Worshiping a hero is easier from afar.
You don't have to hear snippy comments the basketball player makes about short admirers. You don't see acne scars on the supermodel.
And, so it is with Virgil Hawkins, a Lake County hero.
Monday marks the 25th anniversary of the death of the man who broke the color barrier at the University of Florida for law students, but shamefully, few Lake students will hear about him. Teachers, consider this a challenge. Tomorrow, make a few minutes for Virgil.
From childhood, Hawkins wanted to be a lawyer. His fight began in 1949, when at 41 he applied for admission to the all-white law school in Gainesville. Nine years later, the first black student — it was not Hawkins — was admitted.
But like all people who accomplish great things, Hawkins was imperfect. Perhaps that explains why Lake seems ashamed to give him the credit he deserves.
Now, however, the time has come to forgive his misdeeds, acknowledge the years of humiliation he suffered at the hands of vicious white leaders statewide and honor him for the tremendous accomplishment that created a legacy of justice for blacks across Florida — but drained the joy and success from his own life.
Born in Okahumpka, the barefoot black boy worked alongside his preacher-daddy picking oranges in the groves and skinning trees for turpentine as he grew up. He attended Lake schools through the 10th grade, which is where education ended for blacks. A determined young Virgil was sent to Edward Waters College in Jacksonville for his high-school diploma.
After a year at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Hawkins ran out of money and returned to Florida, where he taught school and became principal at an elementary school in Groveland. Several years later, he took the position of public-relations director at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, where he earned his bachelor's degree.
There, amid a community of thinkers, activists and professors, all afire with the dawning notion of equality, Hawkins decided to go after his dream of becoming a lawyer.
He applied to UF and was instantly rejected. But the NAACP sued on his behalf and won this result: Florida A&M, the black college in Tallahassee, got a law school. Nearly two years after his initial rejection letter, the state university system offered to consider his application to the new law school — but not to UF.
Sitting in his La-Z-Boy at the age of 80, Hawkins recalled his reaction to the news: "'You mean to tell me a brand-new, half-baked law school would be as good as the University of Florida? The school where judges went? Did they think I was stupid? I didn't want Florida A&M. I wanted the University of Florida. And that's what I was going to get."
So, the court battles went on.
In March 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Hawkins should be admitted to UF's law school. But, the Florida attorney general quickly told the Florida Supreme Court that Hawkins' admission would create hate and fear and likely would result in violence.
The court invoked states' rights to deny Hawkins admission in a 5-2 ruling. The justices wrote that they would reconsider Hawkins' case when he "'was prepared to show that his admission can be accomplished without doing great public mischief." Which is to say, never.
That's hard for us to imagine today, isn't it? A cheery, middle-aged guy with a good job just wanted an education and was prepared to pay for it. He had to "prove" that him breathing in a classroom wouldn't bring out the Ku Klux Klan and other assorted yahoos to riot. Wow.
At one point in this battle, when it appeared that Hawkins had won, the board of trustees governing the law school raised the required score on an admissions test to just above Hawkins' mark. That's how spiteful things got. Those in power were willing to do almost anything to keep Hawkins, personally, out of their school.
In 1958, as it was becoming clear that Florida couldn't avoid desegregation any more, Hawkins made a sacrifice that students today never should forget: He agreed to withdraw his application to UF in exchange for a court order that ultimately desegregated all of Florida's public institutions.
Shortly afterward, Hawkins left Florida with $85 in his pocket for the New England College of Law in Boston. At 59, he scrubbed floors and toilets on his hands and knees as a night janitor at the toney all-white Harvard Club to stay in school.
He earned his law degree in 1965, but when he returned to Florida, he learned that he couldn't take the Bar exam. Oh, no. The college wasn't accredited.