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Bellbottoms, Black Thursday, "Gatorman" and Gainesville's Golden Age of Music

Thirteen moments that captured UF student life in the wild and roiling 1970s

In November 2022, three UF alumni classes — 1970, 1971 and 1972 — gathered on campus for their 50th anniversary Grand Guard reunions. These Gators lived through some of the most tumultuous times at the university, which got us thinking about the 1970s in general and how that decade impacted UF and the surrounding community.

Here is a look back at some of the most memorable UF events, trends, people and hangouts from that era.

1. Goodbye, Dress Codes

By the early 1970s, many Gators were embracing counterculture fashion. Popular styles included bellbottoms, frayed jeans, midi skirts, maxi dresses, peasant blouses, ponchos and tie-dyed T-shirts. This photo from the 1973 UF Seminole yearbook illustrates the point that the era of dress codes and strict curfews for “Lady Gators” was over.


2. First Earth Day

By the late 1960s, more college students were speaking out against racism, war and the dangers of pollution. Harnessing the activist youth movement, Earth Day founder Sen. Gaylor Nelson, of Wisconsin, worked to raise ecological awareness by hosting teach-ins, rallies and demonstrations on college campuses at the dawn of the new decade.

In concert with 1,500 other colleges across the country, the University of Florida participated in the first nationwide Earth Day celebration on April 22, 1970 (shown here). Three UF students — including William Seaman Jr. (MS ’69, PHD ’72), now Professor Emeritus in Coastal Fishes, Habitats & Fisheries at UF — spearheaded the local effort, which was attended by about 250 people, reported the Independent Florida Alligator.

To drive home the magnitude of waste, UF’s Division of Physical Plants and Grounds dumped three truckloads of garbage on the Plaza of the Americas, while environmentalists and UF professors discussed overpopulation, pollution, pesticides and conservation.

Nationwide, the first Earth Day effort led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts, in December 1970.

In 2020, UF celebrated its 50th Earth Day. By then, the UF Office of Sustainability was 14 years old and tackling energy use, food waste, land conservation and greening the campus infrastructure.

3. “War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things”

Activism against the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia swept across UF in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with students engaging in fervent, occasionally violent, protests.

In May 1970, following the murders of four students at Kent State University by Ohio National Guardsmen, UF students called for classes to be suspended in protest; when President Stephen O’Connell (BSBA ’40, LLB ’40) refused, around 3,000 students went on strike. O’Connell declared a day of mourning and gave into students’ demands by closing the university from May 6 to May 8.

Nearly two years later, on May 11, 1972, an estimated 5,000 antiwar demonstrators faced off against 200 officers on University Avenue. “For two hours, under the cover of pepper fog and tear gas, policemen were assaulted and scores of demonstrators clubbed in a 16‐block section,” reported The New York Times. “The unofficial arrest total was between 150 and 175.” Below, Father Michael Gannon (PHD ’62) diffuses tensions between police and UF students, May 11, 1972.

4. School of Rock

The late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s was the “golden decade of music in Gainesville,” writes Marty Jourard, author of “Music Everywhere: The Rock and Roll Roots of a Southern Town.” Local venues showcased a steady stream of rock and R&B greats, and the lively music scene propelled several homegrown talents — including Tom Petty, Stephen Stills and the Eagles’ Don Felder and Bernie Leadon — to national acclaim and later inclusion in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Students could soak up great music right on campus, at concerts at Florida Gym, the Reitz Ballroom, University Auditorium, Plaza of the Americas, Florida Field and the Rathskeller. Artists who performed at university-sponsored events during the ‘70s include Ike and Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Chicago, Bill Withers, Blood Sweat & Tears, Joan Baez, the Guess Who, Richie Havens, the Beachboys, Seals & Crofts, America, James Taylor and Labelle.

5. Black Thursday

Early on Thursday, April 15, 1971, about 70 Black students marched to Tigert Hall with suggestions to improve diversity on campus (Black students then numbered only 341 in a total enrollment of 22,000+). For more than a year, they had been trying to meet with President O’Connell, to no avail. That morning, after O’Connell again refused to meet (three times), the students burst into his office and occupied the building’s corridor. The morning culminated with their arrests and suspensions, the air thick with tear gas. Eventually 300 students, Black and white, returned to Tigert to stage a sit-in (see photo). After subsequent protests that saw police and demonstrators clash, 123 Black students withdrew from UF, two faculty members resigned, and Roy Mitchell, UF’s coordinator for minority affairs and its first Black administrator, was fired. In response, the American Association of University Professors censored and suspended UF’s membership for violating academic freedom.

