Weaver at Mead Botanical Garden.

THE INFLUENTIALS

Photography by Rafael Tongol

Welcome to the fifth anniversary of Winter Park’s Most Influential People, a program launched by Winter Park Magazine in 2015 to recognize those who — sometimes quietly — make a difference through their professions, their volunteerism, their philanthropy, their talents or their community engagement.

As usual, this year’s honorees were nominated by previous honorees. Other names were suggested through Winter Park Magazine’s social media. To be clear, our definition of “influential” is a broad one: We want to recognize people who are influential in the traditional sense, of course, as well as people who operate under the radar and make a difference without making headlines.

There were more than 100 names submitted this year — which is remarkable considering the program is in its fifth year and there are still plenty of people deserving recognition. This year we catch up with some people you likely know and obvious choices. But we also introduce you to some people you likely don’t know — but should.

As usual, this year’s Influentials are eclectic. 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. So, let’s meet Winter Park’s Most Influential People, Class of 2019.

PREVIOUS INFLUENTIALS

Here, in alphabetical order, are the Most Influential People from 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018:

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, Herb Holm (deceased), Jon and Betsy Hughes, Phil Kean, Allan Keen, Linda Keen, Randy Knight, 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.


Alexander and Alan at the Winter Park Playhouse.

Roy Alan and Heather Alexander

Artistic Director, Winter Park Playhouse (Roy Alan)
Executive Director, Winter Park Playhouse (Heather Alexander)

THE ESSENTIAL EMPRESARIOS

It’s been 17 years since the song-and-dance team of Roy Alan and Heather Alexander brought some show-biz sizzle to Winter Park. And patrons of their Winter Park Playhouse are grateful for the unapologetic escapism provided by the musical productions staged in the unassuming Orange Avenue venue, which is the only professional theater in Florida that specializes in musicals and cabarets. “You can see how they’re transformed from when they come in and when they go out,” says Alan, 63, the artistic director. A native of Texas, Alan has been tap-dancing for 60 years. After high school, he lived in Manhattan for 13 years, finding work in such Broadway hits as Pirates of Penzance and Nine. Alan and Alexander, now 52, met in Jacksonville in 1991 when both were performing in a dinner-theater production of Singin’ in the Rain. Alexander adored theater but her father insisted that she study something more practical. She earned a business degree from the University of North Florida — which proved to be a smart move. Alexander manages the theater while Alan coordinates the productions. After marrying, they relocated to New York City for a year — but it was a difficult place to raise children (they have four). They were lured to Winter Park by its beauty, culture, schools and proximity to theme-park jobs. In 2000, they founded the Master Class Academy to provide instruction in dancing, acting and singing. Two years later, Alan and Alexander sold the school and leased a small space from the new owners to establish the nonprofit Winter Park Playhouse. By 2003, when their production of the off-Broadway musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, packed the house, they knew they’d found a winning formula with musicals. In 2009 the theater moved next door, increasing the number of seats from 73 to 123, and expanded again in 2014, doubling in size to 10,000 square feet with a new lobby, bathrooms and dressing rooms. Now the couple is putting the theater on the national map with an annual Festival of New Musicals. More than 18,500 people annually attend performances at the venue, while another 11,500 — primarily underserved populations such as disadvantaged children and mobility-impaired seniors — are reached through classes or community performances. The Winter Park Playhouse budget in 2018 surpassed $1 million for the first time — with 55 percent raised through donations (mostly small) and grants. To paraphrase George Gershwin, thanks to Alan and Alexander, “Winter Park has music, Winter Park has rhythm. Who could ask for anything more?”

WHAT THEY SAY:

“We have proudly raised a family here and, out of love for this community, founded the Winter Park Playhouse to enhance the quality of life for residents and visitors.”

WHAT OTHERS SAY:

“Roy and Heather provide a priceless cultural asset … they deliver top-tier entertainment … very impressed with the theater’s community-service component … they make our lives better … a welcoming family atmosphere.” 

Bond in her design studio.

Anna Bond

Co-founder, Chief Creative Officer, Rifle Paper Co.

THE PAPER PRINCESS

It seems quaint, in this era of tweets, texts and emails, to send a handwritten note on a sheet of fine stationary, or to offer salutations, congratulations and invitations via a whimsically illustrated card. But Anna Bond, 34, co-founder and chief creative officer of Rifle Paper Co., has found a big market for quaintness through her line of artisanal planners, calendars, stationery, greeting cards and other paper and lifestyle products that bear her cheerful cursive lettering and stylized floral paintings in gouache (a combination of watercolors and acrylics). Bond’s first card design was for her own wedding to husband Nathan Bond, who was in an indie rock band for which she created show posters. She then began designing wedding cards for friends, and response was so positive that in 2009 the couple decided to make old-school paper products their business. Rifle Paper Co., originally operated out of the couple’s garage apartment, is today headquartered in Hannibal Square. The company has established an instantly recognizable international brand that sells not only cards and stationary but also accessories, home goods and art prints both online and through more than 6,000 retail stores that encompass independent boutiques as well as national chains such as Anthropologie, Barnes & Noble and Pottery Barn. Gross revenues topped $22 million last year, and the operation hums along with a staff of more than 180 — and growing. Bond’s designs now adorn wallpaper, fabrics, cosmetics packaging, temporary tattoos and even canvas shoes (with Keds). One of her designs appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 2018: It featured the scripted word “Love” accompanied by roses in deep pink; peonies and dahlias in pink, coral and yellow; berries in pale blue; and fronds and leaves in gold and green. Creating a stamp was a dream come true for Bond, who inherited her great-grandfather’s stamp collection and was fascinated by the artwork. Bond, who earned a graphic design degree from Liberty University, started her career as a magazine art director with Orlando-based Relevant Media Group. She’s a social-media celebrity with a fervent Instagram following of about 500,000.

WHAT SHE SAYS:

“We’ve found Winter Park to be an incredibly supportive business community that has never held us back from growing into a successful international brand. In some ways. we attribute our unique location as being one of the keys to our success. We’ve  been able to attract great local talent and grow the space we need as the business has grown.”

WHAT THEY SAY:

“Such a perfect kind of business for Winter Park … it gives the city international exposure … a great success story of talent meeting hard work.”

Clayton at the Glennon House.

Charles Clayton III

President, Charles Clayton Construction

THE FAITH BUILDER

Charles (Charlie) Clayton III, whose father developed much of Maitland in the 1960s and Winter Park’s Sevilla subdivision in the 1970s, has continued the family tradition as a homebuilder. Only his job is bigger. Literally. The lavish custom homes that Clayton, 59, builds or remodels in Winter Park are the stuff of dreams — the sort people admire in slick magazine spreads. In 2018, one of his Winter Park projects won a Best in American Living Award from the National Association of Home Builders and three Aurora awards from the Southeast Building Conference. Clayton graduated from Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, in 1983 with a business administration degree, and has built homes since 1984. He has served in an array of leadership positions within his industry, including locally as president of the Greater Orlando Builders Association and is a founding member of the by-invitation-only Master Custom Builders Council. Both organizations have previously named him “Builder of the Year.” His big projects begin with the right team: an architect, an interior designer and a landscape architect chosen with the help of the homeowner. Clayton describes his homes as a “three-dimensional gift to the owner.” Like his dad, Clayton is a generous supporter of Valencia College and funds scholarships for skills training programs in construction-related fields. “There’s a big need in our industry for trades,” Clayton says. “And Valencia is really stepping up to fill that need.” Today, Clayton — a veteran of several major charitable building projects including House of Hope, a residential program for troubled teens — is part of a new team of all-stars assembled for a project of lesser scale but perhaps wider community impact. He’s working in tandem with architect Jack Rogers on a project for their home church, All Saints Episcopal Church, in Winter Park. They’re restoring and refurbishing the circa-1925 Glennon House, previously the Fortnightly Inn, which houses the church’s Healing Ministry where Clayton and his wife, Lisa, are prayer ministers. In fact, Clayton’s life verse is Psalms 127:1: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.”

WHAT HE SAYS:

“Winter Park is where I have been blessed to live, blessed to work and blessed to have friends and family.”

WHAT THEY SAY:

“Charlie is just a class act personally and in business... always willing to lend his talents to a good cause... his new homes are beautiful, but he has a feel for historic preservation.”

Crown in the boardroom of the Cummer School.

Deborah Crown

Dean, Roy E. Crummer Graduate School of Business

THE DYNAMO DEAN

You don’t have to believe Deborah Crown, dean of the Roy E. Crummer Graduate School of Business at Rollins College, when she tells you that the program she has led since 2016 is the best in the state and one of the best in the country. Rankings in such publications as Forbes and Bloomberg Businessweek back her up. “I’m so proud of continuing our mission to develop global, responsible and innovative leaders who directly impact their organizations and communities,” says Crown, who had previously been dean of the business school at Hawaii Pacific University. Prior to that were stints at San Jose State, Ohio University and the University of Alabama. So, what brought her to Rollins? One factor was the Crummer School’s variety of powerhouse programs — including a Professional MBA, an Executive MBA and the state’s first Executive Doctorate in Business Administration. An innovative Early Advantage MBA program is designed for recent graduates who don’t yet have lengthy resumés. Another factor was the Crummer School’s dynamic growth plans. On the drawing board are new facilities for both the Crummer School and the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at the redeveloped Samuel B. Lawrence Center, a city block bounded by Lyman, Knowles, Interlachen and New England avenues. Together with the expanding Alfond Inn, the trio of projects has been dubbed the Innovation Triangle. Crown, a Dallas native who has a 15-year-old daughter (“my pride and joy,” she says), is a dynamo in the classroom, too, and boasts a shelf-full of honors for outstanding teaching. She has also been consulted for her expertise by such national media outlets as Fortune, Entrepreneur, The Wall St. Journal, The New York Times and USA Today as well as CNN and ABC News. Like any good business professor, though, Crown advocates collaboration and is quick to spread kudos among the Crummer School’s faculty, staff and alumni. “To be an effective leader, you need a passion for your organization’s mission,” she says. “You need the ability to work as part of a team to move that mission forward in a way that honors, engages and respects other people’s opinions and goals.”

