From beauty and poise as a crowning achievement to the introduction of kings and a focus on service, follow the evolution of homecoming royalty at UF.
Gator Growl — and UF Homecoming — wouldn’t be complete without the annual crowning of the Homecoming Queen and King. Since 1953, the pre-Growl Homecoming Pageant that determines who will be deemed UF royalty has evolved from an all-white women’s beauty contest to a multicultural leadership competition for men and women.
This year, the pageant will hold a Game Day spirit portion, an interview session and special guest presentations before the identities of the king and queen are revealed that night on Steve Spurrier Field.
Here is a timeline of key events in this history of this nearly 70-year-old UF tradition:
UF beauty contest boom
September 27, 2021
Formerly an all-male university, UF began admitting women students year-round in 1947. The arrival of women on campus ushered in a bevy of Gator beauty pageants, including Miss University of Florida, Mrs. University of Florida and Miss F Club. For decades, nearly all contestants were from UF sororities. Here, a UF undergrad in the 1940s gazes admiringly at photos of beauty contestants.
First official UF Homecoming Queen
In the university’s early decades, UF Homecoming events often featured young women referred to as “sponsors” or “queens.” (“We don’t know how they were selected,” notes University Historian Carl Van Ness.) The tradition became official in 1953 when design student Carolyn Stroupe Stambaugh (BA ’55), of West Palm Beach, was crowned UF’s first Homecoming Queen. The coed’s activities were chronicled in Look, Ladies Home Journal and Parade magazines. She went on to become Orange Bowl Queen and co-host of the original “The Price Is Right.”
My queendom for a float
Starting in 1953, the UF Homecoming Parade began to feature a dedicated float for the Homecoming Queen and her court of princesses (finalists for the title). Here, 1957 Homecoming Queen Jana Vickers, of Delray Beach, and her court members ride on a float sponsored by the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce.
Duties of Homecoming Royalty
UF President J. Wayne Reitz presents a trophy to 1960 Homecoming Queen Libby Baker, of Lockbourne, Ohio. During this era, the Homecoming Court promoted the university at events throughout the state and literally reigned over every Homecoming activity, including the Blue Key banquet, a formal ball, an alumni reunion and a barbeque for politicians. According to newspaper reports, on Game Day, Baker and her princesses drove onto the field in a “1961 honey-beige Thunderbird” at pre-game and half-time; Florida ended up trouncing Tulane 21-6.
First Hispanic Homecoming Queen
The winds of change were blowing across campus in 1970 when environmentalism became the theme of UF Homecoming. That year saw also the university crown its first Hispanic Homecoming Queen, Cuban-born Maria Junquera-Browne (BA ’72), of Plant City. She went on to serve as vice president of The Cushman School, in Miami, and married TV exec Don Browne, who would become president of Telemundo Communications Group.
First Black Homecoming Queen
Twenty-year-old speech pathology major Cynthia Mays, of Jacksonville, made UF history when she was elected the university’s first Black Homecoming Queen in 1973. She was also featured in the January 1974 issue of Jet magazine. Fellow student Samuel Lamar Wright Sr. (BA ’74) remembers the active role the Black Student Union played in nominating the scholarly Mays: “Not only was she about business academically, but she was adorned with class, style, beauty and charm.” Mays is shown here in 1973 with Donald Gaffney (BA ’76), the first African American to play quarterback for the Florida Gators.
NOW weighs in
By the mid-1980s, the UF Homecoming Pageant, like many beauty contests, was coming under fire for treating women as objects. UF National Organization for Women vice president Melissa Anderson compared UF’s contestants to “meat on a meat rack” in a 1985 Alligator article. “Where are their credentials?” Anderson asked. “These women just get up there and are judged on their looks. I think this entire pageant is awful.” Alligator editor Joshua Weinstein (BSJ ’90), also assistant general chairman of Homecoming, shot back: “These women enjoy being in parades and competing in beauty pageants. We certainly aren’t going to change anything because of (NOW).”
NOW hear this!
