By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — T.K. Wetherell, a former state House speaker who went on to become president of his alma mater, Florida State University, died Sunday after a long battle with cancer, the university announced. He was 72.
Wetherell, a Daytona Beach native, served in the House from 1980 to 1992, the final two years as speaker. Wetherell, who played football at Florida State and earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from the school, served as FSU president from 2003 to 2010.
Known as a wily figure around the Capitol, Wetherell led the university through a period of growth — but also had to grapple with issues such as budget cuts and the heavily debated retirement of legendary football coach Bobby Bowden.
“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,” university President John Thrasher, also a former House speaker, said in a statement Sunday. “He was a remarkable person and a great friend.”
Wetherell, who served as president of Tallahassee Community College from 1995 to 2001 and earlier held positions at Daytona State College and Bethune-Cookman University, was a professor in FSU’s College of Education and director of the Center for Higher Education Research, Teaching & Innovation after stepping down as president.
“I cannot tell you how much we have enjoyed this, both me and my family,” Wetherell told FSU trustees in 2009 as he announced he would be leaving the presidency. “It has truly been a dream come true for me and I wouldn’t trade any minute (of) it for anything. It’s been great.”
Wetherell, who served as speaker when Democrats controlled the House, was married to Virginia Wetherell, a former secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection. Jim Smith, who was chairman of the FSU trustees when T.K. Wetherell was president, said he and his wife, Carole, were close friends with the Wetherells.
“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,” said Smith, a former Florida attorney general and secretary of state. “His passing leaves a big hole in our lives.”
The university’s announcement of Wetherell’s death listed numerous achievements while he was president, including increasing the academic quality of students, increasing the number of doctoral degrees awarded, increasing research dollars and overseeing what the school described as a “boom” in campus building.
“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 Provost Larry Abele said in a statement Sunday. “He was always optimistic that whatever project he was working on would be successful.”
Wetherell was succeeded as president by Eric Barron, who is now the president at Penn State University. When Wetherell told trustees in 2009 that he was retiring, he said he had been wrestling with the decision for some time.
“I want to do some teaching. I want some time to relax and travel … just be a real person,” he said.