STILL SASSY AT 60

Park Avenue and Central Park come alive with art every spring during the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival, which was held this year for the 60th time. Photo by Winter Park Pictures - winterparkpictures.com

Winter Park’s most high-profile rite of spring is the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival, which was held for the 60th year on March 15, 16 and 17 in Central Park. As many as 300,000 people, according to estimates, jammed the downtown business district to tour what has for decades been one of the most prestigious juried outdoor art extravaganzas in the Southeast.

Many locals wouldn’t miss it. Many others steer clear because they can’t abide the crowds. In either case, few can remember a time when there wasn’t an art festival in Winter Park. And fewer still know how it all began. So, as the 60th annual event wraps up, it seems an appropriate time to explore its at-times tumultuous history.

Remember 1960? Dwight D. Eisenhower was still president of the United States. But John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon were headed for the Democratic and Republican nominations, setting up an epic battle that would culminate with a narrow win for the young senator from Massachusetts. 

The tumult associated with the ’60s — Vietnam, assassinations, mass protests, racial unrest, the sexual revolution and more — was largely yet to come.

Beatniks weren’t yet hippies, and Elvis — back home from serving in the U.S. Army in Germany — notched two of the year’s Top 10 records: “It’s Now or Never” and “Stuck on You.”

In 1964, this image of the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival was featured on the cover of the Winter Park Telephone Company’s city directory. The painting also appeared on postcards and on placemats at the Barbizon Restaurant and Gallery, where the idea for the festival was hatched.

Along Park Avenue, you could see a movie at the Colony Theater, check out the latest fashions at Proctor Center and scarf down an ice-cream sundae at Irvine’s Pharmacy or the Yum Yum Shop.

But in January of that year, local history was made at the Barbizon Restaurant and Gallery — located at the corner of Park and Canton avenues, where Boca is now — when a group of friends who met regularly to while away slow afternoons hatched an audacious idea. 

Those present were Darwin Nichols, a potter who owned the restaurant, and artists Robert Anderson and Don Sill, who shared a nearby studio in the Hidden Gardens. Perhaps there were others — accounts vary — but Nichols mentioned only Anderson and Sill in a 2009 interview with Winter Park Magazine. All three have died in the past decade.

In any case, those present reached a consensus that an outdoor art festival could be pulled together in a short time. 

Said Nichols: “We were sitting there having a glass of wine and we were thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a place where nonprofessional people — those not accomplished enough to be in galleries — could show their work?’”

It only made sense. Local artists already displayed paintings at the Barbizon, where diners could buy them right off the walls. Plus, the gallery-packed city had a longstanding reputation as an artists’ colony. 

But organizational savvy was needed, so the friends recruited, among others, Edith Tadd Little, a patron of the arts — indeed, an artist herself — and for a time owner of an interior design business on Park Avenue. 

Little’s involvement all but assured success. A civic leader and booster of cultural causes, she had been designated “Mrs. Winter Park” in 1959 by the city commission. Revered for her energy and organizational acumen, some local businesspeople had affectionately nicknamed her “The General.”

Why don’t we have an art festival? Darwin Nichols, owner of the Barbizon Restaurant and Gallery (above), thought it could work. Nichols, Jean Oliphant, Bob Anderson and Don Sill (below) formed the core group of volunteers, and are generally considered to be the festival’s founders. The photo is from 1962.

Among Little’s artistic credentials: She decorated the interior of the Annie Russell Theatre on the campus of Rollins College, even creating the stencils and painting the elaborate designs that adorn the ceiling.

“Mother’s original idea was to have the festival for all the local artists and the art departments of all the schools, from kindergarten through college,” recalled the late Sally Behre, Little’s daughter, in a 1987 oral history interview with the Winter Park History Museum.

But The General — who died in June 1960, just months after the inaugural event — was too ill to lead the charge. (From 1965 through 1968, the Best of Show award would be named the Edith Tadd Little Medal in her memory.)

Jean Oliphant, another formidable mover and shaker, chaired a hastily formed 18-member festival committee — its meetings were held in the Barbizon’s Blue Room — on which Little and about a dozen others served. (Oliphant, who died in 1990, would become known as “The Mother of the Sidewalk Art Festival.” Although some news stories place her at the initial “bull session” with Nichols, Anderson and Sill, it’s more likely that she joined the effort immediately thereafter.) 

Nichols agreed to kick in $50. Soon, Park Avenue merchants — delighted at the prospect of drawing potential customers to the quaint but sometimes-sleepy business district — stepped up to help defray expenses for what was initially billed, rather generically, as a “Sidewalk Art Show.”

Bohemian Rhapsody

In early February 1960, the Orlando Evening Star announced the news with the headline: “Date Set for ‘Arty’ Park Ave. Three Days of Bohemia.” Just three weeks later, on March 3, 4 and 5 (Wednesday, Thursday and Friday), the inaugural event was held. 

For artists, promptness was the most important requirement. The first 90 to apply were accepted, and there was no entry fee. Regardless, thousands showed up to see painters, weavers and even makers of puppets and sundials. Schoolchildren also exhibited their creations.

“None of us were prepared for the onslaught of people coming,” said Nichols, who died in 2016. He had clearly underestimated the allure of picture-postcard-pretty Park Avenue on a spring afternoon.

“It was the windiest day I think we’d had in a long time,” noted Behre in the 1987 interview. Her young students from the Jack and Jill Kindergarten hung their paintings from a clothesline and chased them down when sharp gusts sent their colorful creations soaring. 

“[Artists] just had easels,” Behre recalled. “They didn’t have booths or anything like they have today. They would stack [their work] up at night, and Boy Scouts took turns sleeping in the park and patrolling the place.”

By all accounts, despite the indiscriminate selection process, some very good work was displayed.

The 1960 Best of Show winner — an oil painting of a foreboding forest by DeLand artist Arnold Loren Hicks — was selected by attendees who filled out ballots. A grateful Hicks — who had sold four of his paintings over the weekend — donated his $40 windfall back to the festival to help ensure that it would continue. 

It proved to be a wise investment; Hicks would win again in 1961, when the festival was compressed into two days and moved to Friday and Saturday. (From 1964 forward, it was a three-day event beginning on the third Friday in March.)

Hicks, like all Best of Show winners, has an interesting backstory. By 1960, he was primarily a landscape painter. Early in his career, however, he painted lurid covers for pulp magazines and was a cartoonist for the legendary Classics Illustrated comic-book series.

But Hicks wasn’t the only cartoonist-turned-fine-artist in the first festival. Frank King (“Gasoline Alley’’), Les Turner (“Captain Easy”) and Roy Crane (“Buzz Sawyer’’) also displayed the products of their painterly pursuits. All three lived in Winter Park.

Another notable entrant — one whose participation instantly cemented the festival’s cultural credibility — was Jeannette Genius McKean, who displayed a selection of geometric abstracts. 

The first festival in 1960 had a show program (above) but no official poster. Since 1972, though, the posters have been sold as prints and emblazoned on T-shirts. Many people collect them. Early festivals didn’t have booths for artists (below), meaning the displays were more casual — and more exposed to the elements.

McKean was the granddaughter of industrialist and Winter Park benefactor Charles Hosmer Morse, in whose honor she named the Morse Gallery of Art on the Rollins campus. That museum would later become the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art on North Park Avenue.

An accomplished businesswoman in her own right, McKean owned the Center Street Gallery, which showcased up-and-coming Florida artists, and was president of the Winter Park Land Company, which managed her grandfather’s vast holdings.

She was married to Hugh F. McKean, a former art professor who had become president of Rollins in 1951. A nod from the McKeans — Winter Park’s original power couple and the embodiment of its artistic ambience — would have been important to festival organizers.

The puzzle pieces came together. Yes, the event was hurriedly staged, but its supporters and organizers were civic dynamos who knew how to make things happen. Still, not even the most ardent boosters could have predicted what was to come. 

In 2019, the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival encompassed 225 artists vying for sales and a share of $74,500 in prize money. National publications such as Sunshine Artist, Art Fair Calendar and Art Fair Source Book frequently place the event at or near the top of their rankings. 

“I don’t know why it caught on like it did,” said Nichols in 2009. “I guess Winter Park is just an artsy place.”

Best of the Best

While much about today’s festival is the same as it was 60 festivals ago, much is also different. Most notably, it’s no longer a showcase for enthusiastic local hobbyists.

The juried event has for decades attracted roughly three times as many applicants as it has exhibit spaces. Participants and winners are selected by an independent trio of highly credentialed experts from outside Central Florida.

But despite its size and sophistication, the whole shebang is still run by volunteers who’ve turned festival production into, well, an art form. The umbrella organization is called Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival Inc., a 501(c)4 not-for-profit corporation that consists of about 40 people on its board and executive committee. 

And there’s plenty for everyone to do. Despite its seat-of-the-pants starting point, the event quickly morphed from a casual weekend stroll in the park into a full-fledged regional happening with multiple components.

In the early ’60s, entertainment began to be an important part of the festival experience. Students from the Royal School of Dance performed an original ballet, while nightclub entertainer and restaurateur Chappy McDonald tickled the ivories and sang. 

There were folksingers — including Gamble Rogers IV, the iconic architect’s son who would go on to have a legendary career as a balladeer — as well as high school bands, jazz combos, barbershop quartets and symphony orchestras.

The number of artists also grew — there were 240 in 1963 and 300 in 1964, when the Best of Show winner earned a whopping $500. That year, the festival promoted itself as an event where “every artist and craftsman has an opportunity to show his creative ability.” 

Soon, that egalitarian approach would change.

In 1975, the festival’s Best of Show winner was a photo-realistic drawing of an obviously distraught — and entirely nude — middle-aged woman whom Atlanta artist Glen Eden said was a wallboard hanger at his apartment complex. At the time, works earning Best of Show honors were displayed in City Hall. But officials balked at Wizard of Oz, which Commissioner Byron Villwock described as “the kind of thing you’d hang on your refrigerator door to keep from opening it.” The painting was eventually displayed in the Winter Park Public Library, but mysteriously vanished in 1982.

Crowds swelled, with up to 200,000 estimated in 1964, when outside judging was introduced. Park Avenue was closed to traffic for the first time in 1965. That year, an illustration of a festival scene was featured on the cover of the Winter Park Telephone Company’s city directory. 

Local institutions began donating money or sponsoring major awards, including First National Bank of Winter Park, Minute Maid, the Tupperware Company and the Winter Park Telephone Company. Other companies sponsored various category-specific awards.

The “is it really art?” question inevitably arose in the ’60s, when crocheting, knitting, millinery, clothing and picture frames were prohibited. Painting, of course, was really art, as were crafts such as ceramics, mosaics, pottery, weaving and wood carving. (Decorated eggs were explicitly judged not to be art in 1969 — a decision that didn’t go over easy with the artist seeking to display them.)

By 1966 the number of participating artists had mushroomed to 600, and the festival encompassed Park Avenue from Fairbanks Avenue all the way north to Canton Avenue and throughout Central Park.

But, as far as outdoor art festivals are concerned, bigger isn’t always better. A consensus emerged that the event had become simply too overwhelming for attendees to enjoy, and it was scaled back to 425 artists the following year. (It was capped at 225 artists in 2009.)

The Winter Park Chamber of Commerce sponsored the festival from 1963 through 1966. The City of Winter Park — eager to control what had become the city’s most notable event — created a commission consisting of current volunteers and political appointees to take over festival operations in 1967.

Founding member Jean Oliphant’s husband, Frank, was a city commissioner who supported the idea. “Frank told Jean, ‘If you have a brain in your head, you’ll involve the city in your little ladies’ festival,’” recalls Jean Sprimont, a festival board member since 1987.

(This arrangement persisted until 1989, when complications stemming from Florida’s Sunshine Law — which required that all governmental meetings be advertised and open to the public — made planning too ponderous. “We had to be able to talk to one another,” says Carole Moreland, a festival board member since 1978. “Under those circumstances, we couldn’t get anything done.”)

In 1969, the festival began the tradition of buying the Best of Show-winning work and donating it to the city. A year later, the “first come, first served” selection process was dropped. Applicants were required to submit three color slides for screening by judges — and competition became fierce.

By 1972, some local artists had begun to complain that too many out-of-towners were invited to exhibit, while locals — taxpaying citizens, mind you — were excluded. Mayor Dan Hunter, perhaps naively, said he had hoped “to keep politics out of the festival.” Still, he agreed to listen to the aggrieved artists.

Ultimately, however, festival jurors were permitted to continue considering only the quality of the artist’s work — not whether the application carried a 32789 zip code — as their primary criteria.

“This wasn’t what we call a Sunday painter’s show,” said architect Keith Reeves, who served as a festival chairman in the ’70s and spoke to Winter Park Magazine in 2009. “Everybody felt like that if this show was going to have any merit or recognition that it had to truly be a juried art show — that you just couldn’t be a favorite son and get in.”

In the wake of that controversy, painter Sissie Barr led an effort to start a festival that would showcase only Florida artists. The Winter Park Autumn Art Festival debuted 1974 and was sponsored by the now-defunct Winter Park Sun-Herald. By the ’80s, it was co-sponsored by the Crealdé School of Art and the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce. 

Now sponsored exclusively by the chamber, the autumn festival was moved from Central Park to the Rollins campus. It was later staged in Island Lake Park and finally found its way back to Central Park, where it has become an October tradition and remains the only juried outdoor festival featuring only Florida artists.

Where's Dorothy?

In festival lore, 1975 will always be remembered as the year of the naked lady. 

Glen Eden, a 24-year-old art school student from Atlanta, won the festival’s Best of Show award and the $1,000 prize it carried with The Wizard of Oz, a photo-realistic ballpoint pen drawing of a rotund middle-aged woman wearing nothing but a shocked expression.

The woman, said Eden, was a real person named Dorothy, who was a wallboard installer whom he had met at his apartment complex.

Prior to 1978, works that snared Best of Show honors were displayed in City Hall. (Today, the Best of Show Collection hangs in the Winter Park Public Library.) But there was no chance — none whatsoever — that city commissioners were going to display a drawing that showed full-frontal nudity, regardless of the model’s physique. 

“It’s the kind of thing you’d hang on your refrigerator door to keep from opening it,” as Commissioner Byron Villwock described the work to an Orlando Sentinel reporter in stories headlined, “City Hall Can’t Bare New Portrait” and “‘Best of Show’ Controversy a Matter of Taste This Time.” 

Because the city wouldn’t give Dorothy a home, Reeves adopted her and displayed Eden’s award-winning work in his own home until the furor died down. The drawing did eventually hang in the library for several years — but mysteriously disappeared in 1982. 

Oh, you can still see it — sort of. A reproduction of the provocative image can be seen in the library, lurking in an obscure corner on the third floor. It’s faded from exposure to sunlight and much smaller than the poster-sized original.

Dorothy’s presence, diminished as it may be, is thanks to Robert Melanson, library director for 25 years until his retirement in 2012. In 1994, he asked Phil Eschbach, owner of Eschbach Photography, to take a picture of a photocopy stored in the library’s archives. He then had the picture framed and hung.

“The library was supposed to be the repository of Best of Show winners, and this one wasn’t there,” says Melanson, who never saw the original and had only heard stories about the brouhaha. “I didn’t believe that whoever took it ought to be allowed to censor the collection.”

What became of the original remains a mystery, although it has been speculated that someone connected with the city — and therefore someone with access to the library after hours — must have been involved. 

“Ever since cavemen drew the first animal on the wall, art has created controversy,” wrote the late Elizabeth Bradley Bentley in her lively book, A Side Walk with the Art Festival, published to commemorate the festival’s 20th year. “There is nothing like a good controversy to show how such an important thing as art can still get us all riled up.”

Also in 1975, city grant money dried up and the festival was expected to become self-supporting. An emphasis was placed on raising money through application fees for artists, franchise fees for food vendors and the sale of merchandise, such as posters and T-shirts.

In 1979, tensions among art festival board members boiled over when the results of an election for executive committee offices — including president and vice president — were disputed. 

About half the group resigned over the turmoil, which saw Bruce Cucuel, then director of drawing and painting at the Crealdé School of Art, unseat previous president Gerry Shepp, then executive director of the Maitland Art Center. 

Among those who remained to rally the troops: Jean Oliphant, treasurer and founding member whose institutional knowledge proved invaluable as eager newcomers were welcomed to lead the festival into its third decade.

The event never missed a beat. Or if it did, artists and spectators never noticed. To commemorate the festival’s 25th year in 1984, the Albin Polasek Foundation gave the city a recast version of the late sculptor’s iconic statue, Emily, to be placed in a circular fountain in north Central Park now called “The Emily Fountain.” 

The original Emily is on the grounds of the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens on Osceola Avenue. Like Dorothy, Emily is unclothed, although her bare breasts sparked no apparent outrage at the time. The statue was, however, vandalized the following year and recast.

All That Jazz

Musical entertainment has always been a part of the festival, but in the early days it consisted primarily of local performers and performing arts troupes. Periodically, the Florida Symphony Orchestra — which went defunct in 1993 — would present a Sunday afternoon concert.

But entertainers were forced to perform either on the lawn or from makeshift stages (including, on several occasions, the beds of pickup trucks). In 1980, the symphony threatened to pull out of its Sunday afternoon performance for fear that inclement weather might ruin its instruments.

The resourceful Cucuel rented a large parachute and strung it over tree branches in the northeast quadrant of the park to provide cover for the musicians. The show went on, but clearly a more permanent solution was needed.

Enter the Rotary Club of Winter Park, which in 1982 funded construction of the permanent — and covered — Centennial Performing Arts Stage in north Central Park. (The stage’s seldom-used original name honors the city’s centennial, which was celebrated that year.)

 In 1983, the stage debuted as the centerpiece for “Friday Family Night,” which featured the Ballet Royal and Family Tree, a local folk trio that had an avid following at Harper’s Tavern, Uncle Waldo’s and other Winter Park venues.

In subsequent years, though, the genre was all jazz, with headliners such as Herbie Mann (1986), Dave Brubeck (1987), Al Hirt (1988), Ramsey Lewis (1991), The Rippingtons (1993), Grover Washington Jr. (1997) and Boney James (1998). 

Entertainment was initially funded by the festival, which recruited such sponsors as Barnett Bank, MetLife HealthCare Network, Pioneer Savings Bank, Sun Banks and the Winter Park Telephone Company. 

Only once since construction of the stage was there no Friday night concert. In 1989, some previous sponsors — most notably Sun Banks — decided instead to support the newly launched United Arts of Central Florida.

United Arts was conceived by Orlando Mayor Bill Frederick as a more cohesive way of helping to fund a consortium of cultural groups that were each chasing the same donors. The festival, however, was not among the initial dozen United Arts beneficiaries.

Nonetheless, the event was back the following year with Scottish-born jazz saxophonist Richard Elliot, who had just launched a solo career after a decade with the funk group Tower of Power.

Perhaps no performer brought out fans in such huge numbers as vocalist Michael Franks of “Popsicle Toes” fame did in 1994. Franks was such a draw that people overflowed onto the train tracks running parallel to the park.

The emphasis on jazz was primarily due to the involvement of WLOQ-FM, a smooth-jazz radio station owned by the late John Gross, who had been recruited to the festival board because of his entertainment industry expertise. 

In the early ’90s, WLOQ and Sonny Abelardo Productions assumed responsibility for the entire weekend of entertainment, including the opening-night concert, which had previously been organized by a committee consisting of festival board members.

Meet four festival icons (left to right): Carolyn Bird, Carole Moreland, Jean Sprimont and Carol Wisler. The longtime volunteers recently gathered at the festival’s small office to share stories about their years in an array of leadership positions. All agree that it’s exciting to help coordinate a successful event, despite the inevitable organizational headaches. But just as rewarding, they say, are the friendships they’ve developed through their involvement.

When Southwest Airlines began flying out of Orlando International Airport in 1998, Gross secured a $45,000 entertainment sponsorship from the airline that involved both a presence at the festival and cross-promotion with the radio station. That arrangement would continue for 11 years, solidifying the entertainment budget.

 It certainly didn’t hurt that the well-connected Abelardo had managed or produced many of the musicians he booked. In 1999, for example, he paired Grammy-winning pianist/composer Bob James, whom he managed, with acoustic guitarist Earl Klugh. 

The 2012 festival featuring saxophonist Warren Hill was Abelardo’s last, ending a 22-year run that firmly established the event as a showcase for world-class jazz artists. “I did it as a tribute to John [Gross],” Abelardo says of his final contribution to the festival’s legacy. 

“Sonny had contacts and incredible friendship with these bands,” says Chip Weston, a festival board member before going to work for the City of Winter Park as director of economic and cultural development from 2001-2008. “I wish people had a grasp of how fortunate they were to have had him.”

Weston remembers city officials growing concerned that the concerts were drawing too many people. 

“The city didn’t want the jazz concerts being too popular, because people spilled over onto the train tracks,” recalls Weston. “We had to coordinate with other cities to let us know when trains were coming. And we had to stop bands from playing when trains approached. I remember kicking people off the tracks with their bottles of wine and picnic baskets.”

 Following Gross’ death and the shuttering of WLOQ in 2012, Wayne Osley, president of Oz Media Productions, has run the show, arranging everything from the Friday afternoon opening acts, which feature young up-and-comers, to the evening’s main event. (This year’s headliner was Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers.)

Osley also organizes the Saturday lineup — which features an eclectic array of primarily local artists — as well as the Sunday afternoon finale. (This year, jazz took a holiday on Sunday when the festival booked the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra for a concert in its Pops Series.)

While the closing of the radio station meant smaller sponsorship budgets for procuring talent, Osley says he doesn’t have any problems booking touring jazz musicians whose fans would gladly pay to see them. 

“Jazz artists are the easiest people to work with,” says Osley, next year’s co-president of the festival executive committee. He says he usually has about $35,000 to work with for the entire weekend — about 15 shows in all. Everyone who performs gets paid, he adds.

For Tim Coons, the festival’s weekend of concerts offers an opportunity to introduce young acts who could one day make it big like the boy bands he has worked with in the past.  

Coons, a 1976 Rollins graduate and president of Orlando-based Cheiron Records, has a knack for bird dogging up-and-coming performers. 

