He arrived on the FSU campus as a wide receiver recruited from Mainland High School on a football scholarship.
Thomas Kent “T.K.” Wetherell was not supposed to become speaker of the Florida House in 1991. Another representative from Volusia County was in line, Sam Bell. But in an upset 1988 election in his Ormond Beach district, Bell was defeated. Wetherell had to scramble to lock down the votes to become speaker designate in his place. He had the pledges within two days.
A testament to the political skills of Wetherell as well as to those long-ago days when Volusia County was a place with political clout.
Wetherell died Sunday after 15 years fighting cancer. He was 72.
Unlike other politicians-turned-educators, Wetherell was always at work in higher education. He was provost and dean of instruction at what was then Daytona Beach Community College and taught education at Bethune-Cookman College. For him, becoming president of Florida State University, more than becoming speaker, was the fulfillment a life goal.
He arrived on the FSU campus as a wide receiver recruited from Mainland High School on a football scholarship. He played for the Seminoles from 1963 to 1967. Number 28 still holds the team record for longest kickoff return.
As a legislator and college president, Wetherell sometimes was ridiculed for his near-religious devotion to FSU football — whether it was shepherding the construction of classrooms, offices and luxury skyboxes at Doak Campbell Stadium through the Legislature as House appropriations committee chair (a complex now called the T.K. Wetherell Building) or coming up with the idea for the three-story Bobby Bowden stained glass installation at the stadium’s north side as college president. Wetherell was the Seminole’s No. 1 fan in state government.
As appropriations chair and House speaker, Wetherell had a reputation as a canny operator and quotable interview subject. The story is often told of how there would be money set aside for a Volusia County entity called the Silver Beach Improvement District at the start of the state budget process. As legislators came to him for hometown favors in the course of the session, Wetherell would tell them that what they wanted wasn’t in the budget, but such was his regard for the supplicant, that he was willing to peel off money away from his very own critical hometown project to make it happen.
By the end of the session, there would be no money for the Silver Beach Improvement District, but that was all right. There never was any such district. He took the name from the bridge on Orange Avenue.
A fifth-generation Floridian, Wetherell knew how to work with legislators from any part of the state, from any background. Talking about Volusia County’s effective legislative delegation at the time, he told The News-Journal, “No one knew what the hell we were. We’d tell the North Florida rednecks, `Yeah, I’m one of you,’ and we’d tell the South Florida urbanites `Yeah, I’m one of you.” And he, himself, was easily both.
Sure, as president of FSU, he paid a lot of attention to the football team. But he also raised the school’s academic standing, undertook major construction initiatives in the face of broader state budget cutbacks, saw the number of doctoral degrees awarded go up along with the research dollars the school attracted. The College of Medicine graduated its first class while he was president.
Wetherell’s biggest recruiting success was not a football star but in getting the Applied Superconductivity Center, an important national advanced physics and engineering laboratory.
He even worked for stronger ties between the university and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. As a result, while other tribes protested the use of native symbols by sports teams, the Seminole Tribe embraced the university’s use of the Seminole name.
An impressive list of accomplishments. All done while he was an accessible, affable and familiar presence on campus. And most accomplished while he was actively in cancer treatment. He was such a part of campus and Tallahassee life that it’s hard to believe he’s gone.