Hill community honors 'our native son'

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For a banquet that celebrated one of Apalachicola’s most illustrious and beloved native sons, there was a lot of hissing coming forth from the audience.

That’s because the honored guest was the late Dr. Frederick S. Humphries and the high-pitched hisses that reverberated inside the Holy Family Senior Center Friday evening, Nov. 5 paid audible tribute to the rattlesnake sounds that emanate from all who truly love the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University Baby Rattlers.

“It’s a hissing like the rallying call, getting the troops ready,” said Falan Goff, Dr. Humphries’ niece and a member of the tribute committee. “It’s getting everybody ready to strike and strike and strike again.”

Striking again is exactly what the honors banquet celebrated, inside of the building where he was taught as a lad by Catholic nuns, Humphries’ steadfast devotion to the town where he was born the day after Christmas, in 1935,.

A church building that would launch a career in education first forged at Quinn High School, where he was treasurer of the Class of 1953, and honed at FAMU, where he earned a bachelor’s four years later, and fully shaped at the University of Pittsburgh with a doctorate in 1964 in physical chemistry, the first African-American at that university to do so in that discipline.

Leadership of Tennessee State University for 11 years, and then the presidency of FAMU from 1985 to 2001, would become Humphries’ lasting contribution to academia.

In a series of videos created and produced by Marcia Smith, of Firelight Media, a few years before Humphries’ passing in June at age 85, the audience was able, for a few brief and vivid moments, to hear first-hand of Humphries’ love for his little town on the Gulf of Mexico.

In these interviews, Humphries reflected on how he used to make money after school handling a paper route, on his memories of growing up here, and on his personal mission of seeing to it FAMU recruited “academic blue chippers,” ensuring the historic black college in Florida’s state capital had the resources to recruit top students the Ivy League also sought to attract.

Humphries’ devotion to his hometown radiated in his words projected overhead, and they were words underscored at the banquet by his friend Chauncey Ford, who too grew up in the halls of Holy Family, and who remained close to his lifelong friend in Orlando in his final many months.

Ford, now in his early ‘90s, who still swims and exercises regularly at the Y, used to talk to his friend often about the retired college president’s plans to continue to secure FAMU’s ties to Apalachicola.

Ford has worked to carry on those plans - such as creating a vineyard here for muscadine grapes or bolstering marine science ties with the Tallahassee campus -  with Dr. Dreamal Worthen, also a hometown girl. She was given an opportunity by Humphries in her youth and has made the most of it, now working as an extension agent and professor at FAMU.

Worthen served as mistress of ceremony, alongside Dr. Willie Tolliver, also a FAMU grad, and now on leave as a social work professor at Hunter College in New York City.

The room, festooned in FAMU’s colors of orange and green. opened with homage to Quinn High School, with the singing of the alma mater, many of those in attendance knowing the words by heart from their days being educated at what was then the county’s segregated high school.

Apalachicola Mayor Brenda Ash presented Dr. Humphries’ eldest son Fred Humphries, Jr. with the key to the city.

Now a vice-president at Microsoft, living in Washington D.C. with his wife Kim, Fred Humphries, Jr. expressed gratitude on behalf of the entire family for the tribute. Also speaking on the family’s behalf was daughter Robin Tanya Humphries-Watson, now of Fort Lauderdale, who was caregiver for her father in his latter years. Son Laurence Humphries, who lives in Houston, Texas, was unable to attend.

The family announced a generous donation towards the scholarship fund that has been created by the banquet.

This fund, dedicated to helping local youth in the same spirit that Humphries long displayed, will be in the hands of the newly-created non-profit “FAMU-ly and Friends,” to be administered by Pastor Harolyn Walker, also a FAMU grad.

Walker offered the blessing of the food, which included shrimp cocktail, shrimp and grits, chicken and pasta, wine and fresh-baked desserts.

Among those who were in attendance was Maude Woods Humphries, widow of Humphries’ older brother Thornton. Escorted by her three daughters, Thorna Humphries, Dr. Shawn Humphries and Faye Humphries-Mardis, Woods Humphries still owns a house on Ninth Street, which she often visits from her home in Fort Lauderdale.

The evening closed on a high note, as Elinor Mount-Simmons, a longtime educator whose children have attended FAMU, sang the George Gershwin classic “Summertime,” from the opera “Porgy and Bess.” The mullet fish fry, originally slated for that afternoon, was postponed due to inclement weather until Saturday afternoon, where the many visitors who traveled in for the weekend were provided a heritage trail tour of "The Hill."

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