News | March 31, 2022

CommunityCommunityFGCU 25th AnniversaryNews

FGCU at 25: An incredibly rare piece of memorabilia

3 - minute read
Photo shows FGCU donor Bernie Lester
Bernie Lester was executive vice president of Alico, Inc., an agribusiness company that delivered the land where FGCU was built.

This year Florida Gulf Coast University is celebrating its 25th anniversary, culminating Aug. 25, 2022 – 25 years since FGCU offered its first classes. However, the effort to open this institution started many years earlier. Between 1991 and 1992, one of the most critical decisions was where to build Florida’s 10th state-controlled university.

Many locations were presented as options to the state. By mid-February 1992, the Board of Regents selected on an offer by Alico, Inc., an agribusiness company led by Ben Hill Griffin III, to build the school on roughly 760 acres in southern Lee County. But the choice of the site didn’t come without its battles. One tale from those days of yore has avoided documentation until now.

In 1991, the Board of Regents listened to 20-some different landholders make their pitch in hopes of being chosen as the university’s new home. The list was eventually whittled down to a few options from which the Alico, Inc. site between Alico Road and Corkscrew Road was chosen.

“It was friendly,” Bernie Lester said about the meetings to select a site for FGCU. “There was a committee of local people appointed to select the site. Once a month, for about six months, we would have a meeting of that committee. As we moved forward, some [sites] were eliminated.”

logoDuring this time, Lester was executive vice president of Alico, Inc. and remembers the process well. He said the meetings never got contentious, but he felt there was a lot of assuming the site selection wasn’t going in Alico’s favor. Nevertheless, at least one moment of playful name-calling did occur.

As Lester remembers it, someone asked, “Who do you think is going to prevail?” The response from a competing company’s representative was simple: “Well, we sure are not going to be voted down by a bunch of dirt farmers.”

Asked if the “dirt farmer” moniker was offensive, Lester said, “It didn’t bother us. How do you farm without dirt?”

While Lester claims they weren’t troubled by the name, that doesn’t mean the Alico team forgot it. As he recalls, after the Alico site was selected, a consultant who helped the company with the process presented each board member with a new cap.

photo shows cap
The cap says it all.

It was yellow with screen-printed black letters that read: “Dirt Farmers Kick ***.”

“To the Alico, Inc. board, it was obviously very funny,” Lester said.

Don’t expect to see Bernie Lester, one of FGCU’s founders, wearing this cap in public any time soon. But he is one of the few who owns this incredibly rare piece of FGCU memorabilia. And unless you know the story, you might have never given any credence to this otherwise cheeky hat.


It’s important to note that the late Ben Hill Griffin III wanted to place a university on the Alico, Inc. property as early as 1990. While it took time for the state’s Board of Regents to make the final decision, it was beneficial for Florida Gulf Coast University in more ways than one. Griffin and Alico not only delivered the land, but they also continued to give back to the school. Less than 10 years later, they endowed three chairs and gifted an additional $5 million to help ensure Alico Arena could support an NCAA Division I program at FGCU. Griffin’s name was the first to adorn a building on the campus, and a good portion of Treeline Avenue, the route to campus entrances, was renamed in his honor. In 2017, in recognition of his efforts alongside Griffin’s to create FGCU, Lester’s name was permanently affixed to the arena with the honorary naming of the W. Bernard and Elaine Lester Athletics Administrative Complex.

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