In 1987, Storer and his partner — later husband — Ed Hunt, founded Manbitesdog Theater in Durham, North Carolina, where they staged often-controversial contemporary plays until they decided to close the venue in 2018. Storer says his penchant for presenting challenging fare was in large part a result of his involvement with Equus. “It was a tremendously emotional time,” says Storer of his year at Rollins. “I had to keep it together. But the experience shaped the rest of my life. I believe that we as a society have to support art that we value, or it will go away.”

NAKED TRUTH

Jeff Storer was just 26 years old when he directed the Rollins College production of Equus — and admittedly a bit naive about how some Winter Parkers would react to a play with a nude scene, regardless of the scene’s importance to the play’s message. Storer, who went on to a distinguished theatrical career, later cofounded Manbitesdog Theater in Durham, North Carolina, where he staged contemporary and sometimes controversial works. The Equus brouhaha, he says, taught him the importance of standing up for artistic expression. Digital Art by Will Setzer/Circle 7 Design Studio

If you asked Central Casting for help in casting a fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist preacher for your next feature film, you’d probably end up auditioning a bevy of actors with characteristics mirroring those of Maitland’s Rev. John Butler Book, a jowly, dapper, silver-haired crusader whose scathing — but highly quotable — scriptural scoldings have enlivened Central Florida’s culture wars for decades.

You’d no doubt want to hire Book himself — except he isn’t an actor. Or at least he doesn’t carry an Actor’s Equity card despite his obvious talent — particularly during his pulpit-pounding prime — for performing in front of cameras.

“When Adam and Eve were naked, God realized they were sinning and put clothes on them,” intones Book, 82, as he sits by the crackling fireplace in the parlor of his Maitland home, built in 1876 and furnished with eclectic museum pieces. “That’s why when Rollins College performed Equus, we renamed the Annie Russell Theatre the Fannie Hustle Theater.”

Book helped rally community opposition to the college’s 1979 staging of the 1973 drama by Peter Shaffer, which tells the story of Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist who attempts to treat a young man who has a pathological religious (and sexual) fascination with horses. 

Equus, which won two Tony Awards in 1975 (Best Play and Best Direction), includes a five-minute nude scene between the young man, Alan Strang, and a young woman, Jill Mason. The two, who are together in a stable, fail at consummating a tryst when Alan is shaken by noise from the animals — whom he later blinds using a spike.

In the 40-plus years since the Equus controversy, Book has neither mellowed nor harbored second thoughts. “I don’t regret my stand on it,” he says. “You know, liberal detergent has two ingredients — an ounce of truth and a gallon of brainwashing. Just because someone thinks something is right doesn’t make it’s right.”

Book only doubled down on his moral crusades in the ensuing years. But for producing director Jeff Storer and student actors David Lee McClure (Alan) and Darla Briganti (Jill), the brouhaha shaped their worldviews and taught them that freedom of expression becomes even more precious when you must fight for it. All three faced the threat of arrest until just hours before the curtain was set to rise on opening night.

“For me, Equus was a transcendent experience,” says McClure, who after a two-decade acting career turned his professional attention to the promotion of spirits and became a “senior master of whiskey” for Empire Merchants, a leading wine and liquor distributor in Metro New York. “At first, I felt like just a teenager being quashed by the man. But Equus made me understand that a play could be important and that you could prevail. It was a huge influence on my life.”

Briganti, who continued to perform and later opened an acting school in the Florida Panhandle, agrees: “The whole thing brought the campus together, and I felt such a sense of support and community. It freed me as a person and gave me confidence in who I was.”

Storer, who went on to a distinguished career as a director and for 31 years operated an edgy community theater in Durham, North Carolina, still finds himself becoming emotional when discussing Equus: “I had never been in a position where I had to stand up for art that I believed in. But making that choice changed my life.” 

OH, BY THE WAY …

Fervor for artistic expression notwithstanding, Equus wouldn’t have gone on without the support of Rollins President Thaddeus Seymour, who had been on the job less than a year when the controversy erupted. Even so, it almost opened in a significantly altered form after Seymour initially sought to pacify protestors.

Robert Juergens, director of the college’s department of theater arts, had given Seymour a head’s up that Equus had been slated for “the Annie’s” 1979 season. Seymour assured Juergens that he supported the decision to present the play, which had been a critical success on Broadway. 

It had also been a critical success in Orlando. A touring production by Gainesville’s Hippodrome Theatre had run for seven performances the previous year — without incident — at Orlando’s Great Southern Music Hall. 

“I said, ‘Bob, one thing I would urge is that you be sure your ticketholders understand [that the play includes on-stage nudity], so that nobody gets blindsided and grandmothers, or whatever, aren’t embarrassed,’” recalled Seymour in a 2005 oral history interview. 

Jeff Storer (left) and David Lee McClure (right) were awfully young to have been at the epicenter of a controversy over morality. But both say the experience shaped their lives going forward. Photos courtesy of The Rollins College Department of Archives and Special Collections

He added: “And be sure the actors have been in touch with their families, so you don’t have some mother say, ‘You know, this old goat of a director made my daughter take her clothes off in front of that audience.’”

Seymour, though, was surely trepidatious. He valued town-gown relations, and later admitted that Equus was “an issue I didn’t need” so early in his presidency — just as the community was sizing him up.

He also prized collegiality, and recalled that his time as dean of students at Dartmouth College had been marred only by student demonstrations — one of which involved his preplanned ejection from the administration building by protestors. Rollins, he had assumed, would be a much less turbulent place.

Further, the director of Equus wasn’t going to be an old goat — it was going to be Storer, a 26-year-old Rollins graduate who was an assistant professor of theater and, by his own admission, more than a little naïve about the tolerance of some Winter Parkers for edgy theatrical experiences that involved nude teenagers.

Says Storer: “We thought, ‘Wow! Isn’t this great? Winter Park can do this sophisticated work and have no complaints.’” He held auditions for the roles of Alan and Jill behind the curtain on the Annie Russell stage and made certain that parents were on board before any garments were shed.

McClure, a sophomore and son of a senior associate minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Winter Park, had the backing of his parents. “My dad was a liberal and fought with churches,” says McClure. “He thought it was great not because of the nudity but because of the art.”

Briganti, an Altamonte Springs freshman whose parents were more dubious, nonetheless supported their live-at-home daughter’s aspirations and likewise did not object. Perhaps not surprisingly, she recalls, more students auditioned for the role of Alan than for the role of Jill — which attracted the interest of only three young actresses.  

“I suppose a female willing to [appear nude] could gain something of a reputation among male students,” Briganti says. “But I was a serious artist. It was all handled so professionally that I never felt uncomfortable at Rollins.”

“When Adam and Eve were naked, God realized they were sinning and put clothes on them,”says Rev. John Butler Book, who helped marshal opposition to the controversial play. “That’s why when Rollins College performed Equus, we renamed the Annie Russell Theatre the Fannie Hustle Theater.” Book, whose colorful crusades against various social evils have spanned decades, also carried a sign at an opening night protest that read, “Seymour Wants to See More!”

POLICING EXPRESSION

Rehearsals, with McClure and Briganti clothed for the controversial scene, began. “We all worked our butts off,” says Storer, who was relieved when only four letters of protest resulted from a preemptory mailing to the theater’s 1,700 season subscribers. Then, however, everyone else got wind of seemingly unsavory goings-on at the Annie.

On April 18, the Orlando Sentinel ran a story headlined “Nude Scene in Rollins Play Stirs Only Mild Protest.” Seymour told reporter Jody Feltus — in retrospect, rather defensively — that the decision to schedule Equus was made prior to his hiring. “I feel it is my obligation to defend their decision,” he added, because the college “is an intellectually free environment.”

Storer added: “I have faith in the maturity of our audience. I have to. There will always be those who object to nudity — period. They will drape a towel around a nude statue. I can’t change their minds.”

Public nudity? And protests were only “mild?” Sentinel readers, most of whom had never attended a play at the Annie and none of whom would be compelled to attend Equus, were horrified. Still, only 18 people — some of them, perhaps, members of Book’s congregation at the Northside Church of Christ — lodged informal complaints at City Hall.

Response remained muted, but it was enough to prompt officials to act. On May 1, a letter written by Frederic B. O’Neal, assistant city attorney, was delivered to a shaken Storer on campus by an armed, uniformed police officer. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Storer. “I had never been arrested for anything in my life.”

Winter Park had an ordinance, the letter explained, that made it “unlawful for any person within the corporate limits of the city to be found in a state of nudity.” (The language of the ordinance, which is still on the books, appears to make no exception for bathing.)

Further, the letter stated, it was unlawful to solicit nudity — and Storer, as director, could be charged with that offense. O’Neal added that in his opinion the nude scene “could be presented with the use of feigned rather than actual nudity, thereby allowing the play to be presented without risking a violation of the law by anyone.” 

The play was scheduled to open on May 3, and authorities had threatened to arrest two students and the director if it was performed as written. City commissioners, however, were divided on the issue. Byron Villwok said he accepted nudity in paintings, but not in films and performances because people “jump around and are in motion.” 

Jerome Donnelly found the situation absurd and opined that police should concentrate on “real issues” such as robberies. Harold Roberts agreed, calling the controversy “much ado about nothing … no one is forced to go down there.” 

The decision to threaten arrest appears to have been advocated by City Attorney Richard Trismen, who the previous week had met with Police Chief Ray Beary, City Manager David Harden and Assistant State Attorney Lawson Lamar to discuss how to respond. “It will be up to the city attorney if the play will be closed down or not,” Beary told the Sentinel.

On campus, Seymour struggled to find a compromise. “I am appalled by the harassment of the young actors and the director by members of the community,” he said. The perennially genial president also deplored the way in which some city officials equated a serious dramatic production with a topless bar. 

Although it wasn’t reported at the time, the potential felons — and in Briganti’s case, her family — had all received threatening or obscene anonymous calls. “People called up my parents to tell them what a slut I was,” recalls Briganti. “They didn’t deserve that kind of treatment.”

Still, a reluctant Seymour instructed Storer to find a way to cover the actors. Juergens, though, was appalled, telling the Sentinel that “this action says much about the city’s attitude toward artistic freedom. It is lamentable.” In the meantime, outrage was growing among students and members of the faculty.

Storer, in a grudging attempt to comply with the city’s mandate, whisked his actors away on a frenetic shopping excursion to Park Avenue to buy appropriate flesh-colored clothing — perhaps lingerie for Briganti and a bathing suit for McClure. Briganti says that being scantily clad made the scene seem, for the first time to her, like pornography. 

The first-year director had already begun composing a speech to be delivered following curtain call pointing out that the play had been censored. “Clothing the scene is akin to putting a top hat on a horse,” he would have said — had the speech been necessary.

Storer also wrote a press statement that was never released. It read, in part: “Winter Park has long held itself as a citadel of artistic expression. The question remains: At what point does legal censorship govern the artistic merits of a work? We as educators try to create an environment in which students are allowed artistic and intellectual freedom. It is this freedom we feel has been compromised.”

Briganti kept a low profile, but McClure was more vocal, telling the Sentinel that he would be willing to risk arrest by disrobing. “I remember going down in the basement of the theater and just screaming, the way only a teenager can,” he says.

President Thaddeus Seymour had been at Rollins less than a year when the Equus controversy erupted. Although he initially sought compromise, he eventually sided with students and faculty and challenged application of the city’s anti-nudity ordinance in court. Among the faculty leaders pushing for Equus to be presented as written was Arnold Wettstein, a religion professor and dean of Knowles Memorial Chapel. Wettstein compared tampering with the play to vandalism several year earlier on the Pieta in the Sistine Chapel. Photos courtesy of The Rollins College Department of Archices and Special Collections

AMUSEMENT TO OUTRAGE

On May 2 — with the curtain set to rise in fewer than 24 hours — Arnold Wettstein, a professor of religion and dean of the Knowles Memorial Chapel, addressed about 300 students and faculty members at a “town meeting” held in the campus’s Bush Auditorium. Wettstein told the overflow crowd that his feelings had evolved “from amusement to anger to outrage to humiliation.”

An occasional performer in productions at the Annie, Wettstein compared tampering with Equus to the vandalism several years earlier of the Pieta in the Sistine Chapel. “If you work in the theater, you know what it is to devote time and interest to transfer a dead script into something of meaning, value and significance then to see it smashed into fragments,” he said.

Seymour, who was warmly received at the meeting, began his remarks by seeking to justify clothing the actors as a despicable but necessity measure to protect Storer, McClure and Briganti. “When someone looks me in the eye, I want to be able to say that Rollins obeyed the law,” he added. “I’ve spent too much of my life protecting orderly change.” Seymour noted, however, that no one could prevent speeches from the stage following each performance.

However, the college community was in no mood to settle for speeches. Other faculty members rose to decry the anti-nudity ordinance and its application to Equus, and urged Seymour to challenge the city and guarantee legal representation to anyone arrested. Finally, a student suggested that the college seek legal advice on the possibility of getting a judge to issue a restraining order against the city.

Seymour, himself a performer who presented magic shows, was adept at reading a room. His response, answered with a thunderous ovation, was, “I will proceed accordingly.”

Hundreds of students then marched from the college to City Hall, where they presented Harden with a petition that asked officials to reconsider their interpretation of Equus as a violation of the city’s anti-nudity ordinance and allow the play to continue without interference from police.

The protestors also draped a bra and panties over the statue of a nude woman fronting City Hall. The replica of Forest Idyl, by famed sculptor Albin Polasek, had stood on municipal property since 1965. Presumably Villwok hadn’t advocated for the work’s removal because it didn’t “jump around.”

Still, Seymour had a problem: The city attorney and the college attorney — Richard Trismen — were one in the same. So Seymour asked legendary local lawyer Kenneth Murrah, who had volunteered to help the college, about going to court and seeking a restraining order. Murrah got right to work.

On May 4, just hours before the curtain was set to rise, U.S. District Judge John A. Reed presided over a hastily called hearing in a downtown Orlando courtroom. Ironically, Reed had two tickets for Equus and wondered aloud if this conflict of interest should prevent him from ruling at all.

Attorney Lee Sasser, an associate of Murrah’s, said: “Your Honor, Dr. Seymour, president of Rollins, is in the courtroom, and I know if you requested it, he would fully refund your tickets for tonight.” Replied Reed: “OK. But you’ll have to explain this to my wife.”

The judge issued a temporary restraining order that allowed the show to go on without immediate legal consequences for the participants — but he did not, as the college had hoped, rule that the ordinance was unconstitutional. Theoretically, arrests could be made later, when the order expired. 

Ultimately, however, the city and the college agreed that state law — which made exceptions for educational activities and had already been ruled constitutional — would take precedence over the local ordinance where artistic expression was concerned. The college’s suit against the city was dropped in August.

On opening night, Seymour noted a handful of picketers on campus led by the ubiquitous John Butler Book. “I remember one of the signs distinctly,” said Seymour, who always laughed when he repeated the story. “It read, ‘Seymour Wants to See More!’”

If Book’s campaign had any effect, it was to sell more tickets. Houses were packed and reviews were generally good, although the Sentinel’s headline read, “Rollins’ ‘Equus’ Competent, But Lacks Excitement.” 

Writer Sumner Rand found Storer’s direction “too literal,” but opined that “the nude scene is not downplayed, nor is it sensationalized. It flows naturally in the context of a psychiatric examination and, symbolically at least, demonstrates the vulnerability of Alan.” McClure, added Rand, “gives a bravura performance.”

Charley Reese, the newspaper’s arch-conservative columnist, accused the college of grandstanding by calling attention to the nude scene and bellowed that “artistic integrity and academic freedom, for that matter, should not be construed as licenses to do whatever one damn well pleases.”

Today, David Lee “Spike” McClure and Darla Briganti recall the Equus experience as a heady time during which they learned the importance of standing up for their beliefs. “At first, I felt like just a teenager being quashed by the man,” says McClure. “But Equus made me understand that a play could be important and that you could prevail.” Briganti, whose family received unnerving anonymous phone calls in the days before the play, nonetheless came away from the experience feeling empowered: “I thought, ‘Wow! This is what the ’60s must have been like.’”

SECOND ACTS

Following Equus, McClure was pleased to find that his campus coolness quotient had increased exponentially. “I went from being a history major who worked in the scene shop to being a celebrity in this little town,” he says. “I was at the center of this incendiary issue that everybody was interested in. It was crazy.”

McClure changed his major to theater and revelled in being called “Spike,” a nickname based on the instrument his Equus character used to maim horses. “Spike” McClure is the name he has gone by ever since. 

After graduating from Rollins in 1981, McClure earned an MFA in acting from Ohio State University and moved to Manhattan, where he appeared in productions at the Public Theater and on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theater. He even returned to Rollins in 1988 to play the lead in Tom Stoppard’s comic-drama The Real Thing.

During several Los Angeles sojourns, McClure landed some film roles. But after marrying and having a child in 1998, he gave up acting and joined the wine and spirits industry. “I couldn’t believe you could actually get a job doing what I do,” says McClure.

Briganti left Rollins after her sophomore year because she had been offered a full scholarship to the University of Florida, where she graduated in 1982 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in acting. She spent the next 30-plus years as an actor, singer, dancer, director, choreographer and acting coach. In 2010, she opened an acting school for children and adults in Destin. 

Briganti says she was at first “angry that the media sensationalized the situation” surrounding Equus. But her anger was replaced by empowerment, thanks to the collective support of the campus and the excitement of standing up for artistic freedom. “I thought, ‘Wow! This is what the ’60s must have been like,” she says. 

McClure and Briganti both praise Storer for his unflagging professionalism and Seymour — a relatively new president — for his courage in standing up with them despite what appeared to be significant community opposition.

Storer left Rollins the following year (1981) and enrolled in Trinity University’s MFA program, which is housed at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Dallas Theater Center. He, too, went on to enjoy a long career as an actor, director, playwright, producer and professor in the department of theater studies at Duke University.

In 1987, Storer and his partner — later husband — Ed Hunt,  founded Manbitesdog Theater in Durham, North Carolina, where they staged often-controversial contemporary plays until they decided to close the venue in 2018.

In 1987, Storer and his partner — later husband — Ed Hunt, founded Manbitesdog Theater in Durham, North Carolina, where they staged often-controversial contemporary plays until they decided to close the venue in 2018. Storer says his penchant for presenting challenging fare was in large part a result of his involvement with Equus. “It was a tremendously emotional time,” says Storer of his year at Rollins. “I had to keep it together. But the experience shaped the rest of my life. I believe that we as a society have to support art that we value, or it will go away.”

“It was a tremendously emotional time,” says Storer of his Equus days. “I had to keep it together. But the experience shaped the rest of my life. I believe that we as a society have to support art that we value, or it will go away.”

Equus may have had a huge impact on Storer, McClure and Briganti, but it was just one of many social scourges battled by Book, who in 1991 was arrested and charged with disrupting a freedom of expression forum held at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum. 

Details are murky, but apparently Book brought a video camera to the meeting, where photography was prohibited because the artwork on display was copyrighted. Heated words were exchanged, and Book was taken into custody when police were called. Prosecutors dropped the charges a month later, and Book sued the City of Winter Park. (The case was ultimately settled.)

In 1993, Book became the only pastor in the state’s history to have his opening prayer expunged from the records of the Florida Senate. The six-minute oration — delivered as even the most conservative lawmakers squirmed — decried homosexuality, necrophilia, liberals in general and even public schools, where he lamented that “reading, writing and arithmetic have been replaced by romance, reproduction and revolution.”

Sunday liquor sales, the Equal Rights Amendment, Mel Gibson’s film The Last Temptation of Christ and scandal-ridden televangelists such as Jim and Tammy Bakker have been targets of Book’s wrath. In person, though, he’s surprisingly chatty and likeable even as he spouts opinions that range from absurd to offensive.

As far as Equus is concerned, Book says that at least the college learned its lesson and never tried anything as outrageous again. When told that Equus was, in fact, staged for a second time at Rollins in 2007, he expressed genuine surprise: “Really? Well, I didn’t know about it. If I had, I’d have sure been there.” 

THE PUNDIT'S PERIL

EXCLUSIVE BOOK EXCERPT

Editor’s Note: This story is adapted from a new book, Rollins After Dark: The Hamilton Holt School’s Nontraditional Journeys, which tells the often-unorthodox story of the college’s adult education program (which evolved into today’s Hamilton Holt School).

John Martin, a self-styled expert on international affairs, was Rollins College’s biggest draw as a lecturer. Attendees seemed less interested in what he said than in the erudite way he said it.

Hamilton Holt did not hesitate to test the tolerance of conservative Winter Parkers by hiring intellectual eccentrics and placing them in the spotlight. Frequently, such characters won over the community despite their unorthodox views. 

That was certainly true of one “golden personality” who was crucial to the early Adult Education Program: the erudite John Martin, a dapper British-born socialist and self-styled authority on international affairs. Martin and his wife, Prestonia Mann Martin, moved to Winter Park from Staten Island, New York, in late 1929 at the behest of Holt, who had published Martin’s editorials in The Independent. 

Holt suggested that Martin, who was wealthy and not seeking permanent employment, might enjoy conducting student seminars, perhaps at his home, and holding public lectures. 

“I am afraid I cannot offer you anything except the satisfaction of being ‘noble’ as I have exceeded my budget for instruction for this year,” Holt wrote Martin in the summer of 1929. “But if you would care to give your services to the college this way, I am sure you would find yourself somewhat repaid in the inspiration you would give the young folks. I have found nothing more pleasant in my connection with Rollins College than the friendship I have formed with the coming generation.”

Money was not an issue for the Martins. Their comfortable financial position was due in large part to Prestonia, the only child of John Preston Mann, a prominent New York surgeon who specialized in treating deformities, particularly club foot. She was unmarried when her parents died within a year of one another, enabling her to directly inherit the whole of her father’s estate.

Martin, whom Holt listed as a conference leader or a visiting lecturer and consultant on foreign affairs, was born in Lincoln, England, in 1864. After graduation from the University of London with a Bachelor of Science degree, he became a professor at East Lincoln Technical College.

Shortly after he became president of Rollins, Hamilton Holt began to recruit “golden personalities” for the faculty. Some of them, like Martin, were unquestionably unorthodox characters but became ingrained in the community nonetheless.

He also joined the London branch of the Fabian Society, an organization whose purpose was to advance the principles of socialism through gradual reform. (Essentially, then, Martin was ideologically akin to today’s left-wing Democrats.) 

He lectured at the Peoples’ Palace in the East End of London, which offered an eclectic adult education program for working-class Londoners. And, accompanied by playwright and activist George Bernard Shaw, he attended an 1894 meeting in Brussels of the Second International, an organization of socialist parties and labor unions. 