He was the original producer of the Backstreet Boys and helped develop NSYNC. His most recent contribution to the boy band genre was Far Young. “I was slammed with boy groups for about 10 years,” he says.  

Coons has been inserting twenty-something singers into the festival’s entertainment lineup since 2014. He brought in Far Young spinoff and former American Idol contestant Eben Franckewitz in 2015 and ’16.  

This year he booked three aspiring stars with strong social media followings — Saagar Ace, Sydney Rhame and Alani Claire — to perform Friday afternoon. 

“It’s a great place for young kids to develop in front of a big crowd,” says Coons, whose home near Rollins doubles as a studio. “It’s not like the crowd is there for them. It’s just less pressure. It’s just a very chill event.”

“Like a Jam Sandwich”

Or maybe the real magic of the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival is how chill it appears to artists and visitors, who don’t see the year-round planning sessions and frantic rush in the final weeks to finalize details.

“It helps that many of us are close friends,” says Carolyn Bird, a festival board member since 1975. “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.” Adds Carol Wisler, a festival board member since 1985: “There’s such great camaraderie; we all know funny stories — some we’d like to admit and some we wouldn’t.” 

Many of those funny stories are in the 20th-anniversary book by Elizabeth Bradley Bentley, who died in 1994. Toward the conclusion, she beautifully captures the spirit of the festival and its volunteers:

“As the years went by, my main wish was for health to make the work a pleasure, wealth enough to purchase the art I simply could not live without, faith enough to make myself believe the examples I’d purchased were good (though some did look better hung upside down). And to be needed and wanted to work for the festival. I want to spread it over my face like a kid eating a jam sandwich.” 

‘DEAR DR. SAGAN’

As a child, Shawn Garvey was fascinated by the heavens. He still is, although as a pastor he now views the topic from both a theological and a scientific point of view. Photo by Rafael Tongol

When I was 12 years old, the age now of my youngest son, I became enthralled with astronomy. It was 1980, and I was living with my family in South Dakota, where the night sky was — and presumably still is — a spectacular sight to behold. It was easy to see the Milky Way once your eyes adjusted to the dark. And the view from horizon to horizon was almost entirely unencumbered.

At the same time, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions to Jupiter and Saturn were underway. In school, we saw incredible images that these spacecraft transmitted back to Earth from the outer solar system. To a sixth-grader with a big imagination, the impact was profound. 

It was serendipitous, then, that in 1980 Carl Sagan’s brilliant TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage premiered on PBS. Every Sunday evening for 13 weeks, I was transfixed by a program that would eventually be seen by 500 million people worldwide. 

The New York Times referred to the premier of Cosmos as “a watershed moment for science-themed television programming.” It was certainly a watershed moment for me. To this day I remain fascinated by the mysteries of the universe.

One of Sagan’s greatest gifts was as a communicator of science. I was so enthralled that I became a huge Sagan fanboy and wrote him a letter at Cornell University, where he was a professor of astronomy and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies.  

I didn’t hear back from the celebrity scientist, who died in 1996. And, with the passage of time, the memory of what, exactly, I had written to my hero had become as hazy as the surface of Titan (Saturn’s largest moon, about which Sagan advanced theories later proved to be true).

Then, last year, the letter resurfaced in an unexpected and extraordinary way.

One day while working at home, I received a message on Facebook from a young woman who said that she was a senior at Yale working on a thesis about Sagan and Cosmos. 

She had been in Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress, which in 2012 took possession of nearly 800 boxes filled with documents — more than 500,000 items, including letters, journals, photographs, book drafts and more — that Sagan had collected during his lifetime. 

Among Sagan’s correspondence, the young woman had happened upon a fan letter from a 12-year-old boy named Shawn Garvey. She wanted to know if I was the same Shawn Garvey whose words covering two sheets of lined notebook paper had made her cry in the documents room.

Astounded, I confirmed that I was, indeed, the writer. But why, I wondered, had a preteen boy’s fan letter made her cry? I asked her to kindly scan this childhood relic and email it to me. 

Upon receiving the image, decades receded and memories rushed back. It was emotional — a little uncomfortable, perhaps — but it reminded me of who I was as a sixth-grader in Vermillion, struggling to find his way.

 

Among the more than 500,000 items that Carl Sagan collected during his lifetime was a poignant fan letter from a 12-year-old boy named Shawn Garvey. The letter was rediscovered decades later by a graduate student, who was so moved by the sentiments expressed that she contacted Garvey to tell him about her discovery.

My spelling wasn’t perfect, but my penmanship was as neat as my capabilities allowed. I gushed to Sagan about being a fan of his and of Cosmos. (“You and your show are the most wonderful things I’ve ever known.”) Then I veered into “something personell.” Or, as I would spell it today, something “personal.” 

“People (quite a few) think I’m different and don’t like me,” I wrote. “Would you be my friend? You’d be the best friend I had (practically the only one, too!)”

I had absolutely no memory of writing a letter so raw to a stranger. Perhaps it speaks to Sagan’s relatability that I felt as though I could confide in him. Certainly, I remembered having those feelings throughout much of middle school. Sitting in the garage reading the words of a younger me, I thought about my own sons.

I don’t know why Sagan kept the letter (and an accompanying pencil portrait I created using a photograph from a Cosmos book jacket as a reference). But it’s a blessing to have it back after so many years.

Now, when my boys come home from school and describe their struggles — the same struggles that most middle-schoolers experience — I can share with them a letter showing that I experienced the same anxieties at their age.

Used as a teaching tool, the letter demonstrates that there is a future reality in which things do, in fact, get better. We can grow into lives that we couldn’t have imagined when we were in the throes of adolescence and experiencing the discomfort, fear, insecurity and uncertainty that comes with growing up. 

The person my sons see today is Daddy — a grown man who is blessed with a loving family. He pastors a historic church in a beautiful city located conveniently near Disney World. He doesn’t need much persuasion to play the guitar and sing in front of an audience.

Now, though, they can also know the Daddy who existed long before he was Daddy to them. They can know the 12-year-old boy who often felt alone, but found joy in the grand mysteries of the cosmos and the scientist from Cornell who made him feel connected to it all. 


 Shawn Garvey is the senior minister at the First Congregational Church of Winter Park.

FIRST AND GOAL

Michael O’ Shaughnessy wasn’t the biggest offensive lineman to play college football — not even the biggest offensive lineman to play Division III college football. But he was ferocious and spirited, and helped lead the first UCF Knights squad to a winning record. Photo restoration by Will Setzer/Circle 7 Design Studio

Roughly eight and a half miles separate Winter Park from the University of Central Florida campus in east Orlando. But the route is rich with football history, from Division III UCF’s first snap against tiny St. Leo three decades ago to the university’s subsequent emergence as an upstart Football Bowl Subdivision powerhouse that claimed a mythical national championship for the 2017 season.

The Knights, you’ll recall, went unbeaten in the 2017 regular season and then whipped Auburn in the Peach Bowl. The Tigers had been the only team to beat both Alabama and Georgia, who were paired against one another for the official national championship in Atlanta. 

Orlando’s Hometown Team — seething over the perceived unfairness of the College Football Playoff system and eager to show that its success was no fluke — went unbeaten again in the 2018 season, only to fall to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. It was the team’s first loss in two years. 

Say what you will about the playoff selection process and about that national championship hype fest. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion. 

Don Jonas (right), previously quarterback of the American Football League’s Orlando Panthers, coached the first season of UCF football gratis. The program was rescued from financial ruin a few years later when Winter Park businessman Steve Slack (left) implemented a series of raucous fundraising events.

But the fact that UCF was even in the conversation demonstrated how far the program had come since 1979, when a then-remote commuter school assembled a ragtag band of nonscholarship scrappers and set its sights on one day going helmet to helmet with college football’s elites. 

Winter Park can take a collective bow and celebrate its role in helping UCF’s gridiron dream become a reality. 

In 1979, the Knights had no locker room, players had to bring their own cleats and equipment was donated. Head coach Don Jonas, one-time quarterback of the American Football League’s Orlando Panthers, worked the first season gratis. Home games were played in the Tangerine Bowl (today Camping World Stadium) in downtown Orlando.

Today, UCF’s on-campus Kenneth G. Dixon Athletics Village is anchored by Spectrum Stadium, which seats 44,206. The village is undergoing a $25 million, privately funded expansion program that will include a resort-style lazy river and mini-golf course alongside the stadium.

“I’m not surprised by any of it,” says Doug Schoen, a Winter Park High School graduate who was a starting offensive lineman at UCF from 1989 to 1993. Schoen, now a consultant and wellness entrepreneur, believes success was inevitable, considering UCF’s size, location and academic reputation. “Some people have no vision. But we did it.”

Indeed they did. And the who matters just as much as the how. It’s easy to remember such high-profile players as quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper and Blake Bortles as well as tailback Marquette Smith, who set the school’s single-season record for rushing yards as a senior. 

More recently linebacker Shaquill Griffin, an amputee with one hand, received national media attention when he was drafted by the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Who hasn’t gotten goosebumps from Griffin’s inspirational Gillette TV commercial? The best a man can get, indeed.

It gets more challenging to connect the dots to other players, many of them lesser-known, who made that short journey from Winter Park to UCF. So let’s raise a glass to the 25 locals — including Brandon Marshall (wide receiver), Michael O’Shaughnessy (defensive lineman) and All-American Darin Slack (quarterback) — who have donned a Knights uniform. 

Marshall played with several NFL teams and is currently a free agent. O’Shaughnessy owns a Winter Park-based real estate brokerage company, while Slack is founder and president of National Football Academies — which in recent years has expanded to Europe.

And let’s not forget other Winter Parkers who have walked on, including current players Kyle Benkel (wide receiver) and Alec Holler (tight end). Benkel played at Winter Park High School while Holler played at Trinity Prep. 

UCF’s final game of the first season was against Morehouse College. More than 13,000 fans watched a defensive struggle in which the Knights ground out a 14-7 win over the Maroon Tigers. UCF finished the season 6-2, and along the way set a Division III attendance record at its first home game against Fort Benning. More than 14,000 fans showed up at the Tangerine Bowl to see the Knights earn a tough 7-6 win over the Doughboys.

And a moment of silence, please, for Jaime Lugo, who quarterbacked the Wildcats to the state finals in 1981 and was under center for UCF when the program made the painful leap to Division II in 1982. Lugo, who had been branch manager for a chain of tire stores, died in February at just 54.

UCF’s football program also helped to develop a pair of Winter Park High School coaches. Tim Shifflet, now head coach of the Wildcats, was briefly an all-purpose assistant at UCF. Paul Lounsberry, a recently retired assistant on Shifflet’s staff, coached the offensive line at UCF for 12 years.

Winter Park businesspeople did their share. Among the most notable was Steve Slack — father of the former quarterback — who rode to the rescue in the mid-’80s, when the UCF athletic department found itself $1 million in debt and some in the community were calling for the football program to be dismantled. 

Slack, owner of a specialty advertising company, helped launch a series of annual fundraisers that featured sports-related auctions. Thanks in part to proceeds from those events — dubbed “Gene’s Gatecrasher!” in honor of then-head coach Gene McDowell — the athletic department retired its debt in 1986. 

It was just another day at the office for the inventive Slack, who in 1978 had dreamed up the wildly successful “Zonies!” package when the old Tangerine Bowl was having trouble selling end-zone seats for its annual football game. He died in 2016, leaving Central Florida a less interesting place.

So many stories. We can’t tell them all, but we can provide you with glimpses into the past through some of the names and faces who can proudly make the connection between Winter Park and UCF. Let’s cut through some generational ties and grab a glimpse of history, context and local pride.

THE BOUNCER

Michael O’Shaughnessy - Defensive Lineman, (1979-80)

The fledging UCF football program welcomed all comers to the program as it prepped for its inaugural season. Bouncers, fighters and misfits included.

Come on down, Michael O’Shaughnessy, who had dropped out of Winter Park High School in the 10th grade and later earned an AA from Seminole Community College (now Seminole College). He enrolled at UCF, where he joined the baseball team as a catcher and left fielder.

O’Shaughnessy was working as a bouncer at Sam’s Woodshed Pub and Rosie O’Grady’s when he joined 196 other guys for an open cattle call for players in the spring of 1979.

“There were football players trying to find a home,” O’Shaughnessy says. “And guys like me — bouncers and fighters — who were looking for an opportunity. A lot of scrappers.”

There weren’t a lot of perks. No scholarships, although Pell Grants could help ease the financial strain. Everybody brought their own cleats and socks, which made for a colorful display of diversity if you looked below the knees. O’Shaughnessy even brought his own helmet, which he had used in the eighth grade.

UCF Athletic Director Jack O’Leary — who was the de facto head coach because there was no funding to hire anyone else — set a schedule for grueling three-a-day practices to weed out all but the toughest and most determined. (Three-a-days have subsequently been banned by the NCAA.)

Speaking of weeds, players also famously got to lay sod on the practice field, which had been a golf driving range. 

Those who made the cut hung on to become a part of history when the Fighting Knights, now coached by Jonas, beat the St. Leo University Monarchs 21-0 on a rain-soaked cow pasture near Dade City. The team went on to finish 6-2 and averaged 11,000 fans per home game — huge for a Division III program.

Winter Parkers Tony and Sonja Nicholson have been crucial supporters of UCF football, donating $2 million for construction of the Nicholson Fieldhouse, the state’s first indoor practice facility for a college football team. In 2017, the couple donated another $2 million for upgrades to the fieldhouse and the area surrounding it.

“Everybody was sick that first game,” recalls O’Shaughnessy, who speculates that breakfast in the UCF cafeteria may have been the culprit. “But maybe it was nervous sick.”

O’Shaughnessy, who played two seasons, was one of the top defensive players ever to don a Knights uniform. He recorded 22 career sacks, including a still-standing school record for sacks in a game with five against Emory & Henry. He was named UCF’s Alumnus of the Decade for the 1980s and was inducted into the UCF Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010.

A competitor at heart, O’Shaughnessy is also a Guinness world-record holder in the sport of paddle boarding, a four-time East Coast Paddle Board Champion and a six-time Florida State Paddle Board Champion. He and his wife, Leslie, co-founded the Millennium Woman Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has funded more than 250 educational scholarships to single-parent women nationwide.

Always a UCF believer — O’Shaughnessy was voted by his teammates as “Most Spirited Player” in 1980 — he recalls a long-ago post-game interview with former Orlando Sentinel sports columnist Larry Guest. “Where do you think the program is headed?” asked Guest. Replied O’Shaughnessy: “We’re going to be right up there with the Gators and Seminoles in about a decade.” 

It took a little longer than that, of course, but the outcome was nothing less than O’Shaughnessy and his squad of fighters and misfits expected: “Everybody to a man knew this was going to be a big program.”

THE PASSER

Steve Moffett - Quarterback, (2003-2006)

There was a lot of “say what?” when Winter Park High School quarterback Steve Moffett turned down advances from the University of Georgia and other A-list programs to play for UCF. 

When Moffett broke the news to then-Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt, the reaction was bafflement. “He was taken aback,” Moffett recalls. “Like, ‘Whoa! This is the first time I lost a guy to UCF.’”

While playing between the iconic hedges at Sanford Stadium may have brought more prestige back in the day, staying close to home had considerable perks. “There wasn’t much of a change,” says Moffett. “I just moved five miles down the street into the dorms. I was still coming home and making my mom wash my clothes and cook my food.”

But a big change eventually came. Coach Mike Kruczek, who recruited Moffett, was fired late in the 2003 season. With Kruczek — who’s now head coach at Trinity Prep — went the spread offense playbook that attracted Moffett to UCF in the first place. Then in came crusty George O’Leary and his old-school I-set. 

Danny White, UCF athletic director (left), and Josh Heupel, UCF head coach (right), are both Winter Park residents — and proud of it. White hired head coach Scott Frost, who delivered a mythical national championship only to bolt for the University of Nebraska in 2017. White then turned to Heupel, who coached the Knights to another undefeated regular season and finished third in the balloting for Associated Press Coach of the Year.

The new coach’s hard-nosed attitude didn’t sit well with the young quarterback — who was already adjusting to a new offense — and begat one of the most bitter feuds in UCF football history. (O’Leary’s intense coaching style would come under scrutiny in 2008, when a UCF player, Ereck Plancher, died following a workout.)

“O’Leary said I wasn’t worth [expletive] and I’d never play here,” Moffett told the Orlando Sentinel in 2008. Still, he led UCF to its first-ever bowl game (Hawaii Bowl, 2005) and is No. 5 on the all-time UCF list for completions (510), No. 7 in career yards (6,199) and tied for No. 7 in touchdown passes (41).

Moffett now owns a local roofing company and volunteers as a coach at Winter Park High School. “It’s good to see the bigger recruits going to UCF,” he says. “They feel the school is at the point now that they can compete and get national recognition. It feels good to talk to some of the former players with a knowledge that we had something to do with that.”

THE BENEFACTORS

Tony and Sonja Nicholson - Philanthropic Fans

Tony Nicholson has never played a down for UCF. But he’s a big-time game-changer. He was a decent high school player back in Chicago but found success in other endeavors after graduating from Tulane University and moving to Central Florida in 1967. 

A multifaceted entrepreneur and real estate developer who has also produced concerts, invested in Broadway shows and published magazines, Nicholson and his wife, Sonja — who owns Re/Max Park Avenue — have philanthropic hearts that have helped keep UCF ticking all these years. “I’ve lost a lot of friends at Tulane because of it, but in the meantime I’m very happy,” Nicholson says.

In 1996, the Nicholsons pledged $2 million to the university, which named its School of Communication in their honor. They donated a cumulative $2 million for construction of the Nicholson Fieldhouse, the state’s first indoor practice facility for a college football team. 

But they weren’t finished. In 2017, the couple donated another $2 million for upgrades to the fieldhouse and the area surrounding it. Nicholson believes the future for UCF football is bright and is already talking up the need to expand Spectrum Stadium.

“It seems to me that we could add another 19,000 seats and some suites,” he says. “By doing that you can attract a lot more teams and a higher-profile league to get into. But we have to raise the money.”

Any guesses on who’ll be the first to step up?

THE FAMILY

Keith and Kyle Benkel - Father and Son

Keith Benkel and Kyle Benkel are generational bookends. Father and son share the same DNA, of course, which in this case includes blood ties to Winter Park and UCF.

Keith grew up in North Miami Beach and found his way to UCF as a walk-on wide receiver in 1986. Walk-ons do all the dirty work, helping the starters prep for the weekly scrums by playing on the scout team. He didn’t play much, although he traveled with the team between 1987 and 1989 and played on special teams during his last two seasons.

Now national used car director with the Greenway Automotive Group in Orlando, Keith remains a loyal UCF supporter. He also serves on the executive board of the UCF Lettermen’s Club (which was founded by O’Shaughnessy). But ties with the university run deeper than that because of Kyle, 21, a walk-on wide receiver.

Celebrating the success of UCF’s football program are former players, a current player and a booster. They include (left to right): Paul Lounsberry, Keith Benkel, Kyle Benkel, Tony Nicholson and Michael O’Shaughnessy. Kyle Benkel sports an impressive ring (below) that touts UCF’s highly publicized claim to the 2017 college football national championship. Photos by Rafael Tongol

The fact that Kyle was valedictorian at Winter Park High School in 2016, notching a perfect 4.0 GPA, is of little relevance on the football field. It’s a different competition there, where smarts are just part of a package that includes speed and strength. At 5-foot-9 and 184 pounds, Kyle won’t intimidate a lot of cornerbacks. 

“It can be frustrating sometimes with the amount of work you put in, but it’s not always about playing,” says the redshirt junior. “The way I see it, I’m contributing to this team and making a difference. The reward is winning as a team and celebrating with everybody.”

His dad agrees: “Whether you’re a scholarship player or a walk-on, you bring something to the team. If everybody isn’t doing his part, you don’t win. We’re seeing tradition take hold right now. What’s happening today will be the tradition for the next 100 years for UCF football. We didn’t have that before.”

Keith and Kyle are proud to have played roles in establishing that tradition, even if their numbers haven’t been called all that often. After all, contributing can also mean offering encouragement and inspiring others by giving it your all — regardless of where your name appears on the depth chart.

THE TEACHER

Paul Lounsberry - Offensive Line Coach

Paul Lounsberry is a UCF lifer. Please consider that a compliment.

The record shows that Lounsberry coached the offensive line, along with some special-teams work, from 1987 through the spring of 2000. He then coached at Winter Park High School from 2013 until his retirement in 2016. 

But he’s still a presence at both campuses, connecting the dots between the UCF program and Winter Park. In fact, Lounsberry still doesn’t miss a UCF game or a practice. He’s always working the sidelines, offering encouragement, wisdom and perspective to a new generation of players.

He can spread the word about Daunte Culpepper, who was a 10th-grader in Ocala when Lounsberry began recruiting him. He even helped arranged tutoring for the talented youngster to ensure that low grades and SAT scores wouldn’t endanger his eligibility.

He can tell them about other players he recruited and coached, including Mike Gruttadauria, who won a Super Bowl as a starting center with the then-St. Louis Rams.

He can tell them how tough it was to keep the program going back in the days when he and other assistants had to park cars as valets to pay their monthly bills.

Now, he looks around in amazement. After the perfect 2017 campaign, when head coach Scott Frost left for the University of Nebraska, he wondered if the momentum could continue under new head coach Josh Heupel.

“I really think Coach Josh and his staff are outstanding,” Lounsberry says. “They’ve done a marvelous job in a difficult situation. When you take over an undefeated team, there’s only one place to go — and that’s down.”

Yet, Heupel led the Knights to another undefeated regular season and an American Athletic Conference Championship. A horrendous knee injury to starting quarterback McKenzie Milton against the University of South Florida undoubtedly contributed to the Fiesta Bowl loss versus LSU. 

Regardless, Lounsberry believes the team will continue to compete at the highest level. “I think you’re going to see continued success with that staff,” he notes. “The program is in the best shape it’s ever been in right now.”

So many stories to share. Grab a cup of coffee or a beer next time you run into a Winter Parker with ties to UCF football. One of those Winter Parkers just might be Heupel, the head coach, who says, “I’m proud to call Winter Park, Orlando and the Central Florida area home.”

