As a founding faculty member in 1964, Robert Huckshorn knew Florida Atlantic University from the ground up — lots of ground, burrowing owls, rattlesnakes and little else where an abandoned Army air base base once sat.
With a resume that already detoured through the Republican National Committee and the Army intelligence corps, Huckshorn nonetheless turned down two other jobs at established universities to take his family south.
“No one understood why,” Huckshorn conceded to The Palm Beach Post in 1995. “I just thought it sounded exciting.”
No one benefited more from Huckshorn’s sense of adventure than FAU. In the decades that followed, he became the institution’s go-to troubleshooter, a political science professor who rose to become university vice president in Jupiter on his deft diplomacy.
Huckshorn died this week, daughter Kristin Huckshorn confirmed. He was 90 years old.
While his accomplishments filled four pages in fine print at his retirement in 2002, few filled him with more pride than FAU’s continued growth and success, his daughter said.
More than a dozen years removed from his academic exit, Huckshorn still insisted that outings from his Boca Raton home be routed through the university’s campus.
“He loved the football stadium and the new academic buildings,” Kristin Huckshorn said. “He was so proud. Just helping it grow was such a fine legacy.”
Huckshorn came to town to teach political science.
But first he lived it.
Huckshorn was born in the Ozarks of Missouri and into the arms of the Grand Old Party. When he was a child, two uncles made unsuccessful bids for governor — of Missouri and Oklahoma.
After a brief stint teaching high school, where he met and married fellow teacher Carolyn Stefanides, Huckshorn was drafted into the Army and wound up serving as a domestic intelligence investigator during the Korean War — stationed in Hollywood, Calif.
(It was during this tour of duty that Huckshorn’s life picked up a bit of glitter, once passing salt and pepper to Marilyn Monroe over breakfast and playing poker with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.)
Huckshorn left the Army in 1952 and headed back to academia, earning a master’s and doctorate from the University of Iowa before landing college teaching jobs in Iowa and California.
But again, the professor was redirected. This time becoming the Republican National Committee’s liaison to the John F. Kennedy White House. Huckshorn’s trajectory in the party turned, however, when he found himself on the moderate side of a party backing Barry Goldwater for president.
Given job opportunities in Kentucky and Louisiana, Huckshorn chose a patch of scrub east of Interstate 95 with two classroom buildings, 60 faculty and 800 students - Florida’s first four-year state university south of Tampa.
Huckshorn once told a reporter he figured he wouldn’t stay long. But, in time, it wasn’t certain he’d ever leave.
In a Palm Beach Post 1995 profile dubbing Huskshorn the “fix-it man” at FAU, colleagues described his reputation as a successful negotiator that began with convincing the university president to replace an unpopular dean of academic affairs.
In the years that followed, he rose to the head of his own department and then was installed in others when rifts threatened and reputations sputtered. His many titles included dean of the College of Social Science; associate vice president for Academic Affairs; assistant provost for the Davie and downtown Fort Lauderdale campuses and vice president for the Jupiter and Treasure Coast campuses.
As a known problem-solver, Huckshorn was called in to assume temporary leadership of the College of Education and the communications department when each was having difficulties.
“He’s thick-skinned when it comes to working with people who are hard to work with,” a fellow FAU professor John DeGrove said in that 1995 article. “He’s worked in some very volatile faculty situations, when people had knives out for each other, yet he’s managed to bridge gaps between these warring factions. He manages to get things done yet not make enemies. Indeed, he makes a lot of friends.”
But always seeking adventure, Huckshorn reveled in starting from scratch. And in that vein, he led the efforts to establish FAU’s nursing program, its Davie campus, and the John D. MacArthur Campus at Jupiter and championing the four-year honors program there. The campus is now home to an arboretum in his name.
Along the way, Huckshorn’s politics changed as well. Married to a life-long Democrat and the father of three like-minded daughters, he once figured he was the odd-one out at home. “I think the dog is a Democrat, too.”
Before he died, before the presidential elections, Huckshorn switched parties, daughter Kristin Huckshorn said. But his roots in this patch of scrub grew deep.
“They developed so many close friendships within the FAU community,” Kristin Huckshorn said. “After awhile they were never going to leave. This was home.”
Huckshorn is survived by his wife, Carolyn, their three daughters, Kevin Ann Huckshorn (who earned her nursing degree as a member of FAU’s second nursing class), Kristin Huckshorn and Dana Wingate, and two grandsons.
The family is not planning a visitation. But a celebration of Huckshorn’s life will be held on FAU’s Boca Raton campus in January. Details are in the works, but friends, former colleagues and students will be invited to attend.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in support of either the Robert J. Huckshorn Arboretum at FAU or the Trustbridge Hospice Foundation.