The Diversity Club

No longer a good-ol’-boys stronghold, the 85-year-old organization has reinvented itself as an exclusive group that doesn’t exclude for the wrong reasons. But will its open-arms approach, and installion of its first female president next month, bring the group back to prominence?

In the heart of downtown Orlando, overshadowed by tall office buildings and gleaming condo towers, sits a plain two-story structure with a dull, dark door that once stood as the entrance to power in Central Florida. Those allowed across the threshold had a seat in the inner sanctum of power of old Orlando; those denied entry could only hope to cozy up to the right folks who might one day let them pass into the private dining rooms, paneled club room and gymnasium.

For decades, the University Club reveled in its reputation as the posh preserve of the ultimate insiders—a sumptuous palace where the kings of finance, business and politics relaxed in grand style, all secure in the knowledge that Central Florida was safe in their capable hands.

That changed in the late1980s when an ugly public fight over the club’s lack of women and minorities altered its public profile from central pillar of the community to outmoded old-boys’ club. The bruising fight even led to news reports of a University of Central Florida professor suggesting in a 1991 public forum that taking scholarship money from the University Club would be like taking it from the Ku Klux Klan.

While the club was never accused of anything so extreme as actively mistreating minorities or inciting racial intolerance, it dug in its heels, refusing to acknowledge any need to reflect the diversity of a fast-changing Orlando. Its public image seemed to alternate between smug indifference and bristling resistance, tarnishing the club enough that those who sought political power no longer begged to be let in. Indeed, some, such as Bill Frederick, who aspired to be mayor, even resigned in advance of standing for election.

Today, as the University Club prepares to mark its 85th anniversary in 2011, a new generation of club leaders is in the midst of a diversity campaign and the once all-male domain is set to inaugurate its first female president in January.

Thirty or 40 years ago, that could have been a landmark decision that would have garnered national praise. As late as 1966, the club’s House Rule No. 1 stated, “Female guests are not permitted in the Club rooms at any time except upon formal invitation of the Board of Directors.”

However, in 2010, the changes undertaken by well-meaning, sincere leaders do not exactly resound like the peal of a new Liberty Bell. Indeed, the current vice president and incoming president, Orlando interior design consultant Jennifer Kennedy, doesn’t view her accomplishment as a blow against past discrimination. Rather, the business leader whose company managed a $19 million contract for work inside the new Amway Center sees it as a chance to help direct a club that supports many charitable causes and creates vital business networking opportunities.

“I tend to be shy about the ‘first woman’ moniker,” says Kennedy, president of TJNG Partners of Maitland. “It might be important to some people, but I didn’t set out to do it.”

She sees the club as more than a collection of business leaders. “It’s more of a social organization that works toward common goals such as scholarship funds.” Indeed, the club has several service projects and donates to college scholarships—approximately $1.4 million during its existence, averaging about $50,000 for each of the past several years Membership is growing again and club leaders are reaching out to people of all backgrounds: There are about 15 female members and about a dozen black members. Nevertheless, the roster is still little more than half the size it was in its heyday four decades ago, when it boasted about 700 members.

There are several factors weighing against the club’s regaining a dominant perch in downtown Orlando. Not the least of these is an economy that may keep some would-be members from plunking down even $100 to $200 a month for dues.

No Longer an ‘Excluding’ Club

The University Club is clearly no longer the restrictive place that prided itself on its insularity and assurance that it had all the right people—bankers, lawyers, political players— who made the important decisions. And leaders long ago realized the foolishness of remaining all-male and all-white while all around the community women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and those of other backgrounds moved into prominence in all fields.

“The University Club was perceived as the nexus of the good-ol’-boys network,” says the club’s current president, Greg McNeill, who has helped lead efforts to increase diversity. “In recent years, that reputation became a burden because, frankly, it is simply no longer true. We are still an ‘exclusive’ club, but we are no longer an ‘excluding’ club.”

McNeill doesn’t sugarcoat the past or wrap it in fine legalities. “It was indefensible.”

Although the recession forced the club to scrap its plans to build an office tower at its current location, the leadership remains focused on increasing membership from the current 400 members to 700 in the next five years as the group tries to regain its position as the most prestigious club in Central Florida.

All potential members must be sponsored by a current member and be endorsed by another four members. As such, the vetting process usually leads to approval by the board.

“The membership of The University Club more closely reflects the Orlando community and that is making us more active, more vital, and relevant in the 21st century,” says McNeill, a partner at the law firm of Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed.

Today, it’s hard to imagine a more diverse group than the current board of directors. McNeill is white, with a woman about to assume his post. Directors Ralph Martinez of the law firm McEwan, Martinez & Dukes (and brother of former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez); Yatan Patel, Internet entrepreneur; and Arthur Lee, food management company owner, are Hispanic, Indian and African-American respectively.

Yet in the 25 years that have intervened between the club’s insistence on ignoring diversity and its current outreach to minorities, much has changed in public life that threatens to make social-and-business clubs something of a relic. Today, people may belong to dozens of Internet-based groups or take part in the service and social activities of other associations based on religious interests, hobbies or athletics.

The Club’s Early Years

The University Club began in humble circumstances—more of a lark than an attempt to be the preeminent men’s club.

It was founded in 1926 by a group of young men whose main interests seemed to be continuing the fraternal spirit they had enjoyed at the colleges they had recently attended. Moreover, they especially wanted to make a good showing in the local sports leagues.

