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AJ Hanna

Professor Alfred J. Hanna (1893-1978):

Teacher, Scholar & Academic Leader

 

 A leading scholar on Florida history and specialist in Latin American affairs, Prof. A. J. Hanna had been associated with Rollins for more than six decades, likely the longest among all faculty members of the college community.

Born in Tampa on May 5, 1893, Alfred Jackson Hanna was the son of Josiah Calvin Hanna and Sarah Jackson Hanna. He was descended from a family of pioneers who settled in the Citrus County in 1840, before Florida was admitted to the Union. After graduating from the Hillsborough High School in 1911, Hanna attended the Eastman School and worked briefly in New York before enrolling at Rollins College in 1914. First appeared shy and reserved, Hanna quickly distinguished him on campus. In addition to his membership in Phi Alpha fraternity, he was the president of the Delphic Society, the undergraduate literary organization at Rollins. While a student, he also worked as an instructor for both Shorthand and Commercial English. More impressively, he had served as secretary to the faculty and to Dr. William Blackman, fourth president of Rollins College. During his junior year Hanna became the Editor-in-Chief of Sandspur, the student weekly newspaper, and in 1917, he worked as the editor of Tomokan, the inaugural volume of Rollins yearbook.

Hanna and teamUpon graduation, Hanna became the registrar of the Business School and the president of the Rollins Alumni Association. After one year of leave of absence enlisting in the US Naval Reserve Force at the end of World War I, Hanna returned to Rollins and worked as assistant to president and assistant treasurer, and the editor of the inaugural issue of Rollins Alumni Record. However his real passion was in history, and in 1928-29 he was named an instructor in the History Department. A year later he became assistant professor, and in the following year he was again promoted, this time to associate professor. By 1938 Hanna had reached the rank of full professor and ten years later, he was named the first endowed chair of Weddell Professor of American History at Rollins, a title he held until his retirement in 1969.

To countless students, Hanna was a well-known and respected teacher. As one of the most popular faculty members on campus, he was sought for his ability to transpose dead facts of the past into a living adventure in the classrooms. An early supporter of Hamilton Holt’s Conference Plan of teaching at Rollins, Hanna believed that students benefit the best when they had a chance “to think for themselves and learn together with their teacher.”[1] When naming him as one of the “GREAT TEACHERS” of Rollins in 1955, one former student nominated Hanna “for his qualities of exacting scholarly research, and his ability to make history a living subject.”[2] Known both as a tough taskmaster and “father confessor”, Hanna had formed many lasting friendships and ties with Rollins graduates during the four decades of his teaching career. On the occasion of his retirement in 1969, the Rollins Board of Trustees proclaimed “By Dr. Hanna’s strict demand for academic excellence, he won for the College the praise of educators and the affection and respect of the students. From his tireless interest and devoted service, Rollins College stands out as a leader in Latin American relations and international understanding. His personal and professional life has attracted to Rollins College untold numbers of friends and supporters.”[3]

To many people outside of the Rollins community, Hanna was better known as a scholar who had written a number of books, mostly dealing with Florida history and Latin American affairs. As the editor of Rollins Sandspur, Tomokan and Alumni Record, Hanna had been a published writer since his days as a Rollins student. However he did not established himself as a historical scholar until the 1930s. His first major book, Flight into Oblivion (Johnson Publishing, 1938), was a well-researched and exciting tale of the flight of the Confederate Cabinet after the Southern defeat at the end of American Civil War. The book broke new ground, uncovered many new facts and was nicely received, including a favorable review in the New York Herald Tribune from Henry Steele Commager, one of America’s outstanding historians.

Hanna book signingHanna’s second major work, A Prince in Their Midist, was published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1946. It documented the adventures of Achille Murat, the nephew of Napoleon I, who came to Florida after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. In this book Hanna recounted the experience of this old world aristocrat and his efforts to find elusive success on Florida’s frontier. Also well received, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Florida’s most prominent novelist, reviewed the book in the New York Herald Tribune.

When speaking on A. J. Hanna, it would be impossible not to mention his wife and scholarship companion. On July 5, 1941, after 12 years of courting, Hanna finally married Kathryn Abbey, a leading Florida historian and the love of his life. Receiving her BA, MA and PhD from Northwestern University, Abbey had been the chair of History Department at the Florida State University for 15 years. She agreed to marry Hanna, only after she learned the historical fact that he was actually two years older than she. Since then they worked happily together, published the Lake Okeechobee in 1948 and Florida’s Golden Sands in 1950, and embarked an incredible journey of collaborative scholarship.

