Have you ever wondered what life was like in Jacksonville half a century ago? It was a different era of history, culture and politics but there are often parallels between the kind of stories that made headlines then and today. As interesting as the differences may be, so are the similarities. These are some of the top stories from this week in 1961. The items were compiled from the Jacksonville Public Library’s periodical archives by Staff Writer Max Marbut.
• Three of Jacksonville’s nine justices of the peace had their first experience as trial judges. Under a new state law, JPs were empowered to hear some misdemeanor cases.
The first docket included a drunkenness case discharged by Justice Genevieve K. Medlock, a $10 fine for drunkenness suspended by Justice Dorcas B. Drake and a pair of $25 fines levied for drunkenness by Justice George A. Harris.
In addition, Medlock bound over to Criminal Court a man charged with disorderly conduct and displaying a deadly weapon after he refused to sign a waiver of jury trial.
Medlock said she dismissed the drunkenness case because the man had already spent a few days in jail awaiting his hearing.
Drake said she suspended the $10 fine in her first case because the complainant had decided not to press the matter.
As for the defendant who refused to sign the waiver, Medlock said the man must have been confused.
“He told me he’d rather be bound over to Criminal Court so it wouldn’t take so long to prosecute, when the opposite is the actual situation,” she said.
The new law gave JPs jurisdiction in misdemeanor cases involving maximum penalties of fines less than $500 or sentences shorter than 90 days and only if the defendant chose to place his case, without jury, before the JP. Otherwise, the justice was required to dismiss the case or bind the defendant over.
• Carl S. Swisher retired as chair of the Jacksonville University board of trustees, a position he had held since 1947.
He was replaced by Guy W. Botts, an attorney who had been a trustee of JU and Jacksonville Junior College since 1938.
Botts was a past president of The Jacksonville Bar Association and a senior partner in the law firm of Botts, Mahoney, Whitehead, Ramsaur and Hadlow.
Swisher joined the board in 1943 and was the university’s chief benefactor. Four of the nine permanent buildings on the campus had been donated by the Carl S. Swisher Foundation. Swisher held an honorary degree in humane letters and a distinguished service award from JU.
When Swisher assumed leadership of the board, the school was operating as Jacksonville Junior College in a large frame house on Riverside Avenue. Three years later, the institution moved to is riverfront campus in Arlington and moved into its first permanent building.
In 1953, the foundation presented the school with a 2,000-seat gymnasium. The following year, Swisher Library was constructed and two years later, Swisher Auditorium was completed.
Following the death of Swisher’s wife, the foundation donated the Leah G. Swisher Science Building in 1958.
The trustees also awarded the title of honorary chair to Fred B. Noble, board chair from 1937-43, and to Clifford McGehee, vice chair since 1947.
• A “pitifully dilapidated rowboat” arrived in Jacksonville on the converted Venezuelan landing craft “Los Testigos.”
When it was plucked from the Florida Straits before coming to the Navy Reserve pier on the St. Johns River, the rowboat was half swamped, its occupants too exhausted to keep the water out of their vessel.
One oar jutted out from a piece of worn canvas covering the boat and a single bailing bucket, improvised from oil can, lay in broken boards at the bow.
Eight Cubans – five men, a woman and two young girls – had been in the boat for five days, adrift for three days. They had no food and little water. Gasoline for the small outboard motor had run out on the third day.
When the Los Testigos found them, the refugees were too weak to climb aboard the vessel and had to be carried to the deck.
The Cubans told their rescuers they had set out from a point near Havana the morning of June 25, expecting a nine-hour run to Key West. They were apparently pulled off course by the Gulf Stream and poor navigation.
“They must have wanted to leave very badly to come in that,” said Ensign Enrique Gonzalez Marrero as he looked at the tiny craft.
One of the Los Testigos’ crew said the occupants of the small boat told him they had seen several planes and ships, but were unable to attract their attention. The refugees also said they were afraid of encountering a Cuban patrol vessel.
The Venezuelans said the Cubans didn’t talk much about big issues such as politics and ideology, but spoke mostly of growing poverty and increasing terror under the regime of Fidel Castro.
The women complained of the rising price of rice being brought into the once rice-rich country from Red China and being sold for 32 cents a pound.
Soon after they arrived in Jacksonville, the group was allowed to proceed to Miami to join a growing population of exiles, many of whom had undergone a similar ordeal.
• Final inspection of the ultramodern, multicolored Jefferson Davis Junior High School on the Westside was conducted by the Duval County Board of Public Instruction.
The 42-classroom, H-shaped building was built for $817,000.
The layout included 28 general classrooms, three science laboratories, three art rooms, three music rooms, woodworking, metal crafts and graphic arts labs, a cafetorium to seat 400 and a 3,750-square-foot library.
The administrative suite included offices for the principal, assistant principal, dean of girls, several guidance counselors, a faculty lounge and a large student waiting room.
One unusual feature was that all classrooms opened onto a balcony. Students changing classes would get a breath of fresh air as they moved from room to room.
The most striking feature of the school was the unusual design. The façade was studded with globes and triangle patterns. Another feature was large clothespinlike concrete structures that jutted from the canopies of covered walkways.
According to architect Mayberry Lee of the Hardwick and Lee partnership, they served an important purpose.
Lee said the suspended forms balanced the roof on off-center concrete posts, allowing a reduction in the number of posts needed to support the canopy.
• Three escapees from the state prison camp at Largo were apprehended in Jacksonville, two of them by a group of armed citizens following an all-day manhunt in the Normandy-Hyde Grove area.
The other fugitive was captured earlier in the day and none of the trio offered any resistance when captured.
James Noland, 22, and James Keen, 26, walked into the arms of the citizens’ posse at the end of Mount Vernon Drive.
John Worman, 24, serving 10 years from Duval County for armed robbery, was captured about 7:30 a.m. by County Patrolman Maynard Crouse when the officer stopped a car occupied by the three fugitives for a routine traffic violation at Old Middleburg Road and Lenox Avenue.
Noland and Keen jumped out of the car and fled on foot.
Crouse grabbed Worman before he could run and the fugitive identified himself to the officer. Crouse recognized his name as one of the Largo escapees.
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