The Black Thursday protests motivated university administrators to finally create support for Black and minority students. The Institute of Black Culture was established that fall, and UF embarked on diversity recruitment and retention initiatives such as Project Upward Bound and the Carnegie Exchange Program.

6. The Day It Snowed

On Saturday morning, Feb. 10, 1973, Gators awoke to a surprising sight: snow had fallen in Gainesville.

To be accurate, a dusting of snow.

Temps hovered around the freezing mark that day as students frolicked outside singing “Frosty the Snowman.” Some curious Gators headed for the big drifts up in Macon, Georgia, where these photos were taken and later shared in the 1973 Seminole yearbook. The unusual weather event was part of the Great Southeastern Snowstorm (Feb. 9-11, 1973), which dropped one to two feet of snow in much of the South, along with measurable snow along Florida’s Gulf Coast and flurries as far south as Orlando.

7. Hear Us Roar

The small college town of Gainesville played an important role in the national women’s movement. Local feminists formed one of the country’s first five women’s liberation groups and helped establish the UF chapter of the National Organization for Women in 1972. NOW brought Gators to Tallahassee in 1975 to demand that Florida pass the Equal Rights Amendment (see photo). During the 1970s, activists made considerable strides improving conditions for women at UF. Gainesville’s first 24-hour rape crisis hotline was organized, Florida Blue Key became coed (after Betty Friedan led several on-campus protests), and UF launched its Women’s Studies program in 1977.

8. Watering Holes & Shake Joints

Gainesville was buzzing with student hangouts in the 1970s, from inexpensive restaurants to bars to live music venues (establishments were often a mixture of all three). Popular eateries included Skeeter’s Breakfast House (“Home of the Big Biscuit!”), Joe’s Deli (gator tail sandwich), Burrito Brothers (red sauce), Lum’s (hot dogs steamed in beer), Wise’s Drug Store Fountain (milkshakes and daily specials) and What-a-Burger (three locations by 1978).

The Purple Porpoise was a favorite watering hole close to campus, especially at half time and after the big game. Opened in 1970, Cin City Lounge (later renamed Sixty-Six Lounge) was popular with students living in apartments along 16th Avenue, an area known as “Sin City.” (Florida dropped its drinking age to 18 in 1973, and it stayed there until 1980, when it was raised to 19.)

Dozens of live music venues thrived during this era, including the Great Southern Music Hall (acts included Frank Zappa and Muddy Waters), Beef and Bottle (Steve Martin, Dr. Hook and Odetta), Bilbo & Gandalf’s (Gamble Rogers) and Long Branch Saloon (Ted Nugent & the Amboy Dukes). Perhaps the best-known nightclub was Dub’s Steer Room (“Where the Liquor Flows and the Partiers Go”), known simply as Dub’s.

Originally a ‘50s dinner club, Dubs became Gainesville’s first topless bar in the late 1960s, and among the house bands that played for the dancers was Tom Petty’s Mudcrutch. Over the years, listeners could also catch sets by Blue Oyster Cult, Bob Seger, Leon Russell and the comedy troupe Ace Trucking Co., featuring John Belushi. In 2014, the building was torn down to make room for a Social Security Administration office.

9. Title IX & UF Women’s Sports

Signed into law on June 23, 1972, by Pres. Richard Nixon, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. The groundbreaking law made a lasting impact by increasing the participation of girls and women in athletics, and its effect was keenly felt at UF, where women’s varsity sports were launched shortly before the passage of Title IX. The 1972-73 season saw the launch of five first-ever Florida women’s teams — golf, swimming & diving, track & field/cross country and gymnastics — something no other school in SEC had yet to accomplish then. The following season, women’s basketball, softball and volleyball vaulted to varsity status.

Prior to the NCAA’s sponsoring of women’s championship events, Gator teams were among the top competitors in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). In 1979, the Florida women’s swimming & diving team (shown here) made history by taking home the AIAW championship trophy, becoming the first women’s program at UF, as well as in the SEC, to cinch a national team title in any sport.

Front row, left to right: Chris Breedy (1979-82), Head Coach Randy Reese and Kim Dunson. Back row: Betsy Rapp (BA ’82), Eney Jones, Olympian Renee Laravie (1977-79) and Brenda Borgh (bachelor’s ’82).