Martin then crossed the pond for a lecture tour and decided to remain in New York, where he became a U.S. citizen in 1903. He subsequently directed the New York-based League for Political Education, an advocacy group for women’s suffrage, and was appointed to the New York City Board of Education by Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. 

In addition, Martin served on the City Housing Corporation, a private nonprofit that offered low-interest mortgages and promoted affordable housing, and later became vice president of the League of Nations Non-Partisan Association, which is almost certainly how he became acquainted with Holt. 

A TREAT FOR TRUE TRANSCENDENTALISTS

Prestonia, born in New York in 1861, was a cousin of educational reformer Horace Mann and had an even more unorthodox background than that of her husband. 

Also a socialist, she had edited the American Fabian magazine and since 1895 had operated a rustic retreat in the Adirondacks called Summer Brook. It was modeled on Brook Farm — a short-lived utopian commune started in 1841 by transcendentalist George Ripley and his wife, Sophia, at the Ellis Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.

As a young woman, Prestonia attended the Concord School of Philosophy, a lyceum-like series of summer lectures and discussions begun in 1879 by Amos Bronson Alcott and other transcendentalists in Concord, Massachusetts. 

At rustic Hillside Chapel, where sessions were held, Prestonia heard Ralph Waldo Emerson, de facto leader of the transcendentalist movement. The colorful and original Alcott — father of Louisa May Alcott (Little Women) — would certainly also have been one of the speakers. Prestonia might also have encountered Elizabeth Peabody, Julia Ward Howe, William Torrey Harris or Franklin Sanborn. 

“What is sought in the discussions at Concord is not an absolute unity of opinion, but a general agreement in the manner of viewing philosophic truth and applying it to the problems of life,” said Alcott, who considered the school to be an adult education center and harbored hopes that it would evolve into a full-fledged college. (Hillside Chapel still stands adjacent to the Orchard House, the Alcott family home. It is the site of an annual Summer Conversational Series and Teacher Institute.) 

But while Brook Farm was intended to be a permanent, self-sustaining settlement — hence its decline and dissolution — Summer Brook was intended for seasonal visitors only. 

 “One can stand almost anything for a couple of months,” opined a writer in Munsey’s Magazine. “And in the 10 months that elapse before the camp opens again, one has a chance to forget all but the pleasant features of the experience. But this is rank pessimism, induced, possibly, by the optimism of the promoter and conductor of Summer Brook.” 

A 1900 edition of the International Socialist Review described Summer Brook as “a chalet built of picturesque spruce logs” where “sisters” and “brothers” shared chores during the day and, following an evening meal on a piazza overlooking mountainous terrain, enjoyed lectures, debates, poetry readings, dramatic presentations and musical performances. 

Prestonia, an accomplished pianist who had attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, often played classical pieces or participated in reenactments of Greek tragedies such as Lysistrata. 

“Here in the twilight, as the crimson glory of the sunset fades and the mist gathers on the dim mountains, the sisters and brothers come together in the great hall and discuss the serious problems of life, of labor, of love,” rhapsodized writer Leonard Abbott, a frequent visitor. 

Prestonia Mann Martin attended the Concord School of Philosophy, founded by transcendentalist writer and lecturer Amos Bronson Alcott (above and below, speaking to students in the school).

“Some brother will give an informal lecture on a subject that is nearest to his heart,” continued Abbott. “Or some sister — perhaps the hostess herself — will take her place at the piano, and strains from the splendid operas of Wagner, or the somber sonatas of Beethoven, will echo through the hall and drift out over the valley.” 

A mural depicting men and women at labor topped the mantlepiece of the gathering area, while the walls were bedecked with portraits of such transcendentalist icons as the Ripleys, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau alongside such political figures as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. 

H.G. Wells spent time at Summer Brook, as did Maxim Gorky and an array of lesser-known writers, academicians and social reformers. Martin, too, was often present at Summer Brook, where in 1900 he wed “America’s greatest gift to me.” 

The couple then bought a large home in the affluent Grymes Hill neighborhood on Staten Island, where they welcomed numerous prominent guests. One was Gorky, a Russian novelist and revolutionary who opposed the czarist autocracy and traveled to New York in April 1906 on a fundraising trip for the Bolshevik faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Party. 

Gorky’s visit had been organized by a group of anti-czarist writers that included Ernest Poole, William Dean Howells, Jack London, Mark Twain, Charles Beard and Upton Sinclair. At the A-Club in Greenwich Village, Twain spoke at a dinner in Gorky’s honor. 

“If we can build a republic in Russia to give the persecuted people of the czar’s domain the same measure of freedom that we enjoy, then let us do it,” said Twain. “Anybody whose ancestors were in this country when they were trying to free themselves from oppression must sympathize with those who are now trying to do it in Russia.” 

Two days later, however, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World published the salacious news that Gorky was staying at Manhattan’s luxurious Hotel Belleclaire with a Russian actress, Maria Fyodorovna Andreyeva, to whom he was not married. 

Within hours, Gorky and Andreyeva were ejected from the hotel and subsequently shunned by the literati who, in rapid succession, resigned from a committee formed to advance the revolutionary cause. The Martins, however — much to the horror of their neighbors — welcomed the couple, who stayed with their open-minded hosts for at least five weeks. 

Gorky wrote Mother, a novel about factory workers fomenting revolution, while on Staten Island and during forays to Summer Brook. Martin, who spoke Russian and enjoyed Gorky’s company, told the Orlando Sentinel decades later: “There was not a cultured family in Western Europe that would not have been honored to have them.” 

The Martins first met Russian novelist and revolutionary Maxim Gorky at Summer Brook, and later sheltered the author when he became embroiled in scandal during a U.S. lecture tour.

MEN ARE BRUTES, WOMEN ARE POTENTIAL HYSTERICS

In 1916, the Martins collaborated on a book entitled Feminism: Its Fallacies and Follies with sections providing “The Man’s Point of View” and “The Woman’s Point of View” about topics ranging from “Women’s Economic Value in the Home” and “The Fading of the Maternal Instinct” (John Martin) to “Eugenics and Women” and “The Moral Uses of Husbands” (Prestonia Mann Martin). 

Feminism is generally a threat to the family unit, both argued, and men and women should embrace their traditional roles. “In normal relations the special service which a woman performs for a man is to tame him,” declared Prestonia. “The service he performs for her is to steady her.”

Continued Prestonia: “If it were not for woman’s taming power, we should lapse into savagery; if it were not for man’s steadying power, society would approach bedlam. It is true that a man engaged in correcting his wife presents a most odious appearance. He is looked upon as a cad, and in general feels himself to be one. Therefore, men have withdrawn more and more from corrective functions. But just as almost all men are only half-tamed savages, so almost all women are potentially hysterics; and just as it is true that the disciplined savage makes the strongest man, so the controlled hysteric gives the strongest, richest woman nature.” 

Prior to ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, Prestonia became one of the most prominent anti-suffragettes in the U.S., contending that not only were women the weaker sex, they “lacked the aptitude either to make laws or ignore them.” 

If women got the vote, she contended, then legislation should be passed allowing them to give proxies to their temperamentally better-equipped fathers or husbands. “The remedy for political ills is better men,” she wrote. “Men are what women in the home have made them. There is where reform should begin.” 


"But just as almost all men are only half-tamed savages, so almost all women are potentially hysterics; and just as it is true that the disciplined savage makes the strongest man, so the controlled hysteric gives the strongest, richest woman nature."

— Prestonia Mann Martin


Such views were not uncommon at the time and were espoused by women from both extremes of the ideological spectrum, albeit for different reasons. Anarchist Emma Goldman wrote in 1910 that “people of intellect … [have] perceived that suffrage is an evil, that it has only helped to enslave people, that it has but closed their eyes that they may not see how craftily they were made to submit.” 

Goldman, in other words, believed that women ought not to validate an inherently oppressive system by seeking more privileges within its confines. Could the Martins have accepted this rationale? If so, then why had John Martin worked for a pro-suffrage organization? 

The inscrutable tone of their writing — at turns both academic and outrageous — leads a modern reader to suspect that Feminism: Its Fallacies and Follies may have been intended as a parody. If so, only the Martins were in on the joke; newspapers reported their pronouncements in a straightforward manner — and feminists were not laughing. 

“It does seem to be a strange stance for them to take because in every way except suffrage, Prestonia was a feminist,” said Enid Mastrianni, a historian of the Adirondacks who has researched the lives of the Martins. “She and John were equal partners in their relationship. Obviously, their language seems over the top to us today. But I will say this: They didn’t think women should vote, but once that changed, they wanted women to vote for socialists.” 

While many men opposed women’s suffrage in the early 20th century, some women were equally disdainful. The Martins — especially Prestonia — joined in the ridicule of changing gender roles.

In late 1929, just months following a stock market crash that signaled the onset of the Great Depression, the Martins bought a lavish but unfinished Mediterranean-style home abutting Lake Virginia at 1000 Genius Drive, a road carved through then-remote grove land once owned by Charles Hosmer Morse. (It later became the Rollins Conservatory of Music and is today a private residence.)

 There, at Holt’s invitation, they planned to live during the winter months while maintaining their spacious home on Staten Island and their socialist retreat in upstate New York’s Keene Valley, where in 1936 Prestonia’s annual summer colloquium would welcome Holt and several faculty members as guest lecturers.

The Martins spent their first season in Winter Park at the home of Rosalie Slaughter Morton, a pioneering surgeon and public-health advocate who owned what was then known as the Vans Agnew estate next door. Morton, a gynecologist, worked as a medic on the front lines during World War I and was one of the first female faculty members at the Polyclinic Hospital of New York and the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. 

The couple had barely unpacked their bags when John Martin began speaking to civic groups and participating in campus-sponsored symposia, including the second annual Institute on Statesmanship, which in January 1930 attracted more than 100 prominent figures in journalism and academia to discuss “The Formation of Public Opinion.”

Martin’s lecture series, which debuted in February 1931 at the Annie Russell Theatre, was open to the public and drew full houses with such topics as U.S. relations with India, China and the United Kingdom.

HAMMER BOY’S UNHINGED REVENGE — BUT WHAT FOR?

In April 1932, the lecturer was the victim of a brutal assault that left him in critical condition and attracted national newspaper coverage. Oliver Johnson Keyes, an unemployed 23-year-old college dropout, rode the train from Manhattan to Winter Park, where he purchased a hammer, tucked it into a briefcase and wandered through a driving rainstorm until he located the Martin home. 

Keyes, a would-be socialite whom the Martins had assisted financially when he briefly attended Hamilton College and Columbia University, was the son of Helen Johnson Keyes, the women’s page editor at the Christian Science Monitor. 

Keyes’ maternal grandfather, prominent abolitionist Oliver Johnson, had been managing editor at Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune before becoming an editor at The Independent, which Holt later edited, from 1865 to 1870 — an irresistible coincidence that would nonetheless be overlooked by most reporters. 

It was later learned that Johnson and Prestonia’s father, surgeon John Preston Mann, had been friends. Although Johnson and Mann died before Keyes was born, their long-ago connection brought Keyes into the orbit of the childless Martins, who frequently mentored young people whom they deemed promising. 

Keyes even spent time at Summer Brook, he later told police, but felt abandoned by the Martins when they moved to Florida. He harbored a grudge against John Martin, more specifically, whom he had decided to kill because “I felt it was my duty.” Martin, claimed Keyes, had spread rumors about him, which had resulted in his banishment from a prestigious Staten Island tennis club and had prevented him from finding employment. 

When the disheveled Keyes appeared unexpectedly, the Martins cautiously welcomed him and promised him food, rest and enough money to return to New York when he was ready. 

Keyes, who over the course of the afternoon “became more calm and gave up the idea [of killing Martin],” left after dinner but later returned and entered the unlocked home after the couple retired to their respective bedrooms. 

“The resentment and anger came back more strongly, and finally when I entered [Martin’s] room I found him sitting up in bed reading,” Keyes told the Orlando Morning Sentinel during a surreal interview from the Orange County Jail. “Some people might think it awful for a young man to attack someone Mr. Martin’s age. But he is terribly strong and made such a vigorous effort to defend himself that I didn’t feel any shame about attacking him. I would have felt forever a coward if I had not done so.” 

Keyes pummeled his erstwhile mentor with the hammer until Prestonia, hearing the melee, rushed to her husband’s room and screamed at the bloody spectacle. She struggled with Keyes, twisting her ankle in the process, and begged him to stop. 

“Oliver, why are you doing this horrible thing?” she asked. “Don’t you remember all that we have done for you?” Having been caught in the act, Keyes abruptly realized that Mrs. Martin, for whom he felt no ill will, would also have to be killed. Consequently, he dropped the bludgeon and waited while Prestonia called the police. 

“I always liked her well enough,” Keyes told Winter Park Police Chief A.A. Wesson, who arrived on the scene with two other officers. “It was because of her that I stopped. Really, she showed a lot of courage for a 70-year-old woman.” 


"Some people might think it awful for a young man to attack someone Mr. Martin’s age. But he is terribly strong and made such a vigorous effort to defend himself that I didn’t feel any shame about attacking him. I would have felt forever a coward if I had not done so."

— Oliver Johnson (Hammer Boy) Keyes


Wesson arrested the nervous but entirely unrepentant Keyes, who matter-of-factly described what he had done and why he had done it. He was subsequently charged with assault with intent to commit premediated murder, expressing regret only that he had apparently not succeeded. “This is the strangest crime ever to happen in Winter Park,” Wesson later told reporters. 

Martin, his skull fractured and barely clinging to life, was transported to the Florida Sanitarium, the precursor of AdventHealth Orlando, where doctors doubted that he would live through the night. Keyes, meanwhile, dubbed “Hammer Boy” in the press, was adjudicated “hopelessly, dangerously and incurably insane” — paranoid dementia praecox was the diagnosis from a panel of doctors — and committed to Bellevue Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Manhattan. 

Martin’s inept assailant died in 1973 at the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center in Wingdale, New York. Four months after the near-fatal attack, against all odds, Martin had recovered sufficiently to discuss the redistribution of wealth at a meeting of the Florida Chapter of the League for Independent Political Action. 

COMMONERS, CAPITALS AND MRS. ROOSEVELT

But while John Martin drew large crowds for his talks, it was his wife who made national headlines with a policy proposal that caught the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt. 

In a 1933 pamphlet entitled “Prohibiting Poverty,” Prestonia advocated conscription of everyone between ages 18 and 26 to produce the necessities of life, including food and clothing, which would then be distributed free of charge. 

Her “National Livelihood Plan” called for eight years of service as a “commoner,” after which a newly minted “capital” would be guaranteed a basic level of subsistence permanently, even if he or she pursued a career and did not need assistance. Mrs. Roosevelt favorably referenced the program in a speech and even passed along the pamphlet to her husband, who dismissed its premise as simplistic and impractical. 

Soon, though, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would introduce an alphabet soup of federal work programs, albeit less radical ones, to combat the Great Depression. 

Few reviewers, however, thought Prestonia’s proposal feasible. Still, the very fact that “Prohibiting Poverty” was the subject of serious attention and contemplation is indicative of a growing sense of national desperation. It is no wonder that Holt gravitated toward the Martins, since such quixotic notions were reminiscent of his own fervor for world government. 

By the mid-1930s, the John Martin Lecture Series encompassed nine talks on consecutive Thursday mornings from January through March. As audiences grew, the on-campus theater gave way to the larger First Congregational Church of Winter Park. When attendance began to top 1,000, only the auditorium at Winter Park High School (now the Winter Park Ninth Grade Center) could provide adequate seating capacity. 


"I felt as a young man, however, and I still feel, that as history is nothing more than the coming into his own of the common man, we shall have more rather than less democracy in the future, and therefore more collective thought and action. Whether this will be one of the hundred definitions of socialism, I cannot say."

— Hamilton Holt


Martin, described in the Orlando Sentinel as “a penetrating analyst and a forceful speaker,” always discussed issues of the day, encompassing domestic politics as well as U.S. relations with counties in Europe, Asia and Latin America. In 1935, he explored “Three Dictatorships (Russia, Italy and Germany) and Three Democracies (France, Great Britain and the United States),” while in 1936, he expounded upon “The Policy of the United States Toward the War.” 

Martin frequently posited ways in which the U.S. might avoid being drawn into the conflict raging throughout Europe and Asia. However, when the 1941 Japanese air attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor negated neutrality, he explored the motivations of the combatants and in one lecture explained “Why War With Japan Was Inevitable.” 

Throughout World War II, at least one of the lectures in Martin’s annual series was dedicated to what would today be called “breaking news.” Many others, though, weighed potential scenarios for the war’s aftermath. 

When in February 1943 Martin presented “Winning the War and Winning the Peace,” city officials announced that the Winter Park Police Department would not enforce a federally mandated ban on pleasure driving for those who wished to attend.

In the lecture, Martin supported Holt’s long-standing belief that only a world government that placed “irresistible might behind international law” could prevent future world wars. Martin’s presentations, during which he spoke for about an hour, were free of charge; however, collections were taken to benefit scholarships, social welfare funds, war relief programs and Eatonville’s Hungerford Vocational High School. 

THE GENIAL GENIUS OF GENIUS DRIVE

In 1944, Martin decided to retire — more or less. He delivered his final scheduled lecture, “A World Survey and the Position of the United States,” before a full house at the First Congregational Church. Many Winter Park citizens, including Holt, rose to offer heartfelt tributes when the talk concluded. 

“Mr. Martin has probably done more for the education of this community than any one person,” said Holt. “Now, are we going to let him retire? We are certainly not. We cannot spare him.” 

A local physician, Eugene Shippen, then lauded Martin as “an internationalist whose loyal Americanism has never been questioned” and proposed a resolution that “put on record our sense of gratitude for the generous service this member of the Rollins faculty has rendered to the community without money and without price.” 

Shippen’s resolution also expressed “our recognition of the scholarly research that has gone into the preparation of his lectures, our appreciation of the judicial and objective treatment of controversial issues and, not incidentally, the enjoyment that has been ours in listening to the pure English and faultless diction of these discourses.” 

The audience stood and cheered the 79-year-old socialist who, for perhaps the only time in his life, seemed all but speechless. “I can only say, my friends, that this need not be absolutely my last speech,” he teased. “While I shall not announce any future complete winter course, I may at any time give an occasional address if circumstances warrant.” 

A program of presentations, renamed the John Martin Series of Lectures on International Affairs, continued with combinations of other speakers, including faculty members, winter visitors and the indefatigable Martin — who likely required little persuasion to return to the podium. But few other presenters could match Martin’s panache, and attendance began to dwindle. 

Royal W. France, an activist attorney and professor of economics who had chaired the Florida Socialist Party, was director of the series from 1945 until it ended in 1951. “A college professor with liberal views in a community like Winter Park was not all honey and roses,” France would write in his 1957 autobiography, My Native Grounds. 

Indeed, Holt was often called upon to defend the hiring and retention of faculty members such as France and his colleague Edwin L. Clarke, a peace activist and professor of sociology who presented lectures in the community provocatively titled “Why I Am a Socialist.” 

Even Holt, well known as a progressive, was forced to tiptoe around the issue of socialism when quizzed about his own political views. “I am not a socialist,” he wrote in a 1937 response to a now-lost query from his friend Irving Bacheller, who likely sought clarification because he found that whispers to the contrary had become a hindrance to fundraising. 

Feisty as ever, John Martin celebrated his 90th birthday in 1954. He disliked the changes he had seen come to Winter Park during his nearly 25-year residency.

“Years ago, I gave up the idea that socialism would be my political philosophy,” noted Holt. “I felt as a young man, however, and I still feel, that as history is nothing more than the coming into his own of the common man, we shall have more rather than less democracy in the future, and therefore more collective thought and action. Whether this will be one of the hundred definitions of socialism, I cannot say.” 

Martin’s politics, however, were entirely beside the point. The nuances of difference between socialists and Fabians would have mattered little to conservative Winter Parkers, who were disinclined to embrace either political theory. Martin had managed to successfully position himself as an analyst, not an advocate, and was embraced for his colorful personality and good humor (to say nothing of his impeccable elocution). 

Prestonia Mann Martin, who also presented lectures on campus, remained active in civic organizations but fell ill and died at age 83 on Easter Sunday in 1945. Her death came just weeks after she delivered the closing address at the Animated Magazine entitled “The Medicine Man,” described as “a comical tale concerning the difficulties of a sheriff in a small town under Prohibition.” She was eulogized in Winter Park Topics, a seasonal weekly, as “original, independent and witty” and “one of Winter Park’s best known and most beloved women.” 

In his remaining years, the robust John Martin, dubbed by a reporter the “Genial Genius of Genius Drive,” lectured occasionally, hosted friends constantly and enjoyed long walks along the tree-shaded streets surrounding Lake Virginia. During the 1953 edition of the Animated Magazine, he read aloud “Grandma’s Declaration of Independence,” a humorously defiant poem about aging written by his late wife. (See below.)

On his 90th birthday, Martin complained (not so genially) to the Orlando Sentinel that “Winter Park has changed almost beyond recognition — and not for the better!” 

When he died in 1956 at age 92, Martin willed his body to medicine and his home to Rollins. “[John Martin] was a great humanist,” said William A. Constable, an associate professor of English, during a public memorial service at Knowles Memorial Chapel. “He was devoted to other peoples and such social reforms as would alleviate the lot of the poor and needy.” 

Continued Constable: “But unlike others with similar ideals, he was never intolerant. He was always willing to learn and alter his opinions if he thought that facts warranted the change. He never allowed his mind to become closed. Indeed, he dreaded the possibility that he might become what he called ‘an old fossil.’”


"Winter Park has changed almost beyond recognition — and not for the better!"

— John Martin


Was Martin more an expert on international relations, or more a suave spellbinder with an authoritative accent? No recordings of his lectures are known to exist, and contemporaneous news accounts reveal mainly the topics, not the substance, of his talks. His published scholarship is minimal and his best-known book, Feminism: Its Fallacies and Follies, has not (at the risk of understatement) held up well. 

However, even if Martin’s appeal was attributable in large measure to showmanship, his popularity reinforced the college’s cachet among lifelong learners. Yes, crowds were impressive at the Animated Magazine, thanks to savvy marketing and an eclectic roster of celebrities (and semi-celebrities). 

But the fact that discourses on international affairs drew upwards of 1,000 listeners must have confirmed to Holt that the community wanted more of what the college had to offer. 

“[Students] do not come very much as auditors or spectators to our chapel, our theater or our lectures,” Holt noted in a 1936 talk at Knowles Memorial Chapel. “It is the public that largely fills our halls and supports our programs. Even in our athletic contests it is difficult to get students on the sidelines except in football, and even then community spectators are overwhelmingly in the majority.” 

