The New Leaders of FSU and FAMU Look to the Future
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The Lure of FSU
Thrasher, 71, was an ardent supporter of FSU during his days in the Florida Legislature, including his two years as speaker of the House of Representatives. Through the Legislature, he helped funnel millions of dollars to his alma mater and in 2000, his final year as speaker, he bucked staunch opposition to help FSU establish a medical school that today bears his name.
The day after the shooting the night of Nov. 20, 2014, John Thrasher returned to campus to meet with students and the media to reopen Strozier Library.
FSU Photography Services/Bill Lax
As chairman of FSU’s Board of Trustees from 2001 through 2005, Thrasher helped raise outside dollars for the school and was part of the decision to expand the Atlantic Coast Conference to include schools like the University of Miami and Boston College.
He had thought about applying to be FSU president after the retirement of Sandy D’Alemberte in 2003, although Thrasher was chairman of the trustees and focused on his successful lobbying firm, Southern Strategies.
“I was working with T.K. (Wetherell). I hired him after he left Tallahassee Community College. I kinda knew he wanted to do it, and I had some people thinking I should go for it then, too,” Thrasher said. “But I realized he was a better fit for it back then than I was. And then once Dr. (Eric) Barron got here (in 2010), I honestly thought he was going to stay for his career.”
But Barron left early, choosing after only four years to return to Pennsylvania State University, where he had worked from 1986 to 2006. That’s when Thrasher, representing St. Augustine in the Florida Senate, decided to go for what he describes as the job of a lifetime.
“FSU has always owned a piece of his heart, so it made perfect sense,” says Jean. “Florida State gave him a life he never dreamed of — an education, two degrees and an opportunity to succeed in great jobs.”
A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Thrasher considered going to a small college in North Carolina, but then some friends urged him to consider FSU.
“Darned if I didn’t get accepted,” he says. Pausing, he chuckles and adds, “But I think back then if you had a pulse you could get in as opposed to today, where the kids coming here are really top notch. It was a great four years.”
Leaving FSU in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in business, Thrasher went into the Army. He was awarded two Bronze Stars in Vietnam, where he served exactly 365 days, and left the service with the rank of captain. He started law school at FSU four days after leaving Southeast Asia.
“As an undergraduate student, I was pretty average,” he concedes. “But in law school, I was pretty good. The difference? Married and having been in the military. I had a lot of energy coming back (out of Vietnam).”
Making His Bid
“So far, so good,” Thrasher says when asked how his relationship is with those on campus who opposed his appointment, opposition that truly surprised him with its intensity.
At times he found himself embroiled in a contentious battle to win the job — not so much with those who would make the ultimate decision (the university’s trustees and state Board of Governors) but with those on campus who questioned his conservative political leanings, his religious beliefs and his thoughts on scientific issues such as climate change. But Thrasher countered that his business ties and political acumen put him ahead of the other contenders when it came to the ability to raise money for the school, especially from donors needed to fuel the university’s $1 billion “Raise the Torch” capital campaign.
“It got a little personal sometimes,” Thrasher says. “I would see something written about me and it would say, ‘John Thrasher, Republican, chairman of Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign, 70 years old. I assume all those were intended to be negatives. But I love Florida State, and I think I have abilities that people maybe didn’t think about.”
His wife says that while there were challenges for Thrasher in applying for and getting the presidency, “We both believe people have the right to express their opinions. I just had to remember they didn’t know John, didn’t know his heart.”
He now attends Faculty Senate meetings and has individual one-on-ones with faculty members. He knows there was concern, “but I think we’ve accomplished a lot in terms of understanding each other, what my strengths are and where I need their help. And where I can give them help.”
After the decision to hire him was made by the state’s Board of Governors, the Thrashers spent their first night in the president’s house with a bottle of champagne.
“It had been a long and emotional road,” recalls Jean.