10. “Let The Krishnas Have Their Picnic”

Krishna Lunch began in June 1971, when the founder of the Hare Krishna movement visited Gainesville, home to a newly formed Krishna community. Standing in the Plaza of the Americas, Srila Prabhupada urged his followers to hand out “prasadam” (karma-free food) and to perform “kirtan” (musical meditation) on campus. That initiated the tradition of Krishna Lunch, where devotees doled out generous helpings of cheap, filling vegetarian fare, along with live music, chanting and Vedic readings. In April 1977, Alachua County Health Department officers arrested Hare Krishnas for distributing food on three separate occasions, citing noncompliance with county health codes. The case didn’t hold up in local court, however, with the judge declaring, “Let the Krishnas have their picnic.” Last year, Krishna Lunch celebrated its 50th anniversary at UF.

11. Getting Rowdy in the Swamp

The 1970s wasn’t exactly a memorable era in Florida football. The Gators were coached by Doug Dickey (1970-78) and Charley Pell (1979-84), who compiled an overall record of 58-53-3 during that decade. Pell’s first year as head ball coach in 1979 resulted in the most losses in any single season in Gator football history: a winless 0-10-1 overall record and a 0-6 record in the SEC, placing dead last among 10 SEC teams.

Ah, but fans found their own form of excitement: crowd surfing.

Continuing a tradition that may have started at UF in the 1950s, fans in the student section would pass students overhead, from the bottom to the top of the stands. This photo from the UF Archives shows a man crowd surfing at a home game in 1972.

Pat Dooley (BSJ ’76), writing about the UF tradition for USA Today in July 2022, recalls that women were often subjected to the ritual in the 1970s.

“It’s pretty obvious why that doesn’t happen anymore,” he said, referring to the potential for groping. “But it was certainly interesting in the 1970s. The student section was alive back in those days. And when she made it to the top, what a cheer.”

View the filmed 1979 introduction to Coach Pell here.

12. Albert and Gatorman

UF’s Plaza of the Americas in the 1970s was ground zero for nonmatriculated eccentrics, the most memorable of whom was Curtis Read, aka Gatorman, who earned spending change by posing motionless for hours at a time.

A shell-shocked Vietnam War vet, Read had been sent to the Gainesville Veterans Administration Hospital to recover and found solace in the town’s lush environs, including Lake Alice. There he became fascinated with a bull gator that had likely been UF’s last live mascot. Albert, as the alligator was known, was formerly caged near Century Tower (and taunted by students, see photo) and released to the lake in 1970. Read gained the animal’s trust by feeding it meat and attracted crowds by lying on Albert’s back, treading nose-to-snout with it and tossing marshmallows in its open jaws (actions now considered abuse of wild animals).

“I never expected our relationship to go this far,” Read admitted to the Gainesville Sun in August 1973.

Impressed onlookers dubbed him Gatorman, a moniker he emblazoned on a white Guardsman helmet that, along with denim cut-offs, became his daily uniform. Easily identifiable, Read was regularly arrested by UF police and would spend several hours in the local jail, only to return to Lake Alice later that same day.

The gator bromance ended in October 1974 when Albert swallowed a plastic bottle that blocked his intestines. Read rushed the stricken reptile to the School of Veterinary Medicine, where it died in his arms during surgery. Read left Gainesville in the late ‘70s and traveled the globe as a living mannequin, according to reports in the Alligator.

Albert’s skull is now on permanent display in the Florida Museum of Natural History.

13. Petty’s Incubator

Before native Gainesville-ian Tom Petty left town for L.A. in ‘74, he was known locally as the leader of the rock band Mudcrutch.

From 1970 to 1974, locals could catch Mudcrutch playing at bars like Dub’s and at UF venues like University Auditorium, Florida Gym and the Rathskeller. (Mudcrutch even played a sock hop at the P.K. Yonge Gymnasium in June 1971.) The band also staged festivals at the Mudcrutch Farm, the dilapidated farmhouse in north Gainesville where Petty and bandmembers lived. (This photo was taken of the band at that time.)

Though never a UF student, Petty worked briefly as a UF groundskeeper and drew local inspiration for songs like “Dreamville” (which references Lillian’s Music Store and Glen Springs), “Crystal River” and “American Girl” (supposedly sparked by a UF coed jumping to her death from Beaty Towers, a story Petty vehemently denied). Petty sold more than 80 million albums worldwide before dying of an accidental medication overdose on Oct. 2, 2017, age 66.

Released in a posthumous box set, the song “Gainesville” (1999) is a tribute to his beloved hometown. The video mixes archival film of Petty in the early 1970s with later footage. Iconic sites captured include Lake Alice, the Swamp, Blue Springs and the 34th Street Wall.