Continued Holt: “I will have to confess it is difficult for me to keep my internal equanimity when we have a college assembly under the cypresses on the lakeside to hear a distinguished visitor deliver a worthwhile message, and I see a couple of students walk to within 50 yards of the assembly, sit down under a tree, light cigarettes and vegetate.” 


Editor’s Note: This poem, written by Prestonia Mann Martin (above), demonstrates her quirky humor. She read it aloud at the 1944 edition of the Animated Magazine, and — by popular demand — during talks to civic groups throughout the city. The light-hearted (if defiant) work was so popular locally that it was reproduced in Winter Park Topics, the Winter Park Herald and published  by Rollins College for sale at the campus bookstore. The pamphlet featured an introduction by Hamilton Holt.

GRANDMA'S DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

This message I extend
To relative and friend
That henceforth I shall live at ease
And so exactly as I please
Now I’m eighty.

And being thus inclined
And firmly of this mind
I note the things I’ve left behind.

No more ski-jumps
No more bob-sledding
Into snow-drifts heading.

I shall not any more climb trees
Nor bob my tresses
Nor wear my dresses
Above my knees.

To all and sundry I give warning
I shall not henceforth dance till morning.
I am the master of my fate
And I shall go to bed at eight
If I so choose — now I’m eighty.

No more spinach, not a beet
But I shall eat
All the popcorn I can hold
Now I’m old.

No crimson nails
No ankle socks
No tortuous permanents for my silver locks
Electrocuted in a box.

What e’re the fashion sheets reports
I won’t appear in slacks and shorts.
No one shall see me on parade
In a bathing suit, nor yet arrayed, in the bright light of day
In my pajamas on Broadway.

It goes against my simple tastes
To bare my back down to the waist.

No more lipstick, powder or paint
To make me look like what I ain’t.

As for my shoes — I do not choose
To put my toes in a hole
And my heels in the air
So I shall take care
When all is said and done,
To wear a broad, flat, steady, sole
That I can call my own.

On this my resolution’s clinched
I will not have my waist-line pinched.
I will not go to bat
For any crazy hat
Designed for Zazu for a gypsy
By a milliner who much have been tipsy.

But someday I’ll wear a white lace bonnet
With a silver musk-rose on it
And a black velvet ribbon round my neck
By Heck! (That’s to rhyme with neck)
As I’ve always wanted to do,
And quite undaunted, too.

I’ll welcome wrinkles as they come,
For what harm have they ever done?
Instead of regarding them as detrimental
Why not think of them as ornamental?
As just one more crinkle
In a piece of beautiful old Chinese crepe.

At eighty you can discard allure
The best you can do is look demure.
To down temptation strength, by age, is lent.
You can go to a ladies’ tea-party
And come back as pure as when you went.
You can watch soldiers marching by
Without batting an eye.

Prayers for your salvation can now be waived,
For if you’re not saved at eighty
you’ll never be saved.

But the path of virtue easier grows you’ll feel
As you find you’re running short yourself on sex appeal.

And if you would be wise
I’ll give you some advice:
Don’t let the psalmist stop you
When he talks for three-score years and ten;
Keep on going — and at eighty you’ll know
You’ve beaten Moses ten up — and some to go.

And at eighty, if you don’t hear or see quite so well,
Don’t worry or think it tough.
In a world that seems bound for hell.
Believe me, you’ll hear and see quite enough.

But should Hitler ever fast or loose
Try to make you do the step of goose
You can tell Herr Fuehrer,
There’s nothing you’ll find surer,
That whatever cost,
American old folks can’t be bossed —
Not when they’re eighty.
We’ve got some dough-boys who at the drop of a hat
Will see to that.

While to old age my thoughts I give
I find I’m just about ready to live.

No glamor boy could turn my thoughts to Reno
But faithful to the comradeship that we know
I’ll cling as fast and as long as ever I can
To my one and only old man — now I’m eighty.

 

Suzanne Graffham (left) preps a young bridesmaid.

TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY

The gorgeous Rollins College campus, with its Mediterranean Revival-style architecture and lush landscaping, is home to historic Knowles Memorial Chapel, built in 1932 and the site of 60 to 70 weddings a year.

Its cultural vibe and historic charm have always defined WinterPark. But if you’re planning a wedding here, you’ll notice one aspect above all others: the city is a very, very romantic place. 

The granddaddy oaks, the tranquil lakes, the brick streets, the meticulously restored private homes and the numerous cultural amenities combine to provide an idyllic setting for an exchange of vows and a celebration afterward. 

Winter Park’s many charms — including its shopping and dining districts — also make it an extraordinarily appealing place for out-of-town wedding guests to explore after the wedding day hubbub. 

But first things first. If you’re planning to be married, you’re faced with an embarrassment of riches in Winter Park. Whatever your taste — from a nationally renowned boutique hotel to a retro red-brick railroad station — you’ll find an unforgettable venue in good old 32792.

Going to the Chapel

The gorgeous Rollins College campus, with its Mediterranean Revival-style architecture and lush landscaping, is home to historic Knowles Memorial Chapel, built in 1932 and the site of 60 to 70 weddings a year. 

Over the decades, it’s likely that some couples who didn’t even want to marry were compelled to make the leap solely because of the opportunity to say “I do” in this jewel box of a building. 

For decades, however, these coveted chapel nuptials were available only to faculty, staff and alumni of the college as well as their children. That all changed last spring, when the chapel was made available to those with no such Rollins affiliation. 

Concurrently, the erstwhile campus bookstore was repurposed as a reception and banquet hall. The 10,000-square-foot Rice Family Pavilion, which can accommodate receptions and rehearsal dinners of up to 230, features a brand-new rotunda with floor-to-ceiling windows. There’s a full kitchen downstairs, where in the 1960s a coffee shop hosted budding folk singers.

The chapel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, boasts dramatic towers arched overhead and sunlight filtered through stained-glass windows. A vintage pipe organ adds a majestic touch to this sacred space, which was designed by Ralph Adams Cram. The legendary architect’s other achievements include a master plan for Princeton University and the Gothic transformation of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. 

Following ceremonies, couples are often photographed at the chapel’s majestic entry or in a rose garden located just steps away. Indeed, the entire campus provides multiple backdrops for stunning images.

Weddings are held on Saturdays only, and openings are limited because of holidays and college events. (That’s why getting married at the chapel can’t be a spur-of-the-moment decision.) 

If you have no college connection, you must book a package that includes both the chapel and the Rice Family Pavilion. But that’s something you’d likely do in any case, considering the proximity of the venues.

The interior of Knowles Memorial Chapel (above) boasts dramatic towers arched overhead and sunlight filtered through stained-glass windows. A vintage pipe organ adds a majestic touch to this sacred space. Another popular venue at Rollins is the Rice Family Pavilion (below). The reimagined and repurposed space can accommodate receptions and rehearsal dinners of up to 230.

Homey and Historic

Capen House at the Polasek sits on three lush acres skirting the shores of Lake Osceola, alongside the Alan Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. How it got there is a story worthy of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. 

The circa-1885 Tudor Revival home famously faced the wrecking ball in 2013, until community members raised funds to float the structure — via barge and in pieces — across the lake to the museum’s property, where it was reassembled and restored. Surely there’s a wedding analogy in there somewhere.

The herculean effort to preserve the home has made it a treasure in the hearts of Winter Parkers. Pinewood floors, beadboard ceilings, crystal chandeliers, bronze sculptures and a case filled with silver teapots are among the details that make it an endearing and enchanting place for weddings.

Larger groups hold ceremonies on the manicured Lake View Lawn, which is surrounded by blooming gardens. Smaller groups often opt for the expansive patio, which can be outfitted with tables draped in white tablecloths for elegant outdoor dining.

Indoor weddings take place in the Grand Parlor, which is highlighted by a Victorian staircase. Cocktails can be served on an enclosed porch that offers a spectacular view of the grounds and the water. A dock allows guests to arrive by boat, if they so choose.

The Peacock Room, with its French doors, oriental rugs and a sofa accented with pretty tapestry pillows, serves as a charming dressing/waiting room for brides. And the house has a full catering kitchen, where any caterers on the Capen House preferred list can set up.

Czech-born sculptor Albin Polasek’s Mediterranean-style home, now a museum, is just steps away. In addition to viewing a collection of figurative and whimsical mythological sculptures on the grounds, guests can tour the exhibition gallery, see the artist’s personal chapel and enjoy his courtyard — where the iconic “Emily” sculpture welcomes visitors with her harp.

Capen House at the Polasek sits on three lush acres skirting the shores of Lake Osceola, alongside the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. Larger wedding parties hold ceremonies on the manicured Lake View Lawn, which is surrounded by blooming gardens.

Other historic venues in the city include the cozy Winter Park Country Club, a welcoming clapboard cottage built in 1914 and painted in summer shades of yellow and white. Its screened-in porch faces the Winter Park Golf Course, the region’s second-oldest nine-hole layout.

The unpretentious interior features two fireplaces, paddle fans and highly polished wood floors. The main dining room seats 78, while the lounge accommodates 49. The venue, which also has a bricked outdoor gathering area, is run by the City of Winter Park.

Also adjacent to the golf course is another blast from the past that offers an entirely different sort of wedding experience. Casa Feliz Historic Home & Venue — which dubs itself “Winter Park’s Community Parlor” — is a little bit country. Meaning, in this case, an entirely different country (and era).

At 6,000 square feet, this Andalusian-style masonry farmhouse was built in 1933. However, architect James Gamble Rogers II wanted it to look several hundred years older — which he accomplished with arches crafted to resemble ruins, a whitewashed red-brick exterior and a weather-worn clay barrel-tile roof. 

The interior of Casa Feliz (“happy house” in Spanish) evokes 19th-century Spain and is replete with beamed ceilings, oriental rugs, ornately carved chairs, fireplaces and paintings in gilded frames. It can accommodate up to 120 for a reception.

A cozy courtyard with a fountain featuring colorful Mallorca tiles that depict floral and bird designs is just one of many unique photo opportunities. Larger weddings are often held in the courtyard or on the front lawn, while smaller events may be held indoors. Upstairs, the beautifully furnished hospitality suites provide a comfortable place to prepare.

Like the Capen House, Casa Feliz was rescued from demolition and moved to its current site when community activists rode to the rescue. The structure, which was hauled from Interlachen Avenue to its current location on city property in 2000, is owned by the city and operated (using its own funding) by the nonprofit Friends of Casa Feliz.

Capen House at the Polasek, the Winter Park Country Club and Casa Feliz Historic Home & Venue are all listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Gracious Gardens

Flowers are meant to bring joy to a wedding — which explains, in part, the popularity of getting married in a garden setting. At Mead Botanical Garden, the Little Amphitheater, cocooned by pink azaleas, a frilly wrought-iron trellis and tall oak trees, has been a favorite wedding locale for more than 50 years. 

Tiered bench seating for as many as 350 eliminates the need for cumbersome folding chairs. A bonus is access to the 47-acre site’s other picturesque locations, from the Butterfly Garden to Alice’s Pond. After the ceremony, friends and family can gather in the 3,000-square-foot Azalea Lodge, just steps from the amphitheater. 

Weddings and receptions may also be held at the adjacent Grove at Mead Garden, an outdoor performance area that features a raised stage that faces a gently sloping lawn. There’s a rustic pole barn off to the side.

The 50-by-60-foot platform is big enough to accommodate the Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra, which performs there. And it’s also big enough to accommodate at least a dozen tables for a seated dinner. Caterers can serve drinks and appetizers from the pole barn. 

Mead Botanical Garden is known as “Winter Park’s Natural Place.” It’s certainly a natural place for a wedding — possibly at Garden Grove, an outdoor performance area that features a raised stage topped with soaring overhead sails. The stage faces a gently sloping lawn, and there’s a rustic pole barn off to the side.

Other outdoors-themed weddings are held at 13-acre Kraft Azalea Garden, which faces Lake Maitland along Alabama Drive — a winding, shady street lined with historic homes and modern showplaces. 

The garden is filled with cypress trees that reach soaring heights and drip with Spanish moss, which blows gently in the breeze. And, of course, there are acres of azaleas. On the edge of the lake is the iconic Exedra, an open-air, temple-like structure whose architectural heritage dates to ancient Greece. 

The Exedra, which was built in 1969, is particularly breathtaking (and photogenic) at sunset. However, only groups of up to 20 are permitted to use the city-owned property, and there’s no dressing area — so come prepared.

If you like the idea of an outdoor wedding but prefer that amenities be a little closer at hand, you may opt for the Central Park Rose Garden, located in the southern reaches of the city’s signature Central Park. 

Located near the corner of Park and New England avenues, the urban oasis is convenient to venues where receptions can be held. No parties are allowed in the park and, like Kraft Azalea Garden, there’s no preparation area (or even restrooms). Groups are limited to 20.

Unique and Boutique

Weddings at the luxurious Alfond Inn at Rollins, a boutique hotel owned by the college, are popular in part because out-of-town guests have a handy place to stay. 

Oh, but what a place it is. The 112-room Alfond — located just a block from Park Avenue — has earned Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Award as the Best Hotel in Florida every year from 2014 to 2018 and has a AAA Four Diamond rating.

The Alfond is, of course, frequently full. But if you book a wedding, you’re guaranteed a block of rooms and can be certain that your guests will be well taken care of — and will be within walking distance of shops, restaurants and museums. 

The hotel’s signature Conservatory, with its dramatic glass-dome ceiling, is a one-of-a-kind wedding space in the region. Adding further interest are thought-provoking pieces from the Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art, which is held by the college’s Cornell Fine Arts Museum.

Outdoor weddings are often held on the Courtyard Lawn, adjacent to the Conservatory, which is lined with pots of bougainvillea that bloom bountifully in shades of pink.

The Alfond Inn at Rollins frequently hosts weddings on the Courtyard Lawn, adjacent to the Conservatory, which is carefully manicured and lined with pots of bougainvillea. Receptions are usually held in the boutique hotel’s Park Avenue Ballroom. The Alfond, which boasts a AAA Four Diamond rating, is frequently full. But if you book a wedding, you’re guaranteed a block of rooms and can rest assured that your guests will be well taken care of.

Receptions are usually hosted in the Park Avenue Ballroom, which can be transformed through lighting, draperies, floral displays and elegant table settings. And because the hotel is a boutique property, it can handle only one wedding at a time. That means the highly professional staff will lavish you with attention. 

Best of all, the Alfond — which can accommodate weddings with as many as 240 guests — is basically a one-stop shop. Couples need to contract separately only for photography, entertainment and floral arrangements.

Last summer, the hotel embarked on an expansion program that will, by 2021, add 75 more guest rooms — many of them full suites — a state-of-the-art, 10,000-square-foot wellness center and spa, and a second swimming pool in an elevated outdoor area with fixed cabanas.

Down to Earth

The Winter Park Farmers’ Market is likely not top of mind as a wedding venue. But perhaps it should be. After all, railroads and romance have a long and storied history together. 

The old Atlantic Coast Line freight depot, which was built in 1913, has anchored the popular Saturday-morning market since 1979. The place has a certain rustic appeal that many couples find charming. 

The exposed red-brick walls and wood sliding doors are original to the building, which is air conditioned and seats 180. The parking lot can be used for a tented event.

Located on West New England Avenue in downtown Winter Park, the city-owned, 2,800-square-foot venue also has a prep kitchen and an ice machine. Tables and chairs are included with the rental. 

The Winter Park Farmers’ Market is likely not top of mind as a wedding venue. But perhaps it should be. After all, railroads and romance have a long and storied history together. The place has a certain rustic appeal that many couples find charming.

You’ll need to keep in mind that the building is next to the railroad tracks — not surprising for an ertswhile freight depot. If your wedding is on a weekday, SunRail cars will rumble past every half hour. An Amtrak incursion is also a possibility, so it’s smart to check the schedule if you don’t want to hear the train a’coming (as Johnny Cash might say) during your ceremony.

The Winter Park Community Center, located in Hannibal Square, is likewise an under-the-radar wedding location. But it’s got all the bells and whistles, including a ballroom that accommodates groups ranging in size from 50 to 350 for dinner and dancing.

There’s a full commercial kitchen on site — and two basketball courts to work off those extra pounds after gorging on hors d’oeuvres.

Clubs and Churches

The Winter Park Racquet Club, located on Via Tuscany, is a warm, inviting space on the edge of Lake Maitland with a dreamy view of the water framed by the branches of cypress trees. 

No matter where you hold the ceremony, cocktail hour, dinner and dancing, guests will delight in the splendid views and posh appointments. But you must be a member, or have a member sponsor you, to use the facility. 

That’s also the case with Interlachen Country Club, located off Lake Howell Road on lake-dotted property that encompasses a Joe Lee-designed, 18-hole golf course. There are more than a dozen weddings a year at the club, many of them for families that were member sponsored. 

Other clubs, though, open their facilities to anyone for weddings. The Woman’s Club of Winter Park, located on South Interlachen Avenue in downtown Winter Park, often hosts weddings in its clubhouse — which was completed in 1921 — or on its beautiful front lawn. 

The facility has a full kitchen and a stage for a DJ or a band. The room seats about 120 at tables and about 150 with chairs only. A long terrace that runs along the building’s south side is ideal for cocktail receptions.

On the property of the University Club of Winter Park is an oak-shaded gazebo where outdoor ceremonies are held. Receptions are held in the cozy clubhouse, which was built in 1934.

Ditto for the University Club of Winter Park on North Park Avenue. The main ballroom of its clubhouse, which was completed in 1934, can handle up to 120 at tables or up to 200 for a reception. There’s also a stage and a full kitchen.

The library is available to host pre-wedding catered dinners for as many as 40. And elsewhere on the property stands an oak-shaded gazebo where outdoor ceremonies are often held. 

Still, many prefer to be married in a house of worship. If so, there’s no shortage in Winter Park — although some only perform weddings for members and their families. Several, though, are of historic interest.

All Saints Episcopal Church, for example, with its peaked roof and arches, was built in 1942 and designed by Ralph Adam Cram, whom you’ll recall from Knowles Memorial Chapel. It’s located on East Lyman Avenue. 

St. Mary Margaret Catholic Church, with its Mediterranean architecture and cavernous contemporary interior surrounded by stained-glass windows, provides a beautiful setting for wedding ceremonies.

First Congregational Church of Winter Park, established in 1884, is the first church of any denomination to be established in Winter Park. The original building is long gone, but the current Colonial Revival sanctuary, completed in 1925, holds 400 and has an adjoining meeting room with a full kitchen for receptions.

It’s worth noting that First Congregational, which also has a smaller chapel on its South Interlachen Avenue campus, is the only church in Winter Park that performs same-sex marriages.

The Chapel & Hudson’s Cellar Hannibal Square was built as Grant Chapel on Winter Park’s west side in 1935 and served as a house of worship for the predominantly African-American neighborhood for almost 70 years.

In 2002, the building was bought by Sydgen Corporation — which redeveloped Hannibal Square in the 1990s — and was for several years leased to a company that used it as a photography studio and wedding venue. 

In 2013, Sydgen moved the chapel to its present location on Lyman Avenue near the railroad tracks and across from the Farmers’ Market. As part of the move, the company renovated the structure and added a well-equipped basement space for receptions and other events.

It’s an intimate space (capacity is just 49) that features six of the church’s original pews in the chapel area. The cellar, entered through hand-forged iron doors imported from Mexico, has black-stained concrete floors, oak tongue-and-groove ceilings and Edison light fixtures. 

In the center of the room, two antique Chicago brick pillars anchor a banquet table, while lining the walls are tufted-leather banquette benches and six smaller tables. There’s also a granite-top bar.

The Chapel & Hudson’s Cellar Hannibal Square was known to generations of west side residents as Grant Chapel. In 2002 the building was bought by Sydgen Corporation, which in 2013 moved it to Lyman Avenue and transformed it into a wedding and reception venue. The chapel seats 49, and still features some of Grant Chapel’s original pews. The cellar, entered through hand-forged iron doors imported from Mexico, has black-stained concrete floors, oak tongue-and-groove ceilings and Edison light fixtures.

New and Notable

By the summer of 2021, Winter Park will have a new venue for hosting weddings and receptions — one that has been years in the making and not without controversy. 

The Winter Park Library and Events Center is being constructed where the Rachel D. Murrah Civic Center once stood on Morse Boulevard. The civic center was demolished last year to make way for two new buildings designed by celebrity architect Sir David Adjaye.

The 13,000-square-foot events venue will include such enhancements as a porte cochere, a rooftop venue and an exterior amphitheater. As was the case with the former civic center, city officials say they expect most weekends to be booked months or perhaps years in advance. Reservations, in fact, are already being accepted.

So, there you have it. Now that we’ve laid out the options, contact any of these venues or visit their websites for rates and restrictions. First, of course, try to ensure that you won’t be left standing at the altar when the time comes. Aside from the embarrassment, some deposits are not refundable. 

The Winter Park Library and Events Center, slated for completion next summer, is already accepting reservations for weddings and receptions. The events center space will total 13,000 square feet.


Taking the Worry Out of Weddings

Suzanne Graffham (left) preps a young bridesmaid.

When Jannette Ocasio wanted information, she — like many of us these days — turned to Google. The phrase “small chapels in Orlando” led her to the Winter Park Wedding Company. And it proved to be a match made in heaven.

Ocasio, a sales executive who grew up in Central Florida, had always loved coming to Winter Park to shop, eat or attend art festivals. She and her husband, Steven, married last September in the chapel at First Congregational Church of Winter Park — one of five venues used by the Winter Park Wedding Company.

Marrying for a second time, Ocasio, 50, knew exactly what she wanted in a wedding: an intimate ceremony with close family members — and no stress. The Winter Park Wedding Company delivered. “Absolutely everything was to the tee,” she says. “It was flawless execution.” 

The company, founded by Suzanne and Steve Graffham, specializes in taking the worry out of weddings. Over the past decade, they have brought more than 750 ceremonies to Winter Park.

In 2008, Steve Graffham, a commercial photographer, was leasing studio space in the former Grant Chapel in Hannibal Square. His wife, who had worked several years for a British firm that produced Florida weddings, was assisting with administrative tasks. Then the economy crashed, and the business was pummeled.

The couple decided to marry their knowledge and create a wedding services company, which they originally called Winter Park Wedding Chapel. Ceremonies were held almost exclusively at Grant Chapel. 

The Graffhams’ first client was Virgin Holidays, the British tour operator that packages travel — including weddings — for popular destinations like Florida. So it’s no surprise that in the early years, most of the company’s weddings were for couples who lived in the United Kingdom. “[The packages] incorporate the wedding, the honeymoon and a vacation — and still cost less than having a wedding back home,” says Suzanne Graffham, 44. “These are people who have been coming here for holidays for years.”

As word of the Graffhams’ business spread through positive online reviews on such wedding sites as The Knot and Wedding Wire, their clientele diversified. Today about half of their clients are from out of state or out of the country, and half are from Central Florida.