The 1986 Homecoming Court – speech communications major Terri Hogan, journalism major Shelly Jackson and finance major Patricia Dignam – rode in the parade on a “100 Years of Quality” float by Maas Brothers. A panel of seven judges, which included university first lady Paula Criser, judged the finalists in interview, evening gown and sportswear rounds. Anticipating more criticism from NOW, pageant officials told the Alligator they didn’t receive complaints that year, and Jackson asserted that the finalists were chosen on their abilities more than their looks. “I don’t need to wear a bathing suit to represent UF,” insisted Jackson (BSJ ’87), who was crowned queen and went on to work in journalism.
Golden Age of Gator Growl Comedy
A perk of being UF Homecoming Queen in the ‘80s was getting to clown around with the comedy greats who performed at Gator Growl. Here 1988 Homecoming Queen Rachael Jackson Pennington (BSJ ’89) mugs for the camera with comedian Steven Wright (center); at right is opening act Jerry Seinfeld, whose hit show “Seinfeld” would debut on NBC the following year. Other iconic comedians who performed at Gator Growl in the ‘80s include Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Dave Chappelle, Rodney Dangerfield, George Burns and Bob Hope.
A pageant evolves
By the early ’90s, the UF Homecoming Pageant was increasingly focused on contestants’ academic achievements and campus impact, not just their looks and popularity. The 1991 Homecoming Queen, sociology major Monica Frakes Culpepper (BA ‘91), received the President’s Outstanding Leadership Recognition Award for that year and was also a member of Mortar Board and a Florida Cicerone. Monica married Gator defensive-tackle-turned-pro Brad Culpepper (BA ’91, JD ’01, MESS ’01), and the Culpeppers competed together on season 27 of CBS’s “Survivor.”
First Homecoming King
Tim Tebow (BSA ’09) may have been the big man on campus in 2007, but he had competition that year when business marketing major Ryan Merkel (BSBA ’08) was crowned UF’s first Homecoming King, alongside Queen Jillian Yoerges (BA ‘08). Contest judging criteria encompassed service to the university, personal interview, resume and onstage presence, the latter determined through rounds of dancing, parading and Q&As. Men wore tuxedos and bow ties; women competed in casual wear and evening gown rounds. Merkel is now the director of development for Arena Stage, in Washington, D.C. Yoerges presently serves as senior partnership enablement lead for Fluxx, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
60th Anniversary of UF Homecoming Queens
Sixty years after becoming UF’s first Homecoming Queen, Carolyn Stroupe Stambaugh returned to Gainesville to crown her 2013 successor at Gator Growl. A golf cart transported Stroupe Stambaugh to the Swamp’s midfield, where she placed the tiara on the head of public relations major Abby Whiddon Davis (BS ’14). The latter now serves as director of client development for the Moore Agency.
From Gator Growl to “The Bachelor“
Nine years after UF crowned its first Homecoming King, scores of men were vying for the honor. In the pageant’s spirit round, contestants wore orange and blue and expressed why they loved the Gators. The 2016 king and queen were Brendon “BJ” Jonassaint (BHS ’17, MA ‘19) and Saneh Ste. Claire (BSA ’17), respectively. Ste. Claire went on to compete in season 25 of ABC’s “The Bachelor.” Jonassaint is now a strategy consultant at Deloitte, in D.C.
Goodbye gowns & tuxedos
Pageant rounds were tweaked in 2019 to reflect the lifestyles of student leaders. The formal wear competition was eliminated for both men and women and replaced with business wear. UF’s Career Connections Center also advised the judges on what to look for in a king or queen. “It’s not about who has the most leadership positions, it’s about whether their impact on campus can be really felt,” said Pageant Director Sydney Brandenburg (BSBA ’19). This photo captures the moment when royals Graham Boone (BSBA ’19) and Sarah Abraham (BSBA ’20) were crowned at the 2019 Gator Growl.
Pageant changes name, goes virtual
The second wave of the coronavirus pandemic saw the 2020 Homecoming Pageant go virtual for the first time in its history. UF students, faculty and alumni filled digital seats of the newly renamed Homecoming Leadership Pageant, a change that reflected the organization’s longtime emphasis on nurturing and recognizing student leaders. The pageant was broadcast live on the Gator Growl website and social media pages.