One Woman’s Idea

In honor of Women’s History month, we pay tribute to Lucy Cross, whose vision for a college in Florida’s frontier launched Rollins College.

(Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections)

It is hard to be in Winter Park, or anywhere in Central Florida, for that matter, and grasp just how rural and isolated it was at the time of Rollins’ founding. But that was precisely the reason Lucy Cross, who came to be known as “The Mother of Rollins,” believed the area was the perfect location for a college.

(Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) In 1884, Florida possessed only eight county high schools. Elementary and high schools operated from two to five months a year with wholly inadequate facilities. Most of the poor whites attending them could not read. One observer at the time concluded that 45 of every 100 voters were illiterate. Several private academies were scattered throughout the state, but Florida could claim no institution of higher learning. This was “just the kind of virgin educational field that had been historically so appealing to the Congregationalists’ sense of mission,” explains Jack Lane, professor emeritus of American history and the College's historian. “These conditions served as a magnet that attracted such lay missionaries as Lucy Cross.”

Lucy cross was comfortable teaching at Wellesley College when she felt called to share the light of education in the frontier. She headed south to Daytona Beach to found an elementary school. While she tended her rose garden one afternoon, something on a much larger scale seized her imagination.

“Hope sprang in my heart and an idea in my mind,” Lucy Cross wrote. The idea was Rollins College, and Lucy Cross was not one to take no for an answer where duty was involved.

“I do not dare to go home and face Miss Cross if I do not read this paper.” Those were the words that C. M. Bingham, Cross’ pastor, spoke to the first Congregational Association meeting that was held in Winter Park. Discussion of creating a college was not even on the official agenda. But Bingham, who was the moderator, knew Lucy Cross well, and he read the paper she had prepared anyway.

Based on Bingham’s reading of Cross’ paper, it was decided a committee should be appointed to study the prospect of establishing a college.

The task of building a college in a state that had no colleges and very little in the way of education at any level was daunting, to say the least, but the idea caught fire. If the circumstances were discouraging, the group of people Cross inspired to get Rollins off the ground, with their tenacity and passion, turned out to be more than a match for them.