In late 2013, when Grant Chapel was relocated from Winter Park’s west side to the corner of Lyman and New England avenues and underwent a lengthy renovation, the Graffhams regrouped.

They changed the name of their business to the Winter Park Wedding Company and established relationships with a variety of local venues, including the renovated Grant Chapel — which now hosts weddings as the Chapel & Hudson’s Cellar Hannibal Square — as well as the Capen House at the Polasek and the Alfond Inn.

The Winter Park Wedding Company also stages ceremonies in the sanctuary and chapel at First Congregational Church of Winter Park. The chapel, a more intimate space, is considered by the Graffhams to be their home venue and has been dubbed the Winter Park Wedding Chapel.

The Graffhams offer three all-inclusive packages for each of these locations. Couples — who spend, on average, just $2,300 — can also customize their nuptials.

The basic package includes the venue, the officiant, a coordinator, a bouquet for the bride and a boutonniere for the groom. Couples also get two hours of photography. Other packages include live music, a limousine, hair styling and makeup, and videography. 

“Couples are so busy working long hours and don’t have the luxury of time, so the all-inclusive packages have worked well in our favor,” says Suzanne Graffham.

Business is so good that the Graffhams last year hired an associate, Cheryl Loft, to not only coordinate some of the weddings but to help them expand their company’s services to receptions.

Brides today want everything close by, says Suzanne Graffham, and Winter Park has it all: hotels, restaurants, and architecture, streetscapes and green spaces that make perfect settings for romantic photography.

Many of the Winter Park Wedding Company’s clients have been couples like the Ocasios, who are beginning second marriages and want more modest but still memorable events. 

From Winter Park Wedding Company, the bride says she got all the joy she wanted in a wedding for under $2,000: “It gave my husband and I the opportunity to really splurge on our honeymoon in Italy and truly make the event completely about us.

— Catherine Hinman

THAD - AN APPRECIATION

The ebullient Seymour was often known to lead raucous, fist-pumping cheers at a variety of occasions, including student gatherings and sports contests. He may have perfected his technique at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Photo courtesy of The Rollins College Archives: Digital Art by Chip Weston

The death of a 91-year-old man is never truly a surprise. So when word came last October that Thaddeus Seymour, 12th president of Rollins College and arguably the most beloved citizen of Winter Park, had passed away following a year of precarious health, the reaction was grief, naturally, tempered by gratitude for a life well lived. 

Even so, and despite ample time to prepare for the inevitable, it quickly became apparent that the community simply wasn’t ready to let him go — at least not yet. Shared one poster on social media: “It feels like someone turned out a light.” 

Exactly. Of the hundreds of tributes Seymour received in the coming days, none better described the collective realization that this giant of a man — whose booming voice and irrepressible spirit were as integral to the city as its lakes, its brick streets and its cultural institutions — was truly gone.

But Seymour’s influence will be felt for generations to come, in ways large and small. He directly impacted many thousands of lives through his long career as a college administrator and later as a civic activist whose interests ranged from historic preservation to affordable housing. His effectiveness in those roles was magnified by his humor and humanity. 

So genuine was Seymour’s ebullience that nearly everyone who met him left the encounter feeling better about themselves and more hopeful about the world in general. “Let’s face it: Thad was a quick read,” says Billy Collins, the former two-term U.S. Poet Laureate and now Senior Distinguished Fellow at the college’s Winter Park Institute.

“It took only a minute of exposure to the man to be pulled into the magnetic field of his spirited personality,” adds Collins, whose witty and gently profound poetry Seymour enjoyed and sometimes shared with friends on typewritten, laminated cards. “To be in his company was to be uplifted and enlivened; you couldn’t help bring a little bit of his brightness away with you.”

Inspirational personalities, though, aren’t always effective administrators. Not so with Seymour, who was without question among the 135-year-old college’s most consequential presidents. He placed the struggling institution on sound financial footing while reinforcing its traditional liberal arts mission during an eventful 12-year stint that ended when he stepped down — but not away — in 1990.

Fortunately for Winter Park, Seymour would spend nearly three additional decades lavishing attention on the community. 

Seymour and his wife, Polly, were named Citizens of the Year by the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce in 1997. But the award would have been just as appropriate the following year — or in any of the 20-plus productive years still to come. 

Winter Parkers who agreed on little else remained united in the belief that the Seymours — whose 71-year marriage appeared to have struck an ideal balance between romance and friendship — were community treasures. Even when Seymour publicly endorsed candidates for city commission, no one questioned his motives. 

“I always appreciated Thad’s thoughtfulness, his consideration and his role as a valued statesman of Winter Park,” says Mayor Steve Leary, who knows a thing or two about how rough-and-tumble local politics can be. “He took this status seriously and was always a gentleman to all parties — regardless of your position on a topic.”

If there was a dark side to Seymour, he never showed it in public. “Dad was pretty much the same guy in every setting,” says Thaddeus Seymour Jr., eldest son and now acting president of the University of Central Florida, who describes his father as“a mentor, a great moral compass and a best friend.” 

Dinnertime conversations at the Seymour household, he recalls, were often prompted by one of his father’s favorite questions: “What was your best thing today?” The premise — that whatever else may have happened, there was always something for which to be grateful — epitomized Seymour’s view of the world.

“I’ll forever cherish the fact that I got to have a dad like that,” says the younger Seymour, one of four surviving siblings including son Sam and daughters Liz and Abigail. “Yes, he understood that his words carried weight. But he had such genuine humility. He would be surprised by the outpouring.”

A lover of quirky campus traditions, Seymour restored Fox Day at Rollins as one of his first official acts as president. “When the Vietnam War ended, we didn’t need to feel guilty about having fun again,” he said. Photo courtesy of The Rollins College Archives: Digital Art by Will Setzer/Circle 7 Design Studio

TADDEO THE GREAT

Thaddeus Seymour, born in New York City in 1928, was the son of Lola Virginia Vickers and Whitney North Seymour, assistant solicitor general in the Hoover administration and later president of the American Bar Association. 

As a child, Seymour was fascinated by magic and frequented Manhattan’s Tannen’s Magic Shop — which was founded in 1925 and remains in operation. 

He honed his sleight-of-hand skills, and as a young man spent a summer traveling the carnival circuit with his equally tall older brother, the late Whitney North Seymour Jr., who would become U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.  

“[Magic] has been a happy part of my life,” said Seymour — who dubbed himself “Taddeo the Great” when performing solo — during a lengthy 2005 oral history interview for the college’s Olin Library. “And part of the fun is, it’s intended to bring people pleasure. There’s nothing unkind about it. Nobody loses in magic.”

Seymour attended private schools as a youngster and enrolled at Princeton University in New Jersey when he was just 16. He unceremoniously flunked out after a year, but excelled as an athlete on the school’s nationally ranked crew team.

After a year of “growing up and getting my bearings,” Seymour returned to Princeton and did well. He might have graduated from there, but chose instead to marry Polly Gnagy, his childhood sweetheart. Because Princeton didn’t allow married students, the couple moved west, to be near Polly’s family. 

Seymour enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley and completed an undergraduate degree in English literature. He earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after completing a dissertation called “Literature and the South Seas Bubble.” 

The bubble in question was a 1720 financial crash in Great Britain. “It’s a wonderful graduate topic because nobody knows anything about it,” said Seymour. “I discovered in my little paper that some major literary figures had had an association with it. It was great fun.”

In 1954, Seymour became an English professor and later dean of students at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where in the turbulent 1960s protestors tried to shout down a speech by Alabama Governor George Wallace and later surrounded and jostled the vehicle in which Wallace was being driven. 

Seymour, certainly no fan of Wallace’s, issued a public apology, regretting that “certain Dartmouth undergraduates so flagrantly abused the cardinal principle of an academic community by infringing on your rights as a guest on our campus.”

In 1969, students occupied the administration building to protest the Vietnam War and the on-campus presence of an ROTC chapter — which was, ironically, already being phased out. Working behind the scenes, Seymour had agreed in advance to allow his ejection from the building by protestors.

“I had already signed a contract at Wabash,” said Seymour, referring to Wabash College, where he had been named president. “I was the youngest and biggest, and it sort of fell to me to be the one who was forcibly evicted.”

At that point, it was determined, the college would seek an injunction barring further occupation of the building. Police would be called only if the students violated a court order by refusing to leave. And even then, negotiation would replace confrontation.

A grainy news photograph shows a young man hustling the compliant — and seemingly bemused — dean from his office. At a muscular 6-foot-5, Seymour, a volunteer coach of the university’s crew team, dwarfs his spindly captor. 

Students — including members of the militant Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) — and authorities orchestrated an anticlimactic exit that resulted in 45 erstwhile occupiers being charged with criminal contempt and serving 30-day jail sentences.

Seymour remained proud of the fact that, unlike similar situations at campuses across the U.S., the Dartmouth incident wasn’t marred by bloodshed. “No violence, no tear gas,” Seymour said. “It came out as it should have.”

Dartmouth’s deft handling of a potentially incendiary situation won praise from a New Hampshire representative in the Congressional Record. But Seymour, although he was sympathetic to the students, later admitted that the incivility on display troubled him deeply.

Nearly 50 years later, in 2018, Seymour reconnected with the young man in the photograph. David Green, now a Boston-based national distributor of water filtration systems, visited the Seymours in Winter Park and dined with them at their home on Lake Virginia.

“David has been a special teacher,” Seymour later posted on Facebook. “His friendship has taught me the importance and the rewards of reconciliation.”

Wabash College, a small (800-student) all-male liberal arts college in Crawfordsville, Indiana, was an ideal fit for the congenial Seymour. “Very personal, very good humored,” he said. “[Our children] grew up in a traditional Midwestern county seat … a small town in a county that exports more corn and hogs than any county I can think of.” 

But, although Wabash was a more placid place than Dartmouth, it wasn’t lost on Seymour that the college had run through five presidents in six years, one of whom had suffered a nervous breakdown and one of whom was “a fancy guy” who had been hired from Harvard and had failed to adapt to the down-home culture. 

Noted Seymour: “More than anything else, [Wabash] wanted a sense of self-worth and a sense of stability and continuity. And that’s exactly what I wanted after what we’d been through.”

The laid-back ambiance at Wabash allowed Seymour’s more whimsical side to come to the fore. A lover of distinctive if sometimes eccentric college traditions, he started a holiday called Elmore Day to honor a notoriously bad Indiana poet named James Buchanan Elmore. 

As part of the festivities, to which townspeople were invited, Seymour would read aloud Elmore’s florid works — including “The Wreck of the Monon” and “When Katie Gathers the Greens” — at an outdoor assembly. He was also prone to bound from the bleachers and lead raucous, fist-pumping cheers at basketball and football games.

But Seymour’s tenure at Wabash was all business when it needed to be. During his nine-year presidency, he raised nearly $32 million during one two-and-a-half-year span — said by The New York Times to have been “the most successful small college campaign in the history of higher education.” 

Then in 1977, Seymour told the trustees that he would be leaving in 1978, the year of his 50th birthday. He didn’t yet have another job but “had begun to fantasize about what to do next; about what adventure would be right for us.” 

Many prestigious institutions were interested in talking to the quirky but charismatic leader who had brought support and stability to an out-of-the-way college in the rural Midwest — and not only colleges were calling. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art also interviewed Seymour for its presidency. 

But Rollins proved particularly intriguing because it faced many of the same challenges as had Wabash. “I would have to say,” Seymour recalled, “as I look at my career in education, all of that was simply preparation for Rollins.”

Seymour was amused — and likely not surprised — to learn that the first action taken by the Wabash faculty upon his departure was to eliminate Elmore Day. 

During the 1980s, Taddeo the Great’s magic act was featured in an annual show staged by the Rollins Players at the Annie Russell Theatre. The cast introduced him by singing “Suddenly Seymour,” from the stage musical Little Shop of Horrors. To Seymour’s left is Alice Fairfax, now public relations manager at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. One of her cherished memories: When Seymour was conducting a tour for prospective students, he memorably called upon Fairfax, peering down from the window of her third-floor dorm room, to join him an impromptu balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Photo courtesy of The Rollins College Archives: Digital Art by Will Setzer/Circle 7 Design Studio

BIG MAN, BIG IDEAS

When Seymour arrived in Winter Park in 1978, he was described by the Orlando Sentinel as “about as different from his predecessor as a Hush Puppy is from a patent-leather loafer.” 

The previous president had been Jack Critchfield, a button-down personality who went on to a successful career in private business, becoming president of Winter Park Telephone, then group vice president and ultimately CEO of the $3.5 billion Florida Progress Corporation (whose subsidiaries included Florida Power).

Seymour was likely not displeased with the oddly apt comparison to casual footwear. He, in fact, often wore sneakers with his khakis and blue blazer (he also favored bowties) and quickly energized the campus with his larger-than-life personality. 

“If you’re going to be a liberal arts college, you’ve got to be a liberal arts college,” was Seymour’s mantra as he sought to lift the somewhat threadbare institution out of the financial and intellectual doldrums. 

“When I saw [Rollins], I saw a physical plant in quite serious disrepair,” said Seymour. “I saw a place that was embarrassed by its Jolly Rolly Colly reputation. I saw a place that needed to feel loved. It needed to feel good about itself.” 

Seymour, looking ahead to the college’s centennial, appointed the blandly labeled College Planning Committee in 1978. The group — led by Daniel R. DeNicola, dean of education and associate professor of philosophy — would spend the next year and a half evaluating programs and setting a five-year institutional agenda. 

By 1985, its centennial year, Seymour wanted Jolly Rolly Colly to be nothing less than “the finest small college in the Southeast, standing among the finest small colleges in the country.” 

 “We felt very strongly that in the planning process we needed to be clear about what liberal arts education was,” said Seymour. “Liberal arts education was not the majority of your students studying business and the second-largest group studying communication, which is what was going on.” 

When the 500-page Report of the College Planning Committee was released in October 1980, its most daring recommendation was to eliminate the popular undergraduate business administration major — a move that pleased liberal arts purists but, not surprisingly, displeased students majoring in business administration.

“Any time you have a shift in an organization, you have naysayers,” says Seymour Jr. “Dad used to say that moving a college is like moving a cemetery — you get no help from the inhabitants.”

Business administration, the report concluded, was rightly a graduate-level subject. If the undergraduate program was dropped — except as a minor — then the Crummer Graduate School of Business could seek accreditation from the prestigious Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. (AASB accreditation was granted in 1985.)

“Dad had a vision for Rollins,” adds Seymour Jr. “He was so confident in the future of the place that he stayed true to that vision. When that happens, obstruction eventually melts away.”

In 1987, a Master of Liberal Studies program was introduced and the School of Continuing Education — where the curriculum had been revamped to be more reflective of the traditional day school — was renamed the Hamilton Holt School in honor of the college’s legendary eighth president.

As the 1980s wound down, Seymour could look back over a decade of successes. A $33 million capital campaign was successfully completed, and the college’s endowment doubled, to nearly $20 million. Faculty salaries had risen by 80 percent.

Olin Library was built with a $4.7 million grant from the Olin Foundation. Other physical plant additions and improvements included Cornell Hall ($4.5 million), Alfond Stadium ($1.5 million) and a renovation of Mills Memorial Hall (now Kathleen W. Rollins Hall) as a learning resource center and student government offices ($1.8 million). 

Four endowed chairs were added: Classics — a favorite of Seymour’s, who delighted in its popularity — Latin American and Caribbean Studies, English Literature, and Finance in the Crummer School. Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report now covered the college not for its controversies or its gimmicks but for its academic prowess.

The business administration major returned in 2011. Generally, however, the trajectory set by Seymour has continued through today, with Rollins ranked No. 1 among regional universities in the South in U.S. News & World Report’s 2020 rankings of “Best Colleges.” It has been ranked No. 1 or No. 2 for 25 consecutive years.

“Thad was larger than life,” says Rita Bornstein, who succeeded Seymour as president in 1990. “He was a big man. He thought big, he acted big, and had big ideas and ambitions. Thad pulled and pushed Rollins to be better and better. That’s his legacy.”

Bornstein recalls that following Seymour’s retirement, when he began a new career as an English professor, he asked her for a favorite poem that he might share with his incoming group of freshmen.

She selected a work by Marge Piercy, “To Be of Use,” which he loved and shared widely on one of his laminated cards. “I still cherish mine,” says Bornstein, who adds that the words remind her of Seymour’s time at Rollins:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
Who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
Who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
Who do what has to be done, again and again.

It’s unknown how many such cards are still nestled in purses, wallets and dresser drawers. But Seymour surely dispensed many hundreds featuring favored poems, including “Dust of Snow” by Robert Frost. If “To Be of Use” described Seymour’s work ethic, then “Dust of Snow” explained his eternal optimism, without which he could never have accomplished so much: 

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

One of Seymour’s magic tricks, it appeared, was pouring his massive frame into a well-worn Volkswagen Beetle. Seymour’s car, naturally, bore a “Fiat Lux” custom tag. Other times he would traverse the campus on a bicycle. Photo courtesy of The Rollins College Archives: Digital Art by Will Setzer/Circle 7 Design Studio

SUDDENLY SEYMOUR

It didn’t take long for the campus and the community to get a sense of Seymour. During the first year of his presidency he revived Fox Day, a whimsical all-campus holiday declared spontaneously each spring at the president’s discretion. Fox Day, established in 1956 by President Hugh McKean, had been eliminated in 1970. 

“It was understandably a very frivolous activity at a time when the nation was addressing the war,” Seymour said. “If you took a day off, it was to talk about a moratorium for peace or address substantive moral issues. When the Vietnam War ended, we didn’t have to feel guilty about having fun again.” 

Later that year, Seymour was compelled to defend freedom of expression when the city threatened to arrest director Jeff Storer and actors David McClure and Darla Briganti from the cast of Equus, which contained a 10-minute nude scene. The play was slated to open within a few weeks at the Annie Russell Theatre. 

The brouhaha began when the Orlando Sentinel ran a story about the notably muted response from season subscribers, who had been alerted in advance to the nude scene. “I have faith in the maturity of our audience,” Storer told reporter Jody Feltus, who also quoted Seymour as being supportive of the production because the college “is an intellectually free environment.”  

But when about a dozen people lodged complaints, city officials vowed to enforce a vague 1912 ordinance that prohibited nudity and, strictly speaking, would have made bathing in one’s home illegal. In response, about 400 students marched on City Hall and draped a nude statue with panties and a bra. 

On May 3, Seymour, who had earlier that day reluctantly agreed to order the troublesome scene altered, presided over an all-campus meeting during which he announced a change of heart. He now expressed support for performing the play as written, and promised legal representation for anyone arrested. 

Still, did anyone really have to go to jail? Because the city attorney and the college attorney — Richard Trismen — were one in the same, Seymour asked legendary local lawyer Kenneth Murrah, who had volunteered to help the college, about going to court and seeking a restraining order against the city.

On May 4, just hours before the curtain was set to rise, U.S. District Judge John A. Reed presided over a hastily called hearing. Ironically, Reed had two tickets for Equus and wondered aloud if this conflict of interest should prevent him from ruling at all.  

Attorney Lee Sasser, an associate of Murrah’s, said: “Your Honor, Dr. Seymour, president of Rollins, is in the courtroom, and I know if you requested it, he would fully refund your tickets for tonight.” Replied Reed: “OK. But you’ll have to explain this to my wife.”

The judge issued a temporary restraining order that allowed the show to go on without immediate legal consequences for the participants — but he did not, as the college had hoped, rule that the ordinance was unconstitutional. Theoretically, arrests could be made later, when the order expired. Ultimately, however, neither party pursued the matter further.

That night, Seymour noted a handful of picketers on campus led by Rev. John Butler Book, a fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist who led a small church in Winter Park. “I remember one of the signs distinctly,” he said, always laughing when he repeated the story. “It read, ‘Seymour Wants to See More!’”

While shaping the college’s future, Seymour also bolstered appreciation for its past. He oversaw renovation of Pinehurst Cottage, the campus’s oldest building, and had it placed on the Winter Park Register of Historic Places. 

In addition, he revitalized and rededicated the neglected Walk of Fame, which had been launched in 1929 by President Hamilton Holt, and added commemorative stones for such diverse figures as folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Chief Osceola, leader of the Seminoles.

In 1985, Seymour presided over the college’s yearlong centennial celebration, which he later described as “the most fun I ever had.” It began with the dedication of Olin Library and continued through the ensuing months with such activities as picnics, performances and panel discussions. 

But of the most significance to Seymour was the college’s centennial-year decision to divest from companies that did business with apartheid-era South Africa. On the day of the trustees’ annual meeting, students called attention to the hot-button issue by setting up shanty-style housing on the Mills Lawn. Trustees had to walk past the makeshift village to get to Mills Memorial Hall. 

“Now, for Rollins that was big,” Seymour recalled. “And I was so proud of that part of the coming of age — not just of shedding the Jolly Rolly Colly [image] … not just of being in U.S. News & World Report, but of having the conscience to act out of a principle about the endowment.” 

However, most students and community members have memories of Seymour that are more related to personal interactions. “Dad Thad” — a moniker that was also used at Princeton and Wabash — was a peripatetic presence on campus and in the community. 

But Seymour was also an easily accessible administrator who was never too busy for a private chat with anyone who wanted to see him. Perhaps more accurately, he was nearly always too busy — but made time regardless.

And he carried around silver dollars to bestow upon surprised students whom he had spied doing a good deed — even something as simple as picking up trash. “It didn’t count if they saw me coming and faked it,” he insisted.

Seymour seemed entirely lacking in presidential affectations. He washed cars, led square dances, marched in parades and even donned tights to portray King Arthur in the Rollins College Renaissance and Baroque Festival. He also performed his magic act at the beginning of each academic year during a show staged at the Annie Russell Theatre by the Rollins Players. 

The student ensemble usually introduced Seymour by singing “Suddenly Seymour,” from the stage musical Little Shop of Horrors. “The words were just so perfect,” says Alice Fairfax, a theater major who is today public relations manager at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

Suddenly Seymour, is standing beside me.
He don’t give me orders, he don’t condescend.
Suddenly Seymour, is here to provide me,
sweet understanding, Seymour’s my friend.

Often, Seymour personally conducted campus tours for groups of potential students. Fairfax, who lived in Lyman Hall on the third floor overlooking Mills Lawn, remembers one Saturday morning in 1985 when she overhead a distinctive voice extolling the college’s virtues and opened her window to see what was happening. 

Seymour, who happened to glance upward, spied Fairfax and immediately decided that an impromptu scene from Romeo and Juliet would enliven the proceedings.

