UF historian Carl Van Ness to retire after nearly 40 years of Gator storytelling 

March 21, 2022

Carl Van Ness may have been the only fifth-grader ever summoned to the principal’s office for spending too much time in the library. Spurning the traditional boys’ afterschool role of safety patrol officer, he instead rooted himself among shelves of history books, much to the concern of the school librarian Ms. Cox.

Van Ness didn’t know it at the time, but he had embarked on a path that would continually lead to his favorite destination – getting lost in the stacks. In 1984, he joined the University of Florida’s library staff, later becoming the university archivist. Today, his official title is Florida political papers archivist, but he is better known as the university historian, an honorary designation first bestowed on his longtime mentor Samuel Proctor, a UF historian who wrote several books about the university. 

Jacksonville-born Van Ness is the most qualified person on UF’s campus to explain who “Alice” of Lake Alice fame was; why UF’s Special and Area Studies Collections include a biscuit; how Black Thursday was a pivotal moment in Black students’ quest for equity and representation; and the intricacies of UF’s evolution from two buildings in a backwater to the state’s preeminent university and a top public institution in the country.

Van Ness will retire this June after 38 years of service.

‘This was all serendipitous’

Despite his lifelong penchant for books, Van Ness hadn’t planned on becoming a librarian. His wife’s entry into the UF Levin College of Law in the 1980s landed him in Gainesville where, following a brief stint as a history graduate student, he found his true calling when the library hired him to curate a collection of materials about the Cuban sugar industry.

“I just enjoyed the work so much, it changed my life plan. This was all serendipitous,” Van Ness said. “I love discovery. That’s what motivates me the most. That was the draw for working with the sugar collection – just opening it up for the first time, being the person who gets to look at all this material and organize it.”

Each day on the job is different, Van Ness said. He works closely with UF President Kent Fuchs’ office, hunting down historical details for columns and speeches. He also handles much of the digitization of the library’s audio-visual materials and fields reference requests related to the history of UF and its collections from researchers and members of the public. 

He has discovered a few buried treasures in the archives along the way. One of his greatest triumphs was uncovering field-level, full-color film footage of then-star quarterback Steve Spurrier’s famous 1966 field goal against Auburn, a kick credited with helping him secure the Heisman trophy. But his personal favorite is a delicate crystal shot glass commemorating what was then Florida State College’s victory over UF’s football team in 1904. The previous year, UF had decided to become an all-male school, a decision that forced the glass’s original owner, Ida Morgan, to transfer to Florida State. She played basketball for both institutions, and a sepia-toned photo of her team hangs in the president’s house. UF and FSU would not contend on the football field again until 1958.

Looking to the past to understand the present

Few universities have an official historian, but the role’s value goes far beyond being quizzable in university trivia and capable of unearthing a box of freshmen’s “rat caps,” woolen beanies generations of UF students were required to wear for the duration of their first year. Knowing our history helps us understand where we are now, Van Ness said.

“Some people don’t necessarily know the history of Florida, and you can’t separate the institution from the state,” he said.

In a Black History Month presentation, Van Ness described the “glacial pace” at which UF integrated its first Black students. In 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered UF’s law program to admit Virgil Hawkins, a Black student. The Florida Board of Control, which then oversaw public higher education, circumvented the ruling by using a survey of parents to claim his attendance would cause turmoil on campus.

Following what Van Ness said was largely a “wasted decade” for integration, Black students staged a sit-in at then-President Stephen O’Connell’s office in 1971, insisting on more representation among faculty and the student body. Dramatic shifts began to follow, in part because Florida itself had changed, Van Ness said: The children of thousands of Northerners and Midwesterners who began moving to the state in the late 1940s were now attending university, diversifying Florida more than many of its Deep South counterparts. Van Ness said he himself was surprised to learn UF is home to the largest Jewish student population of any public university in the nation.

When he shares about UF’s past, whether the stories are positive or painful, “the response I’m hoping for is that people would understand where we’ve come from. This is not ancient history,” he said.

Reading other people’s letters

Van Ness’ extensive tenure at the university means he has witnessed a good portion of its history himself. Nevertheless, “I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes,” he said. “You get a totally different perspective when you open up the archives and start reading what people were actually saying.” 

He confessed that he loves reading other people’s letters, including those sent from university president Thomas Taliaferro to his successor Andrew Sledd in 1904, warning him about malcontents in Lake City, UF’s original hometown. Town residents had a habit of besieging the university with complaints and demands. The roiling relations eventually spurred UF’s move in 1906 to the small, yet prosperous, town of Gainesville.

“We’re the only public university in Florida that has records going back to the 1800s,” Van Ness said. “This is an older institution with a lot of depth and one of the most diverse curriculums in the nation.”

What’s next for one of UF’s most dedicated bibliophiles? His own book. Van Ness is writing a history of public higher education in Florida from the end of Reconstruction to 1927, the year UF’s second president Albert Murphree died and the beginning of the Florida land bust that, in some ways, was a precursor to the Great Depression. This will be the second book he has penned, after “Honoring the Past, Shaping the Future,” co-authored with English professor Kevin McCarthy.

Van Ness said he will miss working with the library’s collections, colleagues and students – but he’s not ready to hang up his rat cap entirely.

“I’ve already told people that they can still call me with questions after I retire. I’ll continue to serve the university in some capacity.”

UF News March 21, 2022