On the third floor of the Reitz Union at the University of Florida, there is a display of photos of every past student body president since 1909, except one. Out of 116 past student body presidents, only one was missing a photo above his name.
Almost no one knows why.
That man, Thomas “Tommie” Wesley Bryant, the UF student body president from 1911 to 1912, was almost forgotten. But he lives within the pages of yearbooks and in a long-lasting legacy.
Bryant was born in 1890 in Socrum, Florida, and grew up in Lakeland, Florida, where he lived for most of his life. Even before his time at UF, Bryant made history. In 1907, he founded the Lakeland High School football team, the Lakeland Dreadnaughts.
He attended UF from 1909 until 1915, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1912 and graduating from the UF Law School in 1915.
Bryant’s time at UF had its share of achievements other than being student body president. Most of his life on campus can be found in the black-and-white pages of UF’s old yearbook, “The Seminole,” which was published decades before the Seminoles became the mascot for Florida State University.
According to volumes one through five of “The Seminole,” Bryant was a member of many societies and clubs on campus, such as the Cooley Law Club and the Woodrow Wilson Club. Bryant also held many leadership positions; he was on the Executive Committee of the Athletic Association and served as the assistant editor-in-chief of the Seminole in 1912.
Bryant also won many awards during his time at UF, including the Board of Control Oratorical Medal in 1912. That same year, he was also voted student body president.
After Bryant graduated from UF Law School, he tried to start a law career. But according to “History of Polk County” by Michael F. Hetherington, his law career was stunted, as Bryant enlisted in World War I in 1918. He served in many battles in France during his three months of service with the 2nd Battalion of the 319th Field Artillery in the 82nd Division. When he returned home, he picked up where he left off in his law career.
Bryant became a member of the firm of Bryant & Trantham, which, according to Hetherington, enjoyed the “patronage and confidence of an extensive and influential clientele.” Bryant’s reputation gained momentum, and he was soon elected to the Florida Legislature in 1922, representing Lakeland. He was then reelected in 1924 and again in 1926, serving a total of three terms.
He served Lakeland well, as his obituary stated. During his time in the Florida Legislature, Bryant supported the construction of Alligator Alley, the purchase of land near Lake Morton for a library, the issuing of bonds for Lakeland’s light and water service and the opening of the Lake Mirror Complex. He was also very influential in bringing streetlights to downtown Lakeland.
After his time in the Florida Legislature, Bryant’s path led back to UF, where he served three terms on the Board of Control — the predecessor to the Board of Regents — from 1936 to 1949.
Sarah Coates, a UF-certified archivist, said Bryant helped protect the third UF President, John James Tigert, from unfounded personal attacks and charges from other members of the Board of Control. Due to this protection, Tigert went on to establish many of the hallmarks that made UF what it is today, including general education requirements for the Center for Latin American Studies and the Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
“Tigert would not have been able to make these changes, among others, without the support of the Board of Control, especially as the state Legislature had little funding opportunities to give the university during the Depression,” Coates said.
Aside from his career, Bryant found success in his personal life. He married Lydia Steitz in 1920 and had three daughters with her: Margaret, Nell and Betty. He died in 1992 at the age of 102 and was buried in Oak Hill Burial Park in Lakeland, Florida.
In an article published in the Ledger in 1992, reporter Rick Rouse wrote that Bryant never missed a home Gator football game for 58 years, starting during his first year as a UF student in 1909. In 1982, Gator Boosters named Bryant the oldest living football fan at the time.
Although Bryant has no direct descendants, both Patrick Lombardi and Robbie Bryant are related to the family. Lombardi is Bryant’s first cousin three times removed and Robbie, Lombardi’s cousin, married into the family, her mother-in-law being Bryant’s distant cousin.
Robbie said he is still remembered by his relatives to this day.
“He is a very important person around here,” she said. “I was told by the family members that he always had a cigar, used cuss words, knew everything about everything and he and his family made the city of Lakeland all that it is today.”
Due to Bryant’s efforts in high school, college and his time on both the Florida Legislature and the Board of Control, Bryant received three dedications in his name. For founding the Lakeland Dreadnaughts, Thomas Bryant Stadium in Lakeland was dedicated to him in 1941. State Road 33, just north of Lakeland, was also named after Bryant. Because of his impact on UF, the Thomas W. Bryant Space Science Research Building was also dedicated to him in 1968.
Coates did not know why Bryant’s picture was not on display, but she does have a photo of Bryant, which could also be found in volume five of “The Seminole.”
“To get Mr. Bryant’s photo on display, I would say that folks would need to speak to the Student Government to request that his photo be displayed with the other Student Body Presidents,” she said.
Student government has made no efforts to add Bryant’s photo to the wall.
Carl Van Ness, the university historian emeritus, also has no clue why Bryant’s photo is not on display.
“I am surprised that Bryant’s photo is not displayed, as he had a successful career after leaving UF, and we have a building named after him, Bryant Hall, or, currently, the Bryant Space Science Center,” Ness said.