No Mickey Mouse City

I thought Florida was about early bird specials and Disney. Then Ringling College called me about a job.


By Larry Thompson

In February 1999, I was working as president of a cultural center in Michigan when I got a call from a recruiter who invited me to Sarasota for a two-hour interview with the search committee seeking a new president for Ringling School of Art and Design (today known as Ringling College). I was ambivalent. I was not an artist; I was a lawyer—but a lawyer who had done nonprofit management. I thought the culture in Florida was mostly about Mickey Mouse and early bird specials, and having young children, I was worried about the school system, ranked among the lowest in the nation. But I was in Michigan and it was February.

I flew down—with my golf clubs—and met the committee at the Courtyard Inn at the airport. After that, I decided to visit Ringling’s campus. I sat on a few benches and just talked to students. I didn’t tell them who I was but asked a lot of questions. They told me they loved the school; they loved the faculty; they loved the staff; they loved that it was so demanding yet energizing. Their only complaint was the lack of parking. I had never heard randomly picked students speak like this before about a college. “What is this place?” I wondered.

The next day I explored the city. At the school district’s office, I found out that Sarasota public schools were the best in the state and among the best nationally. I also found out about the arts and culture here, from Asolo Rep and the opera and orchestra to the Ringling Museum. This was no Mickey Mouse town. Need I mention I took in a round of golf and visited Siesta Beach?

I called my wife and said, “I don’t know where in the world I am but this is not the Florida we have been talking about.”

Luckily, I got the job, and almost 15 years later, my love for Sarasota continues to grow every day.

Larry Thompson is president of Ringling College of Art and Design.