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University of Florida Leaders Honor Former Provost David Colburn

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For nearly 50 years, David Colburn was a mentor, leader and friend at the University of Florida. On Tuesday, the university had to say goodbye.

UF held a memorial service for Colburn, a man with a role in nearly every leadership position at the university. Colburn died of complications from an ongoing illness on Sept. 18. He was 76.

Colburn began as a history professor in 1972 at UF, and for the next 50 years, he would continue to make an impact. He served as chairman for the Department of History, provost and senior vice president of UF and as the director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service.

Hundreds of colleagues, friends and family filled the seats of the University Auditorium where the memorial took place. Notable UF leaders were in attendance to pay their respects, like former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, President Kent Fuchs and former UF President Charles Young.

University of Florida President Kent Fuchs welcomes the audience at the University Auditorium to David Colburn’s memorial service. (Michaela Mulligan/WUFT News)

The major contributions Colburn made to the university and public service during his academic career served as the outline of his memorial.

It began with Caroline Nickerson, a former student of Colburn’s.

Colburn inspired Nickerson, a Bob Graham Center alumnus, to pursue a career in public service. As a historian, Nickerson says Colburn understood the importance of remembering and honoring those who have passed.

It was a sentiment that felt weighted in a room of people there to pay their respects.

“He inspired me to pursue public service and taught me what it means to be a good citizen,” Nickerson said. “I think about how one day a student might walk into my office. They may ask me why I love Florida so much, or why I pursued public service.”

She’ll tell them about Colburn, she says.

Colburn himself even had a few words to say.

Throughout the memorial, clips from an interview with Colburn recounted his career and his time as a leader at the university.

Besides his half-century at UF, Colburn also became a published author. He wrote 14 books and contributed to multiple newspapers like the Tampa Bay Times, the Orlando Sentinel, the Gainesville Sun and other Florida papers.

Possibly his most well-known text, said retired UF history professor Fred Gregory, is “Racial Change and Community Crisis: St. Augustine, Florida, 1877-1980.” The book explored the story of race in St. Augustine for over a century.

“The story involved ugliness,” Gregory said. “But Dave felt it was his duty to confront it.”

From left: Bob Graham, former Florida governor and U.S. Senator, and Charles Young, former president of the University of Florida, shake hands at the end of the memorial service. (Michaela Mulligan/WUFT News)

Colburn spent much of his professional life documenting racial injustices in Florida. He felt Florida overlooked African Americans in its history. He wanted to correct this. He brought untold stories to life.

Near the end of his career at the university, Colburn became the director of the Bob Graham Center. Bob Graham, the 38th governor of Florida, spoke about working with Colburn. He said Colburn’s leadership has been critical in shaping the center into what it is today.

“I believe the most telling evaluation of the Graham Center’s influence by Dr. Colburn’s skilled direction is how our students now hold positions of significant leadership in public exhibited issues across the state and the nation,” Graham said.

The memorial ended with a recounting of Colburn’s contributions to the university’s administration. He served as provost and senior vice president from 1999 to 2005. Charles Young, UF’s 10th president, spoke of the invaluable work Colburn did during that time.

“We … and the University of Florida have lost a dear friend and colleague,” Young said. “But we are also much better for having known him.”

The memorial’s final speaker, former professor Charles Frazier, chose not to focus on Colburn’s academic career. Instead, he shared stories of his friend.

He loved him like a brother, he said, his voice catching on the word “brother.”

Frazier knew that line would be hard to say.

He continued, telling stories of nearly 30 years of friendship. Frazier described him as a man with an urge to lead, a tendency for impatience and an incurable penchant for pranks.

Even now, Frazier says, if Colburn had been at his memorial, he would look around — ready to bolt. As Frazier finished his final story, he looked to the audience.

“And now, David, you can bolt.”

David Colburn emerged from the ROTC program at Providence College and was eventually promoted to the rank of captain in the Army. He said he didn’t serve on the front lines, but he was mortared and shot at during his service in the Vietnam War. The beauty of Vietnam and the goodness of most civilians captivated him, and he said he realized after returning to the United States and entering a doctoral program that American involvement there was a “horrific mistake.” Read more of his memories from Vietnam in our 2017 interview. (File photo/WUFT News)

About Michaela Mulligan

Michaela is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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