In 1953, Alphonse “Phonsie” Carlo, was recruited to teach violin through Community Courses for Young People. By all accounts a kind and patient man who enjoyed instructing students of all ages, Carlo agreed and offered after-school lessons, as did his accomplished wife, Katherine, a concert pianist with whom he frequently performed. Original photo courtesy of the Rollins College department of Archives and Special Collections

FUN 101

Exclusive Book Excerpt
Editor’s Note: The following is a revised and condensed version of a chapter from a 2019 book entitled Rollins After Dark: The Hamilton Holt School’s Nontraditional Journeys. This chapter focuses on the children’s programs that were launched by President Hugh F. McKean as a community outreach effort in the aftermath of Paul A. Wagner’s brief but tumultuous presidency, which left faculty and students stunned and the community deeply divided. The programs, eventually assembled under the umbrella of the Rollins College School of Creative Arts, were introduced concurrently with adult education efforts that eventually evolved into today’s Hamilton Holt School.


Photo Restoration and Colorization by Will Setzer at Circle 7 Studio

The Rollins College School of Creative Arts drew thousands of youngsters to the campus for a variety of courses. Some of the teachers were full-time faculty members, such as Doreen Bligh-Jones (seated at left), who taught drama. Original photo courtesy of the Rollins College department of Archives and Special Collections

Anarchy on Ollie Avenue? An overstatement, perhaps, but it can certainly be said that Community Courses for Young People — launched at Rollins College in 1951 by new President Hugh F. McKean — brought children to the campus in droves: singing children, dancing children, painting children, acting children, swimming children, weaving children and musical-instrument-playing children.

Community Courses for Young People was initially directed by George Sauté, a professor of mathematics whom McKean had tapped to strengthen ties between the college and the community by offering educational and recreational programs for local residents. 

The impetus for doing so was likely fallout from the divisive debacle of Paul A. Wagner’s brief presidency, which roiled the campus and divided the community. (See “A Master Class in Chaos” in the Fall 2020 issue of Winter Park Magazine.)

Thousands of present-day baby boomers fondly recall attending after-school classes, which were sometimes taught by highly credentialed day school faculty, or the program’s popular Summer Day Camp, which began in 1967 and ran through the summer of 2015. 

Community Courses for Young People — an ancillary program to Courses for the Community, which would decades later evolve into today’s Hamilton Holt School — offered after-school piano lessons as well as rhythmics (dance), choral singing, junior theater, and arts and crafts. Headquarters was a barracks-like studio on Ollie Avenue, behind the infirmary near Dinky Dock. (Today the parcel is home to the college’s massive parking garage.)

Lessons in other musical instruments were added, along with instruction in swimming and canoeing. By the late 1950s, each eight-week quarter attracted more than 500 youngsters from pre-school to high school.

ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT

From 1953 to 1958, students from the young peoples’ program commandeered the 400-seat Annie Russell Theatre for The Spring Thing, a collection of short plays, some of them original, as well as scripted and improvised skits. 

During the show’s run, art students created works to be displayed in the lobby, while crafts students helped to create sets, props and costumes. Music students provided accompaniment, and beaming parents packed the venue for performances. 

British-born actor Peter Dearing, director of the college’s Department of Theater Arts and an instructor for the young peoples’ program, offered his energetic charges numerous opportunities to perform with the Rollins Players onstage at “the Annie.” 

A former professor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, Dearing began his career as a curly-haired child actor in films before touring the U.S. and Europe with the Ben Greet Players, a stock company that specialized in open-air Shakespeare productions.

Ben Greet was the stage name for Sir Philip Barling Greet, who may have inspired Dearing’s interest in children’s theater. When Greet managed London’s Old Vic theater from 1914 to 1918, he persuaded the U.K. Department of Education to sponsor school visits to the historic 1,000-seat venue. 

Over the course of four years, Greet presented Shakespeare plays to more than 20,000 elementary school students. Dearing joined the Ben Greet Players at age 14 and remained until Greet’s death nine years later. He clearly understood how to relate to children with a theatrical bent. 

 In 1955, Dearing cast 9-year-old Annette Moore and 12-year-old Danny Carr in an Annie Russell Theatre production of Mrs. McThing, a fantasy about children and witches written by Mary Chase of Harvey fame. Although a critic from The Sandspur savaged the play, opining that “the progression of innumerable ideas is exceedingly awkward,” he managed to coherently praise young Annette for “stealing the show” with her poise and stage presence.

Also appearing in Mrs. McThing was Rollins drama student Ann Derflinger, who would become a legendary drama teacher at Winter Park High School. The auditorium at the school is named for Derflinger, who died of cancer in 1983. She often cited Dearing as a major influence on her decision to teach. Derflinger, in turn, inspired actors such as Tom Nowicki (The Blind Side) and Amanda Bearse (Married With Children), both of whom were her students.

Dearing later drafted talented young peoples’ program participants for campus productions of The Crucible and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And in 1957, when he directed Maxwell Anderson’s The Bad Seed for the Orlando Players, a community theater production, Dearing plucked a junior-high schooler for a plumb role. 