“He didn’t miss a beat, and called out to me, ‘But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?’” recalls Fairfax, who was, of course, expected to respond as Juliet with, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Taken by surprise, however, she didn’t remember the lines.

Seymour later typed the iconic exchange on a three-by-five card and instructed Fairfax to tape it to her window so she would be prepared the next time. “Anytime he was leading a tour, I would be at my open window and we would do the scene for prospective students,” says Fairfax, who still carries the card as a memento.

When Seymour stepped down from the presidency in 1990, he simply said that “it’s time for a change at Rollins College, which deserves new ideas and inspirations, new vision and leadership. It’s also a time for a change for me.” He would return to the classroom, he said, and teach English.

It was assumed that Seymour, as befitting a former president, would choose to lead a handful of workshops for advanced students. Instead, he tackled freshman English courses — which in short order were wait-listed because of their popularity. 

For a semester, Seymour was part of a “master learner” program in which he took biology and pre-calculus courses with undergraduates. “I want to see if there’s still a tune left in the old violin,” said Seymour when asked why, at age 63, he would try to master subjects that had bedeviled him as a young man. He was proud of the B’s he earned.

Seymour ultimately spent 14 post-presidential years at the college as a part-time professor. “I was able to devote myself … totally to what I’d set out to do in the first place,” he said when he formally retired in 2005. “I couldn’t be more grateful for the privilege. I mean that.”

When Seymour was dean at Dartmouth, he helped organize Hanover’s 1961 Fourth of July Parade, which also celebrated the 200th anniversary of the town’s founding. In 2011, 50 years later, he returned as grand marshal, driving the same 1929 Packard that he had driven in the parade a half-century earlier Always at Seymour’s side — and pursuing causes of her own — was Polly, his wife of 71 years. She is shown (above right) at the Winter Park Public Library’s New Leaf Bookstore, now named in her honor. Photo courtesy of the Seymour family (left); Photo by Rafael Tongol (right)

CITIZEN THAD

For Seymour, “retirement” meant lavishing even more attention on Winter Park. “Those involved in education should demonstrate to their students concern for their communities,” he said. “It’s the best form of teaching by example.”

Throughout his career, wherever he lived, Seymour made it a point to become a stalwart of civic life. In Winter Park, among many other volunteer committees, he chaired the board of trustees of the Winter Park Public Library, and in 1995 helped Polly found the library’s New Leaf Bookstore, now named in her honor. 

Later, Seymour was energized by an effort that seemed to call for the skills of a magician. In order to save the Capen-Showalter House from demolition, funds had to be raised to float the historic residence — via barge and in pieces — across Lake Osceola to the grounds of the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, where it would be reassembled and restored.

Preservation Capen, co-chaired by Seymour and former State Attorney Lawson Lamar, rallied the community and the relocation was completed in 2013. Two years later, the circa-1885 home was opened as a community events center. 

For many, spearheading such an audacious effort would qualify as a legacy project. But for Seymour, dozens of less showy homes built by Habitat for Humanity of Winter Park-Maitland were even more important. Seymour chaired the worldwide nonprofit’s local affiliate since it was started in 1993.

Seymour’s involvement originated with Hal George, founder of Parkland Homes and a 1976 Rollins graduate, who had been concerned about the lack of affordable housing in and around Winter Park. 

“From the very beginning, Thad was our leader and our public face,” says George, who still serves as president of the organization. “He could be found on work sites, chairing our board meetings, raising funds for homes and doing anything that was needed to ensure our success.”

Seymour also presided over the heart-tugging ceremonies when ground was broken and homes were completed — consistently awing the low-key George with his effortless eloquence. 

“Thad was truly magical,” says George. “Not only because he was a magician, but magical in the sense that he made things happen — and he inspired people to do things they didn’t know they were capable of doing.”

Accolades continued to pile up in recent years. Seymour was a finalist for the Orlando Sentinel’s Central Floridian of the Year in 2013. And the Seymours were individually named to Winter Park Magazine’s Most Influential People list: Thad in 2015 and Polly in 2017.

“Frankly, I never thought of myself as influential, except that I’m pretty tall and have a loud voice,” said Seymour when accepting the magazine’s award. “It was the role of college president that provided the influence. I always tried to take that seriously because the college is, and always has been, such an essential part of the character of the community.”

The Seymours dealt forthrightly with an unthinkable tragedy in 2014 when their daughter Mary, 56, a mental health counselor and gifted writer who had for years struggled with bipolar disorder, took her own life in North Carolina using a gun that she had legally purchased earlier that day.

Another daughter, Liz, wrote movingly about the loss of her sister in the Triad City Beat, a respected alternative newspaper distributed in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The article frankly described Mary’s illness and delivered an indictment of the porous process that allowed her to so easily obtain a gun license.

As long as he was able, Seymour participated in Rollins commencements. He ultimately spent 14 post-presidential years at the college as a part-time professor. “I was able to devote myself … totally to what I’d set out to do in the first place,” he said when he formally retired in 2005. “I couldn’t be more grateful for the privilege. I mean that.” Photo courtesy of Rollins College

“That was the hardest part of my dad’s life,” says Seymour Jr. “But there was no hesitation on his part when it came to speaking out. He wanted something constructive to come of it.” Several times, the elder Seymour posted a Facebook link to Liz’s article along with a brief but urgent plea — most recently last September. 

“I just learned that yesterday was Gun Suicide Day,” he wrote. “It was reported that there were 800 gun suicides last year. Our dear Mary died that way, and I feel compelled to post again this powerful article by our daughter, Liz. I hope you will take the time to read it. We must take action.”

In 2016, the entire community got an opportunity to thank the Seymours, who were told that they had been invited to a “unity party,” the purpose of which was to heal divisions that had resulted from a contentious city election. Of course, they probably knew better.

But they were gracious enough to attend anyway — and to feign surprise when it turned out that the party, attended by hundreds on the grounds of the Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, was to honor them. 

In fact, the “unity party” descriptor wasn’t entirely untrue. Affection for the couple had been a nonpartisan issue in the community for decades. “Thad was the most go-to guy in this town,” says public relations executive Jane Hames, who was the volunteer president of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce when Seymour was hired by Rollins. 

Locals had respected the conservative, corporate style of Jack Critchfield, says Hames. But the buoyant Seymour, she notes, was almost immediately both respected and loved — “and he responded in kind by giving himself to us all.” 

Hames recalls Seymour’s favorite admonition to fellow community volunteers: “Do you know the difference between being involved and being committed? If you had bacon and eggs for breakfast this morning, the chicken was involved — but the pig was committed.” 

 The “surprise” celebration, which Hames dubbed the Seymour Family Reunion, involved support from 21 local nonprofit organizations whom Hames had asked to participate. It was certainly not a hard sell: “Whoever I was on the phone with, the result was that we both cried.” 

Under a tent facing Lake Osceola, the crowd listened to a Dixieland jazz combo, enjoyed tricks from strolling magicians, feasted on catered cuisine and shared seemingly countless stories

The Seymours, at turns deeply moved and laugh-out-loud entertained by a series of sometimes tongue-in-cheek (but always sincere) speeches, accepted one plaudit after another with their usual combination of modesty and good humor.

During the event, Winter Park Mayor Steve Leary declared May 1 Thaddeus Seymour Day. Rollins President Grant Cornwell presented the couple with a framed silver coin of the sort Seymour randomly handed out on campus when rewarding good deeds.

Debbie Komanski, executive director of the Polasek, gave Seymour a small replica of Man Carving His Own Destiny, a sculpture on the property. The figure, she said, represented Seymour’s indomitable spirit — which she observed firsthand during the Capen-Showalter House campaign.

Hal George announced that the next Habitat for Humanity home built in Winter Park — the 53rd overall — would be dubbed the Thad Seymour House. “We’ll try to do a better job on that one,” deadpanned George.

And Diana Silvey, then program director for the Winter Park Health Foundation (now vice president of programming for the recently opened Center for Health & Wellbeing), noted that Seymour had been a longtime volunteer for the organization. But, she added, “we know that the wind beneath his wings this whole time has been Polly.”

Without much prompting, Seymour was persuaded to sing “The Dinky Line Song,” which dates to the 1890s and bemoans the notorious unreliability of the ramshackle railroad that ran between Orlando and Winter Park and had a Victorian-style depot on Ollie Avenue, near today’s Dinky Dock Park on Lake Virginia:

Oh, some folks say that the Dinky won’t run.
But listen, let me tell you what the Dinky done done.
She left Orlando at half past one.
And she reached Rollins College at the setting of the sun.

Seymour had belted out that delightful ditty dozens if not hundreds of times at community presentations, campus gatherings or just for friends. It was silly, of course, but it was also an homage to local history. No wonder he enjoyed singing it so much. 

He had even performed “The Dinky Line Song” backed by a rock band. Chip Weston, a local artist and activist, recalls playing a set with his combo in Central Park as part of a fundraiser during the Capen-Showalter House campaign. Says Weston: “Thad came onstage and did the song with great aplomb.”

THE NEXT ADVENTURE

During the past several years, both Seymours had been hospitalized for an array of age-related illnesses. They were frustrated when they were unable to participate in civic events but lovingly tended to one another at their home in Westminster Winter Park.

Then, as the old magician began to inexorably fail, his family gathered around him to help ease his transition to the next adventure. Yet, at times Seymour rallied. Just days before his death, he asked Hal George to arrange a meeting with Winter Park Magazine to encourage more publicity for upcoming Habitat for Humanity projects.

On October 21, Liz Seymour posted an update about her father’s condition on his Facebook page — and Winter Parkers began to steel themselves for the inevitable:

“Please send a loving thought to my parents as they come to the end of their long and wonderful partnership. My dad is very weak and under hospice care; my mother spends a lot of time lying next to him in bed holding his hand. He is as sweet and funny and loving as ever, but tired. I’m down in Florida with them, so grateful for this precious, tender time together.”

Seymour, unrivaled as Winter Park’s First Citizen, slipped peacefully away five days later, enveloped by love from his large extended family and from the communities where his presence still resonated decades later — including Princeton and Crawfordsville.

“Thad was a great man and a great president of Rollins,” says Allan Keen, a 1970 Rollins graduate who was appointed to the board of trustees by Seymour in 1989. “His large physical presence and love of the liberal arts, guided by his warm and sincere personality, made a mark on the college and its history.”

Adds President Grant Cornwell: “Thad has been a friend and mentor since the moment I accepted the position [at Rollins]. It was so good to be able to talk about the history of the college and current issues with one who shared a love for the institution and profound optimism for its future. I valued Thad as a wise counselor and as one of the kindest, most good-hearted people I have ever known.”

Billy Collins, as expected, describes Seymour using poetry — more specifically William Wordsworth’s “The Rainbow,” which contains the much-quoted line “the Child is father of the Man.”

“[The phrase] is shorthand for the thought of the poem, which is the poet’s wish that his heart will continue to leap up in adulthood as it did in his childhood,” says Collins. “The child will teach the man how to do this — how to sustain this spontaneous love of his natural environment.”

Adds Collins: “There was a lot of child in the man Thaddeus Seymour. His enthusiasms were often as boisterous as a child’s. If something caught his interest, he was all in. His energy was contagious. ‘Come on with me,’ he seemed to say like a benevolent Pied Piper. ‘You’ll feel better about yourself if you get off the bench and onto the playing field.’” 

Collins — who, like Seymour, began his career as an English teacher — recalls an observation from William Carlos Williams about poetry: “Men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Seymour, says Collins, was not one of those men. “He died suffused with poetry.” 


My father teaches poetry
to yawn-eyed college students
who think T.S. Eliot
is some kind of department store.
He captures their attention
with the skill of a magician —
Now you see it, now you don’t —
teaching them the fleeting ways
of symbol and metaphor.

My father didn’t read poetry
until later in his life
when the solid stomp of prose
finally failed to rouse him.
He sought out a frailer form,
wisped and condensed,
fraught, metered, and sly —
with new-gathered understanding
that life was knowable as light.

My father sends poetry
to his friends and children,
letting the words of Whitman,
Frost, Collins, Dickinson,
speak the meter of his heart,
the depth and breadth of feelings
too precious to commit
to ordinary words.

My father is poetry
as he rises each day,
beginning fresh stanzas
without regretful glance
at limping rhymes or scuttled lines,
moving forward with the measured speed
of a life-lived, graced
with the language of joy.

— Mary Seymour, 2002

This poem was read aloud at Seymour’s memorial service by his granddaughter, Maddie Seymour, daughter of Thaddeus Seymour Jr. and Katie Glockner Seymour.

Thaddeus Seymour. Photo by Rafael Tongol


A Pretty Good Magician for a College President

By Daniel R. DeNicola

I had the great pleasure of working with Thad Seymour in various positions in academic administration and institutional planning during the years of his presidency. From the outset, I had great respect for his leadership — and it is one of the great privileges of my life that we developed a close, lifelong friendship through those years. What I owe him, personally and professionally, is enormous.

He touched — and shaped — so many lives. I have known many college presidents, but I have never known anyone to get more joy, more pure fun, out of doing the work of the presidency.

Thad loved the idea of building each year’s class and believed that among the diversity of the academically gifted, we should always have a banjo player, a magician and singers to form a glee club. For a while, he kept a balloon-inflating machine in his office. He always kept a pocket of silver dollars to give spontaneously when, unobserved, he witnessed someone pick up litter on campus. 

His smile and knee-smacking laugh were contagious. He clearly adored Polly and generously shared his family. He also loved his magic. He once considered adding a motto to his business card: Should it read, “A pretty good magician for a college president,” or the reverse?

From early on, Thad loved convertibles — including the family’s heirloom 1929 Packard touring car and his well-worn VW Beetle. He also loved the rituals of holidays and celebrations, and reinstated Fox Day at Rollins to encourage every member of the college community to enjoy the beautiful setting and the wonderful people on campus.

Not all plans worked, of course. Thad wanted a Latin diploma for Rollins undergraduates, and we worked together with a classicist — deciding, for example, whether the student “earned” or the faculty and trustees “bestowed” his or her degree. But student reaction suggested that we would need to print an English version as well.

Thad also wanted the diploma to be on genuine parchment vellum. But true parchment, we learned, is amazingly expensive. And it involves sheepskin, which brought the proposal to the attention of animal-rights activists on campus. That, in turn, inspired Thad’s tongue-in-cheek proposal for a “Mostly Mutton Concert” with a program ranging from “Sheep May Safely Graze” to “It Had to be Ewe.” Ultimately, no lamb was skinned.

Dan DeNicola (above) chaired the College Planning Committee, formed by Seymour in 1979, that ultimately revitalized Rollins. DeNicola and Seymour (below) are shown reviewing the report’s raw data with Marsha L. Clore, committee secretary, and Connie Riggs, assistant to the president.

When Thad had just arrived at Rollins, a solicitous assistant wanted to be sure the new president would be pleased with the arrangements for a formal dinner. She had many questions and kept seeking decisions about the details: the decorations, the music, the seating, the meal.  

After much discussion about the menu, she asked, “Do you want to have mashed or home-fried potatoes?” Thad replied, “You know, I have only two or three good decisions a day in me, and if I have to spend one of them on the potatoes…” The assistant got the message, and thereafter all he needed to say was “potatoes.”

A college president receives a lot of crank letters, and Thad once shared his technique for dealing with them — a technique I admit to having borrowed. He would write a simple letter of reply: “Dear ____: You may be right. Sincerely, Thad Seymour.”

Thad’s leadership was strong and gentle. A directive was rare; he was more likely to say, “If I were doing that, I would…” and the message was understood. Anger was unthinkable. He was a thoughtful optimist; he trusted and entrusted — and you wanted to be worthy of that trust.

Though Thad had a keen institutional vision, amazing writing and speaking skills and impressive accomplishments throughout his long career, what made him so special was a deep if light-hearted wisdom, a sense of what really matters — in the college, in the community and in life.

I am so grateful to have these and so many more cherished memories of Thad and of Polly. I still see him, greeting arriving guests at his home by throwing open the door, and in that hearty voice, booming, “Welcome, friends!”

Dan DeNicola is professor emeritus of philosophy at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He came to Rollins in 1969 as an instructor of philosophy and eventually became dean of the faculty and later provost before chairing the Department of Philosophy and Religion until 1996, when he became provost at Gettysburg College. At Rollins, DeNicola also chaired the College Planning Committee formed by Seymour in 1979 to clarify the college’s mission and evaluate its programs. Recalled Seymour in 2005: “In my 51 years in higher education, the person I have valued the most is Dan. Knowing how important planning was — and knowing that Dan was the brightest, most enlightened, most engaging person I have known in my professional years — I asked him to head the committee. I depended on him, I turned to him, I was guided by him, I was educated by him. I count him as the major figure in my administration.”


In Memorium

WENDY CHOIJI

Living well on borrowed time.

Beloved Central Florida news anchor Wendy Chioji, whose courageous public battle with cancer inspired untold numbers of people, lived in Winter Park from 1993 to 2008. During that time, she was often spotted working out at the Winter Park YMCA, jogging along Cady Way Trail or cheering for the Rollins College Tars men’s basketball team.  

And it was a Winter Park-based company, Bolder Media, that ensured Chioji would continue to have a platform for her story — and for telling the stories of others — even after she relocated to Park City, Utah, to pursue a life of vigorous outdoor adventure and extensive world travel. 

Chioji, who died in October at age 57, finally succumbed — but not before setting an example on how to live each day to the fullest. Her exuberance for life will be her legacy, says Marc Middleton, founder of Bolder Media Group and a former colleague of Chioji’s at WESH-Channel 2. 

“Wendy’s words and her actions were a constant reminder of the beauty of life, the value of time and the importance of friendship,” says Middleton, whose company produces the Growing Bolder television and radio programs. “If we not only remember those lessons but actually live them — then Wendy continues to live on through us.” 

A California native, Chioji grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, and graduated from Indiana University with a degree in broadcast reporting. She joined WESH in 1988 as a reporter and eventually worked her way up to the anchor desk. 

In 2001, she made a brave on-air announcement that she had Stage II breast cancer at age 39. Her response then, as it was for the rest of her life, was to battle the disease with all the strength and savvy she could muster while embracing life even more fiercely and joyfully. 

After moving to Utah in 2008, Chioji swam, cycled and ran — completing five Ironman distance triathlons, dozens of half-Ironman distance races and shorter races of various kinds. Although it appeared that she had beaten breast cancer, a more devastating diagnosis came in 2013. 

Chioji, a routine MRI had revealed, now had Stage II thymic carcinoma, a rare, aggressive cancer apparently unrelated to her previous bouts. Just a few weeks after undergoing radiation, chemotherapy and surgery, however, she and other cancer survivors and advocates climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.

Her zealous defiance of such punishing health obstacles made Chioji the perfect fit for Growing Bolder. She also co-anchored Bolder Media’s Surviving & Thriving show, a quarterly broadcast that chronicled the lives of people coping with various serious illnesses. It aired first on WKMG-Channel 6 and in 2016 moved to WESH. 

The thymic carcinoma, which had initially responded to treatment, recurred in the fall of 2014. Chioji continued to fight — to “defy,” as she often put it — and was accepted into a clinical trials program at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland. 

In her final blog, September 25, she recounted her chemotherapy at NIH, her fear of losing her hair, her sleepless nights, her fatigue, her refusal of hospice — and yes, her optimism and gratitude. 

“I am grateful I have lived well on my borrowed time for five years this Labor Day,” she wrote. “I am hopeful I’ll borrow five more.”

Chioji was bolstered by the positivity of her legion of followers, and they were bolstered by hers. One of her closest friends was Mike Gonick, a broker associate with the Winter Park office of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty. He often joined her on overseas trips and was constantly amazed at her unflagging enthusiasm — and at her feats of daring.

“Wendy would bungee jump in Africa, when it looked like there was at least a 50 percent chance that you’d die doing it,” says Gonick. “She was never showing off, though. She was sending the message: ‘I’m doing this; what are you doing?’”

— Catherine Hinman

DEFY WITH WENDY

Wendy Chioji was a tireless fundraiser for Pelotonia, a nonprofit that raises money to fund innovative cancer research. It was this research that continued to give her hope and empowered her to live with passion and purpose. Growing Bolder is honoring Chioji’s wishes by producing a special edition T-shirt emblazoned with her personal mantra: DEFY. Proceeds will be donated in Chioji’s name to Pelotonia. You can buy a shirt at wendychioji.com.

Photo by Phil Coale/Associated Press

LOU FREY

A bipartisan civic champion.

Former U.S. Congressman Lou Frey Jr. loved his family, his country and baseball. Although he was at times a national figure, Winter Park was the congenial consensus builder’s home base for almost 60 years prior to his death in October at age 85. 

At their Genius Drive home on Lake Mizell, Frey and his wife of 63 years, Marcia, held ritual Sunday dinners that were open to their five children, seven grandchildren and assorted friends who enjoyed the company and the opportunity to engage in civil, informed discussions of pressing issues. 

Frey, however, was sometimes known to sneak away to watch a ballgame on television. And who could blame him? He had certainly earned some down time.

During his five terms in the U.S. Congress, the results-oriented Republican had, by some accounts, made a billion-dollar-plus impact on life in Central Florida. But it was likely his passion for civic affairs and amiable discourse that most endeared him to the public.

For 20 years on 90.7 WMFE — first on The Notebook and then on Intersection — he bantered cordially with Democratic analyst Dick Batchelor, a former member of the Florida House of Representatives, about state and local politics. Voices were never raised, and listeners always learned something — not the least of which was that friends could still agreeably disagree. 

Frey got things done through bipartisanship. “He was a bring-people-together congressman,” said former Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson at a public memorial service, held at St. John Lutheran Church in Winter Park.

Julia Frey, his eldest child and an Orlando attorney, said her father believed that the surest path to a better world was through the next generation. “He was interested in getting kids educated, involved in the political process, involved in the community,” she says.

To that end, Frey founded the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida to advocate for civic education and to encourage public awareness and engagement.

The New Jersey native, who was the first in his family to graduate from high school, once aspired to be a baseball coach. But after a stint in the U.S. Navy, he earned a law degree from the University of Michigan Law School.

Frey began his career in Central Florida, where his parents had earlier settled, in 1961 as the assistant county solicitor for Orange County. Longtime locals will remember his partnership in the law firm of Gurney, Skolfield & Frey, with offices on Park Avenue, and later Mateer, Frey, Young & Harbert, with offices in Orlando.  

At age 34, Frey was elected to Congress, serving what was then the 5th but is now the 9th District for five terms from 1969 to 1979. During that time, he sat on the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, the Science and Technology Committee and the Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control.

Photo courtesy of the Lou Frey Institute

Frey was the first chairman of the Republican Task Force on Drug Abuse, and in 1969 helped author Congress Looks at the Campus with 22 other House members led by Representative William E. “Bill” Brock of Tennessee. The Brock Report became the basis for the 18-year-old vote and expansion of various college loan programs. 

