UCF’s most famous Homecoming queen worked on an airplane assembly line during World War II and had 14 grandchildren – all before she stunned the campus and the nation by winning her Homecoming crown at age 58.
Just nine years after Florida Technological University held its first classes, Rita Reutter elevated the university in 1977 to the national spotlight for the first time. Her amazing win landed her on the Tonight Show, where she traded jokes with Johnny Carson. A People magazine story followed, and she earned mentions on ABC and NBC national newscasts.
Throughout 2012-13, UCF will celebrate the 50th anniversary of our 1963 founding and the many people and achievements that have shaped our history as both FTU and UCF. Today we feature Reutter, who started campaigning for Homecoming queen because she wanted something to do and loved taking risks.
Reutter, who died earlier this month at age 93, never expected to become a campus celebrity – let alone one of the most fascinating and talked-about stories in the university’s history.
“It really galvanized the campus when we were much more of a commuter school,” said Rick Walsh, a graduate student at the time who later became chair of the university’s Board of Trustees. “I remember literally all of the fraternities and sororities gathering at the old Tom’s Hideaway on Colonial and Alafaya. The place was overflowing to watch her on Johnny Carson.
“Nobody had ever heard of FTU at the time, but when Carson put her on, everyone knew who we were.”
‘Let’s Have Something Different’
Reutter (pronounced “Rooter”) didn’t care that most people think Homecoming queens are supposed to be young and beautiful. She tackled that perception head-on in her campaign slogan: “You can have a cutie-pie anytime. Let’s have something different.”
Different is quite the understatement. Reutter’s classmates studied the Great Depression and World War II in history classes, but she lived through them. She dropped out of high school in 1935 to take a job at a pocketbook factory because her family needed the money.
During World War II, she became a “Rosie the Riveter” – one of many American women who worked in factories to support the war effort. She helped to assemble airplanes from 1942 to 1945.
Reutter earned her GED in the late 1950s and then decided to go to college because her lack of a degree prevented her from advancing in her job as an interviewer with the Connecticut Department of Labor. She enrolled in a night-school program at the University of New Haven in 1969 and became the first in her family to attend college. She earned her degree while working a full-time job and caring for her disabled husband. She also loved to joke that she was the “resident advisor” in her geriatrics course.
Reutter moved to Florida in 1976 to attend graduate school. She chose FTU because it was one of the few schools in the country that offered a master’s program in guidance counseling at the time, said Tarassa Steele, one of her granddaughters. She also followed two of her daughters who had recently moved to Daytona Beach and Satellite Beach.
She secured a work-study job at the library to help pay for her classes, and soon she launched her improbable campaign to become FTU’s Homecoming queen. She secured the 200 signatures she needed on a petition to get her name on the ballot and then worked hard to persuade her fellow students to vote for her.
“She was in a period in her life where she was doing as many things as she could,” Steele said. “She didn’t think to herself, ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘I’m too old.” She just took chances.
“She wanted to shake things up, add some diversity and just have fun. She had a great time doing it.”
She Kept Johnny Laughing
Reutter usually went to sleep by 9:30 p.m., but she “blossomed at the Homecoming dance, living it up until 2 a.m.,” according to People magazine. Her escort at the dance was then 24-year-old faculty adviser Lee Constantine, who later would become the first UCF graduate to serve as a Florida state senator.
“She asked me to escort her, and I felt privileged,” Constantine said. “She was a wonderful lady, and we got along great.”
Because FTU didn’t have a football team yet, students celebrated Homecoming during basketball season. The evening celebration didn’t seem too different, but then “all of the sudden, everything just got crazy” in the coming days, Constantine said.
A trip to Los Angeles to meet Johnny Carson came first for Reutter. With an FTU pennant on his desk, he laughed so much at Reutter’s jokes that he kept her on for two segments. One of the jokes she told Carson: What would it be like if Rita Reutter worked at Roto Rooter and had to answer the phone?
Constantine then accompanied Reutter on a trip to New York, where she spent 1 ½ days showing him around the city before appearing on the “To Tell the Truth” game show. The show featured celebrities trying to guess who is telling the truth and who is lying about an unusual experience in their lives.
The accolades kept coming for Reutter. SeaWorld held a “Rita Reutter day,” and she helped athlete and actor Buster Crabbe hand out gold medals at the Golden Age Olympics. She also spoke at a “Potential of Women” leadership conference in Clearwater.
“I don’t think she ever thought the national attention would happen, but she had a great time with it and thoroughly enjoyed every moment,” Steele said. “She’s just a normal, friendly person, and she never had an ego about any of this.”
‘An Outstanding Ambassador’
Reutter returned to Connecticut in 1980, and her experiences at UCF prepared her well for her work as a reporter for the Connecticut Elder newspaper, which focused on issues important to senior citizens, Steele said. She won a Hometown Hero award from the mayor of West Haven.
“She was such an outstanding ambassador” for FTU and senior citizens, Walsh said. “It’s quite a testament to say that later in life she went back to school to get her education. But then after getting the national attention, she parlayed that into working with senior groups and using the fame she had to try to help people.”
Walsh and Constantine stayed in touch with Reutter throughout the past few decades. Constantine attended her 80th birthday party, and he still keeps a Homecoming photo of the two of them on his office desk.
“It brings a smile to my face,” he said. “She always seemed to be happy, and she always was the life of the party … She lived a wonderful life.”