WHAT SHE SAYS:

“I’m so privileged to be a Winter Park resident who also works in our beautiful city.” 

WHAT THEY SAY:

“Deborah is really a world-class professional … as good a teacher as she is an administrator, which isn’t always the case … a great fit for Rollins.”

Daniels at Winderweedle, Haines, Ward & Woodman.

Jere F. Daniels Jr.

Shareholder, Winderweedle, Haines, Ward & Woodman

THE LEGACY KEEPER

Jere Daniels Jr. doesn’t sit on the sidelines. More than 20 years after returning to his hometown to join the venerable law firm Winderweedle, Haines, Ward and Woodman, he’s a respected community leader in the mold of his late father, who practiced law in Winter Park for 55 years and modeled effective stewardship. Daniels, 52, is a trustee emeritus and past president of the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens; past chairman of the Winter Park YMCA; and one of three trustees — the others are banker Robert C. Klettner and CPA Russell D. Baldwin — of the Joe and Sarah Galloway Foundation. The YMCA and the Galloway Foundation were also causes championed by Daniels’ father, who with lawyer Nathaniel Turnbull was the foundation’s first trustee. Joe and Sarah Galloway established the Winter Park Telephone Company, which served Maitland and Winter Park and was sold in 1979. Fully funded since the death of Sarah Galloway in 2004, the foundation each year distributes more than $1 million to dozens of charitable organizations that enrich the lives of local children and families. “The opportunity to experience what they do and the passion that their volunteers and staff have, that’s all the compensation I need,” Daniels says. The Capen House at the Polasek Museum, the swimming pool at Winter Park High School and Showalter Field are among the most visible signs of the foundation’s generosity in recent years. A 1993 graduate of the University of Florida College of Law, Daniels worked in Atlanta for five years as the in-house counsel for an environmental contractor. Upon the birth of his first child — two more were to come — he decided it was time to be closer to family. Employed by Winderweedle in 1998, he has practiced in the real estate department with ever-increasing administrative responsibilities for the firm, which was founded in 1931. Daniels next year will become Winderweedle’s first new president in 12 years. Daniels is grateful for mentors at the firm who encouraged the service values he learned at home. “I’m honored that I can pass on the legacy that they passed on to me,” he says.

WHAT HE SAYS:

“We’re all just blessed to be in Winter Park. And it’s our responsibility to carry on the hard work of those who came before us, and made the great gifts of this community possible.”

WHAT THEY SAY:

“Jere is part of the future generation of leadership for Winter Park.… strong and focused … exudes leadership in a quiet way.”

Demar at the Welbourne Avenue Nursery and Kindergarten.

Robynn Demar

Executive Director, Welbourne Avenue Nursery and Kindergarten

THE CHILDREN’S CHAMPION

In 2017, the Welbourne Avenue Nursery and Kindergarten celebrated its 90th anniversary. If Executive Director Robynn Demar has her way, this historically significant community institution will celebrate at least 90 more years of providing top-quality childcare for a racially and culturally diverse population of working families. Demar, 45, sent her own children — now ages 10 and 20 — to Welbourne back when she was working as an accountant. She was heartened by the loving care her kids received and later became a volunteer. “We’re now serving the third generation of some families,” says Demar, who came on board as executive director in 2012. “When kids leave here they have a foundation to be successful.” Since its establishment, Welbourne has quietly served more than 10,000 families. Its graduates have gone on to high school and college and, in many cases, enjoyed successful careers in the military, business and government. It’s a story begging to be told — and Demar is eager to tell it. That’s why she believes enrolling in Leadership Winter Park, a program sponsored by the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, was “the best decision I ever made” as executive director. In 2013, she persuaded the group to adopt the facility as its project, which led to a Kentucky Derby-themed fundraiser that netted more than $16,000. The money was great, of course, but the event also served to elevate awareness among the city’s up-and-coming influencers. More recently Welbourne — which serves about 65 kids aged 6 weeks to 5 years — has been awarded a perfect-readiness score for its Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program, which prepares 4-year-olds for early education. It has also implemented a vegetable gardening program and launched nutrition partnerships with Nemours and the Winter Park Health Foundation. “Educating Children for a Better Tomorrow” clearly isn’t just a slogan at Welbourne; it’s a mission and a passion. Demar, a Tallahassee native, says her main goal is to keep spreading the word. A higher profile, she says, will result in more philanthropic support. Notes Demar: “When people realize what we do, they get behind us.”

WHAT SHE SAYS:

“I’m a very committed and compassionate person, and meet people where they are. I believe in the work I’m doing, and have confidence in my potential to inspire others.”

WHAT OTHERS SAY:

“Welbourne is an institution the city should cherish … Robynn’s passion for it is obvious … a terrific spokesperson who knows how to communicate the organization’s mission.”

The Holms at their residence.

Eric and Diane Holm

Philanthropists

CEO of Metro Corral, Holm Donuts, Holm Hotels, Holm Subs, Colt’s Pig Stand (Eric Holm)

THE THANKS GIVERS

These days, Eric and Diane Holm seem to have everything. But because they remember what it’s like to have very little, the couple cherishes opportunities to help those in need. “I can remember when we didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” says Diane, 63. “Our family has been blessed.” That’s especially true of Eric, also 63, who as a teenager bussed tables and washed dishes at the original Sonny’s BBQ location in Gainesville, where his mother was a server. It was difficult for a single mom raising five children to make ends meet, and the Holms received several Thanksgiving Day meals through the Salvation Army. That’s why for the past 26 years Eric and his wife, Diane, have been paying it forward with “Helpings from the Heart,” a local tradition during which turkey dinners and all the fixings are served to more than 20,000 people at the Salvation Army’s gymnasium on Colonial Drive. “Nobody should be hungry on Thanksgiving Day,” says Eric, a member of the Salvation Army’s national advisory board. He was humbled in 2014 when he received the faith-based organization’s Evangeline Booth Award, joining such previous honorees as the Rev. Billy Graham. Then in March of this year the Salvation Army Orlando Area Command inaugurated the Eric and Diane Holm Award, which will be presented annually to others who help the needy. Few, though, do more than the Holms, whose companies include 33 Golden Corral restaurants in Florida and Georgia as well as four Krispy Kreme stores in Jacksonville and a Fairfield Inn & Suites in Celebration. They’re branching out with Jersey Mike’s, a sub shop franchise, and Eric has developed his own concept, Colt’s Pig Stand (formerly Daytona Pig Stand), a fast-casual barbecue eatery in Daytona Beach. Eric is on the board of directors of the Catholic Foundation of Central Florida, while both Holms are members of the AdventHealth Winter Park Family Board. The hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit — where their grandson, Eric, was born — is named the “Holm Dreamery” in recognition of their support. Earlier this year the Holms sponsored the Wishmaker’s Ball, which benefited the Make-a-Wish Foundation. For the past five years Diane has chaired the Annual Heart of Fashion Show — sponsored by Nemours Children’s Hospital — which benefits Camp Boggy Creek in Lake County. Diane is on the Camp Boggy Creek board of directors and was recently presented the Catholic Foundation of Central Florida’s Outstanding Philanthropist Award. 

WHAT THEY SAY:

“Supporting organizations that are so deeply committed to helping those in need in our community has truly been our privilege.”

WHAT OTHERS SAY:

“Eric and Diane have a deep passion for helping others … thoroughly friendly and down-to-earth people … that Thanksgiving project is maybe the region’s most heart-warming event.”

Hotaling at Mead Botanical Garden.

Charlene Hotaling

Vice President and Business Manager, Seacoast Bank

THE NATURAL LEADER

If you’re looking for a civic sparkplug, get the indefatigable Charlene Hotaling to serve on your board or committee. Hotaling, 43, vice president and business manager at Seacoast Bank, doesn’t get involved just to see her name in magazines or to enhance her resumé. Friends say she genuinely cares about the community and believes that everyone who lives or does business in Winter Park has an obligation to give back. Of course, Winter Park is fortunate to have many like-minded boosters. But Hotaling is front and center because she’s currently the volunteer leader of two consequential but quite different community institutions: She chairs the board of trustees for both the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce and Mead Botanical Garden Inc. The chamber has enjoyed a renaissance over the past couple of years under the leadership of president and CEO Betsy Gardner Eckbert, who has broadened the organization’s focus beyond events to include such areas as entrepreneurship and international tourism. Hotaling, like many past Influentials, is a product of the chamber’s top-notch Leadership Winter Park program (Class of 2013) and was named the organization’s Chairman of the Year in 2016 for her effective committee work. “Charlene has the vision and capacity to make every board she serves better than she found it,” says Eckbert. Mead Botanical Garden Inc. is the volunteer organization that manages “Winter Park’s Natural Place,” the 47.6-acre expanse of gardens, trails, wetland and wildlife habitats — along with two amphitheaters — that has been rescued from neglect largely through the advocacy of nature-loving locals, who have donated funds and labor to revive a true urban oasis. “Mead Garden is vital to the lifestyle we enjoy in Winter Park,” adds Hotaling, who with her husband John has two offspring, ages 18 and 21. Her formula for leadership success is simple: “I ask a lot of questions and I do my best to seek out advice from others. We have a city full of very smart, insightful people. It’s important to me that I consider the opinions and thoughts of others while considering my own feelings before making decisions that could impact others.” 

WHAT SHE SAYS:

“Our community focus has helped John and I raise well-rounded adults that care about people, the community and our environment. I’m so very proud of the people they have become and would definitely say they are my proudest accomplishment.”

WHAT THEY SAY:

“Charlene is friendly and collaborative and absolutely no one is going to outwork her … her sincerity shows … a leader by example.”

Johnson at the Hidden Garden Courtyard on Park Avenue.