He was also a standout shortstop on the baseball team fielded by House Republicans and was named the GOP’s Most Valuable Player three times between 1968 and 1978. His image even appeared on a baseball card celebrating the Congressional game alongside Major League legend Willie Mays. 

Afterward, Frey launched unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate and for governor, but never returned to elective office. Until his retirement in 2016, he was senior shareholder emeritus with the law firm Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed.

Notably, Frey is considered a founding father of Orlando International Airport. He successfully appealed to President Richard M. Nixon to allow the City of Orlando to take over the former McCoy Air Force Base property and turn it into a commercial airfield. The price was only $1. 

Frey’s legacy also includes ensuring that Kennedy Space Center became the home of the Space Shuttle, and the creation of Spessard Holland Seashore Park, now Canaveral National Seashore Park. He and Democratic U.S. Representative Bill Chappell co-sponsored legislation creating the park.

Although he practiced law for a living, Frey was never far removed from current events through his radio commentary, his books and his institute. He wrote and co-edited two books: Inside the House: Former Members Reveal How Congress Really Works (2001) and Political Rules of the Road: Representatives, Senators and Presidents Share Their Rules for Success in Congress, Politics, and Life (2009). 

Frey, according to the institute, was “always a participant, never a spectator.” In his optimistic, inclusive leadership style, he set an example that will be forever relevant and remembered.

— Catherine Hinman

Adam Wonus on the shores of Lake Killarney.

PEOPLE TO WATCH

OK, boomers. It isn’t true that all of Winter Park’s important movers and shakers are eligible for Medicare. Winter Park Magazine’s annual compilation of Most Influential People, in fact, has featured a handful of under-40 honorees — although many more have tended to be, well, boomers and beyond.

Consequently, we’ve had several suggestions to initiate a similar annual list exclusively for the city’s up-and-comers (and, of course, those who’ve already arrived in a given field but may yet embark on new adventures).

This being Winter Park, we found no shortage of millennials (often defined as being born between 1981 to 1996) making a mark. The same was true of Generation Xers (often defined as being born between 1965 to 1980).

From those demographic cohorts, we selected a diverse assortment of intriguing honorees based upon feedback from past Most Influential People of all ages. We also sought nominations through social media, and selected several through our own interactions with local civic leaders.

The criteria, beyond demographics, were broad. We sought people who were activists, influencers, creators, givers and entrepreneurs who were personally interesting and were making positive things happen. 

People to Watch, then, is essentially an extension of our well-established Most Influential People list. Its launch does not mean that those under 40 may not still be selected for our more traditional annual Influentials list. The new list, however, is more likely to encompass people whose most important contributions are yet to come.

We wanted to limit People to Watch to 10 the first time out, but were tripped up by two sets of three brothers. In any case, there were far more nominees than space to profile them — which demonstrated that this project has staying power for next year and beyond.  

On the following pages, then, are an assortment of younger people who are doing remarkable things and are leaders in the community’s business, creative, charitable and philanthropic worlds.

Clayton Louis Ferrara at the French House at Rollins College.

Clayton Louis Ferrara

Executive Director,
IDEAS for Us

Clayton Louis Ferrara is a young man in a hurry to save the world. “I was just at a United Nations meeting, and it’s projected that deaths from climate change in this century will be in the billions,” he says with urgency. To Ferrara, 33, that’s not a death sentence, it’s a challenge — one he has eagerly tackled as executive director of IDEAS (Intellectual Decisions on Environmental Awareness Solutions) For Us, an Orlando-based, U.N.-accredited nonprofit whose audacious goal is to “heal the planet and grow prosperity at the community level through the education, engagement and empowerment of those we serve.” Since 2008, IDEAS for Us has worked in 30 countries with thousands of volunteers on projects centered around what the organization has dubbed “5 Pillars of Sustainability: Energy, Water, Food, Waste and Ecology.” IDEAS for Us now counts more than 200 chapters worldwide — many of them in schools and colleges — and has earned awards from the Vatican, Hewlett Packard, the Centers for American Progress and the White House Office of Public Engagement. When Ferrara was a toddler, his family emigrated from Chile to New York, where he was transfixed by the towering Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton at the Museum of Natural History: “I have yet to recover from the experience. It changed my life — opened my eyes to a greater world.” Ferrara went on to earn degrees in biology and environmental studies from Rollins College, and upon graduation landed a job as head curator of the Oakland Nature Preserve on the southern shore of Lake Apopka. There he built a small natural history museum by collecting plant and animal specimens and designing exhibits and interactive programs. Ferrara, now an internationally known thought leader on environmental issues, is a member of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s GreenWorks task force and a founding board member of the Winter Park Land Trust. “When the opportunity arose to create a land trust, I knew I had to be part of it. I want to see Winter Park grow in green space, not just protect what’s there.” Globetrotter Ferrara is happy to watch the grass grow in Winter Park: “I could live anywhere in the world, but I have chosen to live in 32789.” Bloom where you’re planted, they say. Or in Ferrara’s case — transplanted.

Michelle Heatherly at the offices of Demetree Global.

Michelle Heatherly

Director of Operations/Strategic Development,
Demetree Global

When Michelle Heatherly was director of client engagement for Axia Public Relations, her company pitched the Park Plaza Gardens account. Mary Demetree, whose company owned the iconic Park Avenue restaurant, ultimately hired a different firm. But the savvy Demetree was impressed by Heatherly, a polished professional who held an undergraduate degree in communications and public relations from the University of North Alabama in Florence. Heatherly had managed top-tier national and international accounts — such as Southern Comfort and Dave & Buster’s — for Axia and had previously served as marketing director for chains of 13 health clubs and 52 franchise restaurants. She had also been workplace solutions officer for Birmingham, Alabama-based BBVA Compass Bancshares (now BBV USA), a bank holding company with responsibility for 26 Florida branches. Demetree hired her from BBVA in 2015 as director of marketing for her diversified real estate organization, which holds an interest in nearly 500,000 square feet of space in Winter Park and owns 11 prime acres on the corners of U.S. Highway 17-92 and Orange Avenue. Heatherly was promoted to her current position in 2017, at a time when city officials — later bolstered by an 11-member citizens’ steering committee — had begun seriously studying how Orange Avenue could be reshaped via the flexibility available within a mixed-use overlay district. Demetree’s crucially positioned property, says Heatherly, 37, offers an opportunity “to create a beautiful gateway into Winter Park and provide a welcoming, vibrant, active neighborhood for residents and visitors.” Look for Heatherly, a polished presenter who has won multiple awards from regional public-relations professional associations, to be front and center alongside Demetree when communicating the company’s proposals to the public. “Leading with a Servant’s Heart” is the title of a talk Heatherly often delivers before civic groups — and she practices what she preaches. An active member of Celebration Church in Orlando, she has for eight years sponsored a child in Zimbabwe whom she met during a 2014 mission trip to Africa. Heatherly and her family have also raised more than $300,000 for research into GM1 gangliosidosis, a rare terminal genetic disorder that claimed the life of her nephew. “I want to leave the world a better place than when I found it,” Heatherly says. “I want to live a life that matters and inspire others to do the same.”

Chase Heavener on Lake Maitland.

Chase Heavener

Creator/Entrepreneur

Chase Heavener could live wherever he pleased. “I have no urge to move,” says the 40-year-old former professional wakeboarder and filmmaker. “There’s no place like Winter Park. And I’ve been all over, so I guess you could say Winter Park is my favorite place in the world.” Heavener — son of James W. “Bill” Heavener, co-chairman and CEO of Full Sail University — is an exemplar of Winter Park’s vibrant creative class, a group identified by social scientist Richard Florida as consisting of “people in design, education, arts, music and entertainment whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology and/or creative content.” Heavener’s childhood home was along Lake Maitland, where he became an aficionado of wakeboarding — a cross between water-skiing, surfing and skateboarding. He became one of the best, and as a teenager snared corporate sponsorships and traveled the world on the competitive tournament circuit. He also began producing wakeboarding videos and co-founded a wakeboarding magazine with friends Matt Staker and Tony Smith. As Heavener’s career as a pro athlete wound down, he enrolled at Full Sail and graduated in 2004 with a degree in digital media. In 2009, he — along with Staker and Smith — started a production company, FCTN (pronounced “fiction”), to produce videos, infomercials and documentaries. The company, housed in an 8,000-square-foot modernist building on Welbourne Avenue, had about 10 employees at its peak. FCTN’s most high-profile project was 2010’s Tim Tebow: Everything In Between. Directed by Heavener, the film offered a behind-the-scenes look at the Heisman Trophy winner’s hectic personal and professional life following his final college game for the University of Florida (the Sugar Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome) through NFL draft day, when he was taken in the first round — 25th pick overall — by the Denver Broncos. The critically acclaimed work was shown as part of ESPN’s “Year of the Quarterback” series. These days, FCTN has scaled back as Heavener has become immersed in construction of a new home abutting Lake Maitland for him and his wife, Jovanna. However, he remains invested in several artisan-run businesses, including Mama’s Sauce, a boutique letterpress print shop that started in Winter Park and is now located in Orlando. Notes Heavener: “The creative talent that comes from Winter Park is amazing.”

Drew, Gregg and Gray Hill at Park Hill Townhomes.

Drew Hill, Gray Hill and Gregg Hill Jr.

Principles,
Hill/Gray/Seven

Everyone likes to think they’ll leave legacies in their communities. But the Hill brothers — Drew, Gray and Gregg — simply need to drive around Winter Park to view theirs, impressively wrought in brick, stone, glass and steel. The siblings, who live in Winter Park and operate Hill/Gray/Seven as something of a triumvirate (“We’re not big on titles,” notes Gray, 36), are responsible for Park Hill, an uber-luxury townhome community on North Park Avenue. Drew, the youngest of the trio at age 35, took the lead on the townhomes, just as the other brothers have taken the lead on initiatives that captured their interest. “No one has attempted anything like this in Central Florida,” says Drew, a graduate of Rollins College. “And the only place it could have worked was Park Avenue.” Drew’s instincts — bolstered by research suggesting that a market existed for the kind of project he envisioned — proved correct. All but two of the 10 townhomes are under contract and fetched prices as high as $3.3 million. “We all pick a project,” says Gray, who’s also a Rollins graduate. “Then it’s divide and conquer. We all get along and support each other, but we’re also open to criticism. When the family’s successful, I’m happy. For us, it’s all about family.” Adds Gregg, a 42-year-old graduate of the University of Southern California: “We’re all invested in this town; if it’s not special, we don’t want to do it.” Hill/Gray/Seven also developed Penn Place, a smaller infill townhome project at the southwest corner of Pennsylvania and Minnesota avenues, across from the Winter Park Ninth Grade Center. Penn Place, with just four units, sold out quickly. Now the brothers are poised to impact the city’s commercial landscape. Last year, Hill/Gray/Seven — based in Oviedo — bought a 2.7-acre site on South Orlando Avenue that’s now the home of the Ranch Mall. In its previous incarnation, the strip center was a mom-and-pop motel. The brothers say they’re angling to redevelop the site for luxury retail and, hopefully, an upscale restaurant of the sort that will create excitement even in a city with many fine dining options. Says Gregg: “There’s not another place in the country like Winter Park. And I think its best days are still ahead.”

Chris King at the offices of Elevation Financial Group.

Chris King

Founder and Chief Executive Officer,
Elevation Financial Group

On the night Chris King suffered his most heartbreaking political defeat, a supporter offered sympathy and a challenge: “Do something in life Nobel Prize-worthy.” King had a head start on that. The platform of his quixotic race for governor and then lieutenant governor with Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum was drawn from work he had done since 2006 as CEO of an enterprise he describes as “one part for-profit, one part nonprofit, one part change the world.” Elevation Financial Group is a real estate investment firm that acquires and revitalizes distressed affordable housing complexes for senior citizens and working families. Some of the net proceeds support the Elevation Foundation, a nonprofit that tackles inequality through education and entrepreneurship. The foundation has helped secure college scholarships for 63 high-performing students from poor families in Orange County. It has also supported charitable work in Haiti, and in 2016 helped start an elementary school in the Democratic Republic of Congo. King, student class president at Winter Park High School, studied religion and politics at Harvard and earned a law degree at the University of Florida. He then returned home and joined his father’s law firm, King Blackwell Zehnder & Wermuth. But soon King became restless. He began seeking investors who were interested in a business that would both make money and that “they would feel comfortable telling friends about at a cocktail party.” Elevation was born. It was the same restlessness, the same desire to “fix things that are broken” — such as housing and families and education — that spurred King to jump into a race for governor that pundits said the neophyte could not win. They were right. But Gillum admired the energy and progressive platform of his young primary opponent and put him on the ticket. The memory of their 2018 loss to Republican Ron DeSantis by 30,000 votes — a mere whisker — still stings. King, 41, says he has been encouraged not to forsake politics. But as a person guided by his faith, he contends that “it’s out of my control if I’ll be on the ballot again.” Meanwhile, his focus is on healing, redemption and justice: “I want to figure out how to bring people together, to foster better relationships. That’s really what I want to work on.”

Amie Morgan at the offices of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce.

Amie Morgan

Director of Leadership Programs,
Winter Park Chamber of Commerce

Amie Morgan had her midlife crisis early. At 31, the University of Florida grad (bachelor’s degree and MBA), already had been flying and succeeding in rarified corporate air with the likes of Verizon, Conagra and Walmart. And yet, she recalls, “I wasn’t that happy. I was going about my career without thinking through what I wanted in life. At the large corporations, my roles were sales-driven. I was a small piece of a huge puzzle. I needed to feel that when I go to work every day that I’m able to make a difference.” She has enjoyed that feeling every day since joining the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce in May 2018 as Director of Leadership Programs. Now, at the end of a busy week, “I can feel it was for something worthwhile.” Morgan runs three programs: Youth Leaders, for high school students; Relaunch, career reentry for professional women; and the chamber’s signature program, Leadership Winter Park, which hones the skills and expands the horizons of civic up-and-comers. More than 950 denizens of the city’s business, government and philanthropic worlds have passed through Leadership Winter Park, now in its 30th year. That program, in fact, is a thread that runs through Winter Park Magazine’s annual Most Influential People list. More than likely, honorees have been Leadership Winter Park alumni. It’s Morgan who organizes the curriculum, chooses field trips, recruits guest speakers and is the lead admissions officer. The program is selective, with the current class of 45 drawn from a pool of some 75 applicants. “We curate a well-balanced class with a focus on diversity,” she says. That’s the fun part for Morgan: “My best skills are organizing, relationship-building and creating a community — empowering everyone in the class to go out and make a difference.” With her midlife crisis now in the rearview mirror, Morgan realizes that it led to a career that was waiting to happen, deep in her DNA. “My [maternal] grandfather was a huge influence on me,” she says. In New York, he ran a trade association of printers. “He built a community out of those people — he helped them connect with each other.” After moving to Melbourne (Florida), her grandfather started a club for other transplants from New York. “Somehow,” Morgan marvels, “this ended up being what I do.”

Steve, Andrew and Matt Orosz at the offices of Hanover Family Builders.

Matt, Steve and Andrew Orosz

Co-Presidents (Matt and Steve),
Vice President and General Counsel (Andrew),
Hanover Family Builders

When the Orosz brothers want to blow off some steam at work, they organize spur-of-the-moment games at an indoor basketball court — complete with a lighted scoreboard —that anchors their headquarters near Orlando Executive Airport. Not that the brothers, all of whom are Winter Park residents, have an abundance of playtime. Their company — Hanover Family Builders — is a rare privately owned homebuilder that’s able to regularly shoot and score against the formidable publicly traded conglomerates that now dominate Central Florida’s production-home market. Matt, 36, and Steve, 41, are co-presidents of the company, which was founded in 2017 and has already notched more than 1,000 new-home starts. Andrew, 39, vice president and general counsel, says the sibling-run enterprise is successful in part because its operation reflects sturdy family values. Those values were learned from the legendary Bill Orosz, the trio’s father, who started Cambridge Homes in 1991 and sold it to national builder K. Hovnanian in 2005. The family then founded Royal Oak Homes, for which Matt and Steve were co-presidents, in 2010. That fast-growing company was sold to another national builder, AV Homes, in 2015. Matt and Steve dutifully reported to the company’s new owners for two years, then were joined by Andrew, an attorney, and veteran homebuilding executive Colby Franks — a fellow Winter Parker and former Royal Oak Homes vice president — to jump back into the fray with Hanover Family Builders. The upstart enterprise made its debut by launching an unprecedented 10 communities and selling 366 homes in its first 12 months. Hanover Family Builders’ biggest project to date, Hanover Lakes in St. Cloud, has more than 600 homes, most of which back up to navigable canals that access the Alligator Chain of Lakes. The brothers believe strongly in philanthropy; the Orosz Family Foundation has most recently invested in the Elevation Scholars Program founded by another local resident featured in this issue, Chris King. Matt, who earned an MBA from the Crummer Graduate School of Business, says Winter Park is home to the brothers and their families because of its beauty and its plethora of cultural and recreational offerings. Andrew notes that out-of-town visitors are often amazed at the amenities most locals take for granted, such as the city’s abundance of lakes. Adds Steve: “It’s a vibrant, charming city.”

Emily Russell at Rollins College.

Emily Russell

Vice President, Platform Project Management,
StackPath

Director,
Winter Park Land Trust

A high school teacher once told Emily Russell that there are many paths to the same destination. She didn’t know what her destination was, but “I always took that advice to heart.” Russell’s many paths ultimately led her back home to her dream job: director of the Winter Park Land Trust. “My goal in life is to leave this world better than I found it — my city and community — and the land trust is a vehicle to do that,” Russell says. Her ties to the land are visceral. A Winter Park High School graduate, Russell attended Rollins College and cherished the quiet moments at Dinky Dock. “Now, when I have days off, I go have lunch at Leu Gardens and listen to the bamboo and wind,” she says. “I feel like my connection to this place is inextricable.” When Russell was younger, she did leave this place to follow her passion — for theater. At Rollins she studied stage management and lighting, and after graduation became a freelance stage manager for Mad Cow Theatre, Orlando Ballet and other companies. In 2009, she left for a job as assistant lighting coordinator at the new Winspear Opera House, home of the Dallas Opera. Two years later, Russell — then Emily Jarrell — came home to be with the man she would marry, Tim Russell. “I drove by the Emily Fountain [in Central Park] and stopped at the Farmers’ Market for a bagel,” she recalls. “Looking around, I realized how lucky I was.” In 2012, after another stint as a freelancer, she joined the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden as director of operations and stayed until 2016, leaving for an executive title and better pay at StackPath, a Dallas-based software engineering firm with an office in Winter Park. “That opened the door for me to be more generous with my time,” says Russell, 33. She feels “a moral imperative” to continue stage managing Park Maitland School’s annual musical production at the Bob Carr Theater and The National Young Composers Challenge at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The “composium” and the land trust were both launched by Winter Park tech entrepreneur Steve Goldman, who clearly knows talent when he sees it. 

Taylor Womack at The Mayflower at Winter Park.

Taylor Womack

Director of Sales and Marketing,
The Mayflower at Winter Park

For Taylor Womack, enthusiasm comes naturally. Womack, 32, was captain of the cheerleading squad — one of the best in the country — at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she majored in communications and minored in public health. When she graduated, she focused all that positive energy on helping others through sales and marketing roles in skilled nursing and assisted living facilities in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, where there’s a heavy concentration of retirees. “I knew I wanted to help people,” says the can-do Womack, who earlier this year was named director of sales and marketing for The Mayflower at Winter Park. “So, I left something good to become a part of something great.” The Mayflower, founded in 1989 as a nonprofit retirement community by members of the First Congregational Church of Winter Park, has 336 residents who range in age from 60ish to an astonishing 108. Womack’s arrival coincides with the most significant expansion in the facility’s history: the addition of a new neighborhood, Bristol Landing at The Mayflower, which will encompass 47 two- and three-bedroom waterview apartments, a 9,800-square-foot clubhouse and an 84,842-square-foot health center that will include a 24-unit memory care operation and a 60-bed skilled nursing and rehabilitation center. The $105 million expansion, which is taking shape on a 16-acre site just west of the main campus, will feature walking trails, water features and plenty of green space. The Mayflower has always taken corporate citizenship seriously, so Womack — who was raised in Windermere — is settling into her new job while also learning about the unique nature of civic life in Winter Park. Next year, she says, she plans to enroll in Leadership Winter Park, a program of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce through which many up-and-coming community leaders have passed. Says Womack: “I’m looking forward to exploring Winter Park and learning how I can contribute.” She’ll undoubtedly get plenty of guidance from Mayflower residents — a fascinating cross-section of accomplished people including many long-time Winter Parkers. “It feels like home here,” says Womack, whose husband, Danny, is a financial planner. The couple has a 3-year-old daughter, Taytum. “The team here is really strong, and the residents are very smart and have stories to tell. I want to work here for the next 30 years.” 

Adam Wonus on the shores of Lake Killarney.

Adam Wonus

Partner,
Atrium Management Company

When Adam Wonus was a youngster, he traveled the country with his mom, Linnette Reindel — now a business coach and a vice president of marketing for Tupperware Brands — who had worked her way up the corporate ladder to become senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Longaberger Company, an Ohio-based manufacturer and distributor of handcrafted maple wood baskets and other home and lifestyle products. One of Reindel’s jobs was to scout locations for employee incentive trips, which required trips to far-flung resort properties. “I fell in love with hotels,” says Wonus, 36, whose family struggled until his mother’s career picked up steam. “We were always treated so well. I never forgot how special those places made us feel.” One day, Wonus dreamed, he would build a one-of-a-kind hotel that offered a comparable experience for its guests. That’s the inspiration behind the Henderson Hotel, a proposed 118-room boutique showplace on 2.6 acres south of Beachview Avenue, east of Killarney Drive, west of U.S. 17-92 and north of Fairview Avenue, next to Hillstone. The finely detailed Victorian-style structure would replace several unoccupied houses, and the site plan would create public open spaces along Lake Killarney. At press time, the project had several hurdles to overcome — particularly from the Planning & Zoning Board and, ultimately, the City Commission, which must approve rezoning and conditional-use requests for the hotel to get built. But Wonus, whose optimism and enthusiasm are contagious, says the project is an homage to the city’s grand turn-of-the-century hotels as well as to the 60-plus family-owned motels that once stretched along U.S. 17-92’s so-called Million Dollar Mile. Even the Henderson Hotel name has significance; the Henderson family operated the now-demolished Lake Shore Motel on a portion of the site now owned by Wonus — who began his career as a banker specializing in small-business loans — and his partner and mentor, restaurant entrepreneur Eric Holm. Wonus’s holdings through Atrium Management Company and A.T. Wonus Development Group — which he owns with his wife, Monica — reflect his aesthetic. Many of the apartment complexes he has bought in downtown Orlando are in renovated old buildings. And the infill townhome projects he has developed in the Milk District, a hipster enclave just east of downtown, won a 2017 Community Impact Award from the Orlando Business Journal.

