Max Bruner Jr.: The Man At The Top

Condensed and adapted from an article
written by Myrtle Beavers,
Communications instructor,
for the OWCC 25th Anniversary booklet.

Among the early contributors to the interesting and varied history of OWJC was former superintendent of the Okaloosa County school system, Max Bruner, Jr.

Bruner's niche in the history of Okaloosa-Walton Community College comes from his contribution as superintendent. When the college came into existence, it was then commonplace for Florida junior colleges to be placed under the jurisdiction of their respective county school superintendent. The college had been in session a little over two months when the energetic Bruner, who had received the Democratic Party's nomination in May, was elected superintendent in November 1964, a public office which he held for twenty years.

Dr. Ed McCracken, of course, had been hired at the outset as the first president of OWJC, but when Bruner was sworn in on January 10. 1965, four months after the college began its first session on the old Valparaiso campus, Mr. Bruner not only became the superintendent of the county's K-12 schools, including the military schools, but also held jurisdiction over the college, both systems having an enrollment in excess of 1,000. By virtue of state law, then, Max Bruner, Jr., at the age of thirty-four truly became "the man at the top."

Although the declaration of the need for a junior college by the state legislature and the subsequent appropriation of money for Florida's eighteenth junior college had already been done by the time Bruner became superintendent, there was still much to be done for the new institution. In fact, Bruner had been in office just two years when the state legislature approved the building of a new permanent campus for OWJC and appropriated the capital to do so.

In those early days, students were transported by bus to the college from both Walton and Okaloosa counties. Since the college did not own any buses, student transportation was taken care of by both Okaloosa and Walton counties' public school transportation systems. This, according to Bruner, involved a great deal of logistical work because "we had 4,200 bus stops to make each day, and school enrollment was increasing at the rate of 1200 to 1500 each year. "

Three years after Bruner was elected, the state legislature established independent local boards of trustees for the colleges and gave the boards corporate authority for operating community colleges within the framework of law and state regulations. "But the college," Bruner said, "was still under the jurisdiction of the school board and remained so until 1971, when the state relieved the school board of financial responsibility. During this time, we were directly involved with and instrumental in the growth of the college from the standpoint that in those days we assessed local ad valorem taxes a portion of which covered a part of the operational expenses of the college budget. The taxes, of course, were very controversial, but they were necessary for the college to continue to grow and to function as it should,"

According to Bruner, one of the most exciting times during his tenure, and perhaps the most politically controversial, was the school board's selection of the site for the new campus. The school board, which consisted of William Frank Davis, M.A. Fortune, Plen Phelps, Bryan Smith, and Chairman M.F. Cox, voted three to two to recommend placement of the college in Niceville.

During these early years, particularly from 1968 to 1971, Bruner recalled that most people looked to Dr. McCracken, OWJC president, for most of the solutions to problems that arose at the college; this was apparently the same around the state. The president was, by law, subordinate to the superintendent, and this made for a very unpopular situation with the junior college presidents who worked under the superintendent of their respective county. This, according to Bruner, created perhaps the singular most difficult situation concerning his leadership role. He noted that "I was one of a few superintendents in the state that really was in favor of the junior colleges being separated from the K-12 program and becoming independent entities. In our county, the student population was growing at such a rapid rate that we had already built three schools in the K-12 program, and I thought that this was the primary responsibility of the superintendent and the school board and that the college could function better being its own entity. I never hesitated in voting for the separation, although, collectively, the superintendents voted overwhelmingly not to have the colleges taken away. I recall that out of 67 superintendents voting, I was one of three or four who voted for the college to be removed from our jurisdiction. Because of my vote, I was very unpopular with other superintendents at that time because they did not want to give up the power that they had over their colleges. But, of course, the legislature removed the colleges from our jurisdiction in 1971."

Reflecting upon these years, Bruner stressed that "Dr. McCracken and I always had a good working relationship as far as I was concerned." In spite of an occasional disagreement between these two men of strong-willed character, Bruner had nothing but praise for McCracken's leadership ability, noting that "I felt like he was a dedicated educator and that he did not just a good job, but a great job and that he always placed the best interest of the students and the college first. I remember on the day of the dedication of the new facility, we really thought that we had achieved a great pinnacle of success, and, of course, time has proven us right."

Time does bring change to everything, including people. Both men have since retired and are now living peaceful productive lives, lives that are far less frenetic that they once were. The twenty-five years that have just passed are now part of the history of the college, and the leadership and influence of Bruner have assured his niche in that colorful historical time period. Whatever awaits the future of the college, Max Bruner, Jr. will forever be an integral part of the glorious beginning of Okaloosa-Walton Community College because of the six years that he served as truly "the man at the top."

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