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University of
Florida apologizes for honoring antigay alumnus

University of
Florida apologizes for honoring antigay alumnus

The University of Florida Alumni Association has apologized for naming former governor Charley Johns a standout graduate, saying it wasn't completely aware of Johns's work to eliminate gays from the state's public universities decades ago. Randy Talbot, the alumni group's executive director, issued a public apology Wednesday for the alumni magazine's selection of Johns as a standout graduate, saying it was contrary to the university's support of diversity. Talbot said in a letter to The Gainesville Sun that it was a mistake and that the magazine should do a better job researching its stories. Liesl O'Dell, the magazine's editor, said she regretted not at least mentioning Johns's involvement in the gay witch hunt. Beginning in 1956, a year after Johns left office as acting governor, he led a special legislative committee that began as an effort to uncover communism in the civil rights movement, but its focus turned toward expelling and firing gay students and teachers. "I was aware of the Johns Committee in reference to its intent to stamp out communism, and I had heard that it had spread out into the black, gay, and Jew bashing," O'Dell told the newspaper. "But I really did not known the extent" of the committee's effort to hunt out gays. Johns Committee investigators flashed badges and hauled to motels people they suspected of being gay and hammered them with questions seeking names. They set up homosexual encounters and parties and took pictures. They drilled holes in bathroom stalls to spy. They hired informants to report on homosexuals and on what professors were teaching in the classroom. In all, more than 100 university teachers and administrators were removed because of the investigation, and an unknown number of students were forced to leave school. Hundreds of others were investigated. The committee disbanded in 1965. The next issue of the alumni magazine will include a representative sample of nine letters from readers, O'Dell said, adding, however, that the magazine would not print a retraction or apology. Some alumni were horrified that Johns's name was on the list of outstanding alumni. "What I wanted them to do was recognize the magnitude of the hurt and the damage that Charley Johns and his committee caused for so many people," said Art Copleston, 72, of Palm Springs, Calif., who said he was terrorized by the committee as a UF student in the 1950s. Jeanna Mastrodicasa, a member of UF's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Committee, said the fact that Johns made the list showed that the university has a long way to go toward diversity. "I think it is just reflective of it being a slow process to talk about LGBT issues," she said. "As we make changes at the university--in the last four or five years we've added a sexual orientation nondiscrimination clause and added a LGBT director--I hope we talk about this too." Johns, who was state senate president, became governor on September 28, 1953, after Gov. Thomas McCarty died. Johns, of Starke, waged an unsuccessful campaign to fill out McCarty's term and served until January 4, 1955. He died in 1990. In a 1972 interview he said that he saw the committee as a way to stamp out homosexuality. He said he was especially disturbed by the number of homosexuals at the University of Florida. "I don't get no love out of hurting people," he said. "But that situation in Gainesville, my lord a' mercy. I never saw nothing like it in my life. If we saved one boy from being made a homosexual, it was justified."

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