The Graduate

After ten years as city manager, Cesar Odio is still catching flak about his college education. Give the guy a break. Better yet, give him a diploma.

Curious. Odio says he attended Florida Memorial College because he didn't realize he had already graduated from Villanueva. Yet the diploma from Villanueva that sits in his personnel file and hangs on the wall behind his desk is dated 1958. If Odio had possessed the diploma since 1958, how is it even remotely possible that he slogged his way through Florida Memorial by mistake?

A look at the Villanueva diploma raises more questions. The degree is signed November 3, 1958, and declares that he earned a bachelor of science degree in economics. But Odio's own resume states that he graduated a year later, in 1959. Why is that? And why did he tell the Miami News in 1985 that he had left Cuba in 1960 -- before he could get his degree?

Odio's answer to all of these questions is a third piece of paper, a well-circulated letter also contained in his personnel file. It was written by Father Edward J. Burns, dean of the Villanueva School of Economics from its inception until the spring of 1959. The typewritten note, dated December 2, 1988, states that Odio was enrolled in Burns's school. "Because of the unsettled political conditions in the country at that time," Burns's note explains, "he found it necessary to suspend his studies in the year 1960. He had, however, been enrolled in the University for several years prior to his departure, by which time Mr. Odio had completed the requirements for the degree of Licentiate in Economics [bachelor's degree]."

"This letter is from a priest no less, a Catholic priest, saying that I had already graduated," Odio emphasizes as he pulls a copy of the letter from a filing cabinet in the anteroom of his city hall office. "This proves that I didn't need the degree from Florida Memorial."

In the letter, Burns goes on to say that his endorsement "can be corroborated by the professors of the faculty of the School of Economics who taught the courses in which [Odio] had matriculated." That, however, appears to be a trouble spot. Two professors from the School of Economics at Villanueva currently teach classes at St. Thomas University, the North Dade Catholic school that descended from Villanueva when Fidel Castro closed the Cuban school in 1960. John Bradley, chairman of the St. Thomas business administration department, was an instructor at the Villanueva School of Economics in the late Fifties. He knows that Odio is the city manager of Miami, but he can't recall teaching Odio in Cuba. "No, I can't corroborate what Father Burns wrote," Bradley says, handing back a copy of Burns's letter.

Professor Tomas Rolando is a mathematician who taught statistics at Villanueva. According to transcripts Odio later submitted for credit at Florida Memorial College, he took two semesters of business statistics at Villanueva. Rolando fails to recall teaching young scholar Odio. "I have heard of him," Rolando says when presented with a copy of Father Burns's letter. "But not in Cuba, no. I was not paying attention."

Even Father Burns has a problem remembering. When he wrote the letter for Odio, Burns was living in New York. He has since retired to a concrete dormitory tucked amid Australian pines in a corner of the St. Thomas campus. When shown a copy of the letter this past November, Burns acknowledged authorship. He also admitted that he had no idea who Cesar Odio was. The retired priest said that he wrote the letter only because he was asked to do so by Antonio Jorge, a former instructor at Villanueva and currently a professor of economics at Florida International University. Burns wrote what Jorge told him to write. "I was the dean of the school, you know, and we get all these students coming in," Burns groaned, rolling his eyes in mock exasperation. "And someone calls up ten years later or so and says, 'Do you remember this guy?' Well, not really. They tell me something to write and I just go, `Okay.'"

Odio believes he can explain why Antonio Jorge asked Father Burns to write the letter. He and Jorge, who have a working relationship, had been talking some time in late 1988. "Dr. Jorge asked me why I had gone to Florida Memorial," Odio recalls. "I told him that I did it because I didn't have tangible proof that I had graduated from Villanueva. He told me, 'You are a fool. You have already graduated and I can prove it.'"

Jorge adds that he would have written the letter for Odio himself if Burns hadn't been available; former students often approach him in need of credentials. "The fact of the matter is, he took several courses with me," Jorge asserts, upset that the city manager is being singled out for attention. "He took those courses with me at the end of the program he was pursuing at that moment. Basically I think he earned more than sufficient credits for a degree. He had completed it successfully by October of 1960. I felt free to certify this. I reported this to the person who was the dean of the School of Economics at the time and asked that a certificate be made.

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