Palm Beach Atlantic University celebrated the opening of Watson Family Hall with an outdoor dedication and ribbon-cutting Saturday morning.
The eight-story residence hall at the corner of South Dixie Highway and Pembroke Place opened to students in August. It contains 154 apartment-style units with full kitchens and collaborative study spaces and community rooms on each floor. It was built by and in partnership with Hedrick Brothers Construction.
Watson Family Hall is named in honor of Karl Watson Sr., Karl Watson Jr. and their families, who blessed the University with a $2.5 million gift and challenged the community to give another $2.5 million.
Learn more about the Watson Family Challenge here.
West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James thanked the Watsons for their generosity and civic service to the West Palm Beach and PBA community. Collectively, PBA students are the city’s largest group of volunteers, he said. PBA students have served more than 3.5 million hours since the inception of the University’s Workship program in 1968.
From the residence, PBA students can walk to jobs and internships in West Palm Beach’s thriving downtown.
“Whatever your dream, you should be able to realize those dreams right here in West Palm Beach,” James said.
Dennis Grady, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, said the county is fortunate to have PBA anchoring downtown West Palm Beach since 1968. PBA is one of the strongest economic drivers in Palm Beach County, contributing an estimated $430 million a year to the local economy, Grady said.
One of the county and city’s biggest challenges to growth is finding qualified workers, Grady said.
“PBA is a source of the men and women desperately needed to grow our economy,” Grady said.
David Son, a ministry student and resident coordinator in the east wing of Watson Family Hall, read Proverbs 24:3-4, which states “By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding, it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.” Son thanked the Watsons on behalf of current and future students, as did Residence Life staffer Caleb Hitchcock.
Dr. Bob Lutz, vice president for student development, said Watson Family Hall’s influence on campus is “immeasurable.” Living there allows students to foster friendships and create a family atmosphere on campus, he said. It is far more than a dorm or a residence, he said.
“It’s a testament of answered prayer over many years, it’s a testament to the generosity of the Watson family and it’s a testament to the goodness of God,” Lutz said.
When the university began more than 50 years ago, it seemed as if it was an impossible dream of founder and Pastor Jess Moody, said Moody’s son Patrick. Moody had nothing — no buildings, no money, no faculty. All he had were the promises in the Bible that God would never leave him or forsake him and that with God, nothing is impossible.
Patrick Moody sang “The Impossible Dream,” accompanied by his wife, Amy, on the keyboard.
University President Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, a medical doctor, said PBA faced another major challenge last summer when the coronavirus pandemic had universities across the country questioning whether or not to open.
After a campus-wide day of prayer, the University’s leadership decided to open, reasoning that PBA graduates are exactly the kind of leaders the world needs in a time of crisis, Schwinn said. PBA is one of only 4 percent of universities fully open for in-person instruction.
The opening of Watson Family Hall enabled the university to use two older residence halls for quarantine and isolation. Students living in Watson can build relationships with one another, along with their academics and faith, Schwinn said.
“We know it’s a blessing, one we never could have predicted,” Schwinn said. “This is not just a building. This is a way we’re building community.”
Dale Hedrick, CEO of Hedrick Brothers Construction, said many student residences at other universities don’t have the same special touches that Watson has. Despite the pandemic, the construction team finished three days early, Hedrick said.
“This is going to allow students to develop relationships that last through eternity,” he said, adding that those students will one day be leaders in business, government, media and medicine.
Karl Watson Sr. is a longtime member of the University’s Board of Trustees, a recipient of its American Free Enterprise Medal and the retired president and chief operating officer for Rinker Materials Corporation. Having grown up in Pahokee, Florida, the West Palm Beach resident said he’s fortunate to be in a position to give.
“You really get a lot of pleasure when you’re in a position to help people, including this university that we love,” he said.
PBA Executive Vice President for Advancement Laura Bishop said every time she thanks Karl Watson Jr., he responds “if it wasn’t for PBA, I wouldn’t have the resources to make a gift like this.”
Watson Jr. came to PBA begging for one more chance after struggling academically at the University of Florida. He landed in Dr. Joe Eassa Jr.’s small business management class in the winter of 1985. After the one and only test — a 4-hour, essay-style exam — Watson received a phone call from Eassa to come to his office and feared the worst.
Instead, Eassa told him it was one of the best paper’s he’d ever seen. Watson Jr. scored a 100 percent.
“Instantly, my life changed,” Watson Jr. said. “He’s a shining example of the school’s model of enlightening minds, enriching souls and extending hands.”
Watson Jr. said the university has a unique opportunity to be different because of its foundational values, including a heightened commitment to American free enterprise. He spoke to students in the Marshall E. Rinker Sr. School of Business about his business career earlier in the week.
Watson Jr. said he’s never been more confidence in the University’s leadership, and that it’s “headed in the right direction for all the right reasons.”
You can make a gift to the Watson Family Challenge here.