University of West Florida President Emeritus and Panama City native Judy Bense was among three new members of the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame inducted Monday night in Orlando.

ORLANDO — University of West Florida President Emeritus and Panama City native Judy Bense was among three new members of the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame inducted Monday night in Orlando.


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 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 said 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,” Bense said. “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, and said her 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 named 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.


At that time, as it is today, archaeology is a male-dominated 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 said 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,” Bense said. “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 2008, Judy Bense had a number of irons in the fire, including running the School of Anthropology and Archaeology. Then, President John Cavanaugh stepped down to take a position in Pennsylvania. Bense, who was in Mexico at the time, was asked to take over on an interim basis.


“I said ‘absolutely not;’ I was busy, I was at the peak of my career,” Bense said. “I had gotten great funding and I was beginning to do work in Mexico to follow up the background work with the Spanish colonial work I had done [in Northwest Florida]. I was really doing well.”


Three times the search committee asked Bense to take the job and three times she refused. But after a close friend indicated the school needed her in that office, she said she began thinking about that, and her work with past presidents.


“What I had learned was, they hadn’t done a lot of things I thought needed doing,” Bense said. “They hadn’t grown the enrollment; they hadn’t built dorms. They didn’t have any visibility; we didn’t have any football. We needed to reach out to our community.”


Another factor in Bense’s change of heart and mind were rumbles coming out of Tallahassee from her alma mater.


“We had tried to been taken over twice by Florida State; they’ve always needed another campus,” said Bense. “I realized – and I knew – that the only thing that was going to save this university from a takeover was to grow and to make it independent. And so I thought, ‘I could do that for this university.’ So I said yes.”


That same year, 2008, the “interim” part of her title was discarded and Judith Ann Bense became West Florida’s fifth president and the first woman to hold the office.


Bense’s accomplishments speak for themselves, from archaeology to the presidency, to five books and a sixth on the way. But for many, she will be remembered for one thing above all — the 2011 announcement she made that football was coming to the school.


“That’s one of the things I thought about right at the beginning, Bense said . ”I am from West Florida, I grew up in Panama City [and] went to Florida State. I understand that football is important, and enjoyed by almost everybody here. And we’re the only institution that can give West Florida college football, so why not?”


From the outset, Bense had do deal with critics and naysayers who claimed that football would ruin the UWF experience and degrade academics. But then came season two in 2017 and the Argonauts’ unexpected trip to the Division II national championship game.


“I had so many people during the second season come up to me and say, ‘Judy, I’m so sorry,’” Bense said. “’We didn’t think you’d do it, we thought it would be a flop. We thought it was a PR stunt.’ And then they would give me a check. That season communicated to everyone that we can be an absolute winner.”


Judy Bense retired as president in 2016, but she’s still working. She’s writing her sixth book on archaeology, this one focusing on the Spanish period from 1698, when Pensacola was incorporated as a city, to 1763.


All responsible scholars reaching the end of their careers, contends Bense, should share their life’s work with the public if they’re able. And that’s what she’s doing with this book.


At 74, Bense has no plans to take it easy.


“You would think I would slow down, but I’m blessed with good health; I’m blessed with energy, and I like to work,” she said.