Susan Johnson

Founder and President, Support Our Scholars

THE LIFE-CHANGER

Susan Johnson’s son, Jake Allen, was born hearing and visually impaired. But Johnson, then 27, was determined that Jake would have the best life — and the best education — possible. She founded the Jake Allen Center, a one-of-a-kind school that provided an alternative education for Jake and others like him for whom traditional public schools were ill equipped. The school eventually grew to 50 employees and a $1 million annual operating budget. Sadly, Jake died in 2011 at age 34. Although still an advocate for special-needs children, Johnson then shifted her focus to helping young women who are academic superstars but are hindered by financial reasons from attending college. In 2006 she founded Support Our Scholars (SOS), through which underprivileged high-schoolers are mentored as they select and apply to colleges and then supported — financially and emotionally — throughout their higher-education journeys. “We provide our scholars with everything they need to begin their freshman year,” says Johnson. “We know that underprivileged first-generation students need the support of mentors and stipends to accomplish their goals.” In addition to receiving $10,000 per semester and dorm-room provisions, each scholar is assigned an individual mentor and has access to a support team of accomplished businesswomen who offer advice and encouragement. SOS now boasts 46 young women in such colleges as Harvard University, Rice University and Carnegie Mellon University plus seven attending graduate school. The SOS motto: “Changing Women’s Lives One Degree at a Time.” Johnson, an Ohio native, has received an array of recognitions including the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce Woman of Influence Award, the Walt Disney Community Service Award (twice) and the Sertoman of the Year Award, which recognizes exceptional contributions “in the spirit of service to mankind.” She also holds an honorary doctorate of humanities (L.H.D.) from Western Maryland College and has served on the boards of the Helen Keller National Center, the AdventHealth Community Health Impact Council and Lighthouse of Central Florida — which provides vision-specific rehabilitation and other services for the sight-impaired. Sports fans will know Johnson’s husband, Major League Baseball player and manager Davey Johnson. Together, the couple has six children.

WHAT SHE SAYS:

“I know that happiness comes from lifting up others. I would hope my life would reflect how many joys and blessings have been given to me.”

WHAT THEY SAY:

“Nobody who has a heart wouldn’t want to support Susan’s work … you’ll tear up listening to SOS kids tell success stories … she makes the world a better place.”

The Lowndes at the John and Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center.

John and Rita Lowndes

Philanthropists 

Founding Shareholder, Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed (John Lowndes)

THE SHAKES PAIR

“How far that little candle throws his beams!” wrote William Shakespeare in Merchant of Venice. “So shines a good deed in a weary world!” The Bard’s observation is certainly applicable to John and Rita Lowndes. The big-hearted beam-throwers for whom the John and Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center is named have undoubtedly made our world less weary — and more shiny — through their countless good deeds. Powerhouse land-use attorney John, 88, is the founding shareholder of Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed — which marks its 50th anniversary this year — and was an early partner with builders Lester Zimmerman, Lester Mandell and Jack Lazar in a development company that was sold in 2005 to nationally traded Meritage Homes. While building one of the most consequential law firms in the region, he found time to chair the boards of the Orlando Museum of Art, Winter Park Memorial Hospital (now AdventHealth Winter Park), the Winter Park Health Foundation, the Friends of the Mennello Museum, the UCF College of Business Administration and the UCF Foundation. Rita, 70, is a nonpracticing attorney who has chaired the boards of the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida, Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando, Trinity Preparatory School and the UCF Town & Gown Council. She has also served on the boards of the Winter Park Public Library, United Arts of Central Florida, the Central Florida Foundation, the Orange County Arts & Cultural Affairs Advisory Council, the UCF College of Arts & Humanities Dean’s Advisory Council and the UCF Foundation (on which she and John are now members emerita and emeritus). Ah, but what about Shakespeare? Longtime locals will remember that the Orlando Shakespeare Festival — rebranded in 2018 as Orlando Shakes — debuted in 1989 and staged productions at Lake Eola’s Walt Disney Amphitheater. The outdoor setting could be charming — but only if the weather was right, the pigeons behaved themselves and the noise of downtown traffic wasn’t too intrusive. In 2000, John and Rita donated $750,000 as seed money toward a $3.5 million transformation of the old Orlando Science Center into a state-of-the-art, four-theater complex. (Two like-minded couples, Ken and Trisha Margeson and Sig and Marilyn Goldman, added $500,000 and $300,000, respectively.) Orlando Shakes — celebrating its 30th anniversary this year – presents seven shows in Mainstage Series and three shows in its Children’s Series while the busy venue, located in Loch Haven Cultural Park, also hosts the Fringe Festival and other events.

WHAT THEY SAY:

“We must say to one another multiple times every week, ‘Isn’t Winter Park a great place to live?’ We would love to see Winter Park continue to deepen its commitment to arts and culture and to preserve the natural beauty around us.”

WHAT OTHERS SAY:

“John and Rita give their hearts as well as their money … old-school examples of people who really believe in giving back … John is a legend in this town and Rita is the most dynamic person I know.”

Madsen at the Lee Branch lobby of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida.

Paula Madsen

Volunteer/Activist

THE KIDS’ CRUSADER

After Paula Madsen earned her MBA from Northwestern University’s J.W. Kellogg School of Management, she went straight to work in the corporate world, with stints in the marketing and branding operations for such goliaths as Tonka Toys and General Mills. She had a chance to pursue her true calling after she and husband, Drew, the now-retired chief operating officer of Darden Restaurants, moved to Winter Park in 1999. She began to volunteer at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida (BGCCF) Eatonville Branch, which was then headquartered in a ramshackle double-wide bought through the federal “Weed and Seed” program. From 2000 to 2007 Madsen, 61, worked for BGCCF, which has 35 branches in seven counties. But she couldn’t get her mind off Eatonville, where the need was so great and the facility so forlorn. So, in 2005 she made it a mission to recruit a high-powered board of directors — which she led for the first six years — that would focus its efforts exclusively on the BGCCF’s efforts in Eatonville. She was thrilled when in 2011 Darden Restaurants decided to honor retiring chairman of the board Joe R. Lee by donating $1.5 million toward building a 9,000-square-foot facility to replace that aging double-wide. “The Lee Branch is located between two very affluent cities, Maitland and Winter Park,” notes Madsen. “There’s very strong community spirit in Eatonville. But a lot of kids there from single-family households where the parents works two or three jobs. There needed to be a safety net.” One of the initiatives championed by Madsen on behalf of the Lee Branch was the annual “Faces of the Future” breakfast, through which nearly $400,000 was raised last year. The Lee Branch has become a major success story and is now undergoing an expansion that will double its size. “When I’m passionate about a cause, like the BGCCF, I go into high-powered sales mode,” says Madsen. “I want everyone to understand, appreciate and then share my enthusiasm. Working tirelessly to help even the playing field for at-risk youth is something we should all be 100 percent behind.”

WHAT SHE SAYS:

“I think Winter Park is the best thing about Central Florida.”

WHAT THEY SAY:

“Paula has major-league corporate experience that she applies to nonprofits … someone you definitely want on your team … underprivileged children have a powerful advocate.”

Mukherjee at Enzian.

Elizabeth Tiedtke Mukherjee

Managing Director, Enzian

THE CINEMA STALWART

Like Dorothy on her journey to Oz, Elizabeth Mukherjee, scion of the Winter Park’s legendary Tiedtke family, couldn’t have imagined what lay beyond the rainbow. But here she is, years after flirting with theater and culinary careers in New York City, managing director of the Maitland art-movie house that was her childhood playground. Mukherjee, 33, is the daughter of Philip and Sigrid Tiedtke, under whose leadership Enzian became a beloved local institution and launched the Oscar-qualifying Florida Film Festival. The nonprofit theater was founded in 1985 by Tina Tiedkte, Philip’s sister, with funding from her father, John Tiedtke. Mukherjee’s paternal grandfather was an arts enthusiast who shaped the town’s very character with his philanthropy. After high school, Mukherjee went to New York University to study theater. But she changed her mind. “I like numbers and problem-solving and analysis far too much to just major in art,” she says. She transferred to Rollins College, where she graduated in three years with a major in economics. Then, thinking she might open a restaurant or even become a chef, it was back to the Big Apple for nine months at the French Culinary Institute. Upon finishing in 2009, her parents invited her into the kitchen of Enzian’s restaurant, Eden Bar, to test her skills. Within a year, she was the operation’s business manager. It was terrifying. “I had a piece of my family legacy and a local treasure at stake,” she says. By 2015, she was spearheading a $6 million expansion, which was suddenly last summer called off due to parking issues. It was a disappointment, she says, adding that “we would rather Enzian be what it is than risk losing it.” Mukherjee has reorganized with new staff to lead operations and development, and the board is contemplating strategic enhancements to the theater complex. Mukherjee, who works for free, says she would like to make herself “irrelevant.” She and her husband, cyber security attorney Gourav Mukherjee, have two sons, ages 3 and 1. For the young woman who loves numbers, food and making people happy, it turns out there’s no place like home.

WHAT SHE SAYS:

“We’re fortunate to receive the support of a culturally diverse and open-minded community, and are able to give back by offering people a place to truly connect with one another and experience a deeply diverse, highly democratic and broadly accessible art form.”

WHAT THEY SAY:

“Enzian is one-of-a-kind in Central Florida … comforting that it’s in the hands of a family member … Liz is her parents’ daughter: talented and brilliant.”

Murphy at Kraft Azalea Garden.

Stephanie Murphy

U.S. Representative, District 7

THE SENSIBLE CENTRIST

During an era in which the extreme right and the extreme left have come to dominate national politics, U.S. Representative Stephanie Murphy (D-Winter Park) has staked out a position in the sensible middle, co-chairing the House Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 27 pragmatic Democrats focused on fiscal responsibility and a strong national defense, and chairing Future Forum, a group of 50 younger House Democrats (Murphy is 41) that advocates for issues important to millennials such as college affordability and gun violence prevention. Murphy, now in her second term, is known for her independent streak, which allows her to support both a balanced budget amendment — long a goal of conservatives — and such traditionally liberal causes as abortion rights and LBGTQ protections. Now in her second term representing District 7 — which encompasses Winter Park — Murphy cruised to reelection in 2018 after barely edging longtime incumbent Republican John Mica in 2016. And she gets things done: Quorum Analytics, a software company that tracks and aggregates legislative data, named Murphy the most effective member of the 2016 freshman class in the House. In 2019 she was appointed to the House Ways and Means Committee, the chief economic policy committee in Congress. Murphy’s personal story is certainly compelling. She was 6 months old in 1979 when her family fled Vietnam by boat. They were rescued at sea by the U.S. Navy and brought to the U.S., where Murphy — with the help of Pell Grants and student loans — eventually earned dual bachelor’s degrees in economics and international relations from the College of William and Mary and a master’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown University. She served as a national security specialist at the Pentagon and was a strategy consultant at Deloitte Consulting before jumping into politics and becoming the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to Congress. A Winter Park resident, Murphy is married to Sean Murphy, CEO of Maitland-based sporting goods maker 3N2. They have two children, Maya and Liem. The accomplishment of which she is most proud, however, was becoming an American citizen as a teenager.