Or it might be Danny White, the UCF athletic director, who adds, “My family and I live here, and we love it. I’m certainly proud that the community of Winter Park is part of Orlando’s Hometown Team.”

Come to think of it, maybe the official municipal slogan should be changed to the City of Culture and Heritage and Football. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?


LOCAL KNIGHTS

Following are the Winter Parkers who have played for the UCF Knights since the program’s inception, including two current players:


After playing football at UCF and three seasons with the USFL, Ed Gantner won fame as Ed “The Bull” Gantner, a professional wrestling heel. Gantner, tormented by personal demons and debilitated by years of steroid use, committed suicide in 1990 and is buried in Winter Park’s Palm Cemetery.

A FINAL RESTING PLACE FOR A GENTLE GIANT

Edward J. Gantner is buried in Winter Park’s Palm Cemetery beneath a headstone that indicates a relatively short life: 1959-1990. Beneath his name and the dates of his birth and death are engraved the words, “The Gentle Giant.”

The “giant” descriptor was certainly accurate — Gantner was 6-foot-4 and, at his peak, tipped the scales at a muscular 300 pounds. But to anyone who encountered him on the football field or in the wrestling ring, the word “gentle” likely didn’t come to mind.

“Big Ed” Gantner, who played high school football at Edgewater, was a defensive tackle and a holy terror for opposing players who lined up against the first UCF squad. 

Although Gantner had been offered a football scholarship at the University of Tennessee, he spent less than a year in Knoxville before becoming homesick. He returned to Orlando and worked as a bartender and a bouncer before hearing that UCF was forming a football team. 

The fledgling Knights needed Gantner and he needed the Knights — a squad made up of other high-school jocks who, for one reason or another, the big schools had ignored or rejected. 

How important was UCF to Gantner? On opposing sides of his headstone are two markers, one of which shows the outline of a football with his jersey number, 75, etched inside its contours. The other marker reads “UCF 79-82,” which in retrospect may have been the best years of his tumultuous life.

After starring at Edgewater and playing three seasons for UCF’s inaugural teams, Gantner, along with teammates Bill Giovanetti and Mike Sommerfield, was signed as a free agent by the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League. 

Gantner was the lone Knight remaining by the end of the first training camp, held at Tampa’s Hillsborough Community College. He then became the first UCF player to turn pro.  

His USFL run would last three seasons, in 1993 with Tampa Bay — coached by Steve Spurrier — and 1984 and 1985 with the Jacksonville Bulls. Joining the Orlando Renegades for 1986 was an option, but rumors persisted that the league might fold before the fall schedule began.

The uncertainty compelled Gantner to call legendary wrestling promoter Eddie Graham and join his Tampa-based Championship Wrestling from Florida organization. He was trained by wrestling icon Hiro Matsuda and assigned to a stable of colorful grapplers “managed” by the villainous Sir Oliver Humperdink. 

Gantner had the size and the athleticism — as well as the outsized personality — needed to succeed as a heel (a bad guy) in the world of pro wrestling. Even 30 years ago, wrestling was understood by most to be scripted — but it was no less physically demanding and dangerous than most contact sports, including football.  

Billed as Ed “The Bull” Gantner, he rose up the ranks to become National Wrestling Alliance Florida Heavyweight Champion in 1987. But anabolic steroids — which he had used since high school — had begun taking a frightful toll on his body and mind.

Gantner’s kidneys shut down and he would eventually need a transplant. His sister Deborah proved to be a match, and the surgery was performed in 1989. The Winter Park/UCF community stepped in to help as well.

Michael O’Shaughnessy, a former teammate, set up a fund to help cover Gantner’s living expenses following the operation. “Ed didn’t want anybody to know how bad his plight was,” O’Shaughnessy says. “He closed himself up. But it became a rallying point for his teammates. I would hope they’d do the same for me.”

Although the kidney transplant was successful, Gantner continued to battle the demons of depression and other mental health issues. He committed suicide by shooting himself on New Year’s Eve, 1990. He was 31 years old.

“Ed Gantner was the best, for sure,” says O’Shaughnessy, when asked which player stood out during UCF’s inaugural season. “When my kids were very little, up until about 7th grade, we’d go to the cemetery every Halloween and my kids would lay on his gravestone. It was all in fun for Big Ed.”

Thanks to Eric Holm, every year more than 20,000 people in need enjoy an over-the-top Thanksgiving meal at the Salvation Army’s downtown Orlando gymnasium.

LIFE'S A BUFFET

Photography by Rafael Tongol

Eric Holm now has just about everything he could want. But he started his career as busboy at a Sonny’s BBQ, and has never forgotten what it’s like to struggle. That’s one reason why he and his wife Diane rank among the region’s most generous givers.

When Eric Holm makes the short commute from his lavish estate overlooking Lake Virginia to his two-story office building on West Morse Boulevard, he drives a Rolls Royce. When he conducts a site visit to a far-flung Golden Corral restaurant, he flies on a private Challenger 350 business jet.

But Holm — who now seemingly has everything — says he’ll never forget what it was like to have nothing. The youngest of five children, Holm and his siblings were raised by a single mother who was a waitress at the original Sonny’s BBQ in Gainesville. 

As a teenager Holm worked alongside his mother, bussing tables, washing dishes and cutting meat. He studied the operation and noticed that owners Sonny and Lucille Tillman both drove new Lincoln Continentals. Recalls Holm: “I thought to myself, ‘Self, you could probably do this.’”

He clung to that belief through tough times. After moving to Fort Myers, the Holm family received the fixings for several Thanksgiving dinners from the Salvation Army. 

“We needed the food,” says Holm, who adds that having holiday meals together offered his family not only nourishment but a heaping helping of hope. Through good times and lean times, he has been paying it forward for the past 26 years.

Each Thanksgiving, a program Holm originated called “Helpings from the Heart” serves hearty turkey dinners to more than 20,000 people at the Salvation Army’s gymnasium on Colonial Drive. More than 1,000 volunteers and an assortment of corporate partners participate.

The Holm residence on Lake Virginia has been the site of numerous galas benefiting charitable organizations. The home is filled with custom details, including an inset near the entryway showing the tree under which Eric and Diane Holm repeated their wedding vows more than 30 years ago when, according to Diane Holm, “we didn’t have two nickels to rub together.”

“No one should ever be hungry on Thanksgiving,” states Holm, with the authority of someone who knows how it feels. “I’m humbled by the opportunity to serve others.”

Holm, who serves on the Salvation Army’s national advisory board, was also humbled in 2014 when he became a recipient of the faith-based service organization’s Evangeline Booth Award. The first Booth Award went to Rev. Billy Graham in 1999. 

That’s good company indeed. But the honor was well deserved, says Ken Chapman, who with his wife Jessie captains the Salvation Army’s Orlando Area Command.

“I believe that early on God planted a seed inside Eric Holm,” adds Chapman, a fourth-generation Salvationist who came to Orlando in 2018 from Jackson, Mississippi. “He has a deep passion for those who are suffering. And he’s a very humble man who never seeks the spotlight.”

Holm, 62, is down-to-earth in a way that self-made millionaires can sometimes appear to be. But with Holm, say those who know him, the regular-guy persona isn’t an act.

“Eric Holm is the epitome of the American dream,” says Atlanta-based Chris Priest, director of communications for the Salvation Army’s Southern Territory. Adds Orlando-based Rick Walsh, a retired Darden Restaurants executive and chairman and CEO of the Knob Hill Companies: “I wish our community had a lot more like him.”

A WORKING-MAN’S PH.D.

For Holm, success is about working hard, giving back and “never forgetting where you come from.” It’s also about being a hands-on owner. Franchising, he says, “is an operator’s opportunity, not an investor’s opportunity.”

Through his various companies, Holm now owns 33 Golden Corral restaurants in Florida and Georgia — he’s the chain’s largest franchisee — as well as four Krispy Kreme stores in Jacksonville and a Fairfield Inn & Suites in Celebration. 

He plans to branch out with Jersey Mike’s, a sub shop franchise, and has developed his own concept, Colt’s Pig Stand (formerly Daytona Pig Stand), a fast-casual barbecue eatery in Daytona Beach. “I’m kind of going back to my roots with that one,” he says.

Last year, Holm’s various enterprises grossed $170 million and employed 3,000 people. “It seems like the harder we work, the luckier we get,” muses Holm, a linebacker-sized man whose slight twang is appropriate for a self-described “country boy who did good.”

Eric and Diane Holm spend quality time with Boo, perhaps the world’s most pampered English bulldog, who has his own room and a custom-created, carousel-style doggie bed.

But Holm is just as likely to talk about his failures as his successes. That’s in part because he believes failure — which, he notes, is inevitable for entrepreneurs — should be embraced as a learning experience. 

“I have a working man’s Ph.D.,” says Holm. “If I bump my head, I try not to bump it in the same place twice. I’ve been broke before and it was no fun. But I’m proof that you can work your way out of it. You have to figure out where you want to go and who you want to be — and then move on.”

Holm enrolled early in the school of hard knocks. He spent three years in the U.S. Army, mostly at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, then worked as a store manager at a McDonald’s and then at a Wendy’s. 

His first foray into franchising — four Dairy Queens in Jacksonville — ended in failure. “I just spent too much money,” recalls Holm, who was then 21. “I needed to get a job.”

In the late 1970s Holm worked for the colorful Asher “Jerry” Sullivan, whose Gainesville-based Skeeter’s restaurant was renowned for its oversized biscuits and two-fisted burgers. (There was a Skeeter’s on Lee Road.) 

Holm later became director of development for Kansas City-based Po‘ Folks — a down-home restaurant chain named for country singer Whisperin’ Bill Anderson’s 1961 chart-topper — which had 160 locations at its peak in 1982. (There was a Po‘ Folks on Semoran Boulevard.)

For several years Holm was an independent restaurateur, operating Legend’s Dining and Dancing in Gainesville and Beachnutt’s Beach Bar and Grill in Gainesville, Ocala and Leesburg. 

“That experience taught me not to fall in love with a business,” recalls Holm, who says he turned down five offers to buy Beachnutt’s only to see the Gainesville location swallowed by a sinkhole. “It turned out to be a total loss.”

Holm sold Legends and the remaining pair of Beachnutt’s and moved to Orlando, where he opened Angel’s Diner and Bakery in 1988. The nostalgia-themed eatery’s first location was on Lee Road.

Eric and Diane Holm met more than 30 years ago. Diane Holm now runs the family business’s charitable and community involvement initiatives.

Within a few years there were seven local Angel’s outlets. Holm started Helpings from the Heart in 1992, feeding people from the parking lots of his retro restaurants. 

The following year he consolidated the effort at his West Colonial Drive location, near the Salvation Army’s gymnasium and administrative offices. “The Salvation Army asked if they could send their guests to us,” says Holm. “That’s how the partnership began.” 

Helpings from the Heart proved Holm to be a compassionate giver. But as a businessperson, he was soon to face major challenges — and seize new opportunities. 

Angel’s — billed as “a bad place for a diet” and renowned for its hefty portions — was a success. So much so that in 1993 Holm sold the rights to develop the concept outside Florida to Denver-based Vicorp Restaurants, a publicly held company that owns the Village Inn and Baker’s Square brands.

But that same year Holm closed the Angel’s location at S.R. 436 and Aloma Avenue when road construction constricted traffic. The landlord sued and won a large judgment, which resulted in Holm filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1994.

One of Holm’s backers was James Maynard, founder of Golden Corral, who suggested that Holm — who at the time also owned Bakely’s Restaurant and Bake Shop on Fairbanks Avenue — take control of four struggling Golden Corral outlets in Orlando. 

He took Maynard’s advice and sold the Angel’s chain in 1997. (Ironically, in 1998 Holm bought eight Atlanta-area Sonny’s BBQ outlets and happened to meet founder Tillman, who referred to him as “somebody who used to work for me.” Holm — who was for a time the largest Sonny’s franchisee — sold the barbecue restaurants in 2006.)

A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY

The Golden Corral turnaround project is when everything really began to click for Holm, who has described aspects of his career as “failing forward.” 

“We followed the manuals and procedures, then the business took off,” Holm says. “Golden Corral has a great system if you follow it.” He even posted his home phone number in the restaurants, asking people to call him with “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Mostly, the calls were good. Golden Corral is a well-loved brand that has grown and prospered while other buffet restaurants have lost their luster. The chain posted 3.7 percent sales growth last year even as its competitors experienced declines, bankruptcies and closures.

In part, that’s because the Raleigh, North Carolina-based parent company has been privately owned since it was founded in 1973 and operates on a “100-year plan” that encourages reinvestment. “We elevate the buffet experience,” says Holm.

Golden Corral certainly offers good food and plenty of it at a family friendly price, with more than 150 items from which to choose. At dinner, it’s all you can eat — comfort food, mostly — for just $13.99 ($15.99 in tourist areas). Brunch is also available.

Calorie-counters are welcome — there are plenty of soups and salads — but it takes a mighty act of will to avoid the desserts. The chocolate tower, for example, is all but irresistible, as are the dozens of varieties of pies, cakes and puddings. 

Diane Holm says she met her future husband at an Altamonte Springs nightspot, where he asked her for a date. “I said OK,” she recalls. And the following Tuesday he sent me lavender roses. He said, ‘You know, you’re going to marry me.’”

And no one — except, perhaps, your physician — will chastise you for returning a second time to the frozen custard machine.

Holm’s personal favorite restaurants — apart from Golden Corral, of course — are Agave Azul, Cocina 214, Chevy’s Fresh-Mex, Christner’s Prime Steak & Lobster, Hillstone, Luma on Park, Luke’s Kitchen and Bar and Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Holm enjoys cooking — short ribs are his specialty — while Diane loves to prepare Italian dishes.

Life is indeed good for the Holmses, who frequently open their 13,000-square-foot home to not-for-profits, such as Camp Boggy Creek, for fundraising events. Diane Holm, vice president of the family business, manages its corporate events and philanthropic activities. 

She recounts meeting her future husband more than 30 years ago at Coconuts, a popular nightspot in Altamonte Springs. 

“I was with some people on my birthday and Eric came up and asked me to dinner,” she says. “I said OK. And the following Tuesday he sent me lavender roses. He said, ‘You know, you’re going to marry me.’”

Diane Holm smiles when she recalls the days “when we didn’t have two nickels to rub together.” Today, in large part because they’ve experienced tough financial times, the couple cherishes the ability to give back. 

Daughters Danielle, Erin and Erica are grown with families of their own. So the Holmses share space with a pampered English bulldog named Boo, who has his own room complete with a doggie shower and a handcrafted carousel in which to sleep. 

Although Holm seems laid back, no one accomplishes what he has accomplished — or overcomes what he has overcome — without being driven to succeed regardless of the circumstances. 

Just ask him about retiring or even slowing down and you’ll find that his competitive fire still burns hotter than the barbecue pit at Sonny’s during the lunch-hour rush.

“Nope,” says Holm, who continues to open new restaurants and investigate new franchise opportunities. “We’re running with our foot on the gas, not on the brake.” 


 

Thanks to Eric Holm, every year more than 20,000 people in need enjoy an over-the-top Thanksgiving meal at the Salvation Army’s downtown Orlando gymnasium.

FAST FACTS

Name: Eric Holm

Age: 62

Title: Owner/Manager

Companies: Metro Corral, Holm Donuts, Holm Hotels, Holm Subs, Colt’s Pig Stand 

Properties: 33 Golden Corrals, four Krispy Kremes, one Marriott Fairfield Inn & Suites. In addition, Holm has recently assumed ownership of Keller Lawn Maintenance.

Family: Wife Diane; daughters Danielle, Erin and Erica; grandsons Kyle, Eric and Walker

Key Accomplishments: Having a successful marriage and raising our daughters.

Best Advice Received: James Maynard, founder of Golden Corral and a business partner of mine when I was an independent restaurant owner, told me I should never run out of cash.

Guilty Pleasure: Riding in my Challenger 350 jet.

Favorite Book: The Bible

Favorite Movie: It’s a Wonderful Life.

Community Activities: Eric Holm is on the board of directors of the Catholic Foundation of Central Florida and the advisory board of the Salvation Army Orlando Area Command. He also serves on the national advisory board of the Salvation Army. Eric and Diane Holm are members of the Winter Park Memorial Hospital (Now AdventHealth Winter Park) Family Board, while the hospital’s NCIU Unit — where their grandson, Eric, was born — is named the “Holm Dreamery” in recognition of their support. The Holmses also are sponsors of the 2019 Wishmaker’s Ball, which benefits the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and the 3rd Annual Heart of Fashion Show, held in conjunction with Nemours Children’s Hospital to benefit Camp Boggy Creek in Lake County. Diane Holm, who chairs the event’s organizing committee, is on the Camp Boggy Creek board of directors. She was recently presented the Catholic Foundation of Central Florida’s Outstanding Philanthropist Award.

Philosophy of Business: “There is no finish line.”

Posted just before Valentine’s Day in 2016, “Disney Love Medley” is not technically a Voctave video. It’s a duet featuring Kirstin Maldonado of the Grammy-winning a cappella group Pentatonix and her then-boyfriend Jeremy Michael Lewis.

UP TO THE HIGHEST HEIGHTS

Jamey Ray has become a rock star in the a capella world through Voctave, a group he formed using primarily singers from Disney World. Voctave’s performances of Ray’s arrangements have become viral sensations on YouTube and other social-media platforms. Photo by Rafael Tongol

It was lucky for Jamey Ray that he brought along a borrowed video camera that fateful spring evening in 2014. He can thank that camera for what happened next. Well, he can thank that camera plus Dumbo, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and a handful of moonlighting Walt Disney World singers.

Ray, an assistant professor of music, theory and technology at Rollins College, assembled the 12-member group to record The Magic of Voices, a CD that would include a flight-themed medley of songs from classic Disney films: “When I See an Elephant Fly,” “You Can Fly” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”

Luckily, Ray remembered the camera and recorded a slightly grainy video of what came to be known as “Disney Fly Medley.” He posted the three-minute, 47-second video on YouTube just to see what would happen — and the rest is a cappella history. 

“That video just went crazy,” says Ray, who couldn’t be seen because he was also the impromptu cinematographer. “Disney Fly Medley” has garnered more than 1.3 million views and counting.

Comments beneath the video provide a clue as to its appeal. Some are from sentimental Disney fans (it made them cry) while others are from harder-to-impress fellow professionals (it also made them cry).

More importantly, reaction to “Disney Fly Medley” encouraged Ray to form Voctave — a family-friendly a capella ensemble unrelated to the theme park but renowned for its soaring arrangements of Disney-related songs as well as pop music, show tunes, holiday favorites and even a goosebump-raising rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Ray, an assistant professor of music, theory and technology at Rollins College, is a demanding taskmaster as an instructor. But his students, who are as likely to call him “Jamey” as “Professor Ray,” seem to want nothing more than to please him. Photo by Rafael Tongol

Across all platforms, Voctave’s videos have been viewed hundreds of millions of times worldwide. In the a capella world — and increasingly beyond it — its members are rock stars. 

You can hear what all the fuss is about for yourself on February 16 and 17 when Voctave will perform both a cappella and — for the first time — with orchestral accompaniment as part of the 84th annual Bach Festival at the college’s Knowles Memorial Chapel. 

On the program will be “Disney Fly Medley,” “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story and “The Impossible Dream” — a certain showstopper — from Man of La Mancha.

The group’s Winter Park appearance comes as Voctave is hotter than ever after the 2016 release of “Disney Love Medley,” which also uses Ray’s arrangements of songs from Disney films: “I See the Light” from Tangled, “You’ll Be in My Heart” from Tarzan and “Go the Distance” from Hercules.

A VIRAL SENSATION

Posted two weeks before Valentine’s Day in 2016, “Disney Love Medley” is not technically a Voctave video. It’s a duet featuring Kirstin Maldonado of the Grammy-winning a cappella group Pentatonix and her then-boyfriend Jeremy Michael Lewis. 

Ray’s newly reconfigured group — which had only recently begun billing itself as Voctave — provides background vocals.

“I reached out to Kirsten and she saw ‘Disney Fly Medley,’” says Ray. “She was anxious to come to Orlando and record with us. ‘Disney Love Medley’ exploded instantly, literally the next day. That’s what really got us noticed.”

Adds music director Tony De Rosa: “We started to think, ‘Well, maybe we’ve really got something here.’” (De Rosa, a veteran performer and producer, also serves as music director for Disney’s Voices of Liberty and its Dapper Dans barbershop quartet.)

Although many viewers likely were drawn to the video because of Maldonado — who has sold more than 6 million albums with Pentatonix — it ended up earning Voctave legions of new fans. “Disney Love Medley” has notched more than 20 million views on YouTube alone.

“Voctave is what makes this recording truly special,” raved WomansDay. “Without using any instruments, the group manages to achieve a sound so impeccable that we have to do a double take to make sure there’s not a drum set or guitar hidden anywhere.”

Today Voctave consists of 11 members: Ray and De Rosa as well as E.J. Cardona, Tiffany Coburn, Ashley Espinoza, J.C. Fullerton, Chrystal Johnson, Kate Lott, Kurt von Schmittou and Sarah Whittemore. All are, or have been, members of Voices of Liberty — which always consists of first-rate performers. (If you’ve ever been to Epcot, you’ve seen some iteration of the Voices of Liberty. Their patriotic repertoire has enthralled visitors to the American Adventure pavilion ever since the internationally themed attraction opened in 1982.)

Although Voctave has recently signed with a prestigious New York-based management company, the group’s members plan to play only select concerts — including February’s Bach Festival in Winter Park. They’ve stepped up their recording schedule, however, and recently released The Corner of Broadway & Main Street.

Voctave recently signed with prestigious Opus 3 Artists, a New York-based management company that also represents, among others, pianist Krystian Zimerman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the legendary Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

But no one is talking about quitting their day jobs, says Ray. “The agency will be great about arranging bookings for us when we’re available,” he adds. “Mostly now we’re doing special events and weekend things. We all have jobs and families. We just view this as a logical next step.”

In addition to select concerts, Voctave is also stepping up its recording activity. In 2017 the group released an album, The Corner of Broadway & Main Street, which features guest artist Sandi Patty on “Beauty and the Beast” as well as “Disney Love Medley” with Maldonado and Lewis.

