The concept of a student union at the University of Florida dates back to 1922 when a campaign was launched to raise funds to build a YMCA building on campus.
In 1925, President Albert A. Murphree asked his close friend, William Jennings Bryan, a famed politician, lawyer, and orator, to accompany him on a speaking tour around Florida to raise money for a religious center for the University. Noted for his victory in the Scopes Trial, Bryan raised forty thousand dollars and over $173,000 in pledges towards the building. Bryan also contributed $1,000 to the project. The Bryan Lounge on the first floor of the Reitz Union is named in recognition of Bryan’s efforts. The Great Depression, however, derailed fundraising efforts and most of the pledges were never honored.
As the nation recovered, UF’s third president Dr. John J. Tigert decided to shift emphasis of the proposed Union building from religious activities to general student activities. Even though initial contributions were donated towards a religious center, a local court ruled that the money could be used for a general student activities building, provided the second floor was endowed forever for religious purposes. The stained glass window in Dauer Hall (the former Florida Union building) is the result of that court order and is also the reason religion classes are still taught there.
A grant worth over $100,000 was procured from the Federal Government, provided the remaining funds for the project would be raised by the University. In 1934, the UF student body voted to provide $15,000 towards the construction of the Union. Ground breaking for the new Union took place on April 19, 1934 and was expected to cost a total of $173,104. The building was opened in 1936 as the Florida Union. The 30,000 square foot facility was designed to meet the needs of more than 2,700 all-male students registered at UF and included meeting rooms, a recreation room, a soda fountain, and offices.
At the dedication in 1936, Dr. Tigert confirmed the appointment of D. R. “Billy” Matthews as the first Director, a position which he held until 1948. Matthews was a student at UF from 1924 to 1929. During this time, Matthews served as Student Body President, Student Body Vice President, President of Florida Blue Key, Chancellor of the Honor Court, and was a member of the cheerleading squad, the Glee Club, and the varsity Debate Team. Matthews served in the U.S. Army for four years during World War II and returned to the Union in 1946. He became Director of Alumni Affairs at the University in 1947. Matthews was elected to Congress in 1952 for the 8th District of Florida and served continuously as Congressman for 14 years until 1967.
In 1937 the first Board of Managers of the Florida Union was appointed to serve as the Union’s policy making body. To this day, the Board continues to play an important role in providing guidance to the Reitz Union staff. Today the board consists of eight student members including a student chair, four alternate student members, and six faculty/staff members.
In 1941, a 25,000 square foot addition was completed which nearly doubled the size of the Florida Union. The addition provided more meeting rooms, an arts & crafts center, an auditorium, a dining room, additional office space, and 15 guest rooms.
In 1948, William E. “Bill” Rion was named Director of the Florida Union. As an undergraduate student, Rion had worked at the soda fountain in the basement of the Union. He also worked at the Information Desk and was student manager of the Game Room. Rion was Student Body President in 1945, president of his fraternity, and president of his church organization. After graduating in 1945, Rion was named Assistant Director of the Florida Union. Rion held the position of Union Director for 38 years until his retirement in 1986.
Following World War II the Florida Union was unable to keep up with the growing needs of the campus community. With over 10,000 students enrolled, the Union’s meeting, dining, and recreational facilities were grossly inadequate. In 1951 a subcommittee of the Board of Managers was formed to explore the possibility of a new Union facility. As a result of this study, the UF student body voted to impose a fee of $1.50 per semester for a new union building. In 1952 a formal New Union Planning Committee was formed.
In 1958 more than 150 student organizations passed resolutions in support of the new union and Student Government unanimously passed an additional $10 per semester fee to support the new building project. In 1962 $5 million was allocated from the Florida Development Commission (which was funded by student fees from Florida universities) to proceed with the construction of the new Union facility. Groundbreaking for the new $5.7 million, 267,000 square foot facility occurred on May 9, 1964. The new facility was opened to the public on May 1, 1967. At the ribbon cutting ceremony, the facility was named in honor of Dr. J. Wayne Reitz, President of the University from 1955 to 1967. At the time, the UF student population was 19,000. The former Florida Union building was renamed Dauer Hall and serves as an academic facility.
In August of 1986, Dave Kratzer was named Director of the Reitz Union. During his tenure the Reitz Union continued to grow and change in order to meet the needs of the UF community, including the addition of 10,000 square feet of meeting room space above the Colonnade completed in 1991; the transformation of the first floor cafeteria and snack bar into a new food court in 1995; the construction of the Career Resource Center wing (now the Career Connections Center) in 1996; the addition of new retail store space and the relocation of the Arts & Crafts Center in 1997; the addition of the new Grand Ballroom and new Amphitheater seating area in 2002; and the addition of the Bookstore and Visitor Welcome Center complex in 2003.
In 2005, Dave Kratzer was promoted to Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Eddie Daniels was named Executive Director of the Reitz Union.
In 2009 an assessment of building systems conducted found $42.5 million in deficiencies and deferred maintenance. That same year a master plan and needs assessment study was conducted to identify greatest needs for current and future program needs. Based on the findings from these reports, in 2012 student leaders and UF administrators proposed a $50 million bond issue to be repaid from activity and service fees that was approved by UF Trustees and Florida Legislature.