Some of the early 20th century’s top illustrators created frontispieces for Hill’s numerous books.

WHERE PANSY BLOOMED

Researched By Kimberley Mould and Daena Creel
Photo Restoration By Will Setzer, Design7 Studios

Pansy Alden became an international publishing phenomenon. She wrote hundreds of stories for both young children and young adults, edited dozens of compilations and penned more than 70 full-length novels.

Through the decades, various people of fame and fortune have called Winter Park home, contributing successively to the town’s wide reputation today as a canopied oasis of culture and fine living. They have been actresses and comedians, business executives and television personalities, poet laureates and NBA stars. 

Perhaps the first in this distinguished list was Isabella Macdonald Alden, a Victorian literary celebrity known to her readers as “Pansy.” The world-renowned children’s writer moved with her husband and son to Winter Park in 1886, when developers Loring Chase and Oliver Chapman had barely completed platting the town and opening roads. Population was under 300.

Alden’s ornate three-story home at the corner of Interlachen and Lyman avenues, known as the “Pansy Cottage,” became a hub of local culture. Alden considered her family to be “Florida pioneers [who] located in the new little town of Winter Park as the most desirable town to build a home.” 

Her husband, Presbyterian minister Gustavus Rossenberg Alden, became a trustee of Rollins College, and her son, Raymond, attended the college and went on to an illustrious academic career. 

Alden, an educated woman with a missionary’s quiet zeal, possessed both the talent and skill to impart life lessons through her Christian books and stories. In this churchgoing era, she became an international publishing phenomenon — and the synergy of the media platforms in which her work appeared was positively Disneyesque. 

She wrote hundreds of stories for both young children and young adults, edited dozens of compilations and penned more than 70 full-length novels — some translated into French, German, Russian and even Japanese. The books sold hundreds of thousands of copies, easily making her one of the genre’s most popular authors.

Alden also edited a widely circulated magazine for children called The Pansy. It featured her own serialized stories and those written by friends and family, as well as literature and educational articles on topics such as world history, geography, science, literature and botany. And her fiction was a favorite of Sunday-school teachers and church librarians.

She often said, “I dedicate my pen to the direct and continuous effort to win others for Christ and help others to closer fellowship with him.” At the height of her career, Alden received thousands of fan letters each week from her young readers and did her best to respond personally to as many as she could. 

Children who subscribed to The Pansy could join the “Pansy Society,” which encouraged members to work hard at overcoming a single fault “For Jesus’ Sake.”

Alden produced Sunday school lessons for the Westminster Teacher, a publication of the Presbyterian Church, and wrote for or served on the editorial staff of periodicals such as Trained Motherhood, The Advance, The Interior and Herald and Presbyter — a weekly Presbyterian newspaper. 

She contributed stories and was a regular columnist for two weekly youth papers, Christian Endeavor World and its counterpart, Junior Christian Endeavor World.

“She wove her stories around common, everyday [lives], until all her characters became alive and real to those who read,” wrote Grace Livingston Hill, Alden’s niece and a novelist whose first published book was written in Winter Park. 

Alden even had her own board game, “Divided Wisdom: A Game Based on Hymns and Bible Proverbs.” She was included among other well-known writers in two editions of the “Authors” card game, too.

Alden’s ornate three-story home at the corner of Interlachen and Lyman avenues in Winter Park, known as the “Pansy Cottage,” became a hub of local culture.

The author often endorsed the work of others, including Dr. Mary Wood-Allen, whose 1905 facts-of-life tome What A Young Girl Ought to Know she described as “just the book to teach what most people do not know how to teach, being scientific yet simple, and plain-spoken yet delicate.”

The so-called “Pansy Books” and their creator are all but forgotten now, except by dedicated bibliophiles who collect early editions for their rarity rather than their literary quality. Alden’s works were out of print for decades until a Christian publishing house released a handful of edited and abridged titles in the 1990s. 

In 1981, Elizabeth Eschbach wrote in the Orange County Historical Quarterly: “Somewhat simplistically by today’s worldly sensibilities, Alden’s books emphasized the perils of popular amusements, the evils of worldly temptations, necessity of abstinence and self-sacrifice and the trials of leading a good Christian life.” 

Nonetheless, there has been a resurgence of interest today, and a small-but-loyal following is growing on social media. Nearly all of Alden’s novels have been re-released as high-quality ebooks, ready for modern readers to discover.

If the Pansy books don’t hold up particularly well as literature, they do hearken back to a simpler time, both in the United States and in the quaint Central Florida town where the author and her family spent many of their happiest and most productive years.

Isabella Macdonald Alden was born November 3, 1841, in Rochester, New York. Her parents, Isaac and Myra Spafford Macdonald, instilled in their six children a commitment to moral and social reform. Late in life, Alden wrote that her father “in all his lifetime struggled with the handicap of a suffering body, and sometimes found it burdensome to meet the daily expenses of a large family.”

However, she added, “looking back, we all knew — and I, left here alone, the others having all reached home before me, know — that there could never have been a more faithful, conscientious, earnest, loving father and mother than God gave to us.”

Precocious Isabella began her schooling at home and showed an early propensity for writing. She recalled that as a child she “possessed a temper that was easily set aflame, and a will of my own that took careful training to educate.” Her father tasked her with keeping a daily journal. That routine not only helped to calm her stormy temper, it also set into motion her life’s work.

The youngster’s first published story, Our Old Clock, appeared in a Gloversville, New York, newspaper that her brother-in-law edited when she was just 10 years old. The byline read simply, “Pansy.”

The distinctive nom de plume, Alden recalled in her autobiography Memories of Yesterdays, “had to do with a certain tea party connected with my childhood.” Her mother wanted to rest before her guests arrived, and Isabella wanted to be helpful. Knowing that five or six pansies were to decorate each place setting, she went out to the garden and picked every one, pulling off the stems. 

Her mother, who had planned on making pansy bouquets for her guests, scolded her daughter, and Isabella began to cry. Her father intervened. “Didn’t you hear her tell you to look in her apron and see what a lot of work she had saved you? Can’t you see how she thought it out?” 

The outcome was this: “I was kissed and told that Mother did not believe I meant to be naughty. She washed my face and brushed my hair and dressed me herself in my best white dress… and my familiar home-name ‘Pansy’ dates from those stemless ones of the long ago.”

After those early days of home schooling, Isabella attended the Oneida Seminary in Oneida, New York. It was here that she met Theodosia Maria Toll Foster, charmingly nicknamed “Docia,” 

Foster would become Isabella’s best friend, collaborator and ultimately go on to write more than 30 of her own books as “Faye Huntington.” After graduating from Oneida Seminary, Alden promptly joined the faculty in 1860 and, a few years later, taught in Auburn, New York.

It was Docia who, in 1864, helped start the Pansy phenomenon. She surreptitiously rescued and submitted a manuscript that her friend had written and then set aside, believing it to be unworthy. 

Helen Lester had been written at Docia’s urging in response to a contest sponsored by the Cincinnati-based American Reform Tract and Book Society, which published and distributed evangelical materials. The organization was seeking the best children’s holiday gift book setting forth the principles of Christianity.

In her autobiography, Alden recalls telling Docia, in no uncertain terms, that her decision to abandon the story was final. “If I can’t write a better story than that, it proves I ought never to write at all,” she said. “Tear the thing into bits and throw it into the grate with the other rubbish. I’ll set fire to them tonight.”

Docia, who told her friend that she was “acting like a born idiot,” then appeared to drop the subject. Two months later, however, Alden received a $50 check and notification that her story had won first prize. 

Chastened but delighted, Alden later recalled her reaction: “Shall I make an attempt at describing the hour of bewilderment, amazement, embarrassment, oddly mingled with delight, which followed the first reading of that letter?” 

Alden sent autographed copies of Helen Lester — and the prize money — to her parents. One of these rare copies of Helen Lester resides in the archives at Rollins College’s Olin Library, signed in her own hand, “A birthday gift to my dear father from his daughter Pansy.”

In the story, Helen, known as “Nellie,” is a darling but imperfect child whose once-wayward older brother, Cleveland, undergoes a religious conversion that he is eager to share with his siblings and his wealthy, worldly parents.

Like many children’s books of the Victorian Era, Alden’s volumes were lavishly illustrated with lovely, well-behaved and impeccably clad youngsters.

For example, while headed home from a prayer meeting that has stirred his little sister, Cleveland says: “Oh, Nellie, I want you to be a Christian. I don’t want you to grow up without loving this dear Savior who loves you so much. I want you to learn to pray; to learn to ask Jesus every day to take care of you; to help you to love him more than anybody else.”

Shortly after Helen Lester appeared, the young author met her future husband over a piece of her Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. She was living at Auburn Theological Seminary with her sister and brother-in-law, Charles Livingston, who was studying for the ministry.

 After their holiday dinner, Charles took a walk to see if there were any lonely students about campus and returned with Gustavus Rossenberg Alden.

The couple married in 1866 and moved to Almond, New York, where Reverend Alden pastored a church. Other assignments would take them to Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. As she assisted her husband in his work, Alden found constant inspiration. “Whenever things went wrong,” she recalled, “I went home and wrote a book to make them come out right.”

Alden seemed to truly find her niche after the publication in 1870 of Ester Ried: Asleep and Awake. Ester, who toils grudgingly at her family’s New York boardinghouse, believes herself to be “a Christian in name only” until she visits a cousin, Abbie, who teaches her to base her life on God’s word.

The book begat a series featuring the same character and her relatives, with the final installment published in 1906. Like Helen before her, Ester comes to realize that carefully reading the Bible and following its precepts is the only prescription for her attitude problem. 

“That is what has been the trouble with me,” Ester tells herself. “I’ve neglected my duty…well, the first opportunity then that I have — or no — I’ll stop now, this minute, and read a chapter in the Bible and pray; there is nothing like the present moment for keeping a good resolution.”

The Herald and Presbyter magazine, owned by Monfort & Company, serialized many of Alden’s book-length stories, including Ester Reid and several of its sequels, then published them in book form. 

In 1874, Alden and Monfort founded The Pansy, a monthly magazine that cost just 25 cents a year. As the magazine and its readership grew, it was described as “a finely illustrated monthly, containing 35 to 40 pages of reading matter from the pens of the best writers especially prepared for the boys and girls of the world.” 

The editor was identified only as “Pansy,” but by then that name was well-known in the world of children’s Sunday-school literature. By the end of its first year, The Pansy had more than 20,000 subscribers and would be published for another 21 years.

Alden’s productivity was all the more remarkable given that she suffered from severe migraines and could work only a few hours each day. Mornings were her sacred time for writing, and between the rapid clicks of the typewriter and sharp ring of its bell, there was “scarcely a pause for thought,” according to her niece, Grace.

“Much of her thinking is done when going about her house attending to small duties, making her bed, or putting to rights a room,” Grace wrote in an April 21, 1892, article called “Pansy at Home” for The Golden Rule magazine. “When she sits down to write, her thoughts are drilled like a well-ordered army, ready to march at the word.”

On March 30, 1873, in New Hartford, New York, the Aldens’ only son was born. As a child, Raymond Macdonald Alden suffered with frail health and doctors advised a move south to a warmer climate. 

The family decided to join Alden’s sister, Marcia Macdonald Livingston, and brother-in-law, Reverend Charles Montgomery Livingston, in Winter Park in 1886. In late 1885, Reverend Livingston had been called as a Presbyterian “Home Missions Pastor” to Seneca and Sorrento churches in Lake County.

 The Pansy Cottage was completed in the fall of 1888, although the term “cottage” was a bit of a misnomer for the Alden home. A lavish, three-story Victorian masterpiece built from virgin pine, it was replete with verandas, turrets and every architectural flavor of gingerbread. Almost every room had a fireplace.

The Aldens lived in Winter Park until 1891. The Alden house, which eventually became the Interlachen Inn, survived as a local landmark until 1955. Winter Park promoters eagerly touted the fact that one of the country’s most popular authors, who could have lived anywhere, had selected “the bright New England town on the Florida frontier.”

An 1888 brochure listed Alden among the literary luminaries who called Winter Park home and described Pansy Cottage as “a center of literary, religious and civic activity.” 

The Aldens became involved in a variety of community betterment causes. Reverend Alden was elected to the Rollins board of trustees, and the family helped found the Winter Park Public Library and the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

The WCTU was one of Alden’s favorite organizations. Although abstinence is a long-lost cause, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, per-capita alcohol consumption was far higher than it is today and was blamed for such problems as spousal abuse and child abandonment. 

Alden had been deeply affected by an event in her childhood in which a baby from a family she had known suffered permanent brain damage after being kicked by a drunken father. The temperance theme appears throughout many of her books. Notably, the WCTU was involved in such social issues as suffrage and public health. 

The Aldens joined the city’s First Congregational Church, which had founded Rollins in 1885 and attracted a socially prominent congregation. Raymond began his studies in the college’s Preparatory Department but eventually transferred to Columbian University (now George Washington University) in Washington, D.C. He also studied at Harvard and at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a Ph.D. in English in 1898.

In an early Rollins promotional pamphlet, Reverend Alden is quoted saying, “My son went to Florida as an invalid, by the advice of his physician; he left with health fully restored.” Raymond taught English at Penn as well as Columbia, Harvard and Stanford. 

He would later chair the English department at the University of Illinois and become one of the world’s preeminent scholars of Shakespeare. He would be awarded an honorary degree in literature from Rollins in 1910.

Alden used the influence she had to herald Rollins. In the August 1888 issue of The Pansy, she wrote an entire column about the college, imploring her “many thousand helpers” to “tell every Northern friend you have that in Winter Park, Orange County, Florida, is a college; … a real honest, well-built well-managed college with four good buildings.” 

Alden frequently used envelopes advertising Rollins to respond to letters from her readers.

Alden had a long association with the organization that became the prestigious Chautauqua Institution in New York. The grassroots adult-education movement was named for the lake where its first meetings were held. Though Chautauqua expanded in time to include secular topics, it had its origins in 1874 as a summer assembly of Sunday School teachers. 

Alden and her family spent summers either at Chautauqua or traveling to various Sunday School assemblies or regional Chautauquas as speakers. One of her series of books, The Chautauqua Girls, is based on summer days spent at those meetings.

Chautauqua meetings were initially held only at the New York compound, but eventually there were large-scale gatherings throughout the country spotlighting speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and subject-matter experts. 

In fact, Reverend and Mrs. Alden and their niece, Grace, were frequently a part of the Florida Chautauqua meetings, including those at Mount Dora and DeFuniak Springs. Eventually, a “Pansy Cottage” was built in DeFuniak Springs, too.

By 1891, the Aldens’ time in Winter Park had come to an end. On December 5, the local paper reported that “Rev. G. R. Alden is in town looking after his Winter Park interests and sending some of his belongings to his new home in Washington, D.C. His change of residence reminds one of the familiar saying: ‘Another good man gone wrong.’” 

The family moved to Washington, D.C., to accept the call to a church there while Raymond studied at Columbian University. The books continued, however, including Four Mothers at Chautauqua and the final installment of the Ester Ried series.

In 1924, at the age of 83, Alden suffered the loss of her husband, her sister, Marcia, and her son, whose deaths were separated by only six months. Distraught, she moved to Palo Alto, California, to live with her daughter-in-law and five grandchildren.

A concerned Hill suggested that Alden might want to revisit Ester Ried, but Alden demurred. “I am not capable of writing a story suited to the tastes of present-day young people,” she wrote. “They would smoke a cigarette over the first chapter and toss it aside as a back number. I haven’t faith in them, nor in my ability to help them.”

Jean Kerr, whose biography of Hill describes Alden’s final days, wrote: “Lonely for those who had gone before her and saddened by the godless trends of the modern world, she found her escape in her memories of the golden days that were past: memories of school-mates, of family gatherings, of the old Chautauqua assemblies, of satisfying work and pleasant associations.”

Disillusioned but unwilling to cap her pen for a final time, Alden began work on her autobiography. Memories of Yesterdays was incomplete when she died on Aug. 5, 1930, at the age of 89. Her beloved niece, Grace, finished the book.

Children who subscribed to The Pansy could join the “Pansy Society,” which encouraged members to work hard at overcoming a single fault “For Jesus’ Sake.”

Although her passing received national coverage, she had lived longer than her audience. One critic wrote: “Isabella Alden has suffered the fate of all those who survive beyond their own day and attract attention only as anachronisms on the modern scene.”

A piece published in the St. Louis Star was more kind: “But what’s the use of judging this once popular author by modern tastes and standards? … Were their efforts wasted? We don’t believe it. Nobody need be too sure that the present generation wouldn’t be better off if once in a while it sat down with a Pansy book in its hands…”

Isabella Macdonald Alden made the news again in December 1993 when Winter Park City Commissioner Rachel Murrah was shopping on Park Avenue for a red holiday coat and noticed a book in Talbots’ display window. The book, which was meant purely for decoration, was an early edition of Esther Ried: Asleep and Awake. Recognizing the author’s name, Murrah persuaded the store to donate it to the Winter Park Public Library.

“What do you call this? Serendipity?” said Renae Bennett, then the library’s historian, in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. “We’re thrilled.”

The items on display in the Winter Park Talbots, like those in the 339 other Talbots across the country, had been bought in lots from antique dealers through the company’s Boston headquarters. The fact that a Pansy Book ended up in its Winter Park store was an extraordinary coincidence and a reminder: Pansy, after all, still has something to say. 


Amazing Grace

Pansy’s niece combined romance and piety in her own best-sellers.

Grace Livingston

Isabella “Pansy” Alden was already a household name across the U.S. when she arrived in Winter Park. But it was here that her niece, Grace Livingston Hill, took the first steps in becoming her Auntie Belle’s literary legacy.

Grace, whose fame as a novelist would eventually eclipse Isabella’s, came to Winter Park in 1885 at age 20 with her parents, Reverend C.M. Livingston and Marcia Macdonald Livingston, who was Isabella’s sister.

Afflicted with a respiratory condition, Grace’s father had been given a leave of absence from his pastorate in Campbell, New York, to see if a “more congenial climate” could restore his health.

The Livingstons subsequently encouraged Isabella and her husband, Rev. G.R. Alden, to join them in Winter Park, where their invalid son, Raymond, could grow stronger — and they had made a happy home.

The two families spent a great deal of time together, working in what might be called the family business. Everyone — including Grace and young Raymond — wrote stories or regular columns for Isabella’s children’s magazine, The Pansy.

Loring Chase, one of the founders of Winter Park, noted that “literary merit seems to belong to almost every member of the family, and thousands have been delighted with the pen pictures of not only Dr. Alden and Pansy, but of Reverend and Mrs. Livingston, Miss Grace Livingston and Raymond Alden. They all work industriously to give to the youth of our land good moral reading, as the excellent reputation of their writings attest.”

Grace adored her aunt. “As long ago as I can remember, there was always a radiant being who was next to my mother and father in my heart, and who seemed to be a sort of combination of fairy godmother and saint,” she wrote years later.

Isabella, wrote Grace, was “beautiful, wise and wonderful; I treasured her smiles, copied her ways and breathlessly listened to all she had to say, sitting at her feet worshipfully.”

Her aunt’s financial success no doubt also made an impression on Grace. In the late 19th century, society viewed the arts as a respectable vocation for women. Hill wanted to earn money to help her family travel.

A Chautauqua Idyl, Grace Livingstgon’s first novel, tells the story of “the birds and the trees and the running brooks” deciding to have their own Chautauqua-style meetings.

The move to Florida did wonders for Reverend Livingston’s throat, but Grace, restless, longed for summers in New York on the shore of Chautauqua Lake, where she grew up attending the popular camp meetings that combined religious instruction with cultural and literary offerings.

The meager salary of a home missions pastor made a trip north prohibitive. Looking to her aunt as a role model, it only seemed natural that Grace, too, could publish a novel. For its subject, she chose her beloved Chautauqua.

A Chautauqua Idyl tells the story of “the birds and the trees and the running brooks” deciding to have their own Chautauqua-style meetings. The unique imagery and simplicity of Grace’s writing caught the attention of her aunt’s publisher, and once the contract was signed, there was enough money available for the Livingstons to make the journey. The book was published in 1887.

Grace would publish several more volumes during her years in Winter Park. A daily devotional called Pansies for Thoughts combined passages from her aunt’s “Pansy Books” with Scripture verses for each day of the year.

She also wrote a children’s book, A Little Servant, and contributed chapters to two family efforts: A Sevenfold Trouble and The Kaleidoscope, which included a chapter contributed by a Rollins professor and would-be but ultimately unsuccessful suitor, Dr. Frederick Starr.

Grace herself was sought out by Rollins College, but not for her gifts with the English language. Admired for her athleticism, she was asked in 1889 to join the faculty as an instructor in calisthenics and heavy gymnastics — at no salary.

She readily accepted, later writing that “the days spent in Winter Park with the dear Rollins students will ever stand out as a sweet and delightful experience.”

The new Lyman Gymnasium, where her classes were held, was an attraction unto itself. But Grace’s sessions also began to draw large crowds of spectators. According to the Florida Times-Union, “the system of calisthenics and gymnastics...is very pretty, and from 5 o’clock each afternoon the guests’ galleries are thronged with a delighted audience.”

It’s no wonder the galleries were full. Rollins was one of the few places in the 1890s where a woman instructor led vigorous physical education classes, including “club swinging, fencing, free work, wand, dumb-bell and hoop exercises.” One of the most notable and entertaining was “Greek posing” for young men and women. 

Reverend and Mrs. Livingston left Florida in 1892 after receiving a call to pastor a Maryland church. Grace went with them and a few months later married Rev. T.G.F. Hill. It was as Grace Livingston Hill that she would become familiar to generations of readers.

But there’s no doubt that Grace kept Winter Park close to her heart, and in her writing, she sometimes hearkened back to her Florida sojourn. If there is a “dear old aunt” in a Grace Livingston Hill book, she, who usually wore “becoming shades of gray,” is almost always based on Pansy.

 Among Grace’s books with Florida settings, two stand out.

Some of the early 20th century’s top illustrators created frontispieces for Hill’s numerous books.

The Story of a Whim (1903), a gentle romance, appeared first as a serial in The Golden Rule magazine. Its setting among the orange groves in fictional Pine Ridge, Florida, was no doubt inspired by the fact that her uncle, Reverend Alden, owned 12 acres of citrus between Winter Park and Maitland. The town near the groves was modeled after Sorrento, where the church building at which Reverend Livingston pastored still stands and holds services today.