They also released a Christmas album, Snow, which offers sacred and secular holiday favorites. (The group’s albums are available for download on iTunes and other streaming services.)

The Bach Festival will likely conjure up good memories for Voctave members since their first concert was at Rollins in 2016. Although they were already stars in cyberspace, they hadn’t yet performed together before a live audience. 

“We walked out on stage in complete darkness. We hadn’t said a thing or sung a note. And people began applauding,” says Ray. “We stood there in pitch black for a good minute and a half until finally it stopped. It still blows my mind.”

A VERSATILE VOCALIST

Ray was a student at St. Petersburg’s Northside Christian School when he was recruited to come to Rollins by John V. Sinclair, chair of the college’s department of music. 

He enrolled in 2002, double majoring in music — with a specialization in voice and piano — and computer science. He developed a reputation for being a young man in a hurry. “I just remember every semester getting a call telling me that Jamey had taken too many classes,” says Sinclair.

It wasn’t remarkable that Ray — a tenor and a onetime member of the prestigious Florida Boychoir — would be an excellent singer. But it was remarkable that he would also be an excellent pianist. Because of a birth defect, his left arm ends at the elbow. 

Gloria Cook, who was Ray’s piano professor, remembers the adjustments both had to make. She bought sheet music that been written after World War I specifically for people who had lost a hand or an arm in combat.  

Though Ray was a quick study and remarkably nimble at the keyboard — he can press a single note with the elbow of his left arm — it didn’t take long for Cook to see where his true talent lay. 

“I remember a time when Jamey played his version of ‘Happy Birthday’ for me in eight-part harmony,” she says. “I could see he was becoming a very good arranger. I told him: ‘Your disability has become your ability.’”

Adds Sinclair: “Jamey has an amazing ear. You can hear it reflected in the tight harmonies and the tuning of chords in Voctave, and in how he mixes recordings as a sound engineer.”

After graduating from Rollins, Ray enrolled at New York University to get a master’s degree in music technology. While living in Manhattan and attending school he wound up assisting the late Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line, The Way We Were), who had won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards as well as a Pulitzer Prize.

Posted just before Valentine’s Day in 2016, “Disney Love Medley” is not technically a Voctave video. It’s a duet featuring Kirstin Maldonado of the Grammy-winning a cappella group Pentatonix and her then-boyfriend Jeremy Michael Lewis.

“It was just grunt work,” says Ray, whose job included recording and revising the notes as Hamlisch composed on a piano in his studio. Still, being around someone of Hamlisch’s caliber — and watching his creative process unfold — was a priceless experience.

“[Hamlisch] had an incredible energy,” recalls Ray. “He was someone who, when he walked into a room, was the one everybody looked at. But he was also down-to-earth.”

In 2010, Sinclair brought Ray back to join the faculty. He subsequently developed a reputation among students as a tough but fair taskmaster. 

“He’s brutally honest, a bit sassy at times, but so talented — and he pushes students to excellence,” says vocal major Shanna Murphy. “He’s a great teacher and I love learning all that I’ve learned, and can learn, from him.” 

Ray, 33, enjoys an easy rapport with students in part because he isn’t that far removed from them in age. Even undergraduates tend to call him “Jamey,” not “Professor Ray,” and his exacting critiques are leavened by dry humor.

When he’s teaching theory or directing the Rollins Singers — a vocal jazz ensemble — his pupils seem to want nothing more than to please him. And it doesn’t hurt that Voctave’s success has given him some celebrity panache.

Ray — whose arrangements have been adopted by 30 Rock’s Cheyenne Jackson and American Idol’s Diana DeGarmo and RJ Helton as well as Broadway performers Rachel Potter and Christiane Noll — is still thrilled most when he hears his work performed by the group he assembled.

Because of Voctave, he’s in the enviable position of creating a cappella masterpieces for highly skilled singers whose voices are as familiar to him as the path he takes from his office to his classrooms. 

“That’s the joy of it,” Ray says. “I write for these exact people. I write for that person to sing that note.” 

If underground comics had a Sistine Chapel, Scott Wallace (left) could have done its ceiling.

CIRCULAR LOGIC

 

It was late one summer night in 1973, a few months after graduation, when my friend Scott appeared outside my window wearing a tall beaver-skin top hat. He had just returned from a solo trip to Africa, where he had traded with a villager for the hat, because, he said, it had magic in it. We sat in the moonlight, sharing a bottle of Stolichnaya, as he told me the tale — part Joseph Conrad, part Hunter S. Thompson — of his mad adventures in Kenya.

At Winter Park High School, Scott Wallace was an enigma: tall, ascetic, nearly silent in public, he was the genius kid who spent half the day at FTU because he’d exhausted all the science and math courses WPHS offered; the kid who was reading Dostoyevsky in Russian and working through the Upanishads in the original Sanskrit.

His tenure as student council chaplain abruptly ended when faculty complained that too many quotes from Nietzsche and Wavy Gravy had turned up in the morning announcements.

But to us, his close friends, he was a rebel visionary, the creator of wild and intricate pen-and-ink drawings that covered panel after panel of poster-board and featured fantastical figures engaged in epic struggles for other-worldly survival — a kind of techno-Hieronymus Bosch. 

If underground comics had a Sistine Chapel, Scott could have done its ceiling. We were in awe of his imagination and wondered often where these creatures came from.

An answer, at least part of one, came soon enough. After a year at Purdue, studying engineering, Scott was on his way to Northern California to enter a Buddhist monastery when he suffered a psychotic break and the schizophrenia he had struggled with privately took hold of his life.

If underground comics had a Sistine Chapel, Scott Wallace (right) could have done its ceiling.

For years, he lived in the worlds he had been drawing, worlds that had become the landscapes of Hell. Scott was fortunate in that he was not abandoned. A few friends and family hung in there with him, when he’d let them, most notably his sister Julia and John Sheehan, his high-school Russian teacher who remained his mentor and confidant. 

They kept encouraging Scott to draw again and eventually he did, beginning with mandalas — elaborate mystical designs that he created with a completely free hand, using no compass, tool or straight-edge. 

In a very short time, he was producing quiet masterpieces layered with exquisitely detailed figures working together in perfect harmony and balance. These works transported the viewer into a state of meditative wonder.


I know almost nothing about art, but it seems to me that beyond the feel-good story and my personal interest in seeing a friend’s work recognized, there’s something extraordinary in what Scott has created.

— Tom Nowicki


As Scott’s confidence grew in his work, so did his sense of his place in the world. He showed his mandalas publicly at a Third Thursday exhibit at the Orlando Museum of Art; no other artist had anything remotely like them and for many, their brilliant detail and vivid color made them the hit of the show (although he refused to sell any, being willing only to part with them as gifts).

More recently, Scott has been exploring surrealistic landscapes created in fluorescent paints, building fanciful mountains and trees and animals with thin layers of color. The paintings can appear crude in simple daylight, but when exposed to a black-light source new dimensions open in the work that give it an entirely new meaning and quality. 

Much like the artist himself, the paintings ask that you forget the surface and explore what lives beneath it, which can only be found in a different light, with a different way of seeing.

Wallace’s mandalas are quiet masterpieces layered with exquisitely detailed figures working together in perfect harmony and balance. He primarily uses colored pens and pencils, and more recently has added a variety of textures to his works. The mandalas shown in this story look different when exposed to a black-light source.

Decades later, Scott still struggles with schizophrenia, and now and then he struggles a lot. In 2014, John Sheehan passed away, taking a good part of Scott’s lifeline with him, although he seems to be painting even more now as he has withdrawn further.

 

I know almost nothing about art, but it seems to me that beyond the feel-good story and my personal interest in seeing a friend’s work recognized, there’s something extraordinary in what Scott has created. 

Like William Blake and Vincent van Gogh, Scott does not distort the world to create meaning; rather he creates meaning by depicting the world more or less as he sees it. And for all of us, there is real value in taking the time to see the world that way — through the talents of a brilliant and different mind. 


Tom Nowicki is a Winter Park-based actor who has appeared in numerous stage productions, television programs and theatrical films. His most recent project is Lodge 49, a series that airs on AMC.

Cross at the Creek

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings on her front porch. Photo Courtesy of George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida

No one who reads Cross Creek can doubt that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings had genuine affection for the quirky Crackers who inhabited the all-but-untamed north Florida outpost where she owned a ramshackle farmhouse and a 72-acre citrus grove. 

But when a crotchety resident of Island Grove — a tiny hamlet near Cross Creek — sued Rawlings for $100,000 over what she correctly believed to be an unflattering depiction in the 1942 bestseller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s Rollins College admirers mobilized in her defense.

Rawlings had many connections with the Winter Park liberal arts institution, not the least of which was a friendship with legendary President Hamilton Holt and venerable Professor of History Alfred J. Hanna, who participated in the infamous lawsuit as a witness for Rawlings.

In yet another unlikely local connection, prominent Winter Park attorney Ralph V. “Terry” Hadley III was born in Island Grove and is the great-nephew of the colorful complainant — a feisty social worker named Zelma Cason.

As a child and a young man, Hadley — now a shareholder in Swann Hadley Stump Dietrich & Spears — enjoyed summer visits to his Aunt Zelma’s tin-roofed home. She took him hunting and fishing and let him tag along to her office at the Gainesville branch of the State Welfare Board. “Aunt Zelma was just fun to be around,” he recalls, adding that she “was a tough old bird who could cuss the bark off a tree.”

Rawlings had important connections at Rollins, including President Hamilton Holt (above left) and Professor of History Alfred J. Hanna (above right), who befriended the bestselling author during her visits to campus. Hanna testified for Rawlings — unhelpfully, as it turned out — in the invasion of privacy lawsuit brought against her. Photos courtesy of the Rollins College Department of Archives and Special Collections

Hadley also met Rawlings — whom he knew as “Marge” — and describes her as a warm, down-to-earth woman who, despite her fame, was entirely unpretentious.

Cason and Rawlings had been close, until the publication of Cross Creek soured the friendship and led to a colorful courtroom donnybrook that ultimately established an important precedent: that privacy was a right in the State of Florida.

Hadley’s first encounter with Rawlings was in 1946, when he was 4 years old. The much-publicized trial had concluded but the appellate process was underway when Hadley’s mother (and Zelma’s niece), Clare, engineered a potentially fraught meeting between the warring parties. 

It happened in Crescent Beach, where the Hadley family was vacationing. Rawlings owned a cottage nearby, and Cason rented modest quarters within walking distance. But neither knew that the other had been invited by Clare to drop by.

“My mother was a peacekeeper,” says Hadley. “Everybody hated to see Marge and Aunt Zelma fighting. She was trying to be a bridge over troubled water.”

The ploy didn’t work — at least, not then.

According to Elizabeth Silverthorne, author of 1988’s Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: Sojourner at Cross Creek, Rawlings arrived with her husband, Norton Baskin, and was surprised to find Cason and her young great-nephew already there. 

Although no spontaneous fence-mending occurred and the appeal continued, everyone appears to have made the best of what was surely a tense situation. 

Writes Silverthorne: “Marjorie apologized for her housecoat and Zelma apologized for her bare feet. Then they had a drink together and Zelma and Norton joined forces to tease Clare’s little Terry into eating his supper. They discussed Cason family matters, and at one point Zelma said, ‘Marge, you’d be just crazy about Terry if you knew him.’”

Later, according to Silverthorne, Rawlings described the episode to her attorney as “utterly weird.” Oblivious to the drama unfolding around him, “little Terry” finished his supper as the adults chatted politely despite bitter ongoing litigation.

Cason and Rawlings had dug in as a matter of principle. Neither was willing to back down. “Marge and Aunt Zelma were just great characters,” recalls Hadley. “That’s why when they fought, it was knock-down, drag-out.”

The courtroom clash between Rawlings — a beloved national figure — and the aggrieved but abrasive Cason was intensely personal. But it was also as entertaining a spectacle as any that ever unfolded in the sweltering Alachua County Courthouse.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ books are iconic, particularly for Floridians. But an unflattering description of Island Grove resident Zelma Cason in Cross Creek sparked a lawsuit and caused lingering bitterness between the two old friends. Winter Park attorney Terry Hadley, Cason’s great-nephew, has correspondence indicating that the two eventually reconciled.

And it was important. The outcome, settled only after a precedent-setting ruling by the Florida Supreme Court, has implications for writers regarding the legal pitfalls of using real people — specifically those who aren’t public figures — as characters. 

More broadly, the case speaks to ethical issues around cultural appropriation. The concept was introduced in academia as a scholarly critique of colonialism. But in recent years, anti-appropriation rhetoric has been used to bludgeon everything from art to literature to clothing. 

Often, such criticisms go too far. Still, it could be argued that Cross Creek is the very definition of cultural appropriation, at least as the term is understood today. Rawlings, though, would surely deny any intent to exploit — and would insist that Cracker culture was her culture, too.

Which, of course, it was — but by adoption and with plenty of built-in escape mechanisms. The author, who portrayed herself as a workaday Cross Creek denizen not unlike her backwoods neighbors, was never truly one of the people about whom she wrote so vividly.

 A literary celebrity and a sophisticated, college-educated Yankee — her distaste for that descriptor, and all it implied, notwithstanding — Rawlings had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for her novel The Yearling.  

She could abandon hardscrabble Cross Creek any time for a posh apartment at the Castle Warden Hotel in St. Augustine, managed by her husband, or for her cozy Crescent Beach cottage.

Her neighbors were her house servants, her grove workers, her charitable beneficiaries and her hunting and fishing companions. To the extent that class and race permitted, she considered many of them to be her friends — but on an essentially transactional level.  

When she entertained, her gourmet meals were savored not by the impoverished rustics who provided fodder for her lively stories but by renowned authors, erudite professors and the occasional movie star.

Although she worked her land as though her very survival was at stake and eagerly immersed herself in Creek camaraderie and contention, she remained “a kind of reportorial visitor from another planet,” contends Samuel I. Bellman in 1974’s Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a biography that was part of a series spotlighting notable American authors. 

“For all its pastoral quality, Cross Creek reflects a wider range of experience than the bucolic, or even the bucolic seen through urban eyes; there is the dimension of privilege that gives the book its particular character,” Bellman writes.

Privilege may explain why Rawlings so badly misjudged the prideful Cason.

At issue was “The Census,” a chapter in Cross Creek that recounts an eventful horseback census-taking excursion upon which Rawlings accompanies Cason. They visit ramshackle homes deep in the swamps while Cason offers colorful commentary.

In “The Census,” Rawlings bluntly characterizes Cason, who would have been about 40 at the time, as “an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary … I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother.”

It only gets worse: “She combines the more violent characteristics of [a man and a mother] and those who ask for or accept her manifold ministrations think nothing of being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed or guided through their troubles.”

Although in her later testimony Rawlings would artfully, if dubiously, explain that the incendiary comments were meant to be compliments, she must surely have known that no woman in that place and time — and, indeed, few now — would consider spinster to be a term of affection, nor would they wish to be described as masculine or profane.

Ironically, either adjective could just as easily be applied to the bawdy, hard-drinking Rawlings, in whom such qualities were generally thought to be charming and eccentric.

Rawlings, it seems, had been seduced by her own celebrity, believing that a cleverly crafted insult from an author of her stature would be deemed flattering, not hurtful.

Tragically, considering the consequences, she could easily have diffused the situation, avoiding five years of needless expense and emotional exhaustion that resulted in reduced output and, arguably, early death.

Rawlings’ ramshackle home in Cross Creek looks essentially the same today as it did in the 1930s. Authors, academics and even movie stars — including Gregory Peck, who starred in The Yearling — visited and enjoyed the writer’s renowned Cracker-themed feasts.

Cason’s precise motives for filing the suit — apart from embarrassment — have remained a subject of speculation. Could it have been money? Rawlings earned significant income from Cross Creek, at least in part by making a laughingstock of the officious Cason, a fact that likely accentuated her erstwhile friend’s outrage.

But Cason doesn’t appear to have cared much for money. Hadley, her great-nephew, believes that Rawlings had simply “hurt Aunt Zelma’s feelings.”

Cason, he recalls, “was a very caring person, but didn’t have much tolerance for people who engaged in a lot of baloney. That’s not the term she would have used. She was very salty of tongue.”

Hadley says Rawlings was likely shocked that Cason filed suit “because she knew Aunt Zelma was a tough old bird, and figured it would just roll right off her back. But Aunt Zelma felt that this was a betrayal, and it just got to her.”

In any case, Cason’s 11-page, four-count declaration, which included a claim of libel, was filed on January 8, 1943, in the Alachua County Circuit Court. It named Rawlings and Baskin as co-defendants, since husbands were then jointly liable for the torts of their wives.  

Cason was represented by Kate Walton, one of the first five women to be admitted to the Florida Bar, and her father, J.V. Walton, in whose Palatka practice she worked.

The lawsuit, for which Cason sought $100,000 in damages, was at first dismissed by Judge John A.H. Murphree, and then appealed to the Florida Supreme Court with an emphasis on the invasion of privacy claim. 

In the appeal, Kate Walton argued that every citizen, apart from public figures, has a reasonable expectation of privacy and “the positive right to be left alone.” 

The court agreed with Murphree’s dismissal of three counts, but ruled that Cason was entitled to be heard on her invasion of privacy claim. For the first time in Florida history, the court had recognized invasion of privacy as a redressable civil wrong.

A petition for a rehearing made by Rawlings’ tenacious lawyer, Philip May of Jacksonville, was denied, and Rawlings adamantly rejected May’s suggestion that she offer Cason a settlement.

Her reasons “were both personal and professional, closely tied to the emotions generated by the suit and Marjorie’s sense of duty as a writer,” according to Patricia Acton, who wrote 1988’s Invasion of Privacy: The Cross Creek Trial of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

May and Rawlings, preparing for an epic battle with “my friend Zelma,” then hired larger-than-life Gainesville lawyer Sigsbee Scruggs to assist the defense in Murphree’s typically quiet Gainesville courtroom.  

No one could have predicted that a final resolution would take more than five years to achieve — and that the ultimate outcome would leave everyone dissatisfied.

Rawlings did most of her writing on the front porch of her home, a pack of Lucky Strikes at the ready. Although Rawlings considered herself racially enlightened, she famously asked visiting folklorist Zora Neal Hurston (right) to spend the night in the tenant house.

Although the Florida Supreme Court had recognized that invasion of privacy was actionable, it had not yet ruled on a case that established a right to privacy for everyday people outside the limelight. 

May and Scruggs sensed that the court, if given an opportunity, was predisposed to issue just such a ruling. Consequently, they sought to position Cason as a public figure whose activities were “of legitimate public interest.” If that were true, then any right to privacy, even if it existed, would not be applicable in her case.

In addition, they made the rather outrageous contention Cross Creek was so important — so universally praised — that it should be exempt from such nonsense as invasion of privacy claims. 

Scribner’s, Cross Creek’s publisher, was ostensibly supportive, but didn’t offer to defray Rawlings’ legal fees — a fact that was disappointing to Rawlings, since editor Maxwell Perkins had specifically suggested that she elaborate on her relatively tame description of Cason.

Prior to the publication of Cross Creek, the author had written to Perkins regarding the possibility of just such a predicament: “These people are my friends and neighbors, and I would not be unkind for anything, and though they are simple folk, there is the possible libel danger to think of. What do you think of this aspect of the material?”

Perkins had replied that he saw little reason for concern “because of the character of the people … but you are the one who must be the judge.” 

Rawlings, to make certain, had sought assurances from two people about whom she had written: Tom Glisson and “Mr. Martin,” the man with whom she had feuded after shooting and feasting upon his errant pig.  

Neither man — even Mr. Martin, the only person whose acquiescence Rawlings had feared was uncertain — had objected to their stories and descriptions being published in Cross Creek. 

Of course, Glisson and Mr. Martin couldn’t speak for the entire community — although Rawlings seemed to assume that their approval was tantamount to universal consent.  

Less surprisingly, there was never any concern expressed by either Rawlings or Perkins that the African-Americans depicted in Cross Creek might object to having their stories shared and to being described in derogatory terms. 

Henry, Adrenna and Geechee — human beings whom Rawlings knew, not fictional characters whom she invented — are described using racially charged language that’s shocking to a modern reader.

Terry Hadley and his wife, Carol, continue the Hadley family connection to Cross Creek through their ownership of Aunt Zelma’s Blueberries, a pick-it-yourself blueberry farm named for Terry Hadley’s great-aunt — a woman he describes as “fun to be around” and “salty of tongue.”

Rawlings, in her telling, treats blacks with kindness and charity. But a paternal brand of racism imbues even her ethereal descriptions of Martha, the “dusky fate, spinning away at the threads of our Creek existence.” 

Although Rawlings had developed a friendship with African-American folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, her racial attitudes remain troubling even to scholars who contend that her views evolved — or at least were progressive for the time. 

In her 1993 memoir, Idella: Marjorie Rawlings’ “Perfect Maid,” Idella Parker recalls that when Hurston visited Rawlings at Cross Creek she was asked to spend the night in the tenant house — despite having spent the day drinking and laughing with her host. 

Perhaps, then, any number of African-Americans who lived in Cross Creek might have wished to take legal action against the famous white woman who had ridiculed and demeaned them in her widely read work. 

Because of pervasive racism, however, no black person was likely to be taken seriously in an invasion of privacy claim. As a white woman, Cason could at least get a hearing.

Cason v. Baskin, which got underway on May 20, 1946, was every bit the circus one might expect. 

The Miami Herald, in a preview, announced that “Cross Creek, with its original real-life cast — definitely not a motion picture — moves into [Gainesville] Monday for an indefinite run in the circuit court room here … Just about every other figure in the book except Dora, the Jersey cow, has been called as a witness.” 

Following jury selection — none of the prospective jurors, to Rawlings’ amusement, had read Cross Creek, although it had already been a Book-of-the-Month Club selection — J.V. Walton delivered an opening argument for the plaintiff.

“Miss Zelma Cason is an ordinary citizen of Island Grove,” he said, “and went about the ordinary affairs of life and her pleasures and business, avoiding that which would point her out as above or apart from persons of her community.”