WHAT SHE SAYS:

“On the whole, I think members of Congress spend too much time trying to score political points on TV and obstructing their opponents and not enough time putting people over their own politics. I’m working to stop that.”

WHAT THEY SAY:

“Stephanie isn’t a showboater … cares more about getting things done than scoring political points … we could certainly use more like her, whether there’s an R or a D next to their names.”

The Nicholsons at their residence.

Tony and Sonja Nicholson

Philanthropists

Real Estate Developer (Tony Nicholson)
Real Estate Broker (Sonja Nicholson)

THE KNIGHT MOVERS

In 1979, the fledgling football team at UCF had no locker room, players were required to bring their own cleats and all the equipment was donated. Head coach Don Jonas, erstwhile quarterback of the Continental Football League’s Orlando Panthers, worked gratis the first season. Home games were played in the rickety Tangerine Bowl (today Camping World Stadium) in downtown Orlando. But by 2017 the Knights — who since 2007 have played home games on campus in bouncy Spectrum Stadium — were declaring themselves national champions after going 11-0 and earning a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, the only team to beat the squads who played for the official national championship: Alabama and Georgia. Tony and Sonja Nicholson have for years been among the burgeoning program’s MVPs. Tony, 80, is a real estate developer who has also backed Broadway shows and published magazines. Sonja, 67, is a real estate broker who owns Rose Properties in Winter Park. In 2004, the Nicholsons donated $2 million for construction of the Nicholson Fieldhouse — the state’s first indoor practice facility for a college football team — and more recently another $2 million for upgrades to the fieldhouse and the surrounding area. But the Nicholsons aren’t interested exclusively in sports. In 1996, for example, the university named its School of Communication and Media in their honor following a $2 million pledge. “UCF is one of the community’s most significant institutions,” says Tony Nicholson. “We’re delighted to be able to contribute in a meaningful way.” The Nicholsons have also contributed in meaningful ways to Winter Park. Just drive by AdventHealth Winter Park, where the $85 million Nicholson Patient Pavilion is nearing completion. The addition will include 140 all-private rooms and an expanded same-day surgery center along with a surgical waiting room and a new main lobby for the hospital. Floors two through five will encompass an intensive care unit, surgical care beds and an inpatient rehab facility. Previously the couple had donated $5 million toward construction of AdventHealth Celebration’s Nicholson Center, a $35 million facility where thousands of surgeons have trained in robotic surgery. Tony Nicholson serves as a member of the board of directors for the UCF Foundation and the UCF Athletics Association, while Tony and Sonja serve on the boards of the Nicholson School and the Bethune-Cookman University Foundation. The couple co-chair the AdventHealth Foundation Family Board and support an array of charitable organizations.

WHAT HE SAYS:

“My style is a caring manner. I’ve been able to do endowments for the charities close to my heart and to give of my time, bringing my business expertise and knowledge to share and help them all.”

WHAT SHE SAYS:

“Coming from Alabama and growing up in a close-knit family, I feel I have a special ability to connect with others. I genuinely care about the issues that I get involved in, and I do like to champion winning outcomes.”

WHAT THEY SAY:

“You could write a book about Tony’s business career … Sonja is a savvy businesswoman who loves the community … the Nicholsons have probably touched your life whether you know it or not and deserve every accolade you can think of.”

Rivers at The Coop.

John Rivers

Founder and Chief Executive Officer, 4R Restaurant Group 

THE BARBECUE BENEFACTOR

Most givers build successful businesses first and support good causes later. John Rivers, 55, has flipped that narrative. Founder and CEO of the 4R Restaurant Group — parent to the 4 Rivers Smokehouse chain plus The Coop, The Sweet Shop and 4R Specialty Cakes — started giving and built a food-service empire as a result. In 2004 Rivers was a retired pharmaceutical executive who, with his wife, Monica, had begun a “barbecue ministry” to help others. By the time the first 4 Rivers Smokehouse opened five years later — in a run-down building on Fairbanks Avenue — the couple had decided to use a percentage of the restaurant’s revenue for philanthropy. In 2015, with business booming, they established the 4R Foundation, which now aids more than 650 local causes and organizations. Since 2012 the 4R Foundation has run the annual “Cabs ‘n Cows” event to benefit local nonprofits. In addition, each Rivers-owned restaurant awards an annual scholarship to an employee and maintains a distress fund for other employees who may face personal hardships. Says Rivers: “My job as CEO is to make sure every single person working for us has the chance to impact a life in a positive way.” The company also provides personalized birthday cakes to children in foster care. “That’s their special day, and children need to feel valued and special in life,” adds Rivers. Coming up is the 4Roots Farm & Agriculture Center, which will encompass a 40-acre farm and a 30,000-square-foot distribution facility in Orlando’s burgeoning Packing District. The center will use traditional methods and state-of-the-art hydroponics to grow fruits and vegetables that will be bought by Rivers’ restaurants as well as AdventHealth and Orange County Public Schools. Profits, he says, “will go right back into the community.” The distribution facility will also handle the approximately 972 million pounds of produce that the State of Florida buys and then fails to sell. “That food now gets burned or goes into a landfill while one in five children in the state goes hungry,” notes Rivers. 4Roots has already committed to build or expand farms at three Orange County high schools. 

WHAT HE SAYS:

“Our culture is predicated on love and on truly caring and making a difference in other people’s lives. That’s how we do what we do. It’s a corporate mandate. You feed people who need food.” 

WHAT THEY SAY:

“A man of faith who walks the walk … an example of how all businesses can give back … I want his brisket recipe.”

Stephenson at his City Hall office.

Bronce Stephenson

Director of Planning and Community Development, City of Winter Park

THE PLACE-MAKER

It takes vision, technical knowledge and considerable people skills to effectively oversee planning, economic development, code enforcement and historic preservation in Winter Park — where any aspect of the job is apt to create controversy. Bronce Stephenson, a relentlessly cheerful extravert, may well possess the right combination of smarts and savvy to steer the city through complex and potentially fraught issues such as, for example, creating an overlay district that would reshape the jumbled Orange Avenue corridor into a more suitable entryway for the city. Stephenson, 35, came to Winter Park from a similar position in Owasso, Oklahoma — about the same size as Winter Park — where he oversaw a rebirth of the city’s nondescript downtown into the hip and happening Redbud District. Such a metamorphosis is what he hopes to see occur along Orange Avenue, but he wants Winter Parkers — not city hall — to guide the process. That’s why he assembled an Orange Avenue steering committee — public hearings were underway at press time — and is personally meeting with community stakeholders to gather feedback. After earning a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State University (geography and history) in 2007, Stephenson got a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Oklahoma. He began his career in Del Mar, California, as an intern before eventually taking over as assistant planner. Two years later he was planner for Stillwater, Oklahoma, followed by a seven-year stint as community development director in Owasso. Back in the Sooner State, Stephenson was an active Boy Scout leader — he and wife Robby have four sons and two daughters ranging in age from 2 to 16 — and coached baseball and soccer. He also participated in a variety of civic organizations. “My goals are to provide solutions to the numerous complicated issues that Winter Park faces,” he says. “I want to enhance community and create place with each decision I play a part in. Our desirability and geographic location puts great pressure on Winter Park — so our solutions will need to involve critical thinking and honest, transparent dialogue.”

WHAT HE SAYS:

“I love helping people aim for higher standards and helping them realize that they can make a difference by just showing up and using their voices.” 

WHAT THEY SAY:

“I’m impressed by Bronce’s commitment to outreach … if you want to know what’s happening just call him … very committed to partnerships.” 

Swope at the Ann Derflinger Auditorium.

Matthew Swope

Director of Choral Activities, Chairman of the Department of Performing Arts, Winter Park High School

THE CHOIR CHIEF

Out of all the high school teachers you can recall, how many were so inspirational that they truly changed your life? If you’re lucky, then you can name a handful. If you’re really lucky, then you — or your kids — were taught by Matthew Swope, director of Winter Park High School’s enormously popular choral program. Swope, 38, wrangles more than 200 teenage Wildcats in the school’s choir and in several award-winning a cappella ensembles, such as Naughty Scotty (men) and Take 7 (women). He also directs the school’s annual Night on Broadway — an over-the-top musical production that has staged crowd-pleasing extravaganzas such as Les Misérables, Ragtime, The Pirates of Penzance and last year’s Celebration in Song, which marked the event’s 20th anniversary. Of course, even the omnipresent Swope can’t individually teach 200 sophomores, juniors and seniors how to be great singers. But what he can do — and does do — is teach them life lessons about the importance of teamwork and professionalism. Swope, who earned a master’s degree in music from Penn State, also shepherds his young singers to civic and charitable functions and leads various ensembles in recording sessions and national competitions. Under Swope’s direction, songs by Winter Park High’s a cappella groups have twice been selected for the Best of High School A Cappella — a compilation album released by Chicago-based Varsity Vocals — and have notched several nominations from the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Society, which, in the a cappella world, is the equivalent of the Grammys. (By the way, if you want to shed a happy tear, check out the “Mr. Rogers Medley” by Naughty Scotty on YouTube.) Swope, winner of the Winter Park High School Excellence in Teaching award, says he’s proudest not of the singers he has produced but of the people he has produced: “So many of my former students are out in the community and the world beyond positively contributing to society. Hearing their accomplishments as doctors, teachers, engineers, pastors and entrepreneurs makes me proud to have been a part of their journey.”

WHAT HE SAYS:

“I hope Winter Park continues to treasure its historical landmarks and institutions and yet always finds a way to lead in artistic, educational, environmental and entrepreneurial endeavors. I hope that Winter Park continues to invest in the lives of young people, because they truly are the future of this beautiful city.”