In 2013, demolition of the Colonnade begins to make way for new structure. The project renovated 80,000 square feet of existing space and added 127,000 square feet of new space for offices and support space for student organizations and offices for Student Government, Center for Leadership and Service, Student Activities and Involvement, Multicultural and Diversity Affairs, and Gator Well Health Promotion Services.
Also at this time an energy audit of all Reitz Union existing electrical and mechanical infrastructure systems conducted through a guaranteed energy performance services contract (ESCO) by Trane. Based on their findings and guarantees a $6.47 million loan was obtained to replace lighting systems throughout the facility with LED fixtures and replace outdated mechanical systems with energy efficient components and install a digital building automation system (BAS). The loan to be repaid from annual energy cost savings.
The newly renovated and expanded Reitz Union facility opened on February 1, 2016. Total project cost: $70.7 M. Total gross square footage of Reitz Union, Bookstore, Welcome Center and Garage facility: 638,073. UF Enrollment: 50,856
In January 2022, Dwayne Isaacs was named Senior Director of the Reitz Union.
Although the physical aspects of union facilities at the University of Florida have continued to change, the overall philosophy, mission and purpose of the Union have remained consistent. Students continue to support the Reitz Union through Activity and Service Fees and the Capital Improvement Trust Fund Fee. In return, the Union continues to serve as the community center of the campus, providing facilities, services, and programs to meet the needs of our students, faculty, staff, and visitors. We have always been and will continue to be committed to student involvement and student development.
J. Wayne Reitz, fifth president of the University of Florida, was a dedicated educator, astute administrator, and tireless public servant whose many accomplishments and honors reflect his profound humanity and love of life. As UF president from 1955 to 1967, Dr. Reitz guided the university skillfully through an era of enormous and important change, engineering transformations that led to UF’s emergence as one of the nation’s preeminent public research universities.
Born in Olathe, Kansas, J. Wayne Reitz was first and foremost a product of his rural origins. He received a bachelor’s degree from Colorado State Agricultural and Mechanical College (1930), a Master of Science degree from the University of Illinois (1935), and his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin (1941). On the strength of his education and background, he joined the faculty of the University of Florida as assistant professor of agricultural economics in 1934, a position he held for ten years. In the 1940s, Dr. Reitz served as economic consultant to the United Growers and Shippers Association.
He worked for the Farm Credit Administration and as an economist for the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., before returning to UF in 1949 to be the university’s acting dean and then its provost for agriculture. In 1955, J. Wayne Reitz became the first UF president to be chosen from among the university’s faculty. Dr. Reitz married Frances Houston Millikan in 1936. He freely shared credit with her for many of his most professional accomplishments. The couple had two daughters, Margaret Ann Cooke and Marjorie Turnbull, and, ultimately, three grandsons. His family was ever the bedrock of his values.
The President Reitz Years
Dr. Reitz presided over a period of unprecedented growth and change at the University of Florida. Hundreds of new facilities were constructed in those 12 years, and the UF student population grew from about 9,000 to nearly 20,000. Many of today’s campus landmarks were products of the Reitz era: Century Tower was completed at the beginning of his tenure as UF president. The University of Florida Health Science Center developed under his leadership; the university added Library West; and – reflecting his abiding commitment to University of Florida students – the student union that bears his name opened in 1967 to accommodate a burgeoning UF population. Dr. Reitz steered the university through dramatic changes in higher education as well. The Florida State University System added five new universities during his years in office. He adroitly and peacefully managed the racial integration of the university. Under his leadership, the University of Florida accelerated the pace of its fundraising programs; and in response to the national challenge posed by the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik 1, Dr. Reitz helped stimulate interest and support for the university’s research mission.
Counselor, Advocate, Friend
His love for and devotion to the University of Florida did not end when he stepped down from its presidency. Dr. Reitz continued to be a chief advocate and supporter of the university and all aspects of its educational mission. For instance, he and Frances Reitz were active sponsors of the Friends of Music organization, which she helped found. He continued to work “without portfolio” on behalf of UF out of his office in the University of Florida Foundation, Inc., even as he remained active in the community of Gainesville and in corporate affairs. Dr. Reitz’s door was always open to anyone seeking his counsel and advice. Individuals from all walks of life, from all across campus, and throughout the state and nation considered him friend and mentor. He remained a ready and invaluable resource for the university, its leaders and its aspirations. J. Wayne Reitz received numerous honors and recognitions during his lifetime, among them Panama’s Cross of Balboa and Norway’s Order of the North Star for his involvement in international agricultural development. He holds honorary degrees from several institutions, including the University of Florida. In 1957, he was named Progressive Farmer magazine’s “Man of the Year” for his service to Florida agriculture, and he received the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce “Outstanding Citizen” award. In 1993, he was one of four persons named to the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame for their lifelong contributions. In Dr. J. Wayne Reitz, the University of Florida found a tireless and loyal servant, a fervent champion, and a wise and compassionate friend.