But that was before the notoriety of Cross Creek, in which “things that have been written about Miss Cason … are so intimate and of such a nature that as a matter of law it violates her right of privacy and entitles her to an affirmative verdict for nominal damages.”

He added that substantial damages should be awarded if it could be proven that Cason’s physical and mental health had been impacted by the ordeal. Even if Rawlings’ description of Cason was entirely true, he reminded jurors, it was not a defense against invasion of privacy.

Scruggs followed, insisting that Rawlings could not have felt malice toward a woman whom she considered to be a friend, and that Cason “knew, or should have known, that she would become a character, herself, in a book pertaining to the people of that community; the plaintiff, herself, being one of the outstanding parties in that community.”

Further, Scruggs insisted, “no sensible, or normal, or reasonable person could possibly have been offended by what was written about her in the book.” Cason, he concluded, had suffered no damages and was entitled to no compensation — nominal or substantial.

While Scruggs’ argument that Rawlings held no malice toward Cason seems plausible, considering their long but sometimes volatile friendship, it otherwise strains credulity.  

How could Cason have “known, or should have known” that she would appear as a character in one of Rawlings’ books?  What reasonable person would not have been offended at the description Rawlings offered?

In 2008, the U.S. Postal Service honored Rawlings by placing her image on a postage stamp as part of its Literary Arts series. The rows of spots on the fawn are consistent with descriptions in The Yearling. Although she’ll be forever associated with Florida, Rawlings never again wrote about the state following the ordeal of the Cason lawsuit.

Relevant or not, the truth of the description — and the contrast on the witness stand between the peevish Cason and the eloquent Rawlings —carried the day, albeit temporarily, for Rawlings.  

Cason offered curt responses, indicating that she had been ridiculed both in public and at her job with the State Welfare Board.  As a result, she claimed, she suffered from “an ulcerated stomach” that required a strict diet.

But upon cross-examination, Cason was evasive about her use of profanity, and several prosecution witnesses tried unconvincingly to portray her as meek and unobtrusive, eliciting chuckles from spectators who knew better.

 The defense countered with witnesses who described Cason as officious, foul-mouthed and embroiled in local politics, buttressing the contention that she could be considered a public figure.

Shifting focus from Cason to Rawlings, the defense called Hanna, the Rollins history professor, who testified that Cross Creek was “of tremendous importance, in view of its honest and its true and its comprehensive description of an important section of Florida; it’s an accurate delineation of characters, a sympathetic and truthful description in every way; one of compelling importance.”

Hanna was undoubtedly sincere — but he was also returning a favor. Rawlings, at the time of the trial, was publicly praising the professor’s new book, A Prince in Their Midst, which documented the adventures of Achille Murat, the nephew of Napoleon I, who had sought his fortune in Florida after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. 

Reviewing A Prince in Their Midst for the New York Herald Tribune, Rawlings had called it “a fascinating book that should appeal to readers who might be intrigued by a factual story of a European prince pioneering in America, claiming milk and whiskey as cure-alls … traveling through the Florida jungle with slaves, cattle and a pet owl, weighing royalty against the American idea.”

Given their mutual interest in over-the-top Florida characters, it’s easy to see why Rawlings and Hanna had become such fast friends. Certainly, Hanna did his best to position Rawlings as an iconic, unassailable figure who enjoyed “an international reputation as an interpreter of life.”

Hanna’s scholarly if hyperbolic testimony — and that of Dr. Clifford P. Lyons, a professor of English literature at the University of Florida —tried to advance the dubious notion that Cross Creek’s literary value immunized it from litigation.

The Waltons, though, weren’t even conceding that Cross Creek was a good book. During cross-examination and through the testimony of several easily offended witnesses, they attempted to discredit it as vulgar due to its descriptions of animal mating and dog excrement.  

Cason fumed as Dessie Smith and Tom Glisson testified that they were pleased with their portrayals in Cross Creek, and that the description of Cason was, in their view, accurate. Said Glisson: “I figured it was a pretty good description of her, maybe with a lot of truth, the same as what she wrote about me.” 

Five other witnesses — three of whom had been depicted in the book and two of whom had heard Cason use profanity — were prepared to testify for the defense, but weren’t called. Their testimony, it was ruled, would have been superfluous.

May then called his star witness, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, to the stand. “[Rawlings] was more than just a local celebrity to those awaiting her trial testimony,” writes Acton. “She was, they knew, a world-famous author and a colleague of the literary greats. She was also an earthy, friendly and funny woman. It was obvious that Zelma was swimming against a sympathetic current running strongly in favor of her opponent.” 

Under May’s questioning, Rawlings kept a straight face while deconstructing the offending description of Cason phrase by phrase, insisting that it was meant only as a tribute to a caring and competent woman for whom she had nothing but admiration.

Rawlings said she became a writer “because it is in my blood and bones to write, you might say. I have done it so long. It is the thing I do, that’s all; just as another man wants to be a carpenter, or something of the sort.”

J.V. Walton’s cross-examination couldn’t trip Rawlings up, although he managed to elicit the fact that her net worth had swelled to $124,000 — the equivalent of approximately $1.5 million in 2018.

May, sensing an opportunity, lobbed Rawlings a softball question. Did she write for money? 

Her reply: “No. [I write] because it is in my blood and bones to write, you might say. I have done it so long. It is the thing I do, that’s all; just as another man wants to be a carpenter, or something of the sort; and to interpret the Florida country that I love so, and the Florida people, to the best of my ability; and if it is received well and if it sells … it is simply good fortune.” 

Good fortune indeed. The prickly Cason never had a chance against the beloved author and local luminary. On May 28, 1946, after two hours of closing arguments and a 15-page charge to the jury, a ruling in favor of Rawlings was reached. The jury had deliberated just 28 minutes.

Wrote Hanna to Rawlings: “To refer to [the lawsuit] as a damn shame is to make a statement of supreme under emphasis. You will realize then, how elated we were over the outcome. I was, of course, more than glad to testify; I only wish I could have thought of the many things to inject into the testimony that occurred to me, too late.”

As it turned out, however, Hanna had already said far too much. 

On September 14, the Waltons filed a second appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. The case was argued by May, representing Rawlings, and Kate Walton, representing Cason.

On May 23, 1947, almost a year following the Gainesville verdict, the court ruled that Cason had, in fact, proved her invasion of privacy claim, and was not a public figure whose privacy rights had been relinquished. 

Furthermore, the court ruled, Murphree had confused the jury by allowing evidence of Rawlings’ eminence, which was irrelevant to Cason’s claim. Hanna’s fawning testimony — and that of others who had lauded Cross Creek as a masterpiece and its author as an international literary icon — was specifically cited as being prejudicial.

However, the court found that Cason had failed to prove harm from the notoriety or that Rawlings had acted with malice. The judgment for Rawlings was reversed, and a new trial ordered with the stipulation that Cason could recover only nominal damages if she won.

Kate Walton — who had sought a rehearing, which was denied — proposed to May that both parties stipulate to damages of $1 plus court costs and end the matter. 

May encouraged Rawlings to declare a moral victory and move on. Rawlings, still seething, mulled an appeal to the United States Supreme Court as a matter of principle and on behalf of all writers.

Ultimately, however, both lawyers appeared before Murphree and mercifully concluded Cason v. Baskin. It was August 9, 1948 — more than five years after the case was first introduced.

Cross Creek would be Rawlings’ last book about Florida. Exhausted by the trial and beset by health problems, she would die on December 14, 1953, at age 57. Cason died on May 20, 1963, at age 73. 

Both are buried in the Antioch Cemetery near Island Grove, within a few feet of one another.

Five years of expense and exacerbation could almost certainly have been avoided had Rawlings toned down the harsh description of Cason or had she created an equally memorable composite character, altering a few recognizable details and changing the character’s name.  

No sacred literary principle would have been violated by taking these pragmatic pre-emptive steps. Cross Creek, after all, wasn’t reportage; it was described by Rawlings herself as “a limited, selective autobiography” that was based on fact but wasn’t always strictly factual. 

Despite the right to privacy, it’s unusual for a writer to lose an invasion of privacy case when malice isn’t proven. Revelatory memoirs, for example, would be impossible to write if such suits were easily winnable. 

Still, Cason v. Baskin still gives writers reason to pause before they unleash literary vendettas against obscure antagonists or characterize real people in works that aren’t meant to be definitive or reportorial. 

Amy Cook, an attorney who blogs for Writer’s Digest, says: “Writers don’t get sued very often — and thanks to the First Amendment, even when they do, they usually prevail. But you don’t want to put yourself into a position to endure any sort of lawsuit, even if the odds are you’d end up victorious.” 

Kiri Blakeley, a contributor to Forbes magazine, advises writers who are depicting real people to tell their subjects in advance and perhaps allow them to read the copy prior to publication, as Rawlings did in at least two instances: “If you take out the ‘gotcha!’ factor when you write about them, you usually diffuse their ire.”  

Critic David L. Ulin asks a question that Rawlings would have done well to consider: “What do we owe our subjects? Do we have the right to tell their stories at all? Such complications become more vivid when we consider them through the lens of privilege: the privilege of the storyteller to control or shape the narrative.”

In writing Cross Creek, Rawlings had fundamentally altered her relationship with “the simple people” surrounding her. 

Now they realized that they weren’t merely friends and neighbors, but potential literary characters. Their private lives were open to exploitation — a word not used lightly — by a noted author for private gain.

In the wake of the trial, some may have become more guarded and less authentic in Rawlings’ presence. Others, hoping to earn a measure of fame, may have behaved in a more outlandish manner than usual in a bid to catch her attention.

Marion Winik, who has written six memoirs, notes: “The act of writing about another person occurs not just in the world of literature but in real life. It cannot help but change your relationship, and this should be the first thing you think about.”

The purity of Cross Creek could never be recaptured, and Rawlings had only herself — and her cavalier attitude regarding the feelings of her once-guileless subjects — to blame.

The relationship between Rawlings and Cason in the aftermath of the legal battle was for years the subject of speculation among Rawlings scholars.

But Hadley, who today owns a 72-acre blueberry farm in Cross Creek dubbed “Aunt Zelma’s,” says the pair reconciled — and he can prove it. In 2009, he discovered two previously unknown letters from Rawlings to Cason confirming that the strong-willed women had renewed their bond.

“They made amends,” Hadley says. “Of course, it was never the same as before.” One of the conciliatory letters had been stashed in a strongbox at Cason’s Island Grove home, which Hadley eventually inherited. The other was among the personal papers of Hadley’s father, insurance executive Ralph “Bump” Hadley, who died in 2004.

The letters “demonstrate an intimacy and a shared history between the two,” says Leslie Kemp Poole, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Rollins and executive director of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society. The tone is chatty, funny, newsy, gossipy and at times poignant — as letters between longtime friends generally are.

Poole and Carol Courtney Hadley, wife of Terry Hadley, published the correspondence as part of a 2012 article for the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Journal of Florida Literature. Its unambiguous title: “Marjorie and Zelma: Friendship Restored.”

In the first letter, written from Cross Creek, Rawlings alludes to visiting Cason when seeking comfort regarding the terminal illness of her beloved former brother-in-law, Jim Rawlings. 

In the second letter, written from her home in New York, Rawlings describes a dream in which she was ill and “[you] came to me with flowers, and you drove away such strange enemies … I felt you must be thinking about me, too.”

It was a sweet, hopeful sentiment — and one that was undoubtedly true. 


PRESERVING CRACKER CULTURE

The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society celebrates and promotes the life and works of this Pulitzer Prize-winning author who opened the eyes of Americans to the beauty of rural Florida and the hardscrabble lives of the people who lived there.

Leslie Kemp Poole, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Rollins College, is the executive director of the organization — continuing the college’s historic ties with the author of Cross Creek and The Yearling.

Rawlings and her husband, Charles, both journalists, moved to a ramshackle wooden farmhouse in the north Florida hamlet of Cross Creek in 1928. They hoped to dedicate their lives to writing with an income supplemented by fruit from their 72-acre orange grove.

Rawlings felt an immediate spiritual connection: “When I came to the Creek, and knew the old grove and farmhouse at once as home, there was some terror such as one feels in the first recognition of a human love, for the joining of person to places, as of person to person, is a commitment to shared sorrow, even as to shared joy.”

That feeling was not shared by Charles, who left the area after a few years. The marriage ended in divorce.

Rawlings, however, had found her calling in the natural and human community, located on the edge of what was then called the Big Scrub — now the Ocala National Forest.

“We at the Creek need and have found only very simple things,” she later wrote in Cross Creek. “We need above all, I think, a certain remoteness from urban confusion, and while this can be found in other places, Cross Creek offers it with such beauty and grace that once entangled with it, no other place seems possible to us, just as when truly in love none other offers the comfort of the beloved.”

Spending time with local residents while listening and recording their tales inspired Rawlings’ work, which was soon being published in magazines and books.

Her tale of a young boy and his pet fawn, The Yearling, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, and many of her books set in the area received critical and public acclaim. Her home is now a historic state park and has been designated a national landmark.

For many, Rawlings’ works evoke a Florida and a way of life that is rapidly disappearing.

Leslie K. Poole

“She reminds us of what Florida once was and how the land shaped the people who fought to make a living in the early twentieth century,” says Poole. “Her books are in many ways timeless. I’ve read them at different stages of my life, and they always speak to me about the human spirit and the immense beauty of our state.”

Philip S. May Jr., whose father served as Rawlings’ attorney, founded the society to honor, preserve and encourage an ongoing interest in the author’s works.

The first official meeting of the group was in 1987, followed the next year with the organization’s first annual meeting. This year, the 160-member group met in Mount Dora for a two-day conference that featured an array of academic speakers as well as writers — professionals and students — who have been inspired by Rawlings’ work.

Next March, the group will meet in Tarpon Springs. The public is welcome to attend. Visit rawlingssociety.org for more information about the Marjorie Rawlings Society and its activities.


RAWLINGS AT ROLLINS

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was a frequent visitor to Winter Park — a town about as unlike Cross Creek as any imaginable — and Rollins College.

She enjoyed friendships with President Hamilton Holt — with whom she frequently corresponded — and Professor of History Alfred J. Hanna, who testified on her behalf during the infamous Cross Creek invasion of privacy suit by Zelma Cason. 

Rawlings had received an honorary doctor of literature degree from the college in 1939, and had spoken at its whimsically named Animated Magazine in 1934, 1937, 1938, 1941 and 1945.

Rawlings and Holt corresponded over a 16-year span that ended only during Holt’s final illness. 

“You are a very remarkable woman; I wish to know better what goes on in your head,” Holt wrote Rawlings in 1938. Rawlings, referencing her books, replied: “Why, bless us, South Moon Under and Golden Apples and The Yearling are inside my head!”

John “Jack” Rich, a Rollins student who later became the college’s dean of admissions, served as an escort for Rawlings during her 1938 campus visit. 

In a 2005 oral history interview conducted by Wenxian Zhang, head of archives and special collections at the Olin Library, Rich recalled Rawlings as “a delightful woman, and so interesting,” 

He also remembered the delight Rawlings took in using bawdy language. “If she had as many as two cocktails, she started to swear like a trooper,” Rich said. “Just for the fun of it! ‘You bastard, you! So nice to see you!’ Something like that. Of course, the students loved her.”

Image Courtesy of the Rollins College Department of Archives and Special Collections

Fun and Folkie

Gamble Rogers, a local boy made good, was a big draw at Winter Park’s Carrera Room, which was the epicenter of Central Florida’s folk music scene in the ’60s. Rogers’ performances combined singing, picking and storytelling. Photo by Robert S. Blount, Courtesy of the State Library and Archives of Florida; Colorization by Chip Weston

Pete and Barbara Hodgin came up with an idea to draw nighttime crowds to their eatery at 534 South Park Avenue. The cool kids were listening to folk music in the early ’60s. Hippies hadn’t yet supplanted beatniks and the British Invasion was yet to come.

So, on Fridays and Saturdays from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., Hodgin’s Restaurant — which served breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week — morphed into the Carrera Room, a coffeehouse for young folkies.

“There was a hard-core folk scene here in those days,” says Chip Weston, a Winter Park artist and entrepreneur who was a student at Rollins College from 1966 through 1970 and played guitar with a band called the Drambouies. “Around purists, you didn’t dare play anything other than folk music.”

The Carrera Room was a walkable distance from Gamble and Maggie Rogers’ home on Knowles Avenue. The scene naturally attracted Rogers, who had run his own short-lived coffeehouse, the Baffled Knight, in Tallahassee. 

His partner in that venture was Paul Champion, an Earl Scruggs protégé who would go on to become a bluegrass legend in his own right.

“We just wanted to see Gamble because he was such a good picker and singer,” recalls Gainesville-based musician Alan Stowell, who has toured with such stars as Don McLean and Maria Muldaur, often playing fiddle as well as guitar. 

Stowell credits Rogers with igniting his passion for the guitar starting at the Carrera Room. But the music didn’t necessarily end at 1 a.m.

“We’d go to Gamble’s house and have sessions,” adds Stowell. “It was great.” In those days Stowell and his jug band would rehearse in Central Park, just blocks away from the Carrera Room. In time, Rogers would find his way over to see what they were doing. “Off stage he was very generous,” Stowell said. “Gamble was very supportive of other musicians.”

In a 1967 interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Barbara Hodgin called the young people who patronized the Carrera Room “the best bunch of kids in the area.”

Indeed, Rogers found plenty to support in his hometown: “There’s more good guitar players in Winter Park than any place I’ve ever been,” he once stated after having achieved a measure of national fame. 

When Park Avenue rent got too high, the Hodgins moved their operation to 643 North Orange Avenue, just west of Rollins College. That’s where the new and expanded Carrera Room was born. 

In a 1967 interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Barbara Hodgin called the young people who gathered to listen to local and touring folk singers “the best bunch of kids in the area.”

One of the locals was Jeanie Fitchen. She was just 14 when Barbara Hodgin gave her a chance to perform — and to get paid for it. 

“Barbara often hired me at $8 a night to host open-mic night,” recalls Fitchen, who today lives in Cocoa and continues to perform at folk festivals. “Little did she know I would have gladly paid her to let me sing on that tiny stage.”

On those music-filled Fridays and Saturdays, the Carrera Room offered a wide variety of coffee, tea and frappes costing from 40 to 65 cents. Gracing the menu were drawings of important and controversial folk artists of the day: Joan Baez, Charles White and Pete Seeger.

In time, the Carrera Room became known as a place to see important national acts passing through town such as Fred Neil, a mainstay of the Greenwich Village folk scene and writer of such hits as “Candy Man” for Roy Orbison.

When Lakeland guitarist Rick Norcross decided to open his own coffeehouse near the campus of Florida Southern College, where he was a student, he called it the “Other Room.” 

“I named it as an alternative local version of — and in honor of — the Carrera Room in Winter Park,” says Norcross, who now tours New England with a popular Western swing band, Rick & the Ramblers. 

“Certainly, it was tongue in cheek,” he adds. “But it was also named out of respect for the position that the Carrera Room held in the hearts of aspiring folk singers in the early 1960s.” 

“There’s more good guitar players in Winter Park than any place I’ve ever been,” Rogers once said of his hometown. But not many were better than Rogers, who mastered Merle Travis-style fingerpicking.

One of those aspiring folk singers would go on to become the godfather of country rock. His name was Gram Parsons, a Winter Haven native who performed at the Carrera Room with his folk quartet, the Shilos. 

And there were others. Bernie Leadon, then just age 17, impressed Carrera Room patrons with his banjo prowess. Within a few years Leadon was playing alongside Parsons and Chris Hillman in the Flying Burrito Brothers. He later co-founded ’70s rock supergroup the Eagles. 

By this time, Rogers had become a mainstay at the Carrera Room and other local venues, such as the Beef & Bottle on Park Avenue and Dubsdread Country Club in Orlando. A hometown folkie hero, he always performed before packed houses.

Rogers’ repertoire included such songs as “Deep River Blues” and “Two Little Boys.” Instrumentals included “Cannonball Rag,” written by Merle Travis, his musical hero and the man whose guitar style he emulated. 

Rogers — who by now had begun to attract attention in Greenwich Village folk circles and hung with the likes of Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan —worked to bring big-name national acts to Winter Park. 

In the summer of ’65, Stowell accompanied Rogers to Rollins, where the pair persuaded administrators to sponsor a Carrera Room concert by all-time banjo great Don Reno and his Tennessee Cut-ups. The band barely fit on the venue’s tiny stage.

Reno, who went on to compose 500 songs and be inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, was perhaps the biggest name to headline the Carrera Room. “I was on the edge of my seat all night,” Stowell recalls. 

After the show, the group headed to Rogers’ house, where the jam session lasted well into the wee hours. Rogers wanted to encourage Stowell and asked him to perform a song for Reno and his sidemen.

“Alan, play Cleopatra’s Caravan for Don,” Rogers urged his friend. Stowell obliged — and to this day feels embarrassed by the version he delivered. “Don was nice and complimented me,” he says.

During performances, it seemed to his fans as though Rogers (left) was holding forth from the loading dock at Arrandale’s Purina Store in fictional Oklawaha County. Musicians Jim Carlton (top) and Alan Stowell (above) recall Rogers’ authenticity and marvel at his ability to hold a crowd’s attention with elaborate tales of Florida rogues and backwater haunts.

Despite the coming of the Beatles and an invasion of electrified singer-songwriters both British and American, the Carrera Room, like the Flick and the Gaslight South coffeehouses in Miami, remained folk genre strongholds well into the late ’60s. 

Mount Dora musician, writer and comedian Jim Carlton came into Rogers’ expansive orbit in 1967. 

“Gamble was a big deal locally even then,” says Carlton, who began his music career in 1962 with Parsons and Jim Stafford in a rock band called The Legends. “He had such a likeable personality and was beginning to make a name for himself.” 

Carlton says Rogers never obsessed over achieving major commercial success, choosing instead to develop and refine his nuanced, drawn-out tales of Florida rogues and backwater haunts. 

“Gamble and I would get on the phone and talk for hours,” says Carlton. “He had a vintage Martin guitar but made me promise not to tell him what it was worth.”

