Dr. Jerome P Keuper was a man of the 20th century but his life was lived in true Renaissance style. Best recognized as the founder and long-time president of the Florida Institute of Technology, Dr. Keuper dedicated his life to a diverse set of interests. Any time you assemble a résumé that includes titles such as college president, rocket scientist, and director of a Federal Reserve bank, you know you’re doing well. Oh, and according to those closest to him, he was handy with a punchline too.
Hanging With Dr. Keuper
In other words, Dr. Keuper wasn’t just a brilliant and accomplished man. He was also the kind of guy you’d want to hang with at a dinner party. His figure remains a towering presence at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Florida, but then, Dr. Keuper loomed large wherever he went in his illustrious life.
That life began in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky, in 1921, decades before the term “space race” gained importance in American culture. Like most of the young men from his generation, Keuper served in World War II, deploying to China and Burma (present-day Myanmar) as an Army intelligence officer. When the war ended, Keuper started on a path of academic distinction, earning his undergraduate degree at MIT, his graduate degree at Stanford, and a doctorate at the University of Virginia.
Though he first found postgraduate work as a physicist for the Remington Arms company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the churning wheels of history would ultimately convey Dr. Keuper to Florida. It was in this balmy setting that America’s competition with the Russians for interstellar supremacy would truly heat up. In 1957, the Soviets shocked the world by launching the Sputnik satellite into orbit and becoming the first world power to penetrate the earth’s exosphere.
One year later, Keuper joined RCA’s Systems Analysis Group as chief scientist and began working at the future Kennedy Space Center. Keuper found himself on the leading edge of the nation’s quest to keep up with the Russians. As young scientists, engineers and mathematicians flocked to Florida’s “Space Coast,” Keuper recognized the critical need for their educational grooming. That same year, he founded the Brevard Engineering College.
At the time, Newsweek described Brevard as a “night school for missile men”—perhaps a fair assessment, as Keuper ran his first sessions out of rented junior high school classrooms. Note that Keuper was not just ahead of his time as a scientist but also as a civil rights advocate. When he admitted a black student in 1959, the Brevard County School District expelled the fledgling tech college. First seeking refugee in a church, then eventually securing the charitable funding to purchase his own building, Keuper navigated his school through a gauntlet of challenges to survive those first years.
This perseverance helped Brevard Engineering College ultimately transform into the Florida Institute of Technology by 1966. And to say nothing of Keuper’s moral rectitude on racial matters, nor his tenacity in the face of practical resistance, Keuper would provide an ambitious model for all future private colleges in Florida. Indeed, far more than shepherding his school to survival, he helped place the Florida Institute of Technology among the nation’s most reputable private research universities.
Keuper retired from the presidency in 1986, remaining a popular on-campus figure throughout his tenure and thereafter. But that was hardly the end of his career. People who knew Dr. Keuper described him as fun-loving and enthusiastic, and not just for a physicist. Truly, he immersed himself in all of his pursuits, taking a position of leadership while doing so. Activities that variously coincided with or succeed his 30-year presidency included chairmanship of the Council of Presidents of the State Board of independent Colleges and Universities; director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Jacksonville Branch; president of the International Palm Society, and advisory board member for both the National Energy Foundation and the Institute of International Education. Oh, and just for good measure, in 1997 Dr. Keuper completed a 50-year project by publishing Chinese 1000, a dictionary of Mandarin Chinese colloquialisms.
In 2002, at the age of 81, Dr. Keuper passed away, leaving behind an enormous legacy. For all of his accomplishments, interests, and passions, it is noteworthy that he spent a full three decades at the Florida Institute of Technology. Serving more than 4,000 undergraduate and graduate students every year, this is arguably the greatest in the long list of Dr. Keuper’s achievements.
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