WHAT OTHERS SAY:

“A once-in-a-generation teacher for most kids … hard to imagine who else in this town impacts as many young lives … I hope he’s there long enough for my grandkids to join the choral program.”

Everett and Walker at Central Park.

Dykes Everett and Bill Walker

Founder and President, Dykes Everett & Company
Retired attorney, Winderweedle, Haines, Ward & Woodman

THE CIVIL SERVANTS

Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you’ll surely concede that people seem generally nastier, less empathetic and more combative than they used to be. That’s certainly true in national politics, which has gotten so toxic that it has infected interactions between otherwise friendly neighbors in communities across the U.S. Last year retired attorney Bill Walker, 77, formerly of Winderweedle, Haines, Ward & Woodman, began convening small groups of people who hold opposing viewpoints and encouraging them to talk — and, more important, to listen — to one another while enjoying lunch. Walker’s former law partner Dykes Everett, 59, now president of Dykes Everett & Company, a consultancy that advises developers on issues related to conservation and natural resources, soon joined the effort. The result is the No-Name Civility Posse, an informal group — it has about a dozen members and no elected officers — that meets regularly at the Barker House, home of Rollins College President and First Lady Grant and Peg Cornwell. (Peg Cornwell is a member of the group.) Earlier this year the posse expanded its scope by hosting a larger confab at the college’s Rice Family Pavilion. What’s next? Hopefully, say Walker and Everett, plenty. The group is loosely modeled on the Tallahassee-based Village Square, a nonprofit organization that formed in 2006 following a local political brouhaha and now hosts seminars, forums and town halls attended by hundreds. “Our concept is simple, really,” says Everett. “We thought the best place to start is always with fellowship. Get people together, break bread together and you can restore relationships and then create a place to work on our differences.” Walker and Everett are both self-professed “country boys” — Walker’s from Palatka, Everett’s from Sebring — who believe that people can agreeably disagree. They share the goal of making Winter Park a more thoughtful and respectful place where citizens can intelligently discuss issues and even in divergence find common ground. Walker, who once took a leave of absence from lawyering to head the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, and Everett, who comes from a ranching family and has a passion for environmentalism, may be on to something. But they insist that everyone can make a difference, whether they’re posse members or not. To learn the philosophical underpinnings of the No-Name Civility Posse, they suggest reading Arthur Brooks’ Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from our Culture of Contempt (HarperCollins 2019).

WHAT THEY SAY:

“To be effective I try to use patience, judgment, effective public speaking, unemotional thinking through controversial issues, a sense of humor and the ability to be vulnerable.” (Walker) 

“I tend to use my life experiences to inform the debate and try to engage folks with authenticity and a sincere interest in solutions.” (Everett)

WHAT OTHERS SAY:

“Hopefully this concept catches on; we could use it in Winter Park … great to see two seasoned community leaders come out and say, ‘Let’s change the way we interact as a community.”’

Weaver at Mead Botanical Garden.

Todd Weaver

City Commissioner, Group 4
President, Weaver Engineer and TruGrit Traction

THE CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR

Todd Weaver helped design the old “Twister: Ride it Out” attraction at Universal Studios, so he should be well prepared for a stormy stint on the Winter Park City Commission. Weaver, a 63-year-old aerospace and mechanical engineer, earlier this year ousted incumbent Pete Weldon from Seat 4 after one term. The city was divided along the usual factional lines, but this time the primary issue inspiring opposition to Weldon — and support for Weaver — was The Canopy, the city’s yet-to-be-built $40.1 million library and events center complex. The project, located in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, will be paid for through a combination of $28.7 million in net proceeds from voter-approved bonds, $6 million in county tourist-development taxes and $5.4 million in philanthropic support. But Weaver thinks the city should “hit the pause button” on The Canopy, which he contends will cost too much and has strayed too far afield from its original concept. Nonetheless, city commissioners in May voted 3-1 to authorize designers to proceed with construction drawings and submit them — with a guaranteed maximum price — by October. Regardless, Weaver proved that he’s willing to speak up about issues that concern him — particularly growth management and the preservation of green space. Born in Dayton, Ohio, Weaver spent his childhood in South Carolina before moving to Central Florida with his family in 1972. He earned an engineering degree at UCF in 1983, then began his career at Universal Studios before moving into the aerospace and commercial aviation industries. In 2015 Weaver founded two Winter Park-based companies: Weaver Engineering, which offers consulting services, and TruGrit Traction, which manufactures a type of wheel — invented by Weaver — for underground piping inspection robots. Weaver has been active in numerous charitable and civic organizations, including a stint as chairman of the Winter Park Lakes and Waterways Advisory Board. He’s proudest, though, of leading the effort to save algae-clogged Lake Bell. He enlisted about a dozen neighbors and formed the Friends of Lake Bell, members of which installed about 30,000 shoreline plants to help restore the 35-acre body of water to health.

WHAT HE SAYS:

“I think what makes me effective is the ability to listen. I learned collaboration being the fifth of 10 children.” 

WHAT THEY SAY:

“Todd has a passionate following for sure … a brilliant guy … obviously sincere whether you agree with him or not.”

 

The Eatonville Boys & Girls Club has come a long way. Its current expansion program will double its capacity and enable the club to add a variety of new programs.

MAKING AN IMPACT IN EATONVILLE

Gary Cain, chief executive office of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida, recalls the clubs’ first presence in Eatonville. It was in a double-wide trailer that developed holes in the floor from overuse. Now the Joe R. Lee Branch, which opened in 2011, is in the midst of a major expansion. Photography by Rafael Tongol.

If you were tuned to cable news at 8:30 p.m. on April 17, you saw Representative Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, angrily accuse Attorney General William Barr of putting a pro-Trump gloss on the Mueller Report to be released the following day.

Standing with Nadler in the glare of the television lights were four committee members, including Democratic Representative Val Demings of Orlando. Nadler said the committee would review the report, then decide how to proceed.

High drama indeed. But in a little more than 12 hours — about the time Barr would be holding a press conference in Washington to offer his take on the report — Demings was due in Central Florida to shovel dirt at the groundbreaking for a small-town Boys & Girls Club. Folks back home surely would understand if she cancelled and stayed in D.C. to scour a report that could presage a constitutional crisis.

Not a chance. “She was always planning on attending the event — we didn’t consider cancelling,” says Daniel Gleick, communications director for Demings.

After all, this was no ordinary groundbreaking because this was no ordinary place. This was historic Eatonville, where the Joe R. Lee Branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida has for nearly a decade helped young people battle barriers.

IT STARTED WITH A DOUBLE-WIDE

The vaulted canopy-like entrance of the Lee Branch — a faint echo of downtown Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts — and its airy atrium lobby belie the compactness of the space. 

The Eatonville facility reached its capacity (100 kids a day, often exceeded) soon after opening in 2011. A $3 million expansion from 9,000 to 23,000 square feet, with space for 250 kids, is the ribbon-cutting highlight of a busy 75th anniversary for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida (BGCCF). 

The Eatonville expansion isn’t even the biggest project on the organization’s drawing board. This fall, the BGCCF breaks ground on a $7.5 million, 31,000-square-foot club near Orange Center Elementary School on Orlando’s hardscrabble west side. 

The Jacqueline Bradley-Clarence Otis Family Branch will serve 350 kids daily with programs, facilities and amenities more closely resembling a mini-university. Otis, former CEO of Darden Restaurants, and his wife, Jacqueline, have donated $2 million and offered to match up to another $2 million in gifts.

But today the spotlight was on Eatonville — dubbed “the town that freedom built” — where the BGCCF has been making an impact for 20 years. The neighborhood was bustling with dignitaries, news crews and BGCCF supporters who knew something of historic importance was happening here.

Eatonville Mayor Eddie Cole was dubbed the “Willy Wonka of social work” by David Odahowski, president and chief executive officer of the Winter Park-based Edyth Bush Foundation. Cole’s Every Kid Outreach ministry predated the arrival of the Boys & Girls Clubs, but today the two organizations complement one another.

Speaking of history, the BGCCF dates to 1944 when Orlando recreation director Joe Stripp, a former major league pitcher, started the area’s first Boys Club, for white boys only, in an armory in Parramore. (The organization became the Boys & Girls Club in 1990.)

 “Jersey” Joe Stripp played for the Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Bees between 1928 and 1938. And how’s this for trivia? Stripp was the last major leaguer to bat against a legally thrown spitball in 1934.

 But fate kept throwing curveballs at Eatonville kids until 1999 when the town finally got its first Boys & Girls Club. It was housed in a double-wide trailer obtained through a $40,000 grant from the federal “Weed and Seed” program designed to weed out crime in urban areas and seed them with social and economic programs.

Why did the nation’s oldest incorporated African-American town, where the need was obvious, have to wait 55 years for a club? And why did that club, humble though it was, have to rely on federal money instead of philanthropy?

“It’s not unusual for Boys & Girls Clubs to start in very modest circumstances,” says Gary Cain, 64, president and chief executive officer of the BGCCF. Cain served on the task force that secured the Weed and Seed grant. 

“Our business model is a tough system,” he adds. “Candidly, prior to our arrival there had not been many major gifts to the organization. So we needed to do some foundational work.”

Cain, hired as CEO in 1994, was effective in opening some of the deepest pockets in Central Florida. Today, private gifts account for about 70 percent of the BGCCF’s operating budget. The remainder comes from a combination of grants and funding from Orange County. 

Among the speakers at the Lee Branch groundbreaking were representatives of Darden Restaurants, Red Lobster (formerly a Darden brand), Tupperware and the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation — just a sampling of the major donors Cain has recruited.

In 1999, though, the cupboard was mostly bare except for Weed and Seed cash. But it was enough to seed the double-wide, which became a welcome home away from home for Eatonville kids often at loose ends.

“For what they had to work with, they did an excellent job,” says Eatonville Mayor Eddie Cole, 60. “Their presence spoke more than the facility itself. But what did the kids like more — the building or the love they were getting inside the building?” 

Inside were caring adults, people who would offer personal support and homework help. “Kids were running there,” Cole recalls. “Sometimes they were beating the workers there. They never looked at it like, ‘Man, we don’t have what the other Boys and Girls Clubs have.’” 