Most musicians, it seems, would want to know such information — for insurance purposes, if nothing else. Rogers, however, was not most musicians. “I’m not a collector,” he explained to Carlton. “For me, it’s a tool — and that’s its real value.”

The Carrera Room — and the restaurant that anchored it — closed in 1970. For most longtime locals, it has faded in time like much of greater Orlando’s pre-Disney history. But not for performers who still ply their trade, such as Stowell, Fitchen, Norcross and Carlton.

Rogers, too, lives on in the memories of fans, friends and family. So, too, do the memories of such Florida folk icons as Paul Champion, Will McLean and Jim Ballew. They made their mark in a bygone era when live music was everywhere.

“Gamble was just special,” recalls Weston. “There were a lot of us who didn’t know if we were going to make our careers in music or not. But we knew Gamble was the real deal.”

Weston recalls taking a girlfriend to one of Rogers’ shows. She professed to dislike folk music and went along only grudgingly. “She ended up loving it,” says Weston. “Gamble had such magnetism. If you gave him five seconds, he had you.” 

During performances, it seemed to his fans as though Rogers (left) was holding forth from the loading dock at Arrandale’s Purina Store in fictional Oklawaha County. Musicians Jim Carlton (top) and Alan Stowell (above) recall Rogers’ authenticity and marvel at his ability to hold a crowd’s attention with elaborate tales of Florida rogues and backwater haunts.


AN UNCOMPROMISED LIFE

One sentence sums up the character of Winter Park native James Gamble Rogers IV, the Florida troubadour who died trying to save a drowning tourist whom he didn’t know: “He was interested enough in strangers to give his life for one.”

That’s one of many poignant quotes in Bruce Horovitz’s breezy new biography, Gamble Rogers: A Troubadour’s Life (University of Florida Press).

A biography of this authentically Floridian singer and storyteller — known early in his career as “Jimmy” Rogers — is long overdue. And Horovitz’s work is an easy-to-digest introduction to the man who was considered by many to be Florida’s unofficial musical ambassador.

Still, completionists who hold Rogers in high esteem to this day may not find A Troubadour’s Life — which can be read in a sitting or two — dense enough to sum up the life and career of a bona fide legend.

Then again, it would take several volumes to really do the subject justice.

You need not enjoy folk music or tall tales to admire Rogers, who was the eldest son of renowned local architect James Gamble Rogers II. He died a hero in 1991, in the rough surf near his beloved St. Augustine, trying to rescue a total stranger flailing in the Atlantic Ocean undertow.

Rogers, 54, didn’t swim well, and a chronic spinal malady all but ensured that his charge into the raging ocean on an inflatable raft would be a suicide mission. No matter, friends say. The sight of a drowning man and his young daughter screaming for help left him no choice but to try.

Ordinary people mattered to Rogers. He was once approached in a parking lot by a man — yet another stranger — who asked a favor. His wife was near death from cancer and might be bolstered by even a brief visit from her favorite singer. 

Rogers, never one for half measures, ended up performing a long bedside concert for an audience of two. Never mind that he’d just finished a grueling tour and was looking forward to getting home to his own wife and children. 

Despite such heart-tugging stories, A Troubadour’s Life is neither maudlin nor overly sentimental — nor should it be. There’s far too much to celebrate in Rogers’ life and legacy. 

He gave up what was sure to be a comfortable life pursuing a career in architecture in the footsteps of his famous father to celebrate rural Florida with whimsical stories, evocative songs and skillful guitar-picking.

For nearly 30 years, he presented a genre-defying one-man show that took him from raucous bars to intimate listening rooms to the stage of Carnegie Hall with bluegrass legend Doc Watson. 

But he started in Winter Park at local coffeehouses such as the Carrera Room, located first on Park Avenue and later relocated to Orange Avenue, where The Porch restaurant and sports bar now sits.

It was the early ’60s, and from Greenwich Village to Coconut Grove, folk music was everywhere. Vanilla acts like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary ruled the charts. Dylan had yet to plug in, and the Beatles were unknown in the U.S.

By 1966, Rogers moved to New England to pursue an opportunity in architecture at a Boston firm. But he was waylaid by an audition in Greenwich Village, where his formidable guitar-picking skills landed him in a nationally known touring act, the Serendipity Singers. 

Rogers lasted long enough to learn that ensembles didn’t suit his style. From then on, he followed his passion down a long, sometimes bumpy road of one-nighters as a spinner of folksy yarns and an influencer of more commercially successful artists such as Jimmy Buffett. 

A contemporary of other Florida folk legends such as Paul Champion and Will McLean, Rogers conjured up stories from fictional Oklawaha County, and delivered them in a preacher’s cadence as delighted audiences marveled at his linguistic pyrotechnics.

In A Troubadour’s Life, the many shining sides of Rogers are emphasized. The conflicts with his family over choosing life as an artist, and the toll his peripatetic career took on his relationships, not so much.

University Press of Florida has recently released Gamble Rogers: A Troubadour’s Life by Bruce Horovitz.

There are also some factual errors. For example, Horovitz writes that Rogers saw Elvis Presley perform in 1953. Elvis was, in fact, driving a truck in 1953 and didn’t play Orlando until 1955. It’s a small error, but anyone who writes a book about popular music ought to know some basic Elvis history.

More significantly, Horovitz gets it wrong about ownership of the Carrera Room. It was not run by Rogers’ first wife, Maggie, as Horovitz states. It was opened as an offshoot of Hodgin’s Restaurant by Pete and Barbara Hodgin, whose invaluable contributions to the local folk scene are unmentioned.

Still, if you didn’t know of Rogers and his homespun tales, you’ll come away from this book wishing that you did.

Of course, his drawn-out orations weren’t suited for commercial radio or television. Horovitz writes that Rogers once auditioned for the Smothers Brothers but didn’t get the gig. What he did best simply couldn’t be done in two or three minutes.

Rogers received widespread exposure only through NPR, where he was a current-events commentator on All Things Considered in 1976 and 1977, and then again in 1981 and 1982. One of his monologues, “The Great Maitland Turkey Farm Massacre of 1953” was included in Susan Stamberg’s book, Every Night at Five: The Best of all Things Considered. 

Although Rogers never came close to becoming a household name, he was content flying just below the radar. He toured the country in a green Mustang and held court on his home turf — the rough-and-tumble Tradewinds bar in St. Augustine.

In the aftermath of his death, the state Legislature created the Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area, a 144-acre park on Flagler Beach between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway.

St. Johns County opened Gamble Rogers Middle School near St. Augustine in 1994, and the state’s Division of Cultural Affairs named Rogers to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 1998.

Lately, however, some have questioned whether Rogers is well-enough-known to still have a school and state park named after him. Errors notwithstanding, Horovitz’s diligent work and dozens of primary-source interviews are more than enough to help us all gladly beg to differ.

—Bob Kealing


Bob Kealing is a musicologist and author. His most recent book is Elvis Ignited, The Rise of an Icon in Florida (University Press of Florida).

The Influentials

Photography by Rafael Tongol

When Winter Park Magazine ran its first “Most Influential People” feature in 2015, we thought it would be a one-off. Now, in 2018, we’re on the fourth installment — with no end in sight.

We didn’t anticipate how positive the response would be to the concept of saluting people who — sometimes quietly — make a difference through their professions, their volunteerism, their philanthropy, their talents or their community engagement.

Plus, we didn’t anticipate the depth of the nominee pool. So, shame on us for that one. This magazine’s purpose is to celebrate Winter Park’s culture, heritage and people. We ought to have known that it would take many, many issues to salute everyone who was deserving.

That fact became apparent after the second-year call for nominations. There were more than 200 names on that list — and we couldn’t think of a good reason not to feature them all. 

But the price of newsprint being what it is, we figured we needed to spread it out.

Plus, new names crop up regularly. This year, there were about a dozen first-time nominees. Some were people about whom we had been somewhat familiar. Others were local legends who had long been on our radar.

Speaking of which, one of 2017’s Influentials, Herb Holm, passed away in May. Holm, a financial mastermind whose savvy bolstered foundations bearing the names of Edyth Bush, Charles Hosmer Morse and Elizabeth Morse Genius, wasn’t a household name in Winter Park — but his impact will endure for generations.

Just another reminder that bestowing kudos isn’t something that can necessarily wait until next year.

As usual, this year’s Influentials are eclectic. Some of the selectees are well known, while others operate under the radar. What they have in common, however, is a love for Winter Park — and a desire to make it an even more special place in which to live, work and play.

Past Influentials include (in alphabetical order): Jim Barnes, Dan Bellows, Rita Bornstein, Jill Hamilton Buss, Jeffrey Blydenburgh, Daniel Butts, Grant and Peg Cornwell, Linda Costa, Julian Chambliss, Patrick Chapin, Carolyn Cooper, Mary Daniels, Betsy Gardner Eckbert, Jeff Eisenbarth, Andrea Massey-Farrell, Sue Foreman, Scot French and Christine Madrid French, Shawn Garvey, Hal George, John Gill, Steve Goldman, Sarah Grafton, Jane Hames, Ena Heller, Debra Hendrickson, Catherine Hinman, the late Herb Holm, Jon and Betsy Hughes, Phil Kean, Allan Keen, Linda Keen and Randy Knight.

Also: Debbie Komanski, Linda Kulmann, Cindy Bowman LaFronz, Steve Leary, Lambrine Macejewski, Brandon McGlammery, Micki Meyer, Johnny Miller, Anne Mooney, Ronnie Moore, Patty Maddox, David Odahowski, Betsy Rogers Owens, Jana Ricci, John Rife, Randall B. Robertson, Peter Schreyer, Polly Seymour, Thaddeus Seymour, Shawn Shaffer, Sarah Sprinkel, Susan Skolfield, Sam Stark, Chuck Steinmetz and Margery Pabst Steinmetz, Dori Stone, John and Gail Sinclair, Fr. Richard Walsh, Jennifer Wandersleben, Harold Ward, Bill Weir, Chip Weston, Pete Weldon and Becky Wilson.

On behalf of the past Influentials — and the staff of Winter Park Magazine — congratulations and welcome to the Class of 2018. Let’s meet them on the following pages.

 

Rick Baldwin at The Gardens at DePugh Skilled Nursing Center, Winter Park.

 

Richard O. “Rick” Baldwin

THE GRACIOUS GIVER

CEO, Baldwin Brothers Cremation

The funeral business has been dubbed  “the dismal trade.” But nobody who knows Richard O. “Rick” Baldwin would describe him as dismal. To the contrary, Baldwin has for decades been one of Winter Park’s most respected businesspeople, in part because of his personal warmth and in part because he has done so much to improve the lives of people who haven’t yet needed his professional services — particularly children and senior citizens. Baldwin, 72, was raised in Winter Park, which he recalls as being “very Mayberryish.” (Longtime locals will remember Baldwin Hardware Store on Park Avenue, which was operated by his paternal grandparents from 1926 until 1970.) He earned a degree in mortuary science from Miami-Dade Community College and a degree in accountancy from UCF. Then, at age 27, he founded what later became Baldwin-Fairchild Cemeteries and Funeral Homes, which he sold in 1973 to New Orleans-based Stewart Enterprises, the second-largest provider of funeral and cemetery services in the U.S. In 2012, after 29 years as a funeral industry executive and entrepreneur, he became CEO of Baldwin Brothers Cremations, with 14 offices in Central and Southwest Florida. All the while, he has been a high-profile presence on civic boards: past president of the Winter Park Fellowship of Churches and Synagogues; past president of the Christian Service Center of Orange County; past president of Hospice of Central Florida; past trustee of Winter Park Memorial Hospital; past trustee of the Mayflower Retirement Center; and past board member of both the Hamilton Holt School and Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College. Lately, he has turned his attention to two cherished Winter Park institutions, serving as president of both The Gardens at DePugh Skilled Nursing Center, founded in 1956, and the Welbourne Avenue Nursery and Kindergarten, founded in 1927. The two nonprofits — both of which are historically important — were started by community members who launched grass-roots campaigns to fill social-service voids. Baldwin is also a member of the dean’s advisory council at UCF’s College of Business and a member of the UCF Business Hall of Fame. 

What they say:
Rick is one of the most decent people in this town … I’ll match his community service with anybody’s … a brilliant business mind and a kind and compassionate person in general.

What he says:
It has been said that ‘to whom much is given, much is required.’ I’ve been given much — and feel thankful to have the opportunity to serve in this beautiful city where I’ve spent my life.

 

Sid Cash at Keller Field, Maitland Little League.

 

Sid Cash

THE BIG-LEAGUER

Senior Vice President, Winter Park National Bank 

Ask Sid Cash what makes him influential and he responds with a motto that has served him well as not only a Little League coach but also as a community banker. “Kids will forget what you said, kids will forget what you did, but kids will never forget how you made them feel,” Cash says in a Georgia twang that persists despite his living in Center Florida for 63 of his 68 years. As a coach for 32 years, Cash saw his influence on players in the Maitland Little League translate into off-field business with their parents. “Certainly if [parents] trust you with their kids, they’re going trust you with their money,” he says. It didn’t hurt to be a banker named Cash, either. Over his professional career, Cash helped open five local banks, including Winter Park National Bank in 2017. His day job is senior vice president, and his chummy demeanor makes him a good fit for a financial institution located in a city that’s a small town at heart. Cash’s coaching achievements include taking a Maitland team to the 2005 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and finishing second in the nation. But he says winning has never defined success for him. Success as a coach of 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds is measured by improvement, he says. The kid who drops fly balls in practice, then goes into a game and makes a clutch catch — that’s the stuff that still gives Cash goosebumps. Taking stock of his imprint on the community, Cash is proud of his banking career, his Little League leadership and, since 2010, his involvement with Winter Park Pop Warner football — the last six years as president. But he’s proudest of launching Winter Park Pride, a community group whose 2016 “Restore the Roar” campaign raised $250,000 toward renovation of city-owned Showalter Field, home of the Winter Park High School Wildcats. (Cash, a 1967 WPHS graduate, played baseball and football at the school.) He embarked on the fundraising effort, he says, for the kids who will play on the field for years to come — and will never forget how playing there made them feel.

What they say:
Sid’s a local legend in banking and Little League … he connects with kids like nobody else … he’s just as genuine as he seems … highly respected because he has given back to the community for decades.

What he says:
I’m just so blessed that my dad moved the family to Winter Park … I’m all about relationships … my dad taught me that you have to build relationships and give back to the community.

 

Billy Collins at the Alfond Boathouse, Rollins College.

 

Billy Collins

THE LITERARY LION

Author, Senior Distinguished Fellow, Winter Park Institute at Rollins College

Billy Collins is A poet, and you likely already know it. OK, so we tried to be clever and lead with a rhyming sentence — despite the fact that Collins’ poetry doesn’t rhyme. It’s just as well. His biggest fans aren’t poetry snobs — they’re everyday people who are enchanted by the humor and poignance in his comfortably hospitable verses. Collins is a rare poet whose collections scale the New York Times bestseller list, and whose readings attract packed houses. A two-term U.S. poet laureate (2001-03), Collins moved to Winter Park in 2008 when he accepted the post of senior distinguished fellow at the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College. He is, without question, the most important writer of any genre ever to have a 32789 zip code. The genial Manhattan native, a youthful 77, has thus far published 13 volumes of poetry. He has appeared regularly on A Prairie Home Companion — the first time in 1998and on other NPR programs, including Fresh Air with Terry Gross. On the first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he was asked to write a poem commemorating the victims and to read it before a joint session of Congress held in New York City. “The Names,” which alphabetically incorporated the surnames of those who had been killed, struck precisely the right tone with its quiet humanity. Still, Collins is more comfortable writing about everyday life — albeit with quirky twists and turns. For example, a TED Talk in which he recites two poems about the inner thoughts of dogs has garnered more than 1.6 million views. Accolades include the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry as well as fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1992, he was chosen by the New York Public Library as a Literary Lion. Last year, Collins was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an honor society of the country’s 250 leading architects, artists, composers and writers. His proudest achievements: The Poetry 180 program for high schools, in which he chose and published one poem for each day of the school year, and making a birdie on the 12th hole at Augusta National.

What they say:
Billy is a national treasure … so down-to-earth and funny … don’t bet with him if you’re playing golf.

What he says:
My Winter Park wish is to continue enjoying this oasis of leafy beauty, where the streets are paved with brick, and to work to hinder developers who threaten to spoil the charm and character of this unique city.

 

Mary Demetree at Demetree Global, Winter Park.

 

Mary Demetree

THE EMPIRE BUILDER

Chairwoman, Demetree Global 

Mary Demetree had dreams of becoming an actress. But her hard-charging father, the late William C. Demetree Jr. — who famously sold Walt Disney the 12,500-acre hunting camp where the Magic Kingdom would be built — insisted that she join the family business instead. After graduating from the University of Alabama, the dutiful daughter did just that, learning the operation literally from the ground up. When you were the boss’s kid, you had to work that much harder to prove yourself. But Demetree, now 58, would go on to establish her own reputation as a major force in the male-dominated world of real estate development and property management. Today, Demetree Global holds an interest in nearly 500,000 square feet of space in Winter Park, including primo locations at the corners of U.S. Highway 17-92 and Orange Avenue. There, around the old Lombardi’s Seafood site, Demetree envisions someday developing a bustling mixed-use gateway for Winter Park — a project that would encompass residential, retail and dining components as well as a SunRail station. In addition, Demetree has been a venture-capital partner in an array of cellular networks as well as WonderWorks, a science-themed attraction on International Drive, and Handex Consulting & Remediation, a full-service environmental services firm. For 18 years, she was a partner in Park Plaza Gardens, one of Park Avenue’s most iconic restaurants. (The partners closed the restaurant in 2016 during a dispute with the building’s owners.) When she’s not dreaming up new business ventures, Demetree gives back through personal philanthropy or the William C. Demetree Jr. Foundation, which supports projects that benefit the emotionally, physically or mentally disadvantaged. She’s a large-gift donor to Orlando Health and the Florida Hospital Foundation, and was a capital donor for the UCF Health Sciences Campus at Lake Nona. Reflecting her interest in helping children, Demetree recently started an office fundraising campaign to support an initiative that would feed 425 low-income students at Orange County’s Mollie Ray Elementary. Demetree, who serves on numerous business and civic boards, was named Small Business Owner of the Year in 2012 by the Orlando Business Journal.

What they say:
Mary has made her own mark … she’s definitely her father’s daughter, from her business savvy to her willingness to give … she could potentially create something spectacular on the Fairbanks property.

What she says:
I invest in people, not in projects. My dad would always say, ‘Bet on the jockey and not the horse.’

 

 

Carolyn Fennell at Martin Luther King Jr. Park, Winter Park.

 

Carolyn Fennell

THE JET-SETTER

Senior Director of Public Affairs and Community Relations,
Greater Orlando Aviation Authority

With more than 44 million passengers annually, Orlando International Airport (OIA) is the second-busiest in the state and the 11th-busiest in the U.S. It’s also efficient and beautiful, boasting leading-edge architecture and an expansive art collection that immediately signals to visitors that they’ve arrived someplace special. OIA now has more than 21,000 employees and pumps at least $31 billion annually into the region’s economy. For 38 years, it has been Carolyn Fennell’s job to connect the community and the ever-expanding facility, which began in 1962 as the Orlando Jetport at McCoy — a partnership between the City of Orlando and McCoy Air Force Base. The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA), which operates OIA and Orlando Executive Airport, was formed after the base closed in 1975. Fennell, a Tallahassee native who earned a journalism degree from Florida A&M University, joined GOAA in 1980 following a two-year stint as a publicist at Walt Disney World. Before that, she’d been a production assistant at ABC News in London. As GOAA’s senior director of public affairs and community relations, Fennell has come to be the friendly face and sonorous voice of the airport. Her community activities include service on the boards of the Orlando Museum of Art, the Valencia College Foundation and the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. She’s also on the boards of the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association and SKAL International — an association of travel industry executives. She was Orlando Business Journal’s Businesswoman of the Year in 2010, and was on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Jacksonville Branch from 2010 to 2016 — serving as chair twice. She was presented the Ted Bushelman Legacy Award for Creativity and Excellence by the Airports Council International in 2015, and the Dorian Boyland Community Service Award by the Central Florida Urban League in 2017. Also that year, Fennell was recognized as a Community Advocate by the Black Business Investment Fund during the organization’s “Salute to Local Leadership: Black Women Visionaries.” Other honors include induction into the Florida A&M University School of Journalism Hall of Fame and the Central Florida Hospitality Hall of Fame at UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. 

What they say:
Carolyn and the airport have become synonymous over the years … she’s such a trailblazer and a role model … a leader in the local arts and cultural communities. 

What she says:
I have a passion for being a participant and not merely an observer in my professional and community involvement. 

 

 

Meg Fitzgerald at The Leary Group, Winter Park.

 

Meg Fitzgerald

THE LONG HITTER

Property Manager and Community Relations Director, The Leary Group

For such a sophisticated town, Winter Park politics can get surprisingly nasty. “I didn’t realize how passionate people in Winter Park were about their views,” says Meg Fitzgerald, who found out quickly enough when she managed a winning city commission campaign for her boss, Steve Leary, in 2011. Leary beat attorney Scott Callahan 63 percent to 37 percent, then was unopposed for re-election two years later. Fitzgerald subsequently managed two winning mayoral campaigns for Leary, who in 2015 edged former Circuit Judge Cynthia Mackinnon 52 percent to 48 percent in a hotly contested race that laid bare the city’s ideological fissures over such issues as redevelopment and historic preservation. In 2017, Leary rolled over a low-key re-election challenge from retiree Jim Fitch, heightening talk of a future run by Leary for state Legislature or some other higher office. Still, her foray into local electioneering was an education for Fitzgerald, whose actual job is property manager and community relations director for The Leary Group, which offers full-service commercial property management and specializes in locations within historic districts and near the attractions. She’s also general manager of a Leary Group ancillary company, Flange Skillets, which designs and manufactures gasket installation tools — not cooking utensils — for the oil pipeline industry. Now she has emerged as a behind-the-scenes political force, serving as Leary’s aide de camp and offering advice and guidance to would-be candidates. “That’s happening more now,” Fitzgerald, 42, says. “After the first time, we got the formula and the messaging down.” A standout athlete in college, Fitzgerald likes the competitive aspect of politics. She was a volleyball player at the University of Florida, and as an outside hitter helped the Gators to four SEC titles and made the all-SEC team twice. She coached at Rollins College for a year before revitalizing the UCF women’s volleyball program, taking the team to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2002 before quitting to spend more time with her triplets — now 13 years old — to whom she is a single mom. She coaches boys’ and girls’ Winter Park Volleyball Club teams and is a mentor in the Save Our Scholars (SOS) program, which helps underprivileged young women with academic potential succeed in college.

