Robert Judson Jr. was known simply as "The Voice."
"He had a magnetic voice, made for radio, made for television," said Tim Beard, president of Pasco-Hernando State College, a position Mr. Judson held from 1994 to 2005.
"To hear him talk was like, ‘Wow.’?"
Mr. Judson used that resonant voice to help build the institution once known as Pasco-Hernando Community College from the ground up. He started there in 1972 as its first instructor and, over a 33-year career, eventually rose to become president — and in doing so became the first black president within the state’s community college system.
Those who knew Mr. Judson described him as a man driven to bring higher education to the two counties he served and as a straight-talking but forgiving leader who held family and faith close.
Mr. Judson died Monday. He was 77.
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Robert Willie Judson Jr. was born on Aug. 22, 1941, to mother Emily and father Robert Sr. He was the third of seven children, the oldest boy.
In interviews from the 1990s, he detailed an upbringing that shaped the way he saw the world and, later, his career.
His parents separated when he was in the second grade. His mother moved the children north from Miami to Pompano Beach. There, Mr. Judson said, he attended a segregated school and became "the man of the house." He worked long hours in snake-filled fields, picking beans and other vegetables. Sundays were for worship; he was a devout Baptist.
He graduated from Blanche Ely High School in 1959. He spent a year in college before dropping out to join the Army. After serving four years, he enrolled at Florida A&M University and graduated in 1968. Another four years passed before he was hired by Pasco-Hernando Community College’s founder and first president, Milton Jones.
Mr. Judson told the then-St. Petersburg Times in 1993 that he was stronger for having labored to support his poor, single-parent family while weathering racism and segregation: "I think those (experiences) make me more compassionate."
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As he bounced between roles in the college’s early days, Mr. Judson continued his own education, earning a doctorate in 1976. He became dean of the school’s Dade City campus the following year and, in 1983, that campus’ provost. He took on more roles as the college’s vice president and executive vice president.
In 1993, when Jones announced his retirement, many in the college community pegged Mr. Judson as a natural successor.
But the board of trustees decided to put him into the ring with other candidates. Rumors went around that he would get the job only because of his race. He confronted those head-on, according to a 1993 Times article:
"If anyone says I want to be president of this college because I am black, nothing could be further from the truth," he told trustees. "I want to be president of this institution because I am qualified, because I have experience, because I have the integrity, because I have respect, because I can do the job."
In 1994, the trustees agreed.
During his tenure as president, he opened a three-story health building and a childcare center on the New Port Richey campus; opened a public service technology building on the Dade City campus; remodeled the Brooksville campus; and purchased the land for the college’s Spring Hill campus, which took shape in 2010.
"He clearly saw the need in our two-county area that students had to have access," said Katherine Johnson, who succeeded Mr. Judson as college president from 2005 to 2015.
His priorities were evident to the board of trustees, said member Rao Musunuru.
"He always insisted that all the board members come to the graduations because we are celebrating their accomplishment," Musunuru said.
Mr. Judson believed in the power of education to free people from hardship, colleagues said, just as it had freed him.
He used his freedom — and that sonorous voice — to give others opportunities, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds.
"In so many ways, he gave ... his life professionally to this college," Beard said. "Unselfishly."
"He played a major role, perhaps more than any other, in building this college."
Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Justin Trombly at [email protected] Follow @JustinTrombly.