Today the BGCCF has a $14-million annual budget and operates 35 clubs across seven counties. There are 21 free-standing clubs and 14 after-school and summer programs in middle schools serving 15,000 kids. 

None of the 35 programs are in Winter Park or Maitland. That may sound startling but only if you fail to consider the organization’s core mission. Marines run toward the sound of gunfire. The BGCCF goes where it’s most needed.

The typical kid a few miles away in Maitland — the same zip code, ironically — has two parents, middle-class mobility, access to wide opportunities and layers of non-family support and connections.

Eatonville children come into the world with little or no margin for error in life and no safety net. One innocent slip, one episode of errant behavior, one wrong-place-wrong-time moment can be catastrophic.

THE WILLY WONKA OF SOCIAL WORK 

BGCCF statistics about its Lee Branch members depict what can only be called a head stop in life: 80 percent come from single-parent homes; 97 percent are eligible for free or reduced school lunch; 85 percent come from households with an income of less than $30,000; 89 percent are African-American.

“The children who need us most are children of color,” says Cain, who grew up poor in Panama City and spent much of his time at a nearby Boys Club. “I want to help children who didn’t choose the circumstances they were born into be able to see the possibilities — to help them get the skills and mindsets and attitudes to succeed.”

It was the same challenge that Cole, the future mayor, faced when he arrived in Eatonville in 1984 from his native Canton, Ohio, to start youth programs under the aegis of Young Life, a Colorado-based charity focused on social uplift through Christ. 

He had his work cut out for him. There were few organized activities for kids. The new Denton Johnson Community Center, opened that year and used today for Head Start and other programs, offered no activities for kids and wasn’t open after school or on weekends. “An empty shell,” Cole called it.

“When kids got out of school they just hung out on the streets,” says Shadrick “Shaggy” Alexander, 39, now service director at the Lee Branch.  “Sometimes in the morning we could have a before-school breakfast. They had some mentoring and talks on the importance of hygiene. But nothing geared toward education and career, the arts or character and leadership.”

With charisma to burn, Cole refused to acquiesce to the stagnation. His imagination and ingenuity led Winter Park-based Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer David Odahowski to refer to him as “the Willy Wonka of social work.” 

Cole was, indeed, a hot knife through butter, sparking the dormant community center to life with activities and programs based on his unshakable belief in a bright future for the kids. By 1991 he was city recreation director, gaining attention from influentials outside Eatonville for his good works and exuberant leadership.

Cole and Odahowski became friends over the years, and Odahowski promised to drop by Eatonville someday for a look-see at Cole’s handiwork. He chose an afternoon in the summer of 1991 when he and fellow foundation board member Michael Cross, an investment advisor, were returning from a meeting.

Shadrick “Shaggy” Alexander (above left) is service director at the Lee Branch while Austin Long (above right) preceded Alexander in Eatonville before becoming service director at the East Altamonte Branch. Both have made the BGCCF their work and their mission and have mentored hundreds of young people. Photography by Rafael Tongol.

Exiting I-4 they decided to visit Cole unannounced. “We were driving a very large white Mercury Grand Marquis, and we were both wearing dark suits, white shirts, red ties and sunglasses,” recalls Odahowski. As might be expected, their presence aroused suspicion.

“We pulled up to the Denton Center and rolled down the window because we weren’t sure where to go,” Odahowski continues. “I asked a guy, ‘Do you know Eddie Cole?’ He said, ‘Never heard of him.’ I was befuddled. Eddie had been nurturing youth for many years. We drove around and found another guy who said he didn’t know Eddie Cole. So we drove back to the office.”

Later that afternoon, a concerned Alexander came to Cole’s office in the Denton Center and informed him that “two white guys came by here today dressed like the Blues Brothers, looking for you. They wanted to see what you’re doing.’”

“I laughed so hard!” Cole says. “So [Odahowski and Cross] came back another day and looked in the room we had. Nothing but a big empty room with some partitions up. Over here you could show some movies, over there we had a ping-pong table. I know they had to be saying, ‘Don’t tell me there’s not a need in Eatonville.’”

Not long after the Blues Brothers dropped by, the Bush Foundation gave Cole a $65,000 grant to establish Every Kid Outreach (EKO), a ministry to provide programs and mentors for Eatonville kids from kindergarten through high school. 

To date, the foundation has contributed nearly $260,000 to EKO in addition to $2.6 million to the BGCCF — including $250,000 for the Lee Branch expansion. EKO and the Boys and Girls Club don’t overlap, Cole says; they complement one another, meeting regularly to coordinate roles. “We try not to duplicate services,” he notes. “We want to be good stewards of the public’s money.” 

For example, the Lee Branch — like all BGCCF clubs — closes Friday nights. Since 1999, EKO has run “Fifth Quarter,” an open gym on Friday nights at the Life Center Church on Kennedy Boulevard. An EKO representative is available daily at Edgewater High and Lockhart and Maitland middle schools to help students with a variety of needs, from academic assistance to speaking with counselors.

As mayor, Cole has transitioned to sort of an ambassador role at EKO. “It’s “like being set out to pasture,” he jokes. “Instead of speaking to kids, I now speak for kids.” 

DARDEN: LET’S BUILD A CLUB EATONVILLE

Growing awareness of Eatonville’s challenges — coincidentally magnified by the popular Zora! Festival for the Arts and Humanities begun in 1990 — spurred long-deferred momentum for change. In 1998 the town won a $100,000 state grant to build its first ball fields for youth teams. The next year, the BGCCF moved into the double-wide.

It took only a few years for the brand-new trailer to develop holes in the floors from sheer use. Recalls Cain: “We had about 50 kids a day and one staff member.”

Around that time, Cain received a fortuitous call from Rick Walsh, then vice president of corporate affairs at Darden Restaurants. Joe Lee, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the largest casual dining restaurant company in the world, was ready to retire. The company, Walsh said, wanted to honor his service by giving the BGCCF a club in his name.

Lee had already given the BGCCF a seven-figure gift and chaired a capital campaign that allowed the organization to tear down the old Pine Hills Boys & Girls Club and rebuild it as the Walt Disney World Clubhouse Boys & Girls Club. Funds from that drive were also used to build the Universal Orlando Foundation Branch Boys & Girls Club in Carver Shores.

“So clearly Joe could have had his name on something,” says Cain. “But he always deferred. He’s a very humble, modest man and didn’t want his name on anything.”

That didn’t stop the Darden board of directors from writing a $1.5 million check that jump-started fundraising and led to the 2011 opening of the 9,000-square-foot Lee Branch, which would feature an indoor gym, on Ruffel Street. 

One summer night, while the facility was still under construction, Cole happened to be passing through town and did a double-take when he saw a teenaged Alexis Prince shooting baskets outdoors. Prince, then a forward for the Edgewater High School team, would later start for Baylor University and is now with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.

“It was dark, probably eight or nine o’clock,” says Cole. “I saw a light and I was like, ‘What’s that?’ I got closer and saw that a flashlight was sitting on a block. It was aimed at the clay court so she could see to shoot. And I was like, ‘Wow! If that girl could have that kind of drive with nothing, what’ll happen when we finish this building?’ Because that kind of drive is in every kid that lives here.”

It certainly looks that way. On any given day, 125 to 130 young people flock to the Lee Branch after school. All of them stay for the free hot supper, Alexander says. But even more important, he adds, is feeding the mind and soul with a sense of ownership: “If children have a sense of belonging, a sense that this is mine, it opens the imagination, it opens the creativity in a way you’ve never seen. You hear them talk about my club.”

Alexander was service director in Orlando and gave up the same position at the Tupperware Brands Branch Kissimmee — the largest club in Central Florida — to take the job on Ruffel Street. Why take a step down the career ladder?

“It’s home, it’s home,” replies Alexander. “I tell the kids, ‘I walked these same streets you’re walking.’ I knew the community prior to this building being here. I want them to understand that success does come from Eatonville.”

Alexander’s great-great-great uncle Joseph E. Clark, an ex-slave from Georgia, was one of the town’s founding fathers along with Winter Park benefactors Lewis Lawrence, a New York industrialist, and Joshua C. Eaton, a retired naval officer from Maine. Both were seasonal residents. 

His great-grandmother, Catherine Clark Alexander, was Eatonville’s first postmistress. In 1979 she was abducted and murdered by a man named Linroy Bottoson after he stole 37 money orders from the post office. Bottoson was executed in 2002.

Nicknamed by his sister Valencia, who had trouble saying Shadrick, “Shaggy” rarely left town except to go to school — Lake Sybelia Elementary School, Maitland Middle School and Edgewater High School. 

“We didn’t have transportation,” Alexander says. “The only time I was able to go outside the neighborhood was with my grandparents. On the weekend my grandfather would take us to the meat market and the mom-and-pop fruit and vegetable stands in Orlando. We used to call it ‘going to town.’” 

When the double-wide was installed, it was the first time Alexander, at age 19, had ever heard of the Boys & Girls Club. He was 22 when he first set foot outside Florida, accompanying a group of BGCCF members to North Carolina for a kids-against-tobacco conference. Isolation was the experience shared by kids growing up in Eatonville then.

Cole recalls another trip to North Carolina, in 1987, to a Young Life camp. “We had two busloads of high school kids, laughing and playing,” Cole says. “We get to Sanford, they’re still laughing and playing. We get to Daytona, more laughing and playing. Around the time we get to Jacksonville the bus is quiet, and I’m like, ‘Why are they so quiet?’” 

Cole realized that some of the kids were frightened because they’d never been farther from home than Daytona. He asked the bus driver to stop so everyone could take pictures alongside welcome signs when they arrived in a new state. 

“When they got there, they enjoyed themselves,” Cole recalls. “They met kids from around the country. When they came back you could see the difference.”

The Lee Branch’s success in countering toxic influences and nurturing fresh narratives is as jaw-dropping as the doomsday numbers on dysfunction: Last year 100 percent of Lee Branch high school seniors earned diplomas; 98 percent of all teens abstained from alcohol; and 96 percent refrained from tobacco and marijuana.

Darden’s Joe Lee had already given the BGCCF a seven-figure gift and chaired a capital campaign that allowed the organization to tear down the old Pine Hills Boys & Girls Club and rebuild it as the Walt Disney World Clubhouse Boys & Girls Club. Funds from that drive were also used to build the Universal Orlando Foundation Branch Boys & Girls Club in Carver Shores.