Precocious Anne Hathaway, 11, chewed up the scenery as pigtailed psychopath Rhoda Penmark in a performance the Orlando Sentinel described as “brilliant … [Anne] was able to project a chilling ruthlessness, which told her audience that under the smile a twisted brain was plotting murder.” 

Also that year, Dearing notched his only U.S. film credit, a small role in Naked in the Sun, a low-budget effort about the Seminole Indian warrior Osceola. Although ostensibly set in the Everglades, Naked in the Sun was shot primarily (and appropriately) in Osceola County. Despite lurid posters and “flaming Eastman color,” the film descended into obscurity following its grand premier at Orlando’s Beacham Theater.

Dearing left Rollins shortly thereafter to become artistic director at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario, where he gained a reputation for staging lavish musicals such as The Boy Friend, Oliver, West Side Story and My Fair Lady. He died in 1971 at age 58, and memorial services were held at the venue’s main auditorium.

British-born actor Peter Dearing (standing), director of the college’s Department of Theater Arts and an instructor for the young peoples’ program, offered his energetic charges numerous opportunities to perform with the Rollins Players onstage at “the Annie.” In 1957, Dearing notched his only U.S. film credit, a small role in Naked in the Sun, a low-budget effort about the Seminole Indian warrior Osceola. Although ostensibly set in the Everglades, Naked in the Sun was shot primarily (and appropriately) in Osceola County. Despite lurid posters (inset) and “flaming Eastman color,” the film descended into obscurity following its grand premier at Orlando’s Beacham Theater. Original photo courtesy of the Rollins College department of Archives and Special Collections

TICKLING THE IVORIES

Marion Marwick, a pianist who had tickled the ivories with the Toronto Symphony and the Orlando Symphony Orchestra, enjoyed playing jazz — and was good at it. She also enjoyed teaching others to play the piano, and was among several adjunct instructors in 1957, when Community Courses for Young People was inexplicably renamed Community Courses for Children. 

She later became director of the program’s music division and, still reporting to Sauté, was named director of all activities under the auspices of the newly formed Rollins College School of Creative Arts. The school subsumed the children’s program — including the Summer Day Camp — following a reorganization in 1962. 

Under the energetic Marwick, a graduate of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, piano instruction dominated after-school offerings. By Marwick’s account, she taught more than 1,000 people of all ages to play during her career. 

“Everyone who took piano lessons from my mother loved her,” recalls Robert Marwick, her son. “She was dedicated. She built that program into a major force in the community and something that meant a lot in the lives of young people.”

Indeed, a social media post from Robert Marwick seeking memories of his mother drew dozens of nostalgic responses recounting how Mrs. Marwick had made a difference — as good piano teachers often do — by becoming a friend and confidant. 

Marwick’s jaw-dropping student count, however, was possible because in addition to individual instruction she was an exponent of the Pace Method — created by pianist and educator Robert Pace — which advocated teaching piano in large groups. The School of Creative Arts was one of the first in the U.S. to adopt the method. 

Pace, director of the piano department at Teachers College, Columbia University (from which he had earned a doctorate) and director of the National Piano Foundation, consulted with Marwick and visited Winter Park each year to check the program’s progress.

 Visitors to the School of Creative Arts when it moved to R.D. Keene Hall in 1974 (location of the college’s Virginia S. and W. W. Nelson Department of Music) remember the second floor as containing dozens of pianos of every sort, many side by side, and youngsters playing them while wearing headphones.

By the mid-1960s, the burgeoning school offered nearly 30 courses per term and attracted some 1,200 students who could choose from sessions in piano, voice, brass and woodwinds, violin and viola, and guitar and banjo. There was also instruction in painting and sculpture, ceramics and weaving and, somewhat incongruously, conversational Spanish and French. 

An annual Rollins Piano Festival of the School of Creative Arts was launched and drew music students and educators from around the U.S. Pace, among others, attended as an adjudicator for student competitions. Marwick, who left Rollins in 1970 to begin a private piano instruction school called Creative Keyboards, died in 2005 at age 81.

The School of Creative Arts was one of the first in the U.S. to offer piano instruction using the Pace Method, created by pianist and educator Robert Pace, who advocated instruction in large groups. Teacher Mary Jarmon Nelson is shown here, but the music program was run by Marion Marwick (inset), a graduate of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Original photo courtesy of the Rollins College department of Archives and Special Collections

PHONSIE’S LASTING LEGACY

Most classes in Community Courses for Young People — and later the School of Creative Arts — were taught by adjunct faculty, often teachers from Orange County Public Schools. One prominent college music professor, however, found a mission through the program and in so doing created a lasting but underappreciated legacy by establishing the Florida Symphony Youth Symphony. 

Violinist Alphonse “Phonsie” Carlo, during an interview for a job at the college’s music department — then known as the Rollins College Conservatory of Music — was asked by Rollins President Hamilton Holt, who had sung first tenor in the Yale Glee Club, if he could play an Irish folk song, “Londonderry Air.”