The club’s newsletter during its early years—The College Yell—reflects that spirit. It is hardly the name of a group with pretensions of dominating the political and financial scene. However, as the group grew, it did attract some of the more prominent men in town.

Early members were often citrus barons, lawyers or financiers—one man listed his occupation as “Capitalist.” And by the 1930s, the club’s membership rolls included a couple of future mayors.

But the early years were fraught with concerns over money to meet expenses and make repairs, as the club moved its location a few times and seemed focused on sporting events and social activities.

In December 1960, the club settled into its current quarters at 150 E. Central Blvd. Splashy coverage in the Orlando Sentinel described the wonders of the “sumptuous” club with what at the time was the height of luxury—a billiard room, card rooms, handball courts, exercise areas, showers, a steam room, private dining rooms, a paneled reading room, a lounge and a bar. It also had a barbershop and a small
nap room where an especially tired member could catch a few winks.

By the 1960s, the University Club’s membership included Sun Bank’s mover-and-shaker Billy Dial, who helped bring Walt Disney to Orlando and had a role in shaping the future of the city, and Frederick, who would resign his membership and become mayor of Orlando as the city gained its reputation as an international tourist destination in 1980s.

However, the late 1970s’ membership rolls also featured a rarity for the club—someone who was not white. On the list was a member of Frederick’s law firm—Cuban-born Mel Martinez, who would later become Orange County Commission chairman and a U.S. senator.

During the 1980s, a national debate raged over whether large private clubs should exclude minorities. Local clubs began to feel the heat and, in 1988, Orlando Sentinel reporters Goldie Blumenstyk and Roger Roy brought the question to forefront with an in-depth article that looked at the University Club’s practices. It quoted some club members, including the newspaper’s own publisher at the time, about their lack of concern over the group’s refusal to diversify.

The reporters also related the story of then-state Rep. Alzo Reddick, an African-American leader who was forced to wait in the club’s parking lot while a white friend conducted business inside the club.

Future Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood, a city council member at the time, put it bluntly, saying that the city had outgrown the club: “There are more than white Caucasian males making decisions in this community.”

The Struggle Within

By the early 1990s, a growing number of club members realized the organization was trying to hang onto an untenable and possibly illegal position.

Ralph Martinez says he tried to get some members of the club’s old guard to see they were fighting a battle that wasn’t worth winning, but the discussions yielded few results. Former U.S. Rep. Lou Frey says he was not happy about the situation but believed a majority of members would eventually awaken to the changes taking place in the city they claimed to safeguard.

Porter Peaden, a retired attorney and Orlando native, recalls those difficult days in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the club was faced with defecting members—as many as a 100 in a short period.

Peaden says he wrote letters to each of his fellow club members asking them to look around their city and recognize that social and cultural changes threatened to leave them behind. The first step, he told them, was to invite minorities. He had a Jewish colleague at the time whom he was thinking about asking to join. But he was shocked to see that the club, which admitted an occasional Jewish member, had blackballed another good candidate for reasons that Peadon thought were anti-Semitic.

His first letter did little to change things, so he wrote a second, as both the club’s membership and reputation declined.

What was the response to those letters? “It really would not serve the club very well for me to repeat some of what the members said. But the majority was against it. They did not want a woman or a black in the club.”

Peaden gives a lot of credit to Kaye Don Lewis who worked for change and was president of the club in 1992 when it voted to begin to admit minorities. A newly enacted state law made it illegal for groups to discriminate if they had more than 400 members, served drinks and meals, offered corporate memberships and were used as places to conduct business.

But Peaden said Lewis, who died in 2007, had worked for diversity before the law was enacted and strived to keep the club intact after it admitted its first female members in 1992. Peaden, 79, dropped his membership after retiring, but is proud of the club’s new direction.
“I think the club has a chance to survive,” he says, “if they get the old ways out and let the new ways in.

Looking to a Fresh Start

Today, some of those once excluded by the club are finding a home there.

Instead of needing permission of the club leaders to be on the premises, women have become prominent. And incoming president Kennedy is using the club to host fund-raisers for female political candidates she supports.

As it hosts more social mixers for minorities, the club also faces the issue of how much to refresh the clean, but well-worn, interior and how much effort to put into finding or building newer facilities. The leadership is weighing several plans for expanding, moving or even helping to develop a new building, then selling it and leasing back space for the club.

Those plans may be years away from being implemented, but it’s clear that the intervening decades have brought a new generation of up-and-comers of all kinds who look at the University Club and see potential business contacts, not past transgressions.

Jessica Burns is one of those.

Burns, an African-American, is the business management developer for R L Burns Inc., a general construction and construction management company in downtown Orlando. The 27-year-old Burns grew up in Orlando but has no memories of the University Club as a sore point for minorities. She sees the club as “accessible and great for networking.”

While expressing great sympathy for those who felt slighted by past practices, Burns doesn’t think business communities can grow without the support of both genders and all races and religions.

“That’s in the past,” Burns says of the University Club’s troubled history. “It’s time to move forward and bring the community together.”

Burns, who joined the club this year, believes her generation of whites, blacks and Hispanics sees fewer barriers to cooperation. Many younger members were brought up to expect equal opportunities and to make the most of them. And Burns sees that attitude as key to enjoying networking at a club and finding like-minded people who want to do business without regard to the skin color of the potential partners. That just makes common sense—and economic sense—to Burns.

“We came up in the new era of the melting-pot generation.”

Categories: Features