What they say:
Meg isn’t an elected official, but she’s a major force in local politics … she’s a great coach to kids in both volleyball and life … she doesn’t like some aspects of politics, like character attacks, but she knows how to win.

What she says:
My personal goals are to continue raising amazing, well-rounded children and continue developing our youth through the sport of volleyball. I think of myself as passionate, approachable and dedicated.

 

Alan Ginsburg at AHG Group, Winter Park.

 

Alan Ginsburg

THE STAND-UP PHILANTHROPIST

CEO, AHG Group

Alan Ginsburg is among the region’s most respected and generous philanthropists. But if he hadn’t been a successful investor and developer, he might have enjoyed a lucrative career as a stand-up comedian. “I’m a ham at heart,” admits Ginsburg, 79. “When I open the refrigerator and the light comes on, I’m good for two or three minutes.” Many charity auction attendees have seen Ginsburg’s Vegas-ready schtick — roaming from table to table, microphone in hand, cracking jokes and cajoling attendees to pony up for good causes. Few, though, have ponied up as much as the Alan Ginsburg Family Foundation. In 2007, for example, Florida Hospital got $20 million — its largest-ever donation — to help build the 15-story, 440-bed Ginsburg Tower. Other beneficiaries have included the Hamilton Holt School at Rollins College ($5 million), the UCF College of Medicine ($4.5 million), Central Florida Hillel at UCF ($3 million), Nemours Children’s Hospital ($1 million) and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts ($1 million). Particularly important to Ginsburg is the Holt School, an evening program that serves nontraditional students for whom a Rollins education might be otherwise out of reach. “I never miss a commencement,” says Ginsburg, a Rollins trustee and a Holt board member. “I get teary-eyed at the stories these students tell.” Ginsburg, who maintains business interests in such far-flung locales as Israel and Mongolia, is CEO of AHG Group, a holding company based in Winter Park. CED Construction, which Ginsburg founded in 1987, built more than 40,000 rental units for low-income families under a federal tax credit program. Almost 15,000 of those units — representing an investment of more than $1 billion — are in Central Florida. Ginsburg is a trustee for United Arts and a board member for the Orlando Museum of Art. He has also been active in the Greater Orlando Jewish Welfare Federation and the Orlando Chapter of the National Council for Community and Justice. The Michigan native, a Winter Parker since 1981, now spends about half his time on philanthropy. “I think giving away money is as hard as making it in the first place,” he says.

What they say:
The definition of a selfless philanthropist … a bighearted man who has touched countless lives … I can only say, ‘Thanks, Mr. Ginsburg, for everything.’

What he says:
Winter Park is a very special place. I’ve lived in four different houses here, all within three or four blocks of each another. It’s a small town with a big-time feel.

 

Betsy Gwinn at Rollins College.

 

Elizabeth “Betsy” Gwinn

THE BACH BOSS

Executive Director, Bach Festival Society of Winter Park

Musical Director John Sinclair is the public face of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park. He and his multitude of vocalists and players bask in the applause following performances. But the high-profile maestro would be the first to tell you that Elizabeth “Betsy” Gwinn makes it possible for him to concentrate on giving ticket-buyers a year’s worth of musical magic. Gwinn, 51, is executive director of the second-oldest continuously performing Bach Festival in the world. Most importantly, she makes certain that the society — arguably the region’s most significant cultural organization — is well funded through a complex web of public, quasi-public and philanthropic sources. She also seeks collaborations and partnerships that further the society’s mandate “to inspire the human spirit through great classical music.” In short, Gwinn and her full-time staff of five handle behind-the-scenes responsibilities that don’t earn standing ovations, but do keep the organization humming — or singing — year after year. Gwinn, who was planning administrator at the Orlando Museum of Art prior to joining the society in 2006, says her work is rewarding because the arts “reveal to us what it means to be human, and the importance of creativity in our lives.” The California native, who has a B.A. in fine art from UCF, says her goal is for Winter Park to fully reach its potential as a cultural destination. “Other cities have spent millions trying to create what Winter Park has in its DNA,” she says. “This can’t be taken for granted, but needs to be carefully nurtured.” Gwinn is a familiar figure on the boards of arts advocacy organizations — including the city’s fledgling Arts and Culture Subcommittee — and, like many Influentials, is a graduate of Leadership Winter Park. She and her husband, Michael Galletta, have two teenaged sons. Gwinn says she’s inspired by expressions of appreciation from volunteers, patrons, partners and donors. “They push me to make the society the best it can be,” she says. But the accomplishment that makes her most proud she says, is balancing work and family. Adds Gwinn: “My time with my children is fleeting, and I know it.”

What they say:
Betsy is delightful, upbeat, helpful and a great representative for the organization ... she’s obviously effective and respected … the Bach Festival Society is our most cherished organization; I’m glad it’s being well run.   

What he says:
I enjoy meeting people, learning about them, and understanding what they want for our shared community …  I also believe my respect for the history of Winter Park and long tenure working in the community has been very helpful. 

 

Terry Hadley at Swann Hadley Stump Dietrich & Spears, Winter Park.

 

Ralph V. “Terry” Hadley III

THE COURTLY ADVOCATE

Shareholder, Swann Hadley Stump Dietrich & Spears

Terry Hadley, who combines a keen legal mind with a folksy demeanor, has been a highly successful attorney whose firm, Swann Hadley Stump Dietrich & Spears, traces its roots to 1924 and handles everything from real estate and corporate transactions to timeshare and condominium law. Hadley, 75, still practices but stepped aside last year as managing partner after 22 years. Instead of his lengthy career, he prefers to discuss his favorite cause: the Florida School for the Deaf & the Blind in St. Augustine. Hadley is a trustee and endowment chairman for the state-funded facility, which was founded in 1885 and has about 600 students in preschool through 12th grade. FSDB makes a profound difference in the lives of children from across the state, Hadley notes. Making a difference for children has been Hadley’s motivation for decades. His commitment to guardian ad litem work earned him the Judge J.C. “Jake” Stone Distinguished Service Award in 1989 and the President’s Pro Bono Service Award from the Florida Bar Association in 1992. He become the legal community’s go-to specialist on Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a rare mental disorder in which a caretaker — most often a mother — harms her child in an effort to mimic legitimate illness. Hadley was raised in Winter Park and graduated from the University of Florida College of Law before a stint in the U.S. Navy JAG Corps from 1969 to 1972, during which he achieved the rank of lieutenant commander and served a tour of duty in Vietnam. A Democrat, Hadley ran for the State Legislature from District 40 in 1978, losing by less than a percentage point to future Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty. But he remained active in civic affairs, and in 1976 became founding director of Spouse Abuse (later Harbor House of Central Florida). He was a founding member — and currently secretary/treasurer — of the Seminole County Sheriff Foundation, which assists families of law-enforcement officers injured or killed in the line of duty. He’s also a past member of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce and a current member of the University of Florida President’s Council. He and his wife, Carol, own a 72-acre blueberry farm near Cross Creek in Northeast Florida, where they have a second home.

What they say:
Terry really believes in paying civic dues … a Southern gentleman who genuinely cares about people … Terry is like Matlock — a down-home guy that
you don’t dare underestimate.

What he says:
It’s my experience that the best way to have an impact on the community is to be involved in its civic activities — just give of yourself on a regular basis.

 

Garry and Isis Jones at Full Sail University, Winter Park.

 

Garry I. Jones
Isis Jones

THE FULL SAILERS

President, Full Sail University
Chief Information Officer, Director of Education, Full Sail University

When you think of Winter Park as being a college town, you’re likely thinking of Rollins College and its historic ties to the city. But Full Sail University — a private institution that offers 39 undergraduate degrees and 13 graduate degrees related to entertainment, technology, media and the arts — also boasts a Winter Park address, with a 210-acre campus on University Drive that encompasses 880,000 square feet of classrooms, recording and production studios, a Hollywood-style back lot and a state-of-the-art entertainment venue dubbed Full Sail Live. Its 5,500-plus on-campus students (with 10,000 more taking online courses) get real-world training that will, for many, result in rewarding careers — and, for the best of the best, perhaps even glossy entertainment industry accolades.  In 2018 alone, 50 Full Sail graduates were credited on 55 Grammy-nominated recordings (17 ended up working on Grammy winners). Full Sailers have also won multiple Emmys and Game Awards, while 1993 graduate Gary A. Rizzo has been nominated for five Oscars, winning two — including a 2018 nod for Best Achievement in Sound Mixing for Dunkirk. Overseeing this teeming talent factory — named one of the Best Music Programs in the U.S. by Rolling Stone and one of the Top Graduate and Undergraduate Schools for Game Design by The Princeton Review — is President Garry I. Jones, 64, a native Virginian who in the 1970s was a record producer and a touring musician. Jones, who earned a degree in psychology from Virginia Tech, joined Full Sail in 1980 and has led it through multiple expansions. In addition to the school and its students, his primary passions are nature and the protection of animal life. He’s chair-elect for the Florida Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. And, partnering with the organization, he created The Monarch Initiative, a program to educate the public about the importance of pollinators such as the monarch butterfly. Isis Jones, 55, is Full Sail’s chief information officer and executive director of education. The pair met in 1984 while Isis, a native of Havana, Cuba, was a mainframe systems programmer with book publisher Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich. She joined Full Sail in 1988, a year following her marriage to Garry, and by the mid-1990s had developed one of the first digital-media degree programs in the U.S. Today, she’s responsible for curriculum design and the development of proprietary educational software. Isis has earned numerous professional recognitions, and shares her husband’s commitment to the Florida Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. In addition, she supports such organizations as the ASPCA, Pet Rescue by Judy, the Foundation for Foster Children. 

What they say:
Garry and Isis are community treasures … they’re partners in business and life … enormously likeable and genuine people.

What he says:
My best friend, Isis, and I often say to one another on the way out the door each morning, ‘let’s do some good out there,’ no matter how great or small, for our community and the world at large.

What she says:
I feel that there’s nothing that can’t be accomplished if you go at it with the right spirit and respect others.

 

Tom Klusman at Warden Arena, Rollins College.

 

Tom Klusman

THE LUCKY ONE

Head Basketball Coach, Rollins College 

When Tom Klusman, 63, talks about his basketball coaching career at Rollins College, he never mentions the seven Sunshine State Conference championships he has snared, and only divulges his overall won-loss record when asked. (It’s 693-407 in case you’re interested, highlighted by two NCAA Division II Elite Eight appearances, in 2004 and 2017.) Having coached more than 1,000 games over 38 years at the same small college, Klusman lets the record book — he’s the 10th winningest coach in NCAA Division II history — and his longevity speak for themselves. What he prefers to talk about — and with the fervor of a coach giving a locker room pep talk — is his relationship with players past and present. He sees himself as not just a teacher of setting picks and managing the shot clock but also as an influencer of young men with careers and families ahead of them. “Everyone thinks win, win, win. Well, that’s not how life is,” says the Cincinnati native, who played point guard for the Tars from 1972-76, scoring more than 1,006 points and dishing out 352 assists. “I’m not afraid to lose to teach the kids what I think is important.” What’s important to Klusman is that his players experience Rollins as students first and athletes second — and he views his time with them as vital to their growth as adults. “Before practice every day I go to every kid and shake their hand and make small talk: How did they do on their tests? How are their parents, their girlfriends? I try to let them know that I care about them. I tell them I love them all the time.” Klusman, who has a daughter and twin sons with his wife, Jennifer, knows his approach made an impact when former players drop by to see him or call out of the blue. Recalls Klusman, who was tapped as head coach at age 26: “One of my former players called me the other night, and he was showing his son a tape of when he played. He tells me, ‘The things I’m telling my son are the things Coach taught me at Rollins.’ That’s the reason you do this.”

What they say:
Tom had opportunities at larger schools, but stayed at Rollins … his record is more impressive when you consider the academic standards at Rollins versus other schools in their conference … a class act and a great representative for the school … an under-the-radar sports legend.

What he says:
A lot of my kids thank me, but I thank them for letting me be part of their lives. I’m the lucky one.

 

Jack Lane at the Rollins College Department of Archives and Special Collections.

 

Jack Lane

THE CURIOUS CHRONICLER

Professor of American History Emeritus, Rollins College

If not for Jack Lane, the history of Rollins College — and, by extension, a considerable swath of Winter Park history — would today be obscure or unknown. Lane, now Wendell Professor of American History Emeritus and College Historian, taught generations of students from 1963 through 1999. Upon his retirement, Lane was presented the William F. Blackman Medal for distinguished service — an honor named, appropriately, for his favorite past president, a hardworking scholar who kept the college afloat from 1902-15. In 2006, Lane was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from the institution whose tribulations and triumphs he had chronicled. A native Texan, Lane, 76, was for a time a vibraphone player in a successful jazz quartet before earning a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia and beginning a storied career as a professor and a historian. Later in his career, he turned his scholarly attention to Florida. In 1991, Pineapple Press published The Florida Reader: Visions of Paradise from the Spanish to the Present, which he co-edited with Maurice “Socky” O’Sullivan, a Rollins English professor. It won that year’s Tebeau Award from the Florida Historical Society as the best book on Florida. He has continued to speak to community groups, serve as a guest lecturer at the college and sit on the boards of the Casa Feliz Historic Home Museum and the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College. In 2017, a lively manuscript that Lane wrote more than 30 years ago, Rollins College Centennial History: A Story of Perseverance, 1885-1985, was finally published, becoming the first comprehensive account of Rollins’ first 100 years. The book — combining a storyteller’s flair with a researcher’s rigor — is jampacked with eccentric characters, near-disasters, daring innovations and heady achievements. Lane lives with his wife, Janne, in a home that’s on the Winter Park Register of Historic Places. He says it’s important that the city understand its past to better prepare for its future. “As a student and professor of history, I know change is inevitable,” he says. “I’ve observed that a successful town is one that has intentionally managed change without losing its character and identity. My hope is that Winter Park citizens will comprehend the depth of meaning in this historical reality.” 

What they say:
It’s a priceless gift to Winter Park to have people like Jack, who have the skill and the interest to keep our city’s history alive … he’s probably the most knowledgeable person around about Rollins and Winter Park … his new book is a must-read. 

What he says:
I have tried to live my life with integrity and a commitment to service. I leave it to others to judge whether I succeeded.

 

Fairolyn Livingston at the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, Winter Park.

 

Fairolyn Livingston

THE COMMUNITY CURATOR

Chief Historian, Hannibal Square Heritage Center

Fairolyn Livingston is the institutional memory of Winter Park’s west side. She has been associated with the Hannibal Square Heritage Center since it was opened by the Crealdé School of Art in 2007, becoming its chief historian in 2014. Livingston, 62, says that growing up on the west side proved the adage that “it takes a village” to rear children. “In the summer, there were no camps for us,” she recalls. “The women would each take a week off from work — local employers supported this — and take turns conducting Bible-study classes. That way, the whole community pitched in to help raise us kids.” But Livingston, who leads walking tours of Hannibal Square, worries that most locals are unaware of the west side’s history — and have never heard of the pioneering trio of African-American activists who rallied support for incorporation of the city in 1887. One, Gus Henderson, was editor of the Winter Park Advocate, one of the first black-owned newspapers in Florida. Two others, Walter B. Simpson and Frank R. Israel, were elected aldermen, becoming the first — and, so far, the only — African-Americans to hold local political office. In 1997, Livingston received a Rhea Marsh and Dorothy Lockhart Smith Research Grant, awarded annually by the Rollins College Olin Library and the Winter Park Public Library to support research related to local history. Livingston wrote A Window on Hannibal Square, which included biographies of Simpson and Israel. “The grant was a catalyst for change — not just for me, but for others who value history, truth and reconciliation,” says Livingston, who attended all-black Hampton Junior College in Ocala before earning a liberal arts degree from Rollins. Interest in Henderson, Simpson and Israel has been rekindled recently through the HIS (Henderson, Israel and Simpson) Project, a display on the center’s second floor. The center’s permanent exhibition, The Heritage Collection: Photographs and Oral Histories of West Winter Park, features photography by Crealdé Executive Director Peter Schreyer and oral histories recorded by Livingston, who interviewed 20 of the west side’s oldest residents — most of whom have since passed away.

What they say:
Fairolyn is a walking encyclopedia for the west side … she’s not like most people, who take on a research project and then they’re done … Fairolyn carries the history with her. 

What he says:
My goal is for everyone in Winter Park to know about the African-American men who were early leaders in our community, and the role they played in the 1880s in getting the town incorporated.

 

Lawrence Lyman at the Alfond Inn, Winter Park.

 

Lawrence Lyman

THE UP-AND-COMER

Managing Partner and Vice President, Tactical Electronics Company

There’s buzz that Lawrence Lyman might run for the Winter Park City Commission soon. After all, the city holds municipal elections every year — so it’s not as though he’d have to wait long to throw his hat into the ring. “I’ve heard that, and, sure, I think about it,” says Lyman, 39, managing partner and vice president for business development and government relations at Melbourne-based Tactical Electronics Corporation. “But here, you don’t have to be an elected official to make an impact.” That’s certainly been true for Lyman. He and his family — including wife, Kacy, and two young children — arrived here in 2011. Since then, the Montreal native has been active in an array of local organizations. But he’s especially keen on the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, serving on its board and as alumni council president of its Leadership Winter Park program. In fact, Lyman is a walking advertisement for the chamber, which earlier this year presented him the Debra Hendrickson Volunteer of the Year Award. “The chamber is a great on-ramp to the community,” he says. “It helps you get involved quickly.” Lyman, who has always been drawn to politics and leadership, was president of his fraternity at the University of Florida — where he earned a degree in family, youth and community services — and became a congressional aide to U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Winter Park) upon graduation. “Congressman Mica had a huge influence on me,” says Lyman. “I looked on him as a civic role model.” In addition to his chamber activities, Lyman serves on the board of the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, and is development chair of the board of trustees of the Winter Park Public Library. That’s going to be a monumental job in the coming year, as the new library and events center complex gets underway in Martin Luther King Jr. Park. He’s also on the board of Leadership Florida, founded by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and based in Tallahassee. “I’m a believer in getting a bunch of smart and passionate people together to focus on an issue,” Lyman says. “I like to identify goals and objectives, then go out and crush them together as a group.”

What they say:
Winter Park needs Lawrence’s energy and passion … his future here is whatever he wants it to be ... a young leader on the way up.

What he says:
My goal is for our city to keep its charm and grow the right way. I want us to continue to emphasize the importance of the arts. People want to come to Winter Park. I want to make sure that we continue to be the best place to live in Florida.

 

Jesse Martinez at the Alfond Inn, Winter Park.

 

Jesse Martinez

THE GRACIOUS HOST

General Manager, the Alfond Inn

The Alfond Inn has been open for only five years, but it’s hard to imagine ever having lived without it. Before the Alfond, where did we hold large functions or marry off our youngsters? Where did we stash out-of-town guests or business associates whom we wished to impress? Clearly, Winter Park needed a luxury hotel — but we didn’t get just any luxury hotel. We got a AAA Four Diamond award-winner that’s ranked among the best in the world. Nothing less would do for Winter Park — and the person responsible for upholding those lofty standards is General Manager Jesse Martinez, 49, a veteran of the hospitality industry and the U.S. Air Force, where he was a law-enforcement specialist. His command now includes the hotel, its award-winning Hamilton’s Kitchen restaurant and its 10,000 square feet of post meeting and event space. The hotel was built by Rollins College, which uses net operating income to fund scholarships through the Harold Alfond Foundation. It also doubles as a museum, displaying works from the Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art — donated to the college by Ted and Barbara Lawrence Alfond (Class of 1968) — and extending the footprint of the college’s Cornell Fine Art Museum. The super-efficient Martinez, who has two daughters with his wife, Kim, sees his job as making the hotel successful and enhancing the community by making a good — even spectacular — first impression on visitors. He’s on the executive committee of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce and the executive board of the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association. He’s also a board member of the Orange County Tourist Development Council and the Central Florida Sports Commission. “I see my role as one that can help bridge the visitor experience with the community,” says Martinez, who joined the hotel in 2014. “Both have to be positive and exceptional.” Martinez has built relationships throughout the community — and has earned kudos not only for his management savvy but also for his accessibility and “pay it forward” personal philosophy. “A culture built on relationships and transparency is positive,” he says. “Simply put, I treat people the way I want to be treated.”

What they say:
Jesse’s commitment to perfection is obvious from the minute you step into the Alfond’s lobby … a kind man who really gets what Winter Park is all about.

What he says:
My proudest accomplishments are quieter moments, behind the scenes, when I’ve mentored someone and can see their growth as they become successful in their own professional and personal life. That’s when you know it’s all worth it.

 

Genean McKinnon at Weatogue, her home in Winter Park.