In Lo, Michael (1913), Rollins itself serves as the backdrop. As the book opens, an angry mob is gathered outside the Manhattan home of Delevan Endicott, president of a failed bank. A shot rings out and a newsboy, nicknamed Mikky, throws himself in the bullet’s path to save the life of Endicott’s young daughter, Starr.

In gratitude, Endicott sends the unpolished but angelic lad to a small school in Florida, unnamed in the book but clearly based on Rollins.

Years later, Endicott and Starr travel to the college town for a visit. Grace’s memory of Winter Park’s early days is sprinkled throughout the narrative, and readers can almost see the Dinky Line station in the twilight or Rogers House (Winter Park’s first hotel, today the site of The Cloisters condominiums.) across the way:

Starr, as she walked on the inside of the board sidewalk and looked down at the small pink and white and crimson pea blossoms growing broad-cast, and then up at the tallness of the great pines, felt a kind of awe stealing upon her. But here in this quiet spot, where the tiny station, the post office, the grocery and a few scattered dwellings with the lights of the great tourists’ hotel gleaming in the distance, seemed all there was of human habitation; and where the sky was wide and even to bewilderment; she seemed suddenly to realize the difference from New York.

Now an enthusiastic and exemplary student, Mikky gives his benefactor and his pretty daughter a tour of the campus — and modern readers a glimpse at Rollins life over a century ago:

“That’s the chapel, and beyond are the study and recitation rooms. The next is the dining hall and servant’s quarters, and over on that side of the campus is our dormitory. My window looks down on the lake. Every morning I go before breakfast for a swim.”

Finally, he shares a Florida sunset with the girl he saved so long ago:

Starr followed his eager words, and saw the sun slipping, slipping like a great ruby disc behind the fringe of palm and pine and oak that bordered the little lake below the campus; saw the wild bird dart from the thicket into the clear amber of the sky above, utter its sweet weird call, and drop again into the fine brown shadows of the living picture; watched, fascinated as the sun slipped lower, lower, to the half now, and now less than half. Breathless they both stood … and watched the wonder of the day turn into night. 

Grace’s charmed life took a tragic turn in 1899, when her husband died suddenly after just seven years of marriage. Her father died just a few months later. With her mother and two daughters, ages 2 and 6, to support, she took a cue from her aunt and redoubled her effort at writing.

In less than a decade, despite a failed second marriage to Flavious Josephus Lutz, a church organist 15 years her junior, she was a best-selling author with a lifetime contract from J.B. Lippincott Co.

Her protagonists were most often young Christian women or those who converted to Christianity during the course of the story. Grace’s ability to appeal to secular audiences by combining romantic themes with an ever-present gospel message was key to her ongoing popularity.

New Grace Livingston Hill books appeared three times a year for much of her career and have never been out of print. Prior to the advent of talkies, three were adapted as films. She ultimately wrote more than 100 novels and dozens more short stories, with book sales steadily approaching the 100 million mark today.

Grace died in 1947 at 82. Her final book, Mary Arden, was completed by her daughter, Ruth Livingston Hill Munce, a St. Petersburg resident who founded The Grace Livingston Memorial School in1953, today the Keswick Christian School.

Outside of the Christian realm, Grace’s books never received much critical praise. Many called them “formula” or “fluff” or even “out-and-out escapism.” But as with her aunt, who viewed her work as a calling, that never bothered Grace:

“I have had no desire to find favor with critics. I knew my Lord could look after these things wherever He wanted my work to reach lost souls.” 


A Matter of Dress, or Undress, at Rollins

As a popular young physical education instructor at Rollins College in its nascent years, future novelist Grace Livingston had some thoroughly modern ideas. At least one caused the old guard alarm.

In a letter to the college four decades later, she recalled an 1891 incident that she considered to be “exceedingly amusing in the light of present-day freedom and daring in the matter of dress, or rather undress.”

She wanted her female students to wear uniforms. She suggested dark blue serge suits with long-sleeved, sailor-collared blouses. The controversy arose over the “divided skirt” — think culottes — which would be fastened just below the knee. Grace described them as “very neat and graceful, worn with long black stockings and gymnasium sneakers.”

It was hardly a revolutionary concept. At the time, many girls who participated in athletics of one kind or another, primarily riding, wore split skirts, which allowed for greater freedom of movement while preserving modesty.

The 1899 Rollins womens’ basketball team models the uniforms that some faculty members considered scandalous. Hill later said she was amused that her faculty peers were so prim, and enjoyed watching their awkward reaction as she modeled the athletic togs herself.

“I was to appear formally before the faculty to talk over the matter of costume for the gymnasium work, and it never occurred to me that it was going to be a difficult task to get what I had requested,” Grace wrote.

After all, she had “been brought up in a most conservative manner as to attire, and I was heartily in accord with my father and mother on the subject. So I was much amazed to find that all but two or three of the faculty were very doubtful and failed to give way at my eager description of its modesty and appropriateness.”

Grace “waxed eloquent” about the proposal, noting that the gym uniforms were, in fact, more conservative than much of what her students donned outside of class.

Seeing that her arguments were making little headway, she shocked the prim professors by making an audacious offer: “Why, I have it on now and I can show it to you. I’ll step into the hall and take off this skirt and come back and let you see how it looks.”

One of the female teachers “tried to protest, but I whisked into the hall before they could stop me and walked back in my gymnasium dress, and in reality, it was a pretty graceful affair. Even now it might be thought so. But the affect [sic] on the troubled faculty was astounding.”

Grace watched as the attendees “sat in a circle with downcast eyes, hands in their laps, feeling perhaps that a great crisis in college affairs was upon them. Only the two brave ladies who had been privileged to see the skirt before, and were in hearty accord with me about it, looked up with serene countenances and smiled upon me.”

The others, she recalled, began to cast “furtive sideways glances, first at my toes, and then cautiously letting their frightened eyes travel upward till they got the whole effect. They one by one drew sighs of relief and permitted their eyes to resume a normal outlook on the world once more.”

Dr. Edward Hooker, the college’s first president and minister of the First Congregational Church of Winter Park, finally broke the awkward silence. “I think,” he said, “that this dress is much more modest than the garb that is worn in social life. I can see nothing whatever objectionable in it. In fact, I heartily approve it.”

Thus ended the “great crisis,” and soon thereafter girls could be seen hurrying across the campus wearing the sensible, graceful garb. “Nobody thought any more about it,” Grace wrote. 

In his book, Meyer insists that the study of his Winter Park home is not a museum, although it’s chock full of Ripley-style oddities as well as books and memorabilia related to his other passion, traditional blues music. Photos by Rafael Tongol

BELIEVE IT OR NOT!

As vice president of archives and exhibits for Ripley Entertainment Inc., Ed Meyer visited six continents, 42 countries and 47 states in search of intriguing, grotesque, disturbing, awesome, revolting and, yes, often unbelievable objects. Photo by Rafael Tongol

The sixtysomething man who answered the door at his subur-ban Winter Park home — barefoot, balding, moon-faced with a fringy white beard, baggy algae-green shorts, a blousy Route 66-themed shirt tenting a modest paunch — would never be mistaken for “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” 

Instead of the daring dandy in those ubiquitous Dos Equis beer commercials, Edward Meyer looks to me like a guy waiting in line at the DMV. A regular Joe named Ed. But for 33 years, Meyer held arguably The Most Interesting Job in the World — believe it, or not!

In fact, that’s exactly where Meyer worked. Ripley Entertainment Inc., a division of the Jim Pattison Group, is a global company with annual attendance of more than 12 million in 30-plus museums (the company calls them “odditoriums”), including the delightfully dizzying off-kilter building on International Drive in Orlando.

As vice president of archives and exhibits for the Ripley empire — which also includes books, games and a syndicated television show — Meyer visited six continents, 42 countries and 47 states. 

And he came back with intriguing, grotesque, disturbing, awesome, revolting and, yes, often unbelievable objects — from shrunken heads and conjoined farm animals to a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in Duct tape and a bovine hairball the size of large grapefruit.

I ask a question Meyer has probably answered many times before. Is “Believe It or Not” a boast, or is the “or Not” a caveat meant to provide wiggle room on authenticity? 

“It’s a boast,” Meyer insists. “We would not put our name on it unless we were 100 percent convinced it was real. These things are so weird, we know you’re going to have doubts. But despite the title, you should believe it.”

In his book, Meyer insists that the study of his Winter Park home is not a museum, although it’s chock full of Ripley-style oddities as well as books and memorabilia related to his other passion, traditional blues music. Photos by Rafael Tongol

Meyer, 63, retired in June of last year due partly to festering friction among Ripley executives over his paying $5 million at auction in 2016 for the dress Marilyn Monroe wore to croon “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962. The company owner had OK’d the purchase, Meyer says, but other higher-ups begged to differ, and he was uncomfortable in the crossfire.

L’affaire de dress is recounted in minute and colorful detail in Meyer’s memoir, Buying the Bizarre: Confessions of a Compulsive Collector, published in May. But such are the staggering volume and variety of his Ripley adventures that the story of what Meyer calls “the most significant pop culture piece in history” doesn’t appear until chapter 74 of the 547-page saga. 

“I’m the guy who spent over five million dollars on a dress that didn’t even fit me,” Meyer writes with wry, self-deprecating humor that marks his storytelling.

In a fond farewell to Meyer on the Ripley’s website, the company credits him with acquiring well over 500 artifacts a year for 33 years, which equals, at a minimum, 16,500 objects. 

At first glance, it appears that all 16,500 are stored in his home. Seated in a beaded African throne at the table where he does his writing on a laptop, Meyer scans the expansive family room in which every inch of wall and shelf space is taken.

“My house is a disaster area,” Meyer says, noting a half-complete renovation awaiting an MIA contractor. “My desk was a disaster area, but I know where everything is. There’s an organizational thing in here that most people couldn’t comprehend by seeing it. I never liked to put things away, because I was sure I was going to need them. I liked to have as much as possible within reach.”

In his book, Meyer insists that his home is not a museum despite “six chock-full glass display cases, African statuary, tribal masks, exotic rugs including a full-length Tibetan tiger rug made from yak hair, a vial of dust from a Martian meteorite, a few old valuable coins and stamps, over 200 framed pieces of art … and an antique map of Iceland.”

Deep breath.

And then there’s the personal stuff: a pocket watch collection, a bookshelf shrine to baseball and 13 racks containing thousands of record albums and CDs. Meyer recently put the finishing touches on the manuscript of his second book, A Man and the Blues: A Love Story, an ode to his passion for African-American blues.

 Then there are more than a dozen large bookshelves “filled with everything I’ve ever read, and then some.”

Robert Ripley (above) began his career as a sports cartoonist. Today the Ripley empire includes 30-plus “odditoriums,” including the dizzying off-kilter Orlando location (left). © 2019 Ripley Entertainment Inc. (Robert Ripley)

CHAMPS AND CHUMPS

Meyer grew up in Toronto reading the Believe It or Not! cartoon panel, which debuted in 1918 in The New York Globe under the name Champs and Chumps and featured oddities from the world of athletics — not surprising, since the 28-year-old creator Robert Ripley had been a sportswriter. 

Ripley began adding non-sports items to the column and a year later settled on Believe It or Not!, the cornerstone of an entertainment empire. Catnip though Believe It or Not! was to a young boy’s brain, the cartoon did not inspire Meyer to make Ripley’s wacky wonderland his career. And why would it? Few read Believe It or Not! and think “job opportunity!” 

Meyer’s career goal was grounded in deeply mundane reality — an orderly, hushed utterly believable universe. He wanted to be a librarian. “Most people wouldn’t believe it,” he says. “My high school teachers thought I was crazy. ‘What do you mean, you want to be a librarian?’”

What’s unbelievable is that nearly everything about Meyer’s early years, including the nerdy ambition, appears to have been uncanny preparation for his future job as buyer of the bizarre for Ripley’s. “I believe that 100 percent,” he says. “I thought about it a lot writing the book.”

The dress Marilyn Monroe wore to croon “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962 was purchased at auction by Meyer for $5 million, the most by far Ripley’s had ever paid for an artifact. © 2019 Ripley Entertainment Inc.

Meyer’s mother, Sylvia, imbued him with a love of books and an omnivorous hunger for knowledge — birds, flowers, insects, trees, mummies, history, poetry, dinosaurs. He and his sister were expected to check out three books a week from the library. 

“At the time, travel wasn’t all that available to me,” Meyer recalls. “Armchair travel, that’s really what it was all about. There was a librarian in grade school, Mrs. Taffe, that really put that in my head — that there’s a world in this building at your fingertips.”

Visiting exotic locales wasn’t in the family budget, but Canada afforded frequent low-cost road trips — camping only, no motels —  that gave Meyer a Ripleyesque taste for the awesome, weird and tacky. 

Winter Park was immortalized in a Believe It or Not! cartoon when a huge sinkhole swallowed up a home, several businesses, a swimming pool, a truck and five cars in 1981. Meyer remembered the cartoon, which inspired him to suggest that the local odditorium be designed to appear as though it were being sucked into the ground. © 2019 Ripley Entertainment Inc.

“We did things that other families didn’t do,” he says. “We went to unusual places and I absorbed it all.” At a roadside nature attraction, they fed a chained bear a blueberry pie. At a trading post in Banff, Alberta, they were mesmerized by a Fiji Island mermaid. They visited forts, graveyards, museums, monuments and welcome centers.

Still, all the fateful basic training for an unbelievable career with the oddball empire might have gone for naught but for a serendipitous moment that pointed Meyer to his destination. 

It was spring 1978, and Meyer had just completed the final exam for his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto with plans to enroll in the graduate library science program in the fall. In the meantime, he needed a summer job. 

After dozens of fruitless visits, he had all but given up on the campus office for student employment. But a friend insisted that he give it one final try and dragged him through the doorway. Once inside, sunlight through a window appeared to illuminate an innocuous 5-by-5 card tacked to a bulletin board. The card read: “Wanted: Library Science Student to catalog cartoons for Ripley International, 10 Price Street, Downtown, Toronto.” 

Meyer could scarcely believe his good fortune. “I loved cataloging, as I assume most would-be librarians do, and I loved cartoons,” he recalls. “So, it sounded like the perfect job.” The world lost a librarian but Believe It or Not! gained a successor to Robert Ripley, who was the company’s first and only buyer until his death in 1949. 

Since Ripley’s untimely passing, the company had acquired only 74 new items. But in 1985, Meyer was promoted from archivist to hunter-buyer of exhibits. At the time, he recalls, there were eight Ripley museums containing only artifacts snared by Ripley himself.

The new owner, Jim Pattison Sr., wanted to build more museums. And Pattison, one of Canada’s wealthiest men, had the resources to do as he wished. His net worth in 2018 was estimated to be some $5.7 billion, and his company included such diversified holdings as truck dealerships, radio and television stations and the Guinness Book of World Records. 

“We probably had enough [objects] to build two more museums at most,” Meyer recalls. “[Pattison] said, ‘That’s not good enough — I want to build two a year. Somebody has to go buy more stuff.’ My job changed overnight.”

Ed Meye nearly qualified as a Ripley’s exhibit himself. He had a morphing two-toned beard — brown and red, then brown and white — the result of a childhood pigment condition. President Jimmy Carter, whom Meyer met twice, remembered him specifically because of his distinctive facial hair. Meyer’s beard is now uniformly white — a badge of seniority.

SKIN IN THE GAME

During his first year, Meyer bought 485 objects. The most significant, he says, was a small patch of skin from a young Englishman who had murdered his teenaged lover in the 1700s by striking her with a flung rock. He was hanged then dissected in hopes of discovering the source of his evil. 

The skin, which Meyer purchased for $300, was signed by the doctor who performed the dissection. “It’s just a tiny piece,” he says, “but if you ever see it, you’ll remember it.”

I’ll just bet. That’s true, for me, of the archetypal Ripley object: the shrunken head. It’s creepier and more unsettling than the iconic two-headed calf or “Mike” the headless rooster that toured sideshows for 18 years because, well, they’re farm animals. 

The downsized human head — such as the one from Ecuador at the Orlando odditorium — hits a bit too close to home. There, but for the grace of God, goes my own deflated noggin.

“A lot people assume it’s not real,” Meyer says. “And almost universally no one understands how it can be done. It’s very simple. You remove the skull. You cannot shrink bone, but you can shrink skin because it’s basically just leather.”

To convince skeptics, Meyer made a film, a vivid re-enactment of the head-shrinking process for the exhibit. Let’s just say it’s not a popcorn movie. It did convince me — not to visit Ecuador anytime soon.

“I hope you liked the film,” he says. “I spent a lot of time making it. I bought the heads shown in it. The head in the Orlando museum is the best one in the company.”

(In 33 years of transporting unsettling objects, Meyer was stopped only once by airport security. “I had trouble getting into Ireland because I had a shrunken head in my suitcase,” he recalls. “They had never dealt with that before, so it was an interesting day.”)

Marilyn Monroe had been an object of fascination for Meyer since his teens. “I was spellbound by her beauty and sensuality,” he writes in his memoir. He was just the man to do Ripley’s bidding when the dress came up for auction in 1999 at legendary Christie’s Auction House in New York.

But he lost out that day. The “hammer price” was $1.1 million, topping Meyer’s final bid of $1 million. He came home with consolation prizes from the Monroe collection including a sweater ($150,000), a traveling makeup case ($240,000) and six snapshots of Monroe’s dog, “Maf” (short for Mafia), a gift from Frank Sinatra ($200,000).

Meyer wasn’t going to miss again when the dress hit the auction block in 2016 at Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills. Confident that he had Pattison’s support, Meyer kept raising his paddle until the hammer came down on his bid of $4 million. Julien’s 22 percent commission and taxes pushed the price tag to $5 million, the most by far Ripley’s had ever paid for an artifact. 

Meyer has chronicled his colorful career in a new book entitled Buying the Bizarre: The Confessions of a Compulsive Collector.

Quibbling and second-guessing in the executive suite ensued. “I’m in the middle,” Meyer says. “My life became not as pleasant as it should be for a full year afterwards. It’s not the only reason I retired, but it was a big part of it.”

Ironically, one of Meyer’s proudest acquisitions didn’t cost Ripley a dime. That’s fortunate, since packing and shipping was a bear. Have you ever priced shipping a large quantity of concrete overseas? I’m guessing not. Meyer, however, has.

Three days after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Meyer rushed to Germany with an empty suitcase and a hammer and chisel in hopes of bringing back some literal pieces of history. The suitcase proved inadequate for the 10-by-10-foot sections of wall he secured, 16 slabs adorned by the most artful spray painting. (One of the sections is on display at the Orlando odditorium.)

The addition met with resistance from some people, Meyer says: “More than once we were chastised, ‘Why is this in Ripley’s? It belongs somewhere else.’ There are no rules to what goes in a Ripley’s museum other than it’s unique. I felt I was preserving history.”

Speaking of the Orlando odditorium, which was built in 1992, it was Meyer’s stroke of genius to suggest a design that makes it appear the building is sliding into a sinkhole. His inspiration came from a Ripley cartoon featuring the Winter Park sinkhole of 1981. The cartoon ran long before there was any thought of an Orlando odditorium.

In 1993, a year after the I-Drive opening, Ripley moved its corporate headquarters from Toronto to Orlando. “The reason we looked at Orlando is that it already had Disney,” says Meyer. “Not a whole lot else, but it had Disney. We thought: ‘This is an entertainment city. Our company can grow there.’ For the company, it was a very, very good decision instantly.”

Orlando and Ripley did indeed seem to be a marriage made in pop-culture heaven. Yet, it almost didn’t happen. Meyer was on the five-person search committee scouting possible new locations. 

“We were very seriously looking at Los Angeles,” he says. “We were literally on the ground in Los Angeles the day of the Rodney King episode, and that changed our mind on Los Angeles.” King was the construction worker beaten in 1992 by police, who were subsequently acquitted of using excessive force. The beating sparked six days of rioting during which 63 people were killed.

“We also looked at Dallas, New York and Chicago,” Meyer says. “Orlando was at the bottom of everyone’s list but turned out to be the right spot.” The vote to move to Orlando was 3-2, with Meyer in the minority. 

“I was all for moving to California,” he says. “Orlando in my mind was still a little town. Compared to Toronto, 26 years ago, Orlando was the boondocks. I struggled with it. It took me a good two years to call this home.”

Meyer’s most pressing concern was education. He and his wife, Giliane, had school-age children, Curtis and Celeste. “Florida was rated number 48 out of 50,” Meyer says. “I didn’t want my kids growing up in a place that didn’t give your kids a decent education. I knew two people in Florida at the time and both said the only good [public] schools are in Winter Park. We never even looked anywhere else.”

Curtis, now 35, and Celeste, 32, attended Brookshire Elementary, Glenridge Middle and Winter Park High. “I’ve always been the coolest dad in the neighborhood,” Meyer laughs. “I’ve done lots of school presentations and show-and-tell for many classes. I took valuable stuff and let kids touch it. I’d wrap an anaconda skin around them, put tiger shark jaws over their heads.”

Pity the parent on career day who had to follow Meyer’s act. “Yeah, I’d blow ‘em out of the water,” he says. “The fireman has a chance, but the doctor and accountant might as well go home before they start. I was a major hit for years and years. They almost cried when I said I don’t think I can do it this year because I don’t have access to the stuff anymore.”

For about 25 years, from age 25 to 50, Meyer nearly qualified as a Ripley’s exhibit himself. He had a morphing two-toned beard — brown and red, then brown and white — the result of a childhood pigment condition.

“It took me years to convince people it was real,” he says. “For many years people thought I got my job because of the beard. Sometimes I would tell them the truth, sometimes I wouldn’t. That beard got me to a lot of places. I’ve met six presidents. I met Jimmy Carter twice, several years apart, and that’s what he remembered: ‘You’re the guy with the two-toned beard!’”

Not anymore. Meyer’s beard, if he didn’t shave, would be uniformly white — a badge of seniority. Teasingly, I asked the man who’s visited 42 countries if he looks forward to traveling in retirement.

“Yeah, I do,” he says. “There are still places I want to go for sure, like Egypt. But I don’t know if I can afford to travel. I spent too much on things. I haven’t been real good at saving.”

So, believe it or not, Edward Meyer, once holder of The Most Interesting Job in the World, is now like so many of us nondescript retirees — just another housebound guy in cargo shorts waiting for the contractor to show up.

Maybe the only way Meyer will get to Egypt is via his armchair. But he lives in a museum (might as well admit it, Ed), his own personal odditorium, surrounded by the things he loves. And what his childhood librarian in Toronto said is true of all that Edward Meyer surveys from his beaded African throne: 

“There’s a world in this building that’s at your fingertips.” 

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.

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