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Bense Enters Florida Women's Hall of Fame

Credit Florida Women's Hall of Fame

University of West Florida President Emeritus Judy Bense is one of three inductees, at the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame ceremony on Monday in Orlando. In the first of two parts, WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody sat down with Dr. Bense to talk about this honor and her career.

Joining Bense in the Class of 2019 are Doris Mae Barnes, who helped shape Florida tourism through the promotion of sport fishing; and Mildred Wilborn Gildersleeve, who was born a slave in Georgia and went on to serve as a nurse and midwife in Florida during Reconstruction.

“The Florida Women’s Hall of Fame finally has somebody from Northwest Florida; and it is about time,” Bense said.

It seems fitting that Judy Bense is an archaeologist. She’s broken ground in a lot of areas during a career that’s spanned more than a half-century – establishing the Anthropology and Archaeology School at the University of West Florida; the first female president of UWF; and establishing the Argonaut football program, to name a few.

“I am honored to be in the group of women that includes Olympic athletes, civil rights workers, judges, Pulitzer Prize winners – all kinds of very accomplished women, Bense said.

Each year, the Governor selects three nominees from recommendations presented by the Florida Commission on the Status of Women. They were considered for their work to make significant improvements in life for women and for all Floridians.

Bense says naming her for the Hall was a big surprise – sort of.

“I had been in the top 10 [for] two years prior to this year; and I had kind of given up,” said Bense. “But all of a sudden, it happened, and I was surprised. And I realized that no one from Northwest Florida – no woman – had ever been nominated. And I thought, ‘well, I guess they’re not ready yet.’ But they are.”

Bense is the first archaeologist – and second anthropologist – to enter the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame. The first anthropologist was Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American who passed away in 1960.

“She was practicing in the 1910s, 20s, 30s, 40s,” Bense said. “Of course, she was involved in civil rights; she was discriminated against because of gender and her race; and died penniless in an old folk’s home in Southeast Florida. But Zora Neale Hurston was a pioneer.”

Judy Bense’s passion for archaeology began early.

“National Geographic [magazine] when I was a kid; I wanted to go to Egypt and dig up mummies,” said Bense. ‘And I had a high school teacher over in Bay High School in Panama City – William Weeks. He convinced us that the past is knowable; and you can figure it out.”

After graduating from Florida State University, Bense began a teaching stint at the University of Alabama. But she was seeking a change from the classroom, and found it in Pensacola, at the University of West Florida.

“And so I wanted to go to a place that had a clean slate, to tell you the truth,” said Bense. “That didn’t have any history of archaeology, but had very good archaeology in its back door. And so, I knew the archaeology here was untouched; just scratched enough of the surface so I knew it was good here, but it was far better.

At that time – as it is today – archaeology is a male-dominated field. Bense says many of the women admitted were because of Zora Neale Hurston and other female anthropologists, especially in the cultural field.

“And the kind of women that male professors wanted were cute and pretty and subservient,” Bense said. “And I was never any of those. And so, I thought – at least at the time – that my professor was picking on me, trying to wash me out. And of course, he denied it.”

Mention the word “archaeology” to some, and they’ll conjure up thoughts of a lot of dirt and buried antiquities. Bense says the dirt – or water or both – are actually the artifacts’ saving grace.

“Because it’s out of sight and they can be preserved; the remains of past culture can be preserved,” said Bense. “But it’s also a great detective hunt; and people enjoy detective hunts. As we as archaeologists -- professionals – and then the public get [sic] involved, it is really very interesting.”

In part two, Dr. Judy Bense discusses her ascension to the UWF presidency; campus growth during her administration; and – of course – football.