Celebrating 29 Years of Sandwiches and Sacrifice: Rene and Dee Anderson

June 10, 2024 | 8-10 min read

Guest Writer: Missy Snapp, ’91

Under the bright wink of a crescent moon, I pull a sweater tight to my ribs and make my way to Dee and Rene Anderson’s dorm kitchen.  I am going for the grilled cheese. At least that’s what I believe.

“We’ll start serving at 10:30,” Dee had told me earlier in the day. “You can come before that if you want to see the set up.” Of course I wanted to see the set up. If I was going to see anything, I was going to see it all.

When I walk into the Anderson apartment inside Boswell Hall, the setup for the nightly ritual is well underway. Dee darts back and forth in zigzag fashion conducting the evening’s ingredients—a hot griddle, a ceramic dish with 3 pounds of melting butter, 4 loaves of Save-a-lot white bread, hundreds of American cheese slices, and a vat of brown sugar—into an elaborate presentation that fills the kitchen counter from edge to edge. Rene constructs a neat stack of 30 paper plates. The cheap kind you see at church picnics. Their apartment is warm and welcoming and alive with reds and grays, travel souvenirs and Coke decor. Walls are lined with pictures of their kids and grandkids.

A strange little doll of Grady Judd, the Polk County Sheriff who’s forever holding press conferences, slumps under a sign on the wall that reads, “When you are dead, you don’t know that you are dead. It’s only difficult for others. It’s the same when you are stupid.” I smile, because I know they’ve been dealing with ‘stupid’ for a long time. In contrast, the opposite wall balances their sassy with some sweet. “And so they built a life they loved.” I am mulling on that when the crowd begins to trickle in.

The first boy walks in around 10:40 p.m. and plops down on a barstool in front of the Andersons.

“I’ll take two,” he says.

She bastes the butter onto the bread using a $2 wooden paintbrush and asks the boy about his night. He has a story about a first date who turns out to be Dee’s cousin. Dee has a lot of cousins who have come through FC. I am suddenly reminded of September 1989 when another of Dee’s cousins connected me to them for the first time. A storm was coming and campus was being evacuated. I stood in a line to be farmed out somewhere because I had nowhere to go and no car to drive there. Dee’s cousin, Rob, turned around to me in line and invited me to join them at the Andersons’ house. I slept on their floor that night in a heap with several others and discovered firsthand that Rene and Dee Anderson look for kids who need saving and save them. They were dorm parents before they lived in a dorm.

In the early days, they were not so different from the kids they’d someday influence.  At seventeen, Rene Anderson wanted to build things. He tucked blueprints under his arm on his lunch breaks and stood at job sites watching the framework of someone else’s project rise into the Tampa sky. In another lifetime, he would have loved to be an architect. That life never came knocking. He traded that life and those dreams for the Airforce and spent the next 4 years on the other side of the world—Tokyo, the Philippines, South Korea, and Turkey. And after all of that, he found himself on the tiny Florida College campus in a concrete-block building with low ceilings and industrial lights, looking at a girl named Dee Mann. She was a student; he was not. She introduced herself to him, chatted for just long enough, and then peeled off toward her dorm with a group of her girlfriends. A week later, they went out after graduation. There is more than a hint of irony in Rene’s first true introduction to FC. He broke a curfew he claimed not to know about and then kissed the girl of his dreams behind Sutton Hall. Twenty-five years later, he’d be the one with a clipboard in his hand searching for students gone rogue.

Dee talked Rene into enrolling at FC and then married him the following summer. When they were almost to the end of raising their children, Libby and Chad, they got the offer to raise 160 more. Libby was already a freshman at Florida College. It was 1995. The offer was to oversee the girls’ dorm, effective immediately. For multiple reasons, living and working in the girls’ dorm seemed like a bad idea and Rene turned it down. When the Calverts agreed to switch from corralling boys to gently nudging girls, FC called again. This time they offered the Andersons Dicus, Wilson, and C-Dorm. And this time, Rene accepted. Rene had been filling car batteries at Johnson Controls for 23 years, praying for something better. Maybe this was it. He worked both jobs for a year, and then realized his blueprint was changing. To God he said, “Thank you,” and to Johnson Controls, he finally said, “I quit.”

