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The (Blue) Key That Unlocks Doors

Florida Blue Key — a longtime training ground for future lawmakers, law professionals, generals and other leaders — is a century old this year.

Many of the biggest names in Florida politics, law and business got their footing in UF’s elite, 100-year-old student leadership society.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is one.

Retired governor Bob Graham, too.

So is stadium namesake Ben Hill Griffin, long-ago UF president Stephen O’Connell, former White House communications director Katie Miller, onetime American Bar Association president Chesterfield Smith, legendary politician Lawton Chiles, Florida Democratic Party chair Nikki Fried … and on and on and on.

All Gators.

All with feet wetted and elbows sharpened in Florida Blue Key.

FBK, as insiders call it, is a brotherhood (and, in more enlightened times, sisterhood) of movers and shakers — a Who’s Who of Florida’s heaviest hitters: politicians, judges, CEOs, academics, generals.

Think of it as UF’s answer to Yale’s Skull and Bones, without the winks and whispers. A kingmaker. Bootcamp for the powerful and influential. Steppingstone to the governor’s chair, corner office or judge’s gavel.

“When I first got here, I remember thinking, ‘Holy cow, this is something to be reckoned with,’” says Myra Morgan, FBK’s faculty adviser for almost 40 years. “Back then, the president of Florida Blue Key had an easier time accessing the governor than UF’s president did.”

FBK has been wielding that sword since the silent movie era. To be “tapped” into the honor society these past 100 years has been as close to a shoo-in to the big show as a college student could get. Ten Florida governors were tapped. Seven U.S. senators have been Blue Key. A legion of state Supreme Court justices, congressmen, university presidents, White House officials, generals and business executives also have pins.

“Anybody who was anybody in Florida politics had been in Florida Blue Key — and not just politics, but business, the law, agriculture,” Adam Putnam (BS ’95) told Florida Trend magazine in 2004.

He’d know.

Tapped in fall 1994, Putnam is a former U.S. representative, Florida commissioner of agriculture and 2018 candidate for governor. Four years later, in 2022, fellow Gator Nikki Fried (BA ’98, MA ’03, JD ’03), tapped in spring 1997, became the latest FBK alumnus to run for the state’s highest office. Hundreds of their Blue Key cousins are at, or near, the top of their professions, too.

“The number of leaders who come out of Florida Blue Key is phenomenal,” Morgan says. “Being in Blue Key isn’t the end of the journey, it’s the opposite — you’re expected to do more. You need to use it to figure out how you can give back to the University of Florida and how you’re going to make an impact in whatever community you land in.”


FBK alumni donated $1.6 million to the university during the leadership society’s 100th birthday celebration this fall.

Humble Roots

It began on a whim — a weekend for dads.

That’s all Albert Murphree wanted back in November 1923. The university’s second president thought it’d be nice for students to invite their fathers to campus. That’s all, just an unpretentious get-together so sons (there were no daughters at UF then) could show the school to their old men.

Dad’s Day soon fizzled, swapped for Homecoming. Along with the change, the handpicked students in charge of coordinating Dad’s Day rebranded themselves Florida Blue Key.

That’s the official story. But, as with so many things concerning FBK, there are conflicting views as to Blue Key’s origins. Retired UF historian Carl Van Ness (MA ’85) swears Dad’s Day started the year after Blue Key came to be as an honorary service group and that Homecoming became an annual celebration in 1923.

“It was known the first year as the Knights of Blue Key,” Van Ness adds. “Since 1924, Homecoming has been run by the student body with FBK taking a major role.”

As time passed, FBK took on more duties: Gator Growl, the Miss University of Florida pageant, hosting what’s become one of the country’s premier high school speech and debate tournaments, championing the university to lawmakers during Gator Legislative Day. Anything to keep UF in the limelight.

And it worked.

“People would tell me, ‘If you didn’t go to Florida and you didn’t belong to Blue Key and wanted to get involved in politics, you wouldn’t amount to anything,’” retired FSU president John Thrasher, a former state legislator, once lamented.

FBK’s students and alumni made sure of that. For years, state and national politicians would gather for an annual banquet on campus to schmooze, plot and posture. Its swagger drew rising political stars, too, like soon-to-be presidents John Kennedy in 1957, Lyndon Johnson in ’61 and George H.W. Bush in 1986. Former state senator William Shands (BA 1906, LLB ’28) used to refer to it as the unofficial Democratic Party caucus.

“Almost everyone in Tallahassee had ties to the University of Florida back then,” Morgan explains. “If you wanted to do anything in the state of Florida, you’d have to show up at the banquet.”

Shenanigans, Consequences and Redemption

Like most alpha dogs, Florida Blue Key has bitten more than a few hands. Scandals, accusations of dirty politics and mudslinging have hounded FBK almost since its start a century ago. Critics mockingly call it “The System” because of its reputation for strongarming student elections and controlling student government.

“It can be a battlefield,” Morgan acknowledges.

“It’s probably more political than the Florida Legislature,” Putnam agrees. “The knives are just as long.”

UF’s student newspaper, the Independent Florida Alligator, once called FBK a “fluid set of alliances governed by a select group of powerbrokers.”

The Tampa Bay Times, in a 2019 article, was even harsher.

“Campus politics in Gainesville have long been controlled by a powerful few with the help of a voting bloc made up of social sororities and fraternities,” Kathryn Varn (BS ’15), herself a Gator, wrote. “Much of the power-brokering occurs in a highly selective organization called Florida Blue Key.”

All of which means things can (and do) get nasty.

Editors at the Alligator for years suspected Blue Key’s chosen student government candidates of tossing bundles of the campus newspaper into dumpsters when it endorsed someone who wasn’t FBK blessed. Misinformation and out-and-out lies were also a matter of course.

Tactics like those — long a sour pill to those on the receiving end — gave Blue Key a black eye 25 years ago … and almost cost the honor society its prized position as Homecoming’s gatekeeper.

In a 1995 lawsuit, then-graduate student Charles Grapski (BA ’97) accused FBK of spreading rumors to sabotage his campaign for student body president. Blue Key, Grapski said, conspired to falsify his criminal record to say he’d been charged with child molestation. A judge sided with Grapski and held FBK and student government liable for $250,000. John Lombardi, UF’s president at the time, was so disgusted he demanded changes, calling Blue Key’s actions “a pattern of behaviors over many years.”

Those were hard lessons, Morgan says. Even so, she believes that the good Blue Key does far outweighs its shortcomings.

“The perception is that everyone connected to Florida Blue Key is a political hack, but that’s not the case,” she insists. “These are well-intentioned, smart young people who want to serve the University of Florida.”

FBK’s reputation for cutthroat politics doesn’t tell the whole story, agrees Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch (BS ’86, BA ’94), a longtime environmentalist who is fighting to protect the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon.

“It’s about more than politics, thank God. If you look at the people who are Blue Key alumni, nine times out of 10 these people have been involved in things that are good for everyone,” she says.

The former mayor for the Town of Sewall’s Point has leaned on her FBK training her entire career. All these years later, she still fishes out her old Blue Key pin from time to time.

“Sometimes when I’m getting ground up in one thing or another, I’ll take it out of my jewelry box to remind me that I’m trained for this,” she says. “Blue Key becomes part of you for the rest of your life. I hope it goes another 100 years or 500 years, so even more leaders come out of it.”