Mary Brennan Karl was one of Volusia County’s early leaders in higher education, compiling a long list of accomplishments during a career that spanned some of the most challenging years in our nation’s history. By 1930, at the age of 40, her interest in helping people and creating ties within the community brought her to the Volusia County public school system where she joined the understaffed and struggling Opportunity School, which had opened in 1929 during the Great Depression.
The Opportunity School taught commercial and business skills to those who could not go on to college and never lost sight of its mission to give young adults hope that vocational education and training opened doors to a better life.
Mary began by teaching courses such as business English, typing and shorthand in a small vocational program before she was named Director of the Opportunity School in 1931. Her crusade to broaden, strengthen, and enhance the opportunities available to students, along with her tenacious determination, became the driving force behind what evolved into the Volusia County Vocational School. Along those lines, Mary spearheaded the development of new programs that included training in construction trades such as electricity, carpentry, and plumbing.
As World War II gripped the nation, Mary Karl altered the direction of the vocational school to adjust to the new demand for industrial jobs. Students could now take classes in welding, boat construction and automobile engine repair. Volusia County also took part in the war effort as the Women’s Army Corps (WACS) acquired land and buildings constructed to train female soldiers, and the U.S. Army acquired land near Halifax Hospital and built an elaborate convalescent center for the use of soldiers who were recovering from the war, named the Welch Training Center.
As the war ended and the country returned to peace, the Volusia County Vocational School again shifted its focus to receiving and retraining veterans for work on the civilian front. Always looking forward, Mary envisioned the Welch Training Center and the WACS property combined to form a vocational school that could eventually become a junior college. She began a campaign to acquire those properties, at first battling bureaucratic red-tape and a lukewarm reception from the federal government. However, with the aid of friends and colleagues such as U.S. Senator Claude Pepper, Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of Bethune-Cookman College, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the transfer of title eventually took place, and Volusia County was given 29 acres of land and 55 buildings.
The acquisition of military buildings created a unique character for the school as the offerings included an Olympic-sized pool, auditorium, cafeteria, library, and dormitory. This merger wasn’t complete until the naming ceremony in April 1948 when the new space was named the “Mary Karl Vocational School.” Though Mary Karl died later that year in August and did not see the full fruition from vocational school to junior college, the Florida State Legislature authorized the creation of Daytona Beach Junior College from the existing vocational college in 1957, and her vision was complete.