In his new life at Florida College, every day was different, and every day was the same. Chapel always met at 10:15 a.m. Curfew was always 11 p.m. on the weeknights and midnight on weekends. Every year had heartbreak, students oversleeping, breakup drama, and shenanigans. Some shenanigans involved Dee and Rene performing live in wigs and sequins. But most were perpetrated by the boys in their charge.

Some boys were better than others at pulling off a prank. There were chapel seats unbolted from the floor so that the chairs fell over when unsuspecting folks sat down to worship. There was a hydroponic garden in an empty room on the 4th floor which led to the raising of 6 chickens shortly after. In a rather complicated and infamous prank, Rene’s blue truck turned up on the chapel stage with only an inch to spare on either side. Old toilets became fish aquariums or ornaments on the roof of The Pouch. An unlawfully adopted turtle named Taco became the unofficial face of Florida College, even traveling and singing with the chorus along the way.

When the boys stuck to the rules—where nothing gets broken, no one is mad or hurt, and the messes are gone by morning—all was forgiven. When they didn’t, the Andersons worked together to bring them around another way.  Why chase a kid around who habitually snuck out when you could climb in his bunk, go to sleep there, and give him the fright of his life upon his untimely return? Rene was a master of flipping a scenario on its head and shocking the troublemaker into submission. He often used Dee in his theatrics to guilt the boys into finally doing the right thing. A rather destructive ritual of throwing tube TVs off the 3rd floor walkway of C-Dorm finally ended when Rene convinced Dee to get out on the sidewalks below with a broom and dustpan. Seeing Momma Dee sweeping up their broken glass was more than the culprits could take, and they rushed down the outside stairs to take over for her. That was the end of the C-Dorm TV Launch.

For 29 years, that’s how this assignment has gone: Rene and Momma Dee staying one step ahead of the kids, working together to teach them Jesus and responsibility. Nowhere is this partnership more evident than in the unofficial feast that occurs around the Anderson griddle every single night. They have an easy style of communicating in tandem, filling in details for the other without interrupting as if by telepathy. Their eyes, both blue, light up on cue when sharing snippets of favorite stories.

As I sit in a forgotten corner of their kitchen, observing the intangible magic they’ve created in this place, I see a couple of former students mixed in with their current ones. They are enjoying the fray like family. As if they’d never left. At one point, I ask a former student what it was like to have Rene as a dorm dad.

“Oh, wow,” the boy smiles and looks away for a moment. “What can I even say about him? He’s the best of the best. The best there’s ever been. There will never be another like him.”

I am furiously scribbling when the boy adds one last note. “He’s like the Nick Saban of dorm parents!”

I roll my eyes. Rene is sitting on the couch tapping his sneaker against the coffee table because he can’t sit still. He replies almost under his breath.

“Well, I don’t know who Nick Saban is, but okay!”

How do you sum up 29 years with Rene and Dee Anderson? You don’t. Not with Nick Saban. Not with 138,000 brown-sugar-grilled-cheese sandwiches. Not with 5,800 boys, aged 18-22. Not with 5 hours of sleep a night. Not with 6 chickens or a secret hydroponic garden. Not even with 150 bald heads in 2004—shaved clean in solidarity of Momma Dee, who was winning against cancer, but losing against her hair. There are a lot of sums here. But there is no way to sum them up.

Rene and Dee Anderson never expected the life they’ve built. They never expected their dream to be shaping the lives of so many others. After experiencing college life with two of their grandkids, they finally decided their job here should end as it began: intentionally. After retiring in May, they’ll begin a new chapter in a condo a few miles away. Their first order of business is to finally finish a movie they started back in 1995. As that day draws near—the day Rene has predicted to be the saddest of his life–the best the Andersons hope for is to slap the last of the Boswell pranksters with community service hours.  Boys dumb enough or slow enough to get caught can work off hours packing boxes for the move. As for the rest of us, we shouldn’t watch this go down.  We shouldn’t think too hard. We should not say goodbye. And nobody watches anybody drive away.

Those of us impacted by Rene and Dee Anderson—which is pretty much everyone—savor the butter and brown sugar and then thank them for their service. For their years and years of tireless sacrifice. For the home they built and shared with thousands of kids not yet fully formed, providing an unofficial blueprint tucked under the arm of every person who ever crossed their threshold. While the door is open and the griddle is hot, eat the grill cheese and don’t look back.