GATORS, SEMINOLES, KNIGHTS AND TARS

In a community of stunted dreams, few kids believe they can go to college. Cole, though, had audaciously challenged a narrative that seemed fixed as the seasons. “I was the first one to take kids on college visits when nobody was doing it,” he said. “They were always saying, ‘Mr. Eddie Cole, we can’t go to college!’” 

In 1994, he loaded a group of kids into a pair of vans and took them to all-black colleges, including Morehouse, Spelman, Morris Brown and Clark Atlanta. “Everyone [at those colleges] looked like them,” Cole recalls. “Our kids, their eyes were coming out of their heads. I said, ‘No excuses! No excuses!’ A few of them ended up going to those colleges.”

A generation following Cole’s initial road trip, Suzanne Dukes was given the tools by Cain to make the college dream possible for more than just a few. Dukes, 56, was an early supporter, spending time in both the BGCCF trailer and the Denton Center. Her daughter’s second grade teacher was part of a group that did volunteer work in Eatonville.

“I used to go over to the community center and sit in the corner on the floor and read the kids books,” Dukes says. “My kids were read to every night and I thought, ‘Why doesn’t every child have this?’”

After Dukes and her husband helped their two daughters get into good colleges, Dukes says she was uncertain what she wanted to do with her life — but she knew she wanted to help young people. And she pointed out an unmet need to Cain. She told him that the BGCCF did a wonderful job for kids ages 6 to 18, but they also needed help getting into college.

Good point, said Cain, who made Dukes the BGCCF’s first college access consultant. Her job is to do for club members what middle-class suburban parents do for their college-bound children: Don’t let their GPA slide, make sure they study for the SAT, assist with college applications and essays, and guide them through the bewildering wilds of financial aid.

Since 2013, when Dukes’ job was created, she has worked with some 200 Boys & Girls Club members across Central Florida. About 150 made it to college — a .750 batting average. 

Their destinations include the University of Florida, Florida State University, the University of Central Florida, Valencia College, New York University, Duke University, Spelman College, Savannah College of Art and Design, and Rollins College — the most generous of all Florida schools in financial aid offered to Dukes’s aspirants. 

But Dukes is haunted by those who don’t make it. 

“Sometimes I think it’s so deep down,” she says. “Because of generational poverty, they believe they can’t do it. My husband describes it the perfect way. You peel back an onion and think you’ve solved the issue. Then you peel it back some more and you’re like, ‘Wait! There’s this other issue.’ It’s not an equal playing field. It’s just not.”

The students with whom Dukes works not only don’t start the game on third base, like the privileged, or even at home plate. “Usually they’re behind home plate,” she says. 

Two who stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park are Ja’Keevious Mack and Brianna Joyner. Both made the journey of a million miles from Eatonville to Rollins. Both had the talent and drive to make it — but needed someone to catch them when they teetered and began to fall.

That someone for Ja’Keevious and Brianna was Austin Long, service director prior to Alexander at the Lee Branch. Long, 47, was a Boys Club member growing up in Ocala and has made the club’s mission his life’s work. At times, it’s not unlike being a first responder.

Ja’Keevious — Keevie to his friends — was a Lee Branch member from age 6. It helped him overcome his shyness and “planted those traits in me that allowed me to become more expressive, to go out and meet new people, make connections.” 

His innate gifts blossomed and Keevie was on his way, eyes on a prize future. Then two days after Christmas 2016 his world crashed. His older brother, Je’Vonte, whom he idolized, was found dead by the roadside in Altamonte Springs, an apparent victim of gang violence. He was 24. “I was lost,” Keevie says. “I gave up, you might say.”

Long, who had a close relationship with Je’vonte and was grieving, too, determined that he wasn’t going to lose another kid to the streets.

“After Je’Vonte passed, Keevie kind of let his academics slide and stayed away from the club,” Long says. “After about two or three weeks when he wasn’t at the club, I had to go looking for him. I didn’t find him, but word got out. One day he came to the club and I grabbed him. I told him it was going to be OK. I was not going to let this disaster change his life.”

Instead, Keevie began working with Dukes, who kept his nose to the grindstone and ushered him through the college application process. In 2018 Keevie was named Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year and began his freshman year at Rollins. 

On a mild Sunday afternoon in April he sat in a green wicker rocking chair on the front terrace of Olin Library and looked back.

“My first year has gone amazing,” Keevie says. “Everything that comes with it — from what I’m learning in class, to meeting staff and faculty and other students — has been nothing but amazing. Finals are coming up soon. My grades so far have been good.”

He’s taking 12 credit hours and commutes from the home in Eatonville where he grew up and still lives with his mom, sister, grandmother and niece. He works 17 to 20 hours a week as a program assistant at the East Altamonte Boys & Girls Club. His boss is none other than Austin Long, now the service director at that branch. “I like to keep an eye on him,” Long says.

Keevie, now 19, makes the 12-mile round trip to East Altamonte in a 2003 Mercury Grand Marquis. It’s his introduction to the way things work for those born into the world of favors, connections and soft landings. One of the members of the Lee Branch board gave him the car.

“He wanted to give the car to someone who could use it for a great purpose,” Keevie says. “A board member contacted [Long] about the car and he contacted me. He said, ‘If you get a license, I’ve got a car waiting for you.’”

Brianna, 21, was a regular at the double-wide from age 6. Her loving family struggled — her father suffered from sickle-cell anemia and her mother was the family’s sole provider — and couldn’t fully nurture her talent and ambitions. When things got tough, the double-wide was there.

“I don’t remember getting read to,” she says. “Maybe when I was small. I struggled with reading for a while. Even now I’m not the best reader because I didn’t have that practice.”

Her naturally studious nature and intellect enabled Brianna to do well in grade school, where she had an encouraging third-grade teacher at Lake Sybelia Elementary School who motivated her to shoot for a college degree and told her “you can be the mayor of Eatonville.” 

That teacher, as it happened, was Karen Castor Dentel, who was later elected to the Florida House of Representatives and is now a member of the Orange County School Board. Dentel remembers Brianna approaching her on the school’s playground to talk about an upcoming student election. 

“I think there were three boys running, and she wanted to know if I thought she should run,” recalls Dentel. “I told her, ‘Brianna, you’re smart, you listen to people and you don’t think you have all the answers. Yes — you should go for it.”

Brianna won the election by a single vote. “All the boys were mad because all the girls voted for me,” she recalls. Emboldened, Brianna continued to achieve throughout elementary school, middle school and high school. She was active in high school clubs and got good grades.

Even so, Long was always there to help in case she began to wobble. “There were times when I stayed away from the Boys & Girls Club,” she said. “I started babysitting more. If I was ever gone too long [Long] would come to my house and be like, ‘Where are you?’”

Two young people with whom Suzanne Dukes (right) worked are now attending Rollins College, the most generous donor of scholarships to local BGCCF aspirants. Both Ja’Keevious Mack (left) and Brianna Joyner (center) had the talent and drive to make it but had to overcome obstacles along the way. Photography by Rafael Tongol.

 

Thanks to her own grit, Long’s mother-hen vigilance and Dukes’ help, Brianna is at Rollins on scholarship, heading into her senior year with a 3.9 GPA as an elementary education major. Like Keevie, she’s the first in her family to go to college. Mission accomplished, but Cole’s mayoral seat is safe — for now.

Brianna’s fresh mission is to pay it forward to kids like herself with low incomes but sky-high hopes. Inspired by her mentors, Brianna wants to someday work in a Title I school, where at least 40 percent of students come from low-income households.

Keevie and Brianna and dozens of their counterparts across the higher education landscape are the jewels in the crown of the BGCCF college access program. But Dukes’ personal legacy runs much deeper and can be seen even among those who don’t get featured in magazine stories. 

“I think back to this group of boys, my children’s age,” she says. “They were a special group to me, and I still keep in touch with them. I first met them in the double-wide, and later I went to Maitland Middle School once a week to have lunch with them. They actually left the club and didn’t go to college, but they’re productive members of society. They’re working, they have families, they love their children — and they read to them.”

NOW EVERYONE’S WATCHING

The opening of the double-wide club in 1999 rated one buried paragraph in the Orlando Sentinel. The ceremonial groundbreaking — construction was already well underway — for expansion of the Lee Branch 20 years later featured a classy coffee-and-sweets reception in the atrium and attracted several TV news teams. 

“As you know, there’s nothing going on in Washington, D.C., now, so it was easy for me to come home,” Demings quipped. She praised the club for giving every boy and girl the opportunity to live up to their potential — like her husband, Jerry, a former sheriff and now the Orange County Mayor. 

“My husband is an alumnus of the Boys and Girls Club and he’s doing all right. Thank you, Boys and Girls Club!” (Jerry Demings was a member of the old Carver Shores Branch.)

The groundbreaking for the Joe R. Lee Branch was attended by an array of dignitaries and boosters. Among them (left to right) were U.S. Representative Val Demings; Edyth Bush Foundation president and chief executive officer David Odahowski; and retired Darden Restaurants senior vice president Rick Walsh, who is now chairman and CEO of the Knob Hill Group, an investment and strategic consulting company. Photography by Rafael Tongol.

After Demings’ remarks and the ritual tossing of dirt with gold-colored shovels by business-suited adults and kids in Boys & Girls T-shirts, Demings donned a hard hat for a tour of the expansion in its embryonic stage: a sea of unfinished concrete floors and walls, scaffolding, yellow tape stretched across rooms-to-be and plastic sheeting waving in the breeze.

“This will be the teen lounge where they can plug in,” said tour guide Gary Reinneck, BGCCF director of facilities. And he was just getting started. Imagine over here a sound studio. And a computer lab. And rooms for personal tutoring, including a quiet place for students with Asperger’s acutely sensitive to sound. And a career room devoted to preparing for college.

Wending his way through the construction dust, Reinneck motioned toward the space for a dance studio with ballet barres on three sides. A health and life skills area with a stove for learning culinary arts. A full-size gym like those in high schools. An outdoor patio with plug-ins and ceiling fans.

