KMI left a legacy

VENICE - In the winter of 1933, when city fortunes were sagging along with the finances of its corporate founder, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Sarasota County's first military school arrived to help boost this town's fortunes.  The academy that became the Kentucky Military Institute had been wintering in Florida since about 1906, when it began sending its cadets to the east coast town of Eau Gallie, near present-day Melbourne.  The school, which counts seven Civil War generals as former cadets, was founded in 1845 by Col. Robert T.P. Allen, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Seminole War.  Other famous alumni include early Hollywood hunk Victor Mature and Jim Backus, who later played Thurston Howell III on "Gilligan's Island." Comic actor Fred Willard, who appeared in Christopher Guest's "Best of Show" and "Waiting for Guffman," attended school at KMI as well.  Fred Francis, the owner of BW Francis and B&B Bootery Inc. at 311 W. Venice Ave., attended KMI as a family tradition. His father, Bob Francis, was a member of the first class to come to Venice.  "I came from a county in Kentucky with a very poor school system," said Francis, 64. "It got me out of that into one with classrooms of 15 and 16 students.  "It was a better environment for learning too, with a lot of after hour help from teachers and other faculty members too," he added.

Col. Charles B. Richmond, who was part of a partnership that pulled the school out of bankruptcy in the 1930s, began KMI's association with Venice, striking a deal to lease both the San Marco Hotel on Tampa Avenue and the Venice Hotel on Nassau Street.  The school nearly ended up on Longboat Key, according to Charles A. Hodgin, son of longtime KMI commandant Col. Charles E. Hodgin Jr., who died at age 95 in 1997.  The school had been offered the use of the incomplete John Ringling Hotel on Longboat Key if KMI would- finish the construction, but it proved too expensive for the military school.  Instead the school opted for Venice.  The San Marco Hotel became a dormitory; the Venice Hotel was turned into an administration and classroom building.  A contingent of 1,500 people welcomed the first group of 175 cadets when they arrived for winter session on Jan. 5,1933.  KMI was a military school with an ROTC program and some military training, but most students didn't automatically go into the service, Francis said.  The school was particularly well known locally for its winning teams in baseball, basketball, tennis, golf, football and wrestling. KMI competed with high school, prep school and junior college teams from Fort Myers to St. Petersburg to Lakeland.

By 1940 KMI had purchased a garage on Tampa Avenue and converted it into a gymnasium for basketball, wrestling and boxing. The Venice Little Theater now is located in the old gymnasium.  City residents became accustomed to watching cadets on the old parade ground between Tampa and Venice avenues, now known as Centennial Park.  Much to the chagrin of local boys, more than a few cadets courted local sweethearts.  KMI was a fixture in Venice until the 1970 term, when it closed the Florida campus because of shrinking enrollment and higher operating costs.  In addition to the old gymnasium, other campus buildings have been renovated for private use.  Local developer Donald F. Morgan and then City Council member David Farley bought the dorm and administration buildings in 1973, with plans for a mixed use condominium and retail development.  Two years later, their plans came to fruition for the old dorm building, now known as the Venice Center Mall, which featured commercial businesses on the lower floor and 63 residences on top.  "It was the first condominium with the residential and commercial mix in the state of Florida," Farley recalled.
The condominiums, converted ed from either two or three KMI dorm rooms, sold for an average $23,000 in the mid-70s. More recently, in 2002, one 450-square-foot unit sold for $72,000.

Compiled from Herald-Tribune archives and original reporting by Staff Writer Earle Kimel.

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