FTU’s First (and Last?)
Homecoming Queen

How a publicity campaign, a powder blue dress and a political statement started a tradition that almost wasn’t.

Patty Gray NeffWhen Alpha Tau Omega brother Terry Gwinn, ’72, invited me to become an ATO “little sister” in September 1970, I had no idea it would lead this obscure little freshman to be crowned FTU’s first Homecoming queen.

The vision and work of ATO Jim Mills, ’72, and his fraternity brothers made it happen in February 1971. They mounted an aggressive publicity campaign: Photo shoots with campus publications photographers Jon Findell, ’73, Bill Ivey, ’73, and Chuck Seithel, ’74, yielded posters, lapel pins and even a portable slideshow with background music that appeared at building exits just in time for class changes. They couldn’t have run a better campaign if they’d had email, the Internet and PowerPoint. I was very proud to be their candidate.

The Homecoming committee organized a fashion show to showcase the 13 Homecoming queen candidates, with Jacobson’s Proctor Shop of Winter Park, Fla., providing advice and fashions for the event. On the day of the show, the cafeteria was packed (500 students and only seating for 240), and there was lots of cheering as each candidate strolled down the runway. After voting, the five finalists were announced the following evening between Homecoming skits and a street dance.

The Homecoming game was a Valentine’s Day matchup between FTU’s first-year basketball team and the Florida Institute of Technology, played at FTU’s original home court in the Oviedo High School gym. FIT had previously beaten the Knights, so this was a grudge match. Coach Eugene “Torchy” Clark, ’72, rallied the team, and the Knights won 101–75.

I’m sorry to say I didn’t attend the game. My formal attire for Homecoming court didn’t seem compatible with bleachers in a packed gymnasium, so my ATO “big brother” Terry escorted me to dinner and back to campus for the dance. The cafeteria was transformed with decorations, the band was great, and the other candidates looked beautiful. My own dress — powder blue with a high neck, long sleeves and a full skirt — was classic princess style. I saved the dress hoping to pass it on to a daughter (no luck there) or a granddaughter (there’s still hope).

It was an honor to meet President Millican. He graciously offered encouraging words as he crowned me and helped me don a queenly red velvet robe. The crowning took place about halfway through the dance, so I got to wear the crown for a few hours. (It went back to the Student Government Office the following week because it was the only one they had, and they needed it for the Miss FTU pageant too.)

The 1970–71 school year was a controversial time. We were coming out of the ’60s and traditions like Homecoming queens were under scrutiny. Outspoken feminist Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, had visited campus just a few weeks before Homecoming. While some of those first Homecoming events were well-attended, not all had support.

The following year, Homecoming was canceled. I think it was a combination of budget restraints, a small alumni base, and a predominantly commuter student body. Yearbook editors Maryke Loth, ’73, and Ron Page, ’73, registered their dissatisfaction with a two-page spread featuring the sole text, “What if they gave a Homecoming and nobody came?” In the yearbook office, a typewritten label mysteriously appeared, affixed to my trophy: “Patty Gray, FTU’s First, Last and Only Homecoming Queen.”

A newspaper clipping about the crowning of the first Homecoming Queen, held in front of Patty Gray Neff's dress.

Fortunately for enthusiastic Knights everywhere, Homecoming was revived in 1975. I didn’t crown my successor because my first son was soon to be born, and I didn’t feel comfortable about a public appearance. My husband and I supported the football team from its first season and rarely missed a Homecoming after that. I happily participated in 1989, riding in the campus parade before crowning the Homecoming king at the Citrus Bowl. I was invited back for the Homecoming parade in 1990, but it was canceled due to an encephalitis scare.

I’ll end with a story about Dr. Millican: One evening some time after Homecoming, I was singing in the lounge of the local Steak and Ale restaurant when Dr. and Mrs. Millican and their nephew came in. As they waited to be seated, we chatted and Dr. Millican introduced his nephew, who was attending another college. When I asked him why he wasn’t going to FTU, he responded that he wanted to play football. I teased Dr. Millican, saying that he surely would want to start a football program so his nephew could come to his school. He looked me square in the eye and said firmly, “We will not have a football team at FTU as long as I am president.” He definitely had his priorities set and knew that the school had to establish its academic foundation. Needless to say, I never brought it up with him again!

Patty Gray Neff is a minister of music at Church of the Good Shepherd and lives with her husband in Maitland, Fla. Her oldest son and two daughters-in-law are UCF alumni.