Polk State College paused in 2011 to mourn the loss of former President Dr. Maryly VanLeer Peck, whose legacy includes a heightened presence for the College and its dynamic athletics program.
Dr. Peck, 81, died in November in Palm Beach Gardens.
Inaugurated as the second president of Polk State — then Polk Community College— in 1982, Dr. Peck was one of the first females to lead an institution of public higher education in the state.
“It is an honor to walk in her footsteps,” said Polk State College President Dr. Eileen Holden. “Maryly was a true pioneer, and I know that she helped blaze a path that has certainly impacted my own career, as well as the prospects for many other leaders within Florida’s systems of higher education.”
While becoming one of the first females to lead a public higher education institution in Florida is significant, it also was not the first time — or last — that Dr. Peck would make history.
At a time when many colleges and universities didn’t admit women, Dr. Peck was determined to achieve the highest levels of education. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University in 1951, becoming its first woman to earn an engineering degree. She went on to earn both a master’s and a doctoral degree in engineering from the University of Florida, becoming the first woman to earn those degrees in the university’s history as well.
She began her career in the aerospace industry as a research engineer for the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and Rocketdyne Corp. in California.
Her interest in academia eventually prevailed, however, and she became the first female dean of the College of Business and Applied Technology at the University of Guam, and founder and dean of what is now Guam Community College. She also held positions at Arizona’s Cochise College, Campbell College in North Carolina, the University of Florida, and the University of Maryland.
She took the helm of Polk State during a time of high unemployment in the county and declining enrollment at the College. Undaunted by those challenges, she embraced Polk State’s ambitions of creating a campus in Lakeland, and during her inauguration announced plans for a joint-use campus off U.S. 98 South that would be shared with the University of South Florida.
The first building on the Lakeland campus was completed within the next several years, and by the College’s 25th anniversary, the Lakeland campus served more than 1,900 students.
The opening of the Lakeland campus contributed to a period of bustling growth at the College as a whole, and in 1989 Dr. Peck announced that total enrollment stood at more than 6,000, the highest in the College’s history.
Under Dr. Peck’s leadership, the College greatly expanded its educational opportunities for students, including adding allied health offerings through the Health Information Management, Physical Therapist Assistant, and Occupational Therapy Assistant programs.
Dr. Peck also focused her efforts on bolstering the College’s financial standing. She was instrumental in raising money for the Polk State Foundation and seeking state and federal grants. The College’s first successful capital campaign was completed during her 15 years as president, and the number of Polk State scholarships also increased dramatically.
A former competitive swimmer who often spoke about the importance of sports, Dr. Peck was also a passionate supporter of Polk State’s athletic programs. She oversaw the College’s adjustments to abide by the 1984 Education Equity Act, which required equal athletic opportunities for men and women. Four years later, the College’s athletics offerings included men’s and women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, and men’s baseball. Softball was also established during her time as president.
In addition to expanding the athletic options for students, Dr. Peck also aimed to improve the facilities used by the teams. She helped to form a partnership with the City of Winter Haven to create a softball complex on College-owned property, and she pushed to have lights installed at the College’s baseball complex. She also steered more money to the athletics program, recognizing that increased funding would aid in recruiting efforts.
“Maryly VanLeer Peck got us an athletics program,” said Athletic Director Bing Tyus. “She took the steps to make us competitive. Now we’re not just competitive, we’re winning.”
For her support of the College’s athletic programs, she was inducted into the College’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.
Dr. Peck, described by many at Polk State as a trailblazer and visionary, also led the way for technological advancements at Polk State. She oversaw the introduction of computers to students and staff members, the opening of the Teaching/Learning Computing centers on both the Lakeland and Winter Haven campuses, and the establishment of Polk State’s website, www.polk.edu.
Her retirement from Polk State in 1997 was far from the end of her involvement in education. She worked for two years as the headmaster at All Saints’ Academy, and established numerous scholarships at the College.
Dr. Holden praised Dr. Peck, not only for her successful tenure at the helm of the College, but also for the legacy she nurtured in retirement.
“President Peck remained committed to the transformative power of education, and she understood how the generosity of scholarship benefactors changed the storyline for so many of our students here in Polk County. Just a week before her death, I wrote another thank-you note to her. She was giving right up until the very end,” Dr. Holden said.
Dr. Peck was also active in the Polk community, and was the first female member and first female president of the Winter Haven Rotary. She served on the boards of the Polk Economic Education Council and Girls Inc. of Winter Haven. She also served on a national committee for Girls Inc. that worked to encourage girls to study science, math, and engineering. She supported the United Way of Central Florida, Theatre Winter Haven, and was an active volunteer for the Boy Scouts.
Staying true to her roots, Dr. Peck was the first woman to preside over the Society of Women Engineers. She also organized most of the student chapters of that organization, and served as national vice president. She also served on the Chemical Engineering Advisory Council at the University of Florida and was a fellow of the National Science Foundation.
Her list of honors is long, including being named one of Life magazine’s “100 Most Important Young Men and Women in the United States” in 1962, and a University of Florida Distinguished Alumnus in 1991. Her other honors include: the 1995 She Knows Where She’s Going Award from Girls Inc., the 2002 Community Service Award from the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Golden Plate of Achievement from Dale Webb, a Tau Beta Pi Women’s Badge, and the Girl Scouts’ Woman of Distinction Award. She was also listed in five Who’s Who publications.
In 2007, Dr. Peck was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame.
Read more coverage in The Ledger.