By: Marisa Herman Associate Editor
It was one of the biggest secrets that Frances Bourque’s husband, family and friends kept from her— that they had put her up for a Distinguished Achievement Award from the University of Florida for all of her work on restoring and revitalizing Old School Square into the cultural arts center it is today.
It was a surprise project that lasted over a year. And Bourque’s closest friends and relatives were in on it.
The team involved has plans to attend a commencement ceremony in May where the university will bestow the honor from the College of Design, Construction and Planning to Bourque in person.
“I turn red when I think about it,” Bourque said of the honor.
Her sister Judy Deery and her niece Caitlyn came up with the idea fall 2017. They wanted to think of a way to honor the work Bourque had done and continues to do for Old School Square. Caitlyn, a Gator alum, suggested trying an honor from her alma mater.
So, Judy contacted the school and got the process rolling.
She asked locals close to Bourque who were familiar with her work for OSS to write letters of recommendation. Former president and CEO Joe Gillie submitted one as did chairman of the board Bill Branning, former mayor Tom Lynch and former mayor and our editor-in-chief Jeff Perlman.
She compiled the letters with newspaper clippings, photos and write ups into a portfolio to submit to the committee, which only meets twice a year.
“Frances Bourque is the definition of true servant leadership,” Branning wrote in his letter. “To Frances, saving those buildings a creating a cultural arts center was never about self promotion or self recognition. It was always about making our town the best it could be, and making Old School Square a place that community could gather and a place where families could enjoy entertainment that had meaning and put smiles on their faces.”
The other letters praise Bourque’s actions and ability to save the buildings and transform them into the jewel they are today.
“Restoring and re-purposing three worn out old school buildings took years and was a monumental task both financially and emotionally, one where Frances proved to be a trust visionary and tenacious leader,” former president and CEO of OSS Joe Gillie wrote in his letter. “She never faltered and as a result Old School Square has won local, state and national awards for historic preservation and use of the arts.”
When the review group met in March of 2018, some items were not complete in the package. So, they had to wait until the board met again in October.
The official letter was sent to Bourque’s home in November. She was on vacation for Thanksgiving in the mountains when she was notified by her sister of the plan and that their work paid off, the school was recognizing Bourque.
She said she was humbled and shocked that everyone kept this a secret for so long.
The award is not given every year and it is reserved for people who have dedicated their lives to make a profound change.
Her family figured all of her work from saving a decrepit school campus to continuing her involvement to keep it a flourishing arts center was deserving.
The committee agreed and accepted the application.
Bourque didn’t grow up in Delray Beach. She is from a small farming community in Belle Glade. But she raised her family in Delray. She had seen community buildings of her childhood disappear and that began to happen as the trend of suburbia became the hot topic of the 80s.
“In the mid-80s, everything was about suburbia,” she said. “It became important to me that downtowns were the real secret message of who we are and downtowns were dying.”
It was when she saw that the buildings that comprise Old School Square were dilapidated, closed by a chain link fence, and were likely going to be turned into something other than a school, that she knew she had to act.
She didn’t save the school that was set for demolition on her own. Nor does she claim to have done it on her own.
“I had the good fortune of surrounding myself with people who had integrity, good vision and energy,” she said. “Our whole goal was to save a community and bring it back to its moral strength.”
So, the small group of folks interested in saving the buildings dove into records which revealed the property had restrictive covenants and could never be used for commercial.
They worked with the newly formed Community Redevelopment Agency, which had a component focused on historic properties and the arts, and the state which began offering grants to help with historic properties.
Seed money was raised by the historical society. The city bought the property for $392,000 in 1985, according to historical society records.
The former elementary school opened in 1990 as the Cornell.
The gym reopened in 1991 as a community event space and the auditorium as the Crest in 1993.
Over time, the buildings were saved and money was secured and invested to breathe new life, arts and culture into the campus.
It became a project that has filled her days for nearly 40 years.
“We took a downtown in demise, with a community fractured, and architecture forgotten and put the arts back,” she said. “What we did was create a space for the community to come and play in.”
For Bourque the grounds are sacred. And often offer more than just a place to see a show, hear a concert or take a class. For her and many others OSS is like a sanctuary.
She recalls times when the community flocks to the campus like after 9-11 and the shooting at Stoneman Douglas.
“If you weren’t going to church, you just came,” she said of the people who made their way to the grounds after Sept. 11.
Many say saving Old School Square was what catapulted “Dull-ray” into the trendy downtown it is today.
Once OSS began offering programs, businesses began opening downtown. The city began its transformation.
“Old School Square became the catalyst for a remarkable downtown renaissance sparking the rebirth of Atlantic Avenue and frankly all of Delray Beach,” former mayor and our editor-in-chief Jeff Perlman wrote in his letter. “We quickly went from ‘Dull Ray’ to an All America City with a dynamic central business district, a thriving art scene and a growing economic base—all fueled by Old School Square; Frances Bourque’s wonderful, visionary and amazing idea.
He ends his reference letter by call Bourque, “My city’s hero.”