Hanna’s last major book also represented his most ambitious scholarly effort. Along with his wife Kathryn, Hanna spent over a quarter of a century researching and writing an account of Napoleon III’s incredible attempt to extend his empire into North America and how that effort failed because of America’s commitment to republic government in the new world. Published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1971, Napoleon III and Mexico: American Triumph over Monarch firmly established Hanna’s reputation as a leading scholar on the history of US-Mexico relations.[4] However not many people know that Hanna lost most his eyesight while working on this project, a great feat of courage and scholarly dedication. In addition, Hanna had collaborated with Novelist James B. Cabell to publish the St. Johns: a Paradise of Diversities (Farrar & Rinehart, 1943), an influential title in the Rivers of America Series. He also contributed to the Dictionary of American Biography, Dictionary of American History, and to a number of other leading historical journals.

Dedicated his life to the cause of preserving and making accessible the historical records of the state, Hanna developed the Union Catalog of Floridiana, a comprehensive collection of materials throughout the world relating to Florida. He was also responsible for the establishment of Florida Collection at Rollins, one of the best in the country. Along with Edwin Grover and William Yust, Hanna helped found the Book-A-Year Club in the 1930s, a library endowment fund at Rollins that grows with a current market value of over 3.2 million dollars. It is fair to say that without Hanna, there would not be the rare Florida Collection and Rollins Archives that we treasure so much today.

Hanna robesHanna’s impact went far beyond his roles as a history teacher and scholar. During his years at Rollins, Hanna had acted as secretary or advisor to seven of its presidents. He organized the alumni association, founded and edited its magazine and raised money whenever needed. Actively involved in fund-raising for buildings, endowment, equipment and scholarships, Hanna was not only the chairman of the History Department and director of Inter-American Studies (1942-58), but also the first vice president (1951-69) and a member of the Rollins Board of Trustees (1969-78). According to Hamilton Holt, eighth president of Rollins: “In a long and varied experience in serving on committees, I have never found a man who is more efficient in, or devoted to his work than Fred Hanna. The Alumni of Rollins are to be congratulated on having such an ardent and devoted worker on behalf of their College.”[5]

Well known in international historical circles, Hanna was a member of a number of honorary societies in the U.S. and abroad. He was the former president of the Florida Historical Society, former director of the Southern Historical Association, chairman of the Latin American Division of the Florida State Chamber of Commerce, president of the Florida Audubon Society, and vice president of the Florida Academy of Sciences. He was also a member of the Authors Club of London, founding president of the Hispanic Institute of Florida. In addition, he was featured in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in American Education, and the Directory of American Scholars.

In recognition of his historical achievement, Hanna was decorated with Officer d’Academie, Palmes Universitaires by the French Government in 1935. The award was instituted in 1808 by Napoleon as a civil decoration and awarded to those who have especially distinguished themselves in connection with education, art, science or literature. In 1945, Hanna was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humanities from Rollins College; in 1953, he was presented the Centennial Award from the University of Florida for his “distinguished contribution in the field of letters, education and inter-cultural understanding”; and finally in 1977, for his contributions in the field of history, Hanna was presented the Award of Merit by the American Association for State and Local History.

When Hanna past away in 1978, it had been specially requested that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the Rollins College Book-A-Year fund. As noted by Fred Hicks, then acting president of the College: “Dr. Hanna distinguished himself as a scholar, educator and administrator, and the College, its faculty and student body have benefited from his association,” as his “service to Rollins for the past 60 years has been an inspiration to many in the College community.”[6] Though a loss to Rollins, Central Florida and the world of scholarship, Hanna’s legacy has lived on, and the creation of A. J. Hanna Award in 2009 is probably the best way to honor the man who dedicated all his life to his alma mater and to the pursuit of historical knowledge.

- Wenxian Zhang


[1] “Dr. Alfred J. Hanna,” Winter Park Sun Herald, February 18, 1960.

[2] Alfred J. Hanna, Faculty, Staff and Alumni Files, 45E. Department of Archives and Special Collections, Olin Library, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.

[3] “Hanna: A Legend in His Time,” Rollins College Alumni Record, 55.3 (Spring 1978): 1.

[4] Jack C. Lane, “Alfred J. Hanna: Scholar,” Rollins College Alumni Record, 55.3 (Spring 1978): 3.

[5] “Concerning A. J. Hanna,” Rollins College Alumni Record, 8.2 (June 1931): 11.

[6] Randy Xenakis, “Rollins Professor Emeritus Dr. Alfred J. Hanna Dead at 85,” Rollins News 1978, 45E. Department of Archives and Special Collections, Olin Library, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.

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