On the way out, a clearly dazzled Demings turned to Reinneck with a smile. “Can we afford this?” Illness kept Joe Lee from attending the event. Had he been there walking alongside Demings, it’s easy to imagine Lee’s answer: 

“Congresswoman, we can’t afford not to.” 


The Eatonville Boys & Girls Club has come a long way. Its current expansion program will double its capacity and enable the club to add a variety of new programs.

The Lee Branch in Brief

The $3 million expansion of the Joe R. Lee Branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida will more than double its size, from 9,000 to more than 20,000 square feet. Here’s what the new space will allow, and the additional programs on the way:

  • Separate programming areas for youth (ages 6 to 12) and teens (ages 13 to 18).
  • A game room with two pool tables, foosball, ping-pong and bumper pool. (There’ll be gaming board tables throughout the space).
  • A college and career room for research and assistance with the application process as well as with testing prep.
  • A computer lab for on-site homework that will also offer use of digital arts and robotics technology. 
  • A digital sound studio for recording individuals and groups who want to perfect song and stage preparation.
  • A teen lounge and their outdoor patio area with electronic gaming and a wall-mounted 65-inch TV. 
  • A dual-purpose health and life skills area where daily hot meals and snacks will be served, as well as appliances for culinary programming.  
  • A multipurpose room with an indoor serving area during snack and meal times, with separate access and space for youth and teens. 
  • A covered outdoor patio area with ceiling fans that abuts a grass activity field behind the building. 
  • A dance studio with a performance stage to be used for performing arts programming.

In addition, the existing building will be extensively remodeled with new flooring, a larger art room, new restrooms and a youth lounge area. Younger members will have a separate learning area, computer lab, art room and game room. The lobby area will also be remodeled — with a second set of controlled-access glass walls and doors to the activity area — and the gym enlarged to encompass one full-sized basketball court and two half-court areas.

Schweizer and Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College.

’60s CHIC

John Kaiser says he and his ex-wife had previously planned to build a new custom home that reflected their modernist sensibilities. But they found the real deal in Sig and Marilyn Goldman’s pristine Maitland home, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Nils M. Schweizer. Photography by Rafael Tongol.

John Kaiser was a child of the 1960s. Today he’s an adult of the 1960s. That’s why he couldn’t be prouder of his home — a modernist masterpiece designed in 1965 by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Nils M. Schweizer.

 The home, located at 1670 Huron Trail in Maitland’s Dommerich Woods subdivision, was originally built for Siegmund I. “Sig” Goldman and his wife, Marilyn. The Goldmans are remembered today as patrons of the arts for whom the Orlando Shakespeare Theater named a venue.

As of February, the Goldman name also appears on a plaque affixed to a pillar that flanks their erstwhile home’s driveway. The text announces that the property has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Goldman House, perhaps the most pristine of the 60 to 80 Schweizer-designed homes still standing, is indeed an extraordinary example of no-holds-barred mid-century modern architecture.

“I’m thrilled about it,” says Kaiser, who bought the 3,385-square-foot suburban sanctuary from the Goldmans in 2002 for $305,000. (He figures it’s worth roughly twice that amount today.) “I want people to know it’s a special home. And I want it to be an architectural teaching tool.”

Steve Goldman, son of Sig and Marilyn, lived in the home from age 13 to age 19, when he left for college. A philanthropist and retired tech entrepreneur, Goldman says he knew nothing about Kaiser’s plans until he was invited to a ceremony during which the plaque was unveiled.

“When I showed up I was amazed,” says Goldman. “Walking through the house, it was like I had just stepped out of a time capsule. In fact, it looked better than I had ever seen it — right down to the smallest details.”

The Goldman House's exterior looks almost exactly as it did in 1964.

Kaiser, who owns Designage — a graphic design, signage and themed interior company based in Maitland — says he and his ex-wife had previously planned to build a new custom home that reflected their modernist sensibilities.

“The numbers just weren’t working,” he says. “So one morning I said, ‘Honey, we’re going out to find a house.’” The couple began scouting Central Florida neighborhoods and sending personal letters to the owners of homes that struck their fancy.

Eventually, they found two homes that they particularly liked. One was in Palomar and owned by Abe and Tess Wise. Abe Wise was a contractor and the first president of the Home Builders Association of Mid-Florida (now the Greater Orlando Builders Association). The Wises weren’t interested in selling.

But the timing was perfect for the Goldmans, who were planning to build a more lavish new home nearby and were preparing to list their current home with a real estate agent. “Within 30 minutes, I had agreed to buy the home for the appraised value,” says Kaiser. “Sig and Marilyn were happy that the home was going to someone who would appreciate it.”

Kaiser, too, was happy that the artfully angular concrete-block structure turned out to be in near-perfect condition. “There are places in this house where I can’t even get a cell signal,” Kaiser says. “When there’s the possibility of a hurricane, everybody in the family comes over.”

Some small items needed to be taken care of. Kaiser bolstered some doors, reinstalled terrazzo floors and updated the kitchen appliances. But no structural repairs were needed.

Two years ago, Kaiser hired architectural historian Christine Madrid French — an advocate for mid-century modern buildings — to prepare an application for the National Register of Historic Places, a program established by the National Historical Preservation Act of 1966 and overseen by the National Park Service. 

Kaiser and French had met as members of the Central Florida Modernists — also known as the Nils M. Schweizer Fellows — an appreciation society for fans of the revered architect, who died in 1988 at age 63. 

“Anybody can fill out a national register nomination, but it can be daunting for someone who’s not a historian to complete the process,” says French, who now lives in Los Angeles. “You need special expertise to understand the historical context and the language that the National Park Service is looking for.” 

The Goldmans kept meticulous records, adds French, including blueprints, receipts and construction drawings: “The house is well documented so if it’s ever damaged, its original details will survive for future researchers.”

French is practiced at dealing with government agencies on preservation issues. While living in Maitland, she facilitated the 2015 designation of the Maitland Art Center — originally known as the Research Studio — as a National Historic Landmark. 

National Historic Landmarks are the most significant sites in the country with just 2,600 buildings or districts listed, including such iconic places as the Empire State Building in New York and the Hoover Dam in Nevada. The campus of Florida Southern College in Lakeland — where Schweizer worked for Wright — is also a National Historic Landmark.

The National Register of Historic Places encompasses 92,000 properties across the U.S. Yet, despite Schweizer’s prominence, the Goldman House is the first of his residences to be listed. That may be in part because mid-century homes haven’t traditionally been considered old enough to be historic.

The Goldmans, who owned one of the largest heating and cooling contracting companies in the region, commissioned Schweizer to design their family home and carefully supervised its construction. Sig Goldman acted as his own contractor.

“The Goldman House is one of the few designs in which Schweizer explored using stucco over the concrete blocks, which created a bright, high-contrast finish,” says French. “He also used organic materials such as copper and redwood.”

Kaiser furnished the home with period-appropriate furniture, tracking down authentic mid-century pieces where he could. Other features of modernism reflected in the architecture are geometric spaces; a flat, layered roof with cantilevered overhangs; and the seamless melding of indoor and outdoor spaces. The swimming pool was added in the 1980s.

Other features of modernism reflected in the Goldman House are geometric spaces and a flat, layered roof with cantilevered overhangs. Modernist designs are also noted for the seamless melding of indoor and outdoor spaces, which is a highlight of the Goldman House.

Kaiser describes the design as “a warmer iteration” of the mid-century modern style, which is known for stark minimalism and can appear institutional without some degree of tasteful ornamentation.

Modernist architecture tends to eschew ornamentation. But Schweizer’s structures are characterized by dentils — small tooth-like blocks used as repeating elements in cornices. “As the sun rakes across the dentil, it creates little squares and that makes a pattern on the surface,” says French.

“This home has very positive energy and I find a lot of inspiration and tranquility here,” Kaiser adds. “The design lets in so much light, and I love the simplicity of it.”

The entry hall connects family spaces on the west side of the house with the kitchen, living room and dining room on the east side. The sunken den features a fireplace with a floating mantel shelf of cast concrete and a hand-hammered copper wall covering above.

“I remember me, my mom and my younger sister Julie banging on that piece of copper with a ball-peen hammer,” says Goldman, who as a youngster harbored ambitions of being an architect.

A large corner window creates a connection to the backyard. The dining room connects the kitchen and living room and features multiple wall treatments, including mirrors, paneled lauan (faux mahogany) and floor-to-ceiling windows. 

The master bedroom and living room connect via a wide breezeway with a door to the backyard. An enclosed stairway near the living room leads to the upstairs hallway, which floats above the foyer overlooking the front doors below.

Also upstairs are two bedrooms and a bathroom within a projected, flat-roofed pavilion that rises above the central area of the ground floor. A highlight of the bathroom is a stained-glass window that replicates the logo of Schweizer’s firm.

Although the Goldmans had changed little about the house beyond adding a laundry room and a swimming pool in the 1980s, they had, understandably, updated the interior décor. So Kaiser has also decked out the rooms with mid-century furnishings, much of which is authentic. 

He’ll buy reproductions if they’re of exceptional quality, but keeps a close watch on eBay and routinely visits garage sales in search of genuine period pieces.

Sig Goldman died in 2013. But Marilyn, still lively as ever, attended the plaque-unveiling ceremony. “My only wish is that my husband could have been there,” she says. “That home is where we spent 37 years and raised a family. It was a big thrill to see how beautifully it had been kept in the mid-century modern style.”  


Schweizer and Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College.

Nils M. Schweizer (1925-1988)

Following active duty in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, Nils M. Schweizer studied architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright through a prestigious Taliesin Fellowship. As Wright’s Southeastern representative he helped design Florida Southern College in Lakeland. He later worked on Orlando International Airport, Epcot Center’s Mexican Pavilion and St. Luke Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Orlando. In 1964 he helped build the Loch Haven Art Center and in 1985 his firm designed the addition to the Orlando Public Library. A defender of the environment and a deeply spiritual man, Schweizer — often called the Dean of Orlando Architecture — helped to organize Kairos Inc., a national prison ministry group still based in Winter Park. The Nils M. Schweizer Fellows, founded in the architect’s honor, continues to promote preservation of Orlando’s modernist homes and commercial buildings. For more information, visit centralfloridamodern.com.

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

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