walls. There was a long, painful silence. Keuper held his breath as the accreditation team stood in the building’s empty shell. The silence was broken when one of the SACS visitors looked at the walls and, then, up at the blue sky and declared, “Ah, yes, I see a beautiful library here.”
Werner von Braun’s Accolade
A month later BEC held its fourth commencement. For a $1000 honorarium, Werner von Braun had agreed to deliver the commencement address. Von Braun was one of the first people to describe BEC as “Countdown College.” In his short speech, von Braun ticked off the school’s accomplishments. “Cooperation, diss ention, recognition, criticism” von Braun declared “…all these things have gone into building Brevard Engineering College.” Von Braun believed the college’s future was bright. “Your president, Dr. Jerome P. Keuper,” von Braun concluded, “with his great vision has noted the need for such a school in the area, and with his devotion and others who have helped him, Brevard Engineering College will someday become one of the top engineering colleges in the nation.”
Good news came six weeks later. The preliminary report described the college in glowing terms. The visitation team admitted they had never encountered a school like BEC. “No member of the committee,” the report acknowledged, “feels competent to judge this curriculum as a whole.” The committee’s first impression was that the college’s program in space technology curriculum was “a hodgepodge of electrical engineering (communications), mechanical engineering, (propulsion), applied mechanics (inertial guidance), and selected topics from astronomy (orbital calculations). On reflection, however, this is just the way a new technology or branch of engineering is formed, and the material does fit together.” The Committee’s conclusion was that BEC was doing an outstanding job. BEC’s faculty received high praise for its “dedication and enthusiasm.” Countdown College was unique. The report concluded that no other college or university was “offering anything comparable to these programs.”
Late in November the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools announced that Brevard Engineering College had received full accreditation. “Brevard County can be proud,” Jerry Keuper observed, “of having created in only six years, on its own initiative and with its own resources a fully accredited resident senior college of engineering and science.” Keuper made it clear that this BEC’s accreditation could not have been achieved without the help of NASA, the Air Force, civilian contractors at the Cape and, most assuredly, the women of Brevard. The college had come a long way from its beginning in three rented junior high school classrooms. “I believe,” Keuper declared, “that this community has accomplished something unique in the history of American education.”
Note: On Saturday, January 23, 1965, BEC’s library was formally dedicated. In 1984, the library was moved to its present location and the structure was renamed the Jerome P. Keuper Administration Building.