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.

According to press reports at the time, Mari*a left Biscayne in a huff on June 22, 1976, accusing a college administrator of "insensibility, lack of consideration, and obvious discrimination." The administrator, Father Patrick Laferty, denied he was doing anything outside his job description as vice president of academic affairs. He merely wanted to be included in the hiring of faculty members and in the drafting of their class schedules. "All of these are functions of my position," he said.

Most of the Bilingual Institute's 707 students -- half of Biscayne College's overall enrollment -- reportedly planned to withdraw from the college in support of Marina, which would have been a crippling financial blow to the school; each student brought the young and struggling college more than a thousand dollars per year in tuition and fees. For Marina, though, the show of student support was felicitous: She now had something of value she could sell to another college. The liberated administrator cast about for a school desperate enough for money to grant her the autonomy she sought. It took more than a year, and she ended up with just a fraction of her former Biscayne student body, but she did find a perfect fit at Florida Memorial.

At the time of its birth in 1879 near the Suwannee River at Live Oak, Florida Memorial was known as the Florida Baptist Institute for Negroes. The college moved to St. Augustine in 1918 after merging with Florida Baptist College in Jacksonville. Over time the school grew into a full-fledged college, first awarding bachelor of science and bachelor of arts degrees in 1945. The school's name was changed in 1950, then again in 1963 when it became Florida Memorial. Five years later the school moved to its current sun-baked home on the northern border of the Opa-locka airport.

The institution's frequent moves and name changes reflected its precarious financial situation. By 1975 the forecast for Florida Memorial was so bleak that the power company threatened to cut off its electricity. Two years later enrollment had fallen to only 300 students, while debt had climbed to eight million dollars. Educator Willie Robinson assumed Florida Memorial's presidency in 1977 with promises to stabilize the school's finances. He hired Carmen Mari*a in 1978.

Marina, who first taught only about twenty students in a weekend program on the main campus, was soon handed the keys to the school's new South Campus/Weekend Program, also known as the Flagler extension or, most commonly, the Hispanic extension. The program, which met on weekends at the main campus and weeknights at the south campus (originally in the basement of a Baptist church on the corner of Flagler Street and 35th Avenue), was founded by three Baptist ministers and a handful of Cuban activists. It was chartered to teach religion courses, but was also seen as a way to bridge the gap between Miami's blacks and the emerging Cuban population. This was the program in which Cesar Odio enrolled.

Among the professors Marina hired were her mother, Hortensia Novoa, and her brother, Gabriel Novoa. Several friends were also hired, including Rafael Cabezas, a fierce Cuban patriot and student of Marina's at Biscayne College, who was soon to be a familiar face at Miami City Hall.

Rafael Cabezas's influence over Cesar Odio's studies at Florida Memorial was substantial. Of the fourteen courses Odio took (not counting twelve credits of field placement at -- of all places -- the City of Miami), half of them were taught by Cabezas. School records regarding three of those classes raise questions neither Odio, Cabezas, nor Florida Memorial officials are able or willing to answer. One involves a highly propitious grade change; the others concern classes the college has no record of having offered.

In an interview with New Times, Cabezas declined to discuss in detail his tenure at Florida Memorial or his relationship with Odio other than to portray himself as a friend of the city manager and a sympathetic and accommodating professor. "I am a guy who always tries to help my Cuban people," he said. (Cabezas once served as president of Brigade 2506, the Bay of Pigs alumni group.)

Cabezas was particularly helpful to Odio in the spring of 1982. With commencement exercises just two weeks away, the aspiring graduate found himself still three credits short of qualifying for a bachelor's degree. It seems the registrar's office had no record of Odio having passed Public Administration 403 ("Management of Federal Government"), a required course for Odio's major.

Disappointment turned to celebration when Cabezas stepped in to solve the problem. The adjunct professor, who had last taught the class a semester earlier, transformed Odio's grade from "N/R" (not recorded in the registrar's office) to a B. College records show that Cabezas and extension director Carmen Marina ascribed the alleged error to an "omission."

Cabezas refuses to discuss the grade change. Carmen Mari*a declined several requests, by telephone and by fax, to provide comment or answer questions for this article. Cesar Odio did not respond to questions regarding the episode.

One person who has no problem discussing Florida Memorial's Hispanic extension program is 56-year-old Armando Pomar, a former professor, academic counselor, and director of the extension program. Of Odio's grade change from "N/R" to B, he says: "That's an extremely rare thing. Of the thousand or so students I advised, I only saw maybe five N/R's."

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