 

Genean Hawkins McKinnon

THE EFFECTIVE INSIDER

President, McKinnon Associates

Genean Hawkins McKinnon knows plenty about influential women. Her mother was Paula Hawkins, the so-called “Maitland housewife” who in 1972 snared a seat on the Public Service Commission, becoming the first woman to hold statewide elective office in Florida. In 1980, voters sent the conservative Republican to the U.S. Senate, where she served only one term but paved the way for a new generation of politically active women. McKinnon, 69, prefers to wield power behind the scenes through McKinnon Associates, a consulting firm that represents clients whose businesses require interaction with local, state and federal governments. “I’m under the radar,” she says. “I don’t even have a website.” But clients manage to find McKinnon, including Chicago’s Pritzker family, owners of Hyatt Hotels Corporation, who in 2001 engaged her to help shepherd redevelopment of the 1,100-acre Orlando Naval Training Center into Baldwin Park. Even closer to home, McKinnon was a leader in the 2005 campaign that resulted in Winter Park dumping Florida Power — now Duke Energy Florida — and forming its own municipal utilities department. More recently, she has consulted with Winter Park Memorial Hospital as it secures approvals for its massive expansion program. McKinnon has also served on Winter Park’s Historic Preservation Board, where she opposed the easing of requirements to form historic districts, but advocated recognition of residential and commercial restoration projects through annual Awards for Excellence. (McKinnon and her husband, Joel, live in a 138-year-old home on Villa Bella called “Weatogue,” a Seminole Indian word meaning “place of hospitality.”) McKinnon, a Utah native who earned a degree in humanities from Brigham Young University, is on the boards of Mead Garden, the Hamilton Holt School at Rollins College, the Mennello Museum of American Art, Winter Park Memorial Hospital and the Florida Commission on the Status of Women. An active fund-raiser for Republican candidates, she gets downright sentimental when she recalls attending Park Avenue Elementary, eating ice cream at the Yum Yum Shop, taking ballet lessons at the Royal School of Dance and enjoying Sunday afternoon family excursions along Genius Drive to watch the preening peacocks. 

What they say:
Extremely well-connected and savvy … passionate about Winter Park … a good person to have on your team if you want to get something done.

What he says:
I am so grateful to call Winter Park home. Each year I ask, is it even possible for the city to get better? And the answer is — yes!

 

Joanne McMahon at 310 Park South, Winter Park.

 

Joanne McMahon

THE UNSTOPPABLE ENTREPRENEUR

Owner, Operator and CEO, 310 Restaurants, blue on the avenue, the Partridge Tree Gift Shop

An energetic out-of-towner visits Winter Park and falls in love with the place. She decides to make it her home, and launches an assortment of vibrant small businesses — each of which provides jobs, boosts the economy and enhances the already-eclectic collection of family-friendly shopping and dining options. Every city dreams of attracting such terrific transplants — but Winter Park often succeeds in doing so. A case in point is Joanne McMahon, owner, operator and CEO of 310 Restaurants, blue on the avenue (the lower-case letters are intentional), the Partridge Tree Gift Shop and a soon-to-be-opened — and yet-to-be-named — steakhouse at an iconic Park Avenue location. McMahon, a native of Buffalo, New York, was a sales rep for Revlon before relocating and opening the charming Partridge Tree Gift Shop in 1986. “But I thought for a while that Park Avenue really needed a kid-friendly place for lunch,” recalls McMahon, 64. So, ever the entrepreneur, she opened 310 Park South in 1999, quickly gaining a following with the lively eatery’s friendly service and New American Cuisine (there are now 310 outposts in downtown Orlando and Lake Nona). In 2013, McMahon opened blu on the avenue, which offers fresh seafood, prime steaks and classic cocktails, right next door. And sometime in the fall, she’ll debut a traditional steakhouse — the working title is Bovines — in the space vacated by Park Plaza Gardens. “You’ve got to have a passion for what you do,” says McMahon, who makes the desserts for all her restaurants and is a hands-on boss in all her ventures, which cumulatively employ about 300 people. “There’s a lot of competition, especially in restaurants, so you can’t slack off.” McMahon — who earned a degree in business and psychology from the University of Buffalo — doesn’t slack off. In addition to running her businesses, she’s on the board of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce and president of the Park Avenue Merchant’s Association.

What they say:
Joanne is one of the smartest and hardest-working businesspeople in Winter Park … she’s the epitome of the entrepreneurial spirit and becoming successful by finding niches, taking calculated risks and providing quality.

What he says:
I’m very thankful for the people around me. I love to help my employees in achieving their goals, making them better people and watching them grow.

 

Julie and James Petrakis at The Ravenous Pig, Winter Park.

 

James Petrakis
Julie Petrakis

THE CULINARY CREATORS

Chef-Owners, JP Restaurants

Really, we could have opened the door and had nobody show up,” Julie Petrakis says of The Ravenous Pig, arguably the restaurant that defines Winter Park’s dining scene. “We literally had no idea what we were doing.” Since Julie and her husband, James, are the unofficial Queen and King of Winter Park’s trend-forward restaurant movement, it’s hard to think of them as tenuous twentysomethings opening what is generally considered to be the region’s first honest-to-goodness gastropub. The pair met as students at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and married in 2005. Two years later, they took a gamble and opened The Ravenous Pig on Orange Avenue (it’s now on Fairbanks Avenue). Despite significant obstacles, including an ill-timed national economic crash, the Petrakises and a loyal band of passionate foodies continued to expand. In addition to The Ravenous Pig, they opened Cask & Larder just blocks away. In 2016, they relocated Cask & Larder to Orlando International Airport, where it has wowed visitors with its Southern “farm to terminal” cuisine. (The Ravenous Pig, along with the Cask & Larder Brewery, subsequently moved into the vacated Fairbanks Avenue space.) The Petrakis empire includes Swine & Sons, a gourmet take-out operation in Winter Park, and The Polite Pig, a down-home barbeque restaurant at Disney Springs. The two have been semifinalists six times for regional James Beard Foundation Awards, and their ventures have been featured in Saveur, Food & Wine, The New York Times and many other national publications. Winter Park is home base, so the Petrakises direct most of their philanthropy to local causes that help children. Their sons attend preschool at First Congregational Church of Winter Park, so they helped fund an interactive white board, a new playground and security upgrades for the facility. Along with other local chefs, they participate in the annual “Appetite for the Arches” event, which benefits Ronald McDonald House. (James’ father, John Petrakis, is a McDonald’s franchisee and a board member of the charity’s Central Florida chapter.) For five years, the Petrakises have sponsored a section of the PurpleStride walk for pancreatic cancer. Three years ago, the couple bought the property around The Ravenous Pig with plans to “rescale the corner and make it a cool spot.” Oh, and that loyal band of passionate foodies who were there at the beginning? They’re all still on board in one capacity or another. No wonder even the non-kin are referred to as family.

What they say:
The Ravenous Pig pioneered a restaurant genre in Winter Park … Jim and Julie are always ready to give back to the community … there’s more competition now, but the Petrakises know how to keep their restaurants leading-edge while remaining true to their roots.

What he and she says:
We believe the restaurant scene in Orlando and Winter Park deserve to be on a par with Atlanta, and we try to give that to people.

 

Larry Ruggiero at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park.

 

Laurence J. “Larry” Ruggiero

THE LEGACY KEEPER

Director,Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art

Winter Park icons Hugh and Jeannette McKean wanted their priceless collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany creations — as well as their eclectic assortment of paintings, prints and art objects — to be displayed in a way that was accessible and welcoming to everyone. Jeannette died in 1989, and by 1992 Hugh surely realized that he was unlikely to be on hand when the magnificent Charles Hosmer Museum of American Art — named for Jeannette’s grandfather — opened its new facility on North Park Avenue. To Hugh’s credit — and Winter Park’s good fortune — the erstwhile artist and former president of Rollins College selected Laurence J. “Larry” Ruggiero, previously director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, as his heir apparent. Ruggiero, who holds a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Pennsylvania, admittedly knew little about Tiffany, whose elaborate decorative creations — mostly in stained glass — weren’t regarded seriously by most academic art historians. McKean, however, saw in Ruggiero a quirky kindred spirit who possessed the sensibility and the acumen to implement — and later to build upon — his expansive vision. As director, Ruggiero shepherded the museum’s 1995 move to its current location — completed just months following McKean’s death — and oversaw the 1999 addition of the Tiffany Chapel and the 2011 completion of a new wing re-creating portions of Tiffany’s fabled Long Island mansion, Laurelton Hall. Today, the museum is Winter Park’s best-known, most-visited cultural attraction. Ruggiero — a Patterson, New Jersey, native married for 48 years to the former Virginia Fornaci — remains humbled that McKean entrusted him to care for a collection that held such profound personal significance: “Jeannette and Hugh wanted to create a museum that would work unceasingly to make art an important and cherished part of the life of every member of their community — just as it was in theirs.”

What they say:
Larry is low key and quick to give credit to others, but the Morse would not be what it is today without him … what a huge responsibility to be entrusted with the McKean legacy … he’s the perfect combination of an academic and an everyman, which is probably what Hugh realized and appreciated.

What he says:
My personal style is to keep my head down. My proudest accomplishment? When asked a similar question, the famous Russian author and a man whose ideas I’ve always admired, Anton Chekov, responded to the effect that one had to be a God to distinguish one’s successes from one’s failures.

 

Greg Seidel at The Balmoral Group, Winter Park.

 

Greg Seidel

THE NEEDED NERD 

Vice President and Chief Engineer, The Balmoral Group
Winter Park City Commissioner, Seat 1

Civil engineer Greg Seidel, 53, was first elected to the Winter Park City Commission in 2015 — when then-commissioner Steve Leary resigned his seat to run for mayor — and was handily re-elected in 2017 after running a self-deprecating campaign as “the nerd Winter Park needs.” Seidel is vice president and chief engineer at The Balmoral Group, which is co-owned by his wife, Val, who’s president of the company. He believes that Winter Park’s infamous “factions” can, for the most part, agree that he’s an independent thinker who encourages respectful discourse and takes an analytical approach to decision making. He spent six years on the city’s Utilities Advisory Board, and advocates acceleration of undergrounding the city’s power lines and installation of “smart signaling” to mitigate worsening traffic problems. “I think everybody matters, and I want to hear everybody out,” he says. “I always ask what’s the right thing to do. I don’t hide behind the rules.” For example, in 2016 he joined commissioners Sarah Sprinkel and Carolyn Cooper in a 3-2 vote approving a request from longtime resident Martha Bryant Hall to have her home, which she shared with her husband, the late Rev. Jerry Hall, placed on the Winter Park Register of Historic Places. The city’s staff and its Historic Preservation Board had recommended against approving the request, saying that the circa-1950s home failed to meet criteria for inclusion. “It wasn’t so much about the historic value of the home itself,” says Seidel, who spoke with uncharacteristic emotion at the commission meeting during which the vote was taken. “It was about Reverend Hall and the way he conducted himself during the Civil Rights era. We needed to honor that.” Seidel also serves on advisory committees for Glenridge Middle School and Winter Park High School — he has daughters in the 9th and 11th grades — and has co-chaired the Tyler Rush Memorial Fund, which is the beneficiary of Winter Park High School’s annual “Night on Broadway” extravaganza. The Lehigh University graduate supports the Children’s Home Society and Panua Partners In Hope, which provides food, housing, education and vocational training for orphans in Kenya.

What they say:
Agree or disagree with him, you know Greg makes informed decisions … a really warm and funny man in addition to being brilliant … he’s a citizen first and a politician second. Actually, he’s not a politician at all, which is good.

What he says:
I have in-depth knowledge of infrastructure and development. That, combined with my requirement for fairness, allows me to understand both pro and con arguments. My proudest accomplishment is setting a good example for others to follow by following the golden rule.

 

Debbie Watson at the under-construction Center for Health & Wellbeing, Winter Park.

 

Debbie Watson

THE WELLBEING WARRIOR

Executive Vice President, Winter Park Health Foundation

When Debbie Watson talks about the importance of health and wellbeing, they aren’t hypothetical concepts. Watson, executive vice president of the Winter Park Health Foundation, was diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2014, and thyroid cancer in early 2015. She has withstood five surgeries, multiple infections, and months of chemotherapy and radiation. “Now,” she says, “thanks to my faith and the love and support I received from my family, friends, coworkers and community, I’m stronger than ever.” Watson’s personal health crisis has deepened her connection — and her commitment — to the soon-to-open Center for Health & Wellbeing, an 80,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility developed by the nonprofit foundation in partnership with Winter Park Memorial Hospital. The center — the most comprehensive of its kind in the region — will bring wellness, fitness and medicine together in one multimodal location. Watson, a Massachusetts native who double-majored in psychology and mass communications at Florida State University, joined the foundation in 1994. She has been active on numerous boards and committees related to health and wellness — particularly those focused on children. “I’ve always believed healthy kids make better students, and better students make healthier communities,” she says. Motivated by that belief, she has served on the executive committee of Florida Action for Healthy Kids, the state affiliate of a national organization that works to improve wellness programs in schools, and chaired the Orange County Public Schools Health and Wellness Advisory Committee. In 2014, she was named inaugural president of Living Healthy in Florida, a statewide initiative that operates under the auspices of the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. Watson and her husband, Lee, have been married for 35 years and ran their own public relations company in the 1980s. In addition to their own two children, the couple raised a young man with whom Lee was paired through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Florida.

What they say:
Debbie is an integral part of a wellness revolution in Winter Park … she’s effective because she really believes in what she’s doing … a great builder of partnerships because she’s as genuine as she is smart … a strong advocate for kids’ health.

What she says:
I’ve always strived to be a calm and assertive leader. I’m passionate and determined, but also believe it’s important to have fun while working hard. I believe in success through collaboration. 

 

Cynthia Wood at Rollins College.

 

Cynthia Wood

THE PRICELESS PARTNER

President/Owner, Cynthia Wood Philanthropy Partner

It’s a persistent myth that women don’t give large donations to good causes, or that they must ask men — presumably their husbands —before they’re allowed to write checks for charities. “Women control 51 percent of the wealth in this country,” says Cynthia Wood, president and owner of Cynthia Wood Philanthropy Partner, founded in 2009. “They generally outlive their husbands, and more are now single, either by choice or circumstance. And even when husbands are involved, wives are the primary influencers on philanthropic decisions.” Wood — who consults with individuals, families and organizations regarding their philanthropic strategies — has particular expertise in teaching nonprofits how to engage the inherent generosity of female donors. The Tuscaloosa, Alabama, native — who spent 19 years at Rollins College, the
last five as vice president for institutional advancement — knows that women are less interested in hoopla and more interested in seeing the ways in which their philanthropy will help individual beneficiaries. “Also, women are more collaborative in decision making,” adds Wood, who holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in speech audiology from Auburn University. “And they’re concerned with making social change.” Wood’s local clients have included Mead Botanical Garden, Winter Park Memorial Hospital, the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park and the Art & History Museums – Maitland. Wood is, herself, a giver: she chairs the Center for Women’s Philanthropy, an initiative of the Community Foundation of Central Florida, and is a board member and development chair for Grace Medical Home, a faith-based facility serving the low-income working uninsured. She also chairs the Jeremiah Project Committee, which oversees an outreach program of the First Congregational Church of Winter Park that provides arts programming for at-risk middle school students. Her husband of 34 years, Phil, serves on the Winter Park Historic Preservation Board.

What they say:
Cynthia is as savvy as they come regarding the successful operation of nonprofits … the most important arts, cultural and social service organizations in the region seek her advice … love that Alabama accent.

What she says:
I’d like for Winter Park to continue to be recognized for its cultural and educational treasures, to preserve its beauty and to be a community that values civility and respect.  I’m proud of the growth and success of staff, clients and individuals I’ve led, mentored and coached. I’m also pleased to have helped raise awareness of the important role women play in philanthropy. 

Eye Witness

Photography by Rafael Tongol

Sarah Peterson was trained to paint portraits of people. Lately, though, she has become fascinated with animals — particularly their eyes, which gaze from oversized canvases,

 

One of the best-known essays of the 20th century revolves around an encounter of a few seconds with a creature barely bigger than an ear of corn. You’ll find it in Teaching a Stone to Talk, a 1982 collection of the Thoreau-like ruminations of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and devoted naturalist Annie Dillard. 

In the essay, called “Living Like Weasels,” she challenges readers to live their lives with a wild, singular passion — a message she unspools from a moment spent face-to-face with one of those small, predatory mammals. 

The encounter takes place as Dillard sits on the trunk of a fallen tree on the bank of a pond in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, near the small community of Tinker Creek. She’s enjoying the ebbing warmth of a setting sun when the weasel emerges from beneath a wild rose bush just a few feet away. 

His face is “fierce, small and pointed as a lizard’s; he would have made a good arrowhead,” Dillard writes. Both the weasel and the writer are “shocked into stillness” for just a few elongated seconds. 

Peterson was something of an artistic prodigy, taking community-college drawing courses when she was 8 years old. She was fond of drawing Kermit the Frog, presaging her adult interest in animal images.

“Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key,” Dillard continues. “Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes.” 

Winter Park is a long way from Tinker Creek. But all it took to bring to mind this cosmic staring match was a trip to Sarah Peterson’s studio.

Until recently, Peterson, 43, had spent her career as a classically trained family-portrait painter. That changed following an experience she had last summer — one that led her to begin focusing on endangered animals that are indigenous to Florida.

Peterson — who, like Dillard, became captivated by the eyes of animals — creates startling, oversized images that she believes peer into the very souls of the threatened creatures she paints. 

Peterson has lived in Winter Park since 2006, when she moved here from Atlanta with her husband, a commercial real estate broker. (They have since divorced.) She grew up in the small town of Dyer, Tennessee, about 100 miles northwest of Memphis, where she began painting at the tender age of 8. 

For that early start she has, ironically, an animal to thank — albeit an imaginary one: Kermit the Frog. Well, Kermit and an observant and rather nervy parent. 

Impressed by the deftness of her daughter’s drawing of the Muppet mainstay, Peterson’s mother, an English teacher, marched her talented offspring to Dyersburg State Community College and persuaded its art instructor to allow the youngster to attend a class with students fully a decade older. 

“I was a shy child. I walked into that classroom with my head down,” recalls Peterson. “But looking around at all those college students around me gave me confidence. I thought, ‘If I’m sitting here, I must be something special.’”

The Florida leafwing butterfly, like all of Peterson’s creatures, is on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Endangered and Threatened Species List.

She was, apparently, right about that. 

Peterson went on to graduate from Dyersburg High School, after which she moved to Nashville and earned a fine arts degree at Lipscomb University. “I had this degree but no job, and decided I wanted to teach,” Peterson says. “Plus, I really wanted to get to New York.”

She relocated to Manhattan and enrolled at the Parsons School of Design, where she worked toward certification as an art teacher. That meant attending classes while instructing teens at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High, a visual and performing arts school that inspired the 1980 film Fame.

In addition, Peterson studied advanced oil portraiture at the Art Students League, where she was tutored by such nationally recognized masters of the form as Ronald Sherr, Daniel Greene and Everett Raymond Kindler. 

After finishing her studies, she worked full time as an elementary and middle school art teacher in Brooklyn before getting married and moving to Atlanta, where her husband attended Emery University. From Atlanta, her husband’s work brought the couple to Winter Park in 2001.

At first, Peterson put aside painting to raise two children. Following her divorce, however, she began to paint full time, concentrating on portraits of families. Several clients, though, asked her to paint their dogs. Recalls Peterson: “I thought, ‘Animals? Wow. That’s something different.’” 

In the eves of the burrowing owl (above), you can see a housing development reflected. In the panther’s (below), there’s a chain-link fence. Peterson was inspired by haunting images of animals in captivity by Joel Sartore, author, teacher, environmental crusader and National Geographic photographer.

 

Portraiture might still be her specialty had the market for it not ebbed. (It’s a lost art,” she mourns.) Two paintings at the bottom of her staircase, across from her sunlit studio, testify to a meticulous style and a gift for evoking personalities. The paintings are of her children: son Bradley, now 12, and daughter Frances, now 9. 

They’ve grown. So has she. 

Searching for a new artistic direction, she visited a friend in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, last summer and made a trip to the National Museum of Wildlife Art, which is perched on a bluff overlooking the National Elk Refuge. 

There were two exhibitions. One was a series of 10 brightly colored screen prints of endangered animals around the world, which was created in the early ’80s by Andy Warhol in his trademark style. The other was a series of photographs made by Joel Sartore, an author, teacher, environmental crusader and National Geographic photographer.

Sartore — who visited Winter Park in 2016 as part of the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College Speaker Series — is perhaps best known for creating the “Photo Ark,” a photographic catalog consisting of more than 25,000 photos of 7,521 animal species.

His Jackson Hole exhibit featured many images of animals confined in zoos and aquariums. “Because the animals were in captivity, he was able to use studio lighting. That brought out their eyes,” says Peterson. “That’s what struck me — the eyes being the window of the soul.” 

Most people have heard that phrase — and instinctively know it to be true — but its origins are murky. Shakespeare, to whom the exact quote is often attributed, never used those precise words in his sonnets or plays.

In the Book of Matthew, it’s written that “the eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” 

Whatever. Peterson saw something profound in the eyes of animals — and decided to try and paint it.

In some of Sartore’s photographs, Peterson noticed, you could see reflections of bars and wires. “You could tell the animals were captives,” she adds. “I thought: ‘What if I could do paintings like that?’ It could start a conversation.” 

A particular kind of conversation, that is: one that Peterson envisions taking place between the subjects of her portraits and the people who view them. “I realized,” she says, “that I could use my painting to make a difference.” 

When she returned to Winter Park, she began tracking down animal photographs she could use as inspiration, focusing primarily on the state’s endangered species.

The American alligator (above) and the sandhill crane (below) can be found in Central Florida. Peterson, who paints from photographs, mounts a big-screen television on her studio wall, which makes it possible to magnify images and get a closer view of feather and fur, scale and skin, as well as the eyes themselves.

She mounted a big-screen television on her studio wall, which made it possible to magnify the photographs and get a closer view of feather and fur, scale and skin, as well as the eyes themselves. She was intrigued not only by their eyes, but by their textures. 

Paintings in the series so far include two butterflies — a Florida leafwing and a ceraunus blue — as well as an alligator, a panther, a sandhill crane, a blue whale and a burrowing owl. In the panther’s eyes, you can see the reflection of a chain-link fence; in the owl’s, a housing development in the near distance.

Using a smart phone and a selfie stick, Peterson records herself from the first brushstroke on a blank canvas through completion of a work, then posts hypnotic time-lapse videos on her Facebook page. “I’m a photo-realistic painter,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that people knew I wasn’t just painting over pictures.” 

“That part of the animal just speaks to you,” she mused. She turned toward the painting with a distracted air and stood there, returning the owl’s gaze for a moment — looking for all the world like someone lost in conversation. 

Check out her work on Facebook at Sarah Peterson Fine Art. And contact her regarding commissions at sarahpetersonfineart@gmail.com. Because so many professors have used it in their writing classes, you can find “Living Like Weasels,” which is only four pages long, if you spend a little time poking around online for it.  

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