Former UF interim president Robert Bryan, 91, loved literature, family and fun

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A self-described "pointy-headed intellectual," the late Robert Bryan spent most of his adult life serving the University of Florida in several positions — one of them as UF's 13th president — and providing a lot of laughs and generosity to his family and friends.

Bryan died at the age of 91 on Dec. 27, and a memorial was held Thursday at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Gainesville.

"As his heath failed the last several weeks, we looked back over the great life dad had," said Lyla Bryan King, standing with her brother, Matthew Bryan, both of Tallahassee.

King and Bryan told stories that painted a picture of their father as a fun-loving intellectual.

During his career in administration at UF from 1970 to 1989, Bryan served as dean of the faculties, associate vice president, vice president for academic affairs and provost.

However, his first love was teaching English, and he received his doctoral degree in English from the University of Kentucky in 1956.

His love for the subject was honored during the memorial when one of his granddaughters, Mary Kathryn King of Tallahassee, read his favorite poem, "Death Be Not Proud," by his favorite writer, John Donne.

Reading Donne's racier poems to his children was one of Bryan’s favorite things to do, though he had to walk a tightrope when explaining them to escape the wrath of his wife of 54 years, Kathryn Williams Bryan, who died at age 86 in 2007.

Academia was central to Bryan's life, and he served stints as interim president at UF, University of Central Florida in Orlando and the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Bryan was president when the university hired Steve Spurrier to coach the Gator football team in 1989, and became close friends with the "head ball coach."

Spurrier couldn’t attend the memorial because he was out of town receiving an award, but sent a message to those in attendance.

"Your dad was just a fun guy to be around, and make sure all those people there know that," Spurrier instructed Matthew Bryan to share.

When Galen Hall became coach of the Gator football team after Charley Pell was fired, he used to wear a headset attached to a belt around his waist that he had to constantly reach down to pull up. On the Monday after games, Bryan used to get hundreds of phone calls from fans complaining about Hall constantly tugging at his belt, Matthew Bryan said.

His father thought it was funny at first, but soon got aggravated with the calls and told Hall to keep his hands above his waist during games, he said.

Bryan was also known for his keen wit, which led him to name the family cat Minerva, the name or the Roman goddess of wisdom.

"He named her that because the cat used to always fall asleep on our bookshelf," Matthew Bryan said.

Helping former UF President Marshall Criser get the university accredited by the Association of American Universities in 1985 was one of Bryan’s greatest professional accomplishments, Matthew Bryan said.

"Bob was a true academician in every sense of the word. He was the real thing," wrote former UF President John Lombardi, who was hired after Bryan served his stint as UF's interim president, in a letter to the Bryan family.

Besides having a love for academia, Bryan also loved the outdoors and was an avid fisherman. When people would ask after a day of fishing where he'd made his catch, he had the same answer no matter what water body he had just left, Matthew Bryan said: "Somewhere near marker 79."

Bryan had a love-hate relationship with the press, and would often announce meetings would be held at a certain time, and then tell those involved with the meeting to come early so they could get controversial matters settled before the press arrived.

"When the press arrived, he would adjourn the meeting," Matthew Bryan said. "He couldn’t get away with that today."

He also was a favorite of reporters, often inviting them to stop by at the end of the day, when he'd kick off his shoes, light up a smoke and talk candidly about the day's topic.

Bryan was raised in Miami, which he always pronounced "Miamah," but born in Lebanon, Pennsylvania in 1926. His mother died during his birth, and he didn’t have a perfect childhood, but he never complained, Matthew Bryan said.

Bryan proposed to his wife on their second date, and they had a model marriage, their son said.

More than 200 people attended the memorial, including former UF President Bernie Machen and current UF President Ken Fuchs.

"He didn’t think I knew enough about the University of Florida when I first got here so we used to have lunch a lot, and he educated me about the history of the university," Machen said. "He and Marshall Criser did a lot to move the university up to the level of a top university in the nation."

David Colburn, also a retired UF provost, called Bryan a great leader.

"He had a wonderful sense of humor, and a lot of love for students and the University of Florida," Colburn said.

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