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Alumna catalogs history of Fort Lauderdale

Alumna Sandra Gillis has written five books on the history of Fort Lauderdale.

The 1960 movie Where the Boys Are changed the city of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., forever. Starring icons of the time such time George Hamilton, Paula Prentiss and Connie Francis, the beach-set comedy — filmed in Fort Lauderdale — turned the town into a spring break destination at a time when few people had even heard the term “spring break.”

“It premiered in Fort Lauderdale in December of 1960, then three months later, instead of the usual 10,000 college students, 50,000 college students showed up,” says city historian Susan Gillis (MA anthropology ’82). “And spring break didn’t cease here until the mid-1980s, when 350,000 college students showed up. Even today there are only 200,000 people in the city of Fort Lauderdale. It was an inundation.”

That’s one of many fun facts Gillis is helping to showcase as part of Fort Lauderdale’s centennial celebration. The year of activities reached a high point on March 27 — the 100th anniversary of the city’s incorporation — with a festival on the Fort Lauderdale Riverwalk. Other events around the centennial include walking tours, lectures, parades, children’s activities, concerts and art exhibits.

As the official historian of the centennial, Gillis — a south Florida native — has been instrumental in creating exhibits, training lecturers and organizing activities.

“I strongly believe that sharing history is key to building community, and the more people know, the more they take an interest and get involved and become good citizens,” Gillis says. “And that applies to youngsters, oldsters, newcomers and old-timers. We’re all from somewhere else, but what the centennial is about, to me, is letting people realize that ‘This is your home now; here’s what’s gone before; this is how it shaped today and what the future will be like.’”

While she was at DU and after she graduated, Gillis worked at the Colorado Historical Society for five years before returning to Florida, where she worked as curator of collections at the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society for 15 years. She is the author of five books on Fort Lauderdale history, including Fort Lauderdale in Vintage Postcards (Arcadia Publishing, 2004), Historical Photos of Fort Lauderdale (Turner Publishing, 2007) and Fort Lauderdale: The Venice of America (Arcadia, 2004). She can talk about the city’s reputation as “Fort Liquordale,” how it is the site of three Fort Lauderdales established during the Second Seminole War, and how its status as a U.S. Naval air base during World War II led to a population boom when the war ended, as service men and women from colder climes returned to Florida with their families.

“It gives you a sense of place,” she says of studying local history. “You get a perspective that there’s no way you would have otherwise. It gives you an appreciation for how things have changed or stayed the same, and it can actually help you deal with modern issues.”

Visit the Centennial Riverfest website for more information. 

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