1964 was a year of many firsts – The Rolling Stones released their first album, the first Ford Mustang was manufactured, Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize, and Joseph “Joe” Cooney, alongside eight other young men, arrived at St. Thomas University, then called Biscayne College, for their first day of class.
They lived in temporary dorm rooms located in a Miami Beach hotel, and according to Joe it wasn’t the posh, high-rises you see today, “the Kimberly Motel looked like an ugly concrete box.” And although having the beach as their backyard had its perks, the early-morning bus ride to campus was a difficult routine to keep up, so they were happy to move in to Cassia Hall when it opened three months later.
“We had such a good time. We were the first resident class, so we were the first to do many things. We were young and dumb, and sorta had free reign,” said Joe, between bouts of laughter.
Joe, originally from Philadelphia, said it was hard to pin down his most memorable moment at St. Thomas. He credits his class for starting STU’s first student-run newspaper, intramural sports, and for hosting STU’s first basketball game against the Jamaican National team. Intertwined with dances and socials at Marymount College (now Lynn University) and Barry College (now Barry University), STU students were also hitting the books, and the professors made sure of it.
“There was nowhere to hide at St. Thomas. If a professor thought you were cutting class, he’d have a classmate come get you out of bed.”
It was a different world in the 1960s, but what made St. Thomas special then, still makes it special today. Students then and now had one-on-one relationships with professors, class sizes were small creating a strong comradery, and a vibrant, caring, close-knit university community.
It’s been 50 years since graduating from St. Thomas, and Joe still visits campus, meets for lunch with professor Richard Raleigh, and plays golf with other ’68 graduates during STU’s annual Fore the Love of Education Golf and Tennis Tournament. Currently, he is spearheading their 50-year class reunion.
Shortly after graduating in 1968 with a bachelor’s of arts degree in English, Joe was drafted into the United States Army and sent to Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division. After the war, he went to graduate school, married, and held various jobs ranging from teaching grade schoolers to working in human resources. He eventually settled in the human resource department at the University of Pennsylvania where he worked for 24 years.
Over the years, Joe and his wife, Mary, now both retired, have contributed significantly to STU – both financially and with their time. Joe says he enjoys the relationship he has with STU now, juest as much as he enjoyed it when he was a student. When he visits he still sees familiar faces, and has the opportunity to meet new ones.
“Having been a university employee myself, I know the importance of higher education and the impact gifts have to a university,” said Joe. “I feel an obligation to higher education and how it transforms people’s lives, specifically St. Thomas. I was a mischievous teenager with average grades, and St. Thomas took a chance on me, and gave me the foundation to begin a career.”
There’s a sense of pride when I see what St. Thomas has become. We give because we want to see St. Thomas continue to grow and thrive. We’ve had a good life, we’ve done well for ourselves, and we want to share whatever we can.”
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