The tune, which originated in County Londonderry in Ireland, is used as the victory anthem of Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games, an international multisport competition. But anyone who has ever heard the popular ballad “Danny Boy” will recognize “Londonderry Air,” from which the melody is appropriated.

Carlo, who studied violin at Yale University and the Julliard School of Music, deftly fulfilled Holt’s request, accompanied by the president on an old stand-up piano stationed in his office. A delighted Holt offered Carlo a job as an assistant professor of music in 1943. 

In 1953, Carlo was recruited to teach violin through Community Courses for Young People. By all accounts a kind and patient man who enjoyed instructing students of all ages, Carlo agreed and offered after-school lessons, as did his accomplished wife, Katherine, a concert pianist with whom he frequently performed. 

Shortly thereafter, Carlo persuaded the Orange County School Board and the Florida Symphony Orchestra — for which he had become concert master — that a youth orchestra would benefit everyone involved. 

Through such a program, schools could offer orchestral training without the expense of starting orchestral programs. And the symphony could develop players-in-waiting while expanding its base of support through the proud parents of school-age musicians. 

Announcements were made and an article was published in the Orlando Sentinel. On the first Saturday in November 1953, more than 100 students from middle school through high school, their instruments in tow, assembled at Howard Junior High School. 

On subsequent Saturdays, there were free classes for beginning and intermediate players followed by a rehearsal for students who were sufficiently advanced to become the first members of the Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra. Assisting the busy Carlo, who also played in a baroque ensemble, were several other symphony players and public-school music teachers. 

Glenridge Junior High School was the first local public school to form an orchestra, in 1957. (Winter Park High School did not have an orchestra until 1962.) Forming a competent, much less a good, youth orchestra was no small feat in 1953, when the music programs in most public schools were centered upon brass-heavy marching bands. 

Still, Carlo had a gift for recognizing and cultivating young talent. In 1954, the 30-member youth orchestra — perhaps seeded with some more experienced collegiate ringers — played alongside the professionals at the Florida Symphony Orchestra’s annual Spring Pops Concert at Orlando Municipal Auditorium (now the Bob Carr Theater). 

“I’ve never seen a group of students with more self-discipline and more earnestness in their work,” said Edward Preodor, head of the violin department at the University of Florida in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. 

Continued Preodor: “Students who will give up their Saturday mornings to study are the best type of students. But more important still is the leadership of your conductor, Alphonse Carlo. He is obviously a leading musician who understands young people and who loves to work with them.” The fledgling youth orchestra also performed solo concerts, including at least two that were televised locally. 

Carlo stepped down as conductor in 1960, but remained a steady and supportive presence. The college covered some operating expenses and was listed for several years in the 1970s as the youth orchestra’s sponsoring organization — although the nature of the partnership appears to have been informal. 

The Florida Symphony Orchestra’s Women’s Committee, meanwhile, provided scholarships for young players to study with Carlo and others at the School of Creative Arts. The youth orchestra, despite its popularity, received scant attention from the professional orchestra’s management team until 1978, when it was granted “full arm” status. 

Ironically, the junior partner emerged unscathed even after the senior partner collapsed under financial pressure in 1993. 

“Because we remained attached at the hip for so long, our historical narrative has been told from the Florida Symphony Orchestra’s perspective,” says Don Lake, president of the youth orchestra’s board of directors. “But Rollins College, through its former School of Creative Arts, was a profound co-sponsor and financial supporter. Our organization would not even exist without the help the college gave us.” 

Today, Phonsie’s pet project is a thriving 501(c)(3) organization with three full orchestras, a string training orchestra, a chamber music ensemble and a 24-piece jazz orchestra. While Rollins is rarely given credit, the Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra can trace its beginnings to Community Courses for Young People and the School of Creative Arts.

The legacy of the Carloses continues in other ways. The Alphonse and Katherine Carlo Music Scholarship, which was established in 1993 thanks to a gift from the Alphonse Carlo Trust, provides scholarships for students to study piano or stringed instruments. There is also a Carlo Room in the R.D. Keene Music Building. Katherine Carlo died in 1990; her husband died in 1992.

In 1953, Alphonse “Phonsie” Carlo, was recruited to teach violin through Community Courses for Young People. By all accounts a kind and patient man who enjoyed instructing students of all ages, Carlo agreed and offered after-school lessons, as did his accomplished wife, Katherine, a concert pianist with whom he frequently performed. Original photo courtesy of the Rollins College department of Archives and Special Collections

A LONG GOODBYE

Whatever happened to the Rollins children’s programs and the School of Creative Arts? It is indeed a long and convoluted story. But essentially McKean — who started the program — lost interest in it as his determination to establish a full-fledged, degree-granting adult education program grew. 

In 1960, McKean announced formation of the Institute for General Studies, which encompassed three divisions: Courses for the Community, which included the School of Creative Arts; the Graduate Programs, which offered an MBA as well as advanced degrees in physics and teaching; and the School of General Studies, which would for the first time in the college’s history offer an undergraduate degree — a Bachelor’s Degree in General Studies — to adult learners. 

Although the institute had no dean, Sauté directed Courses for the Community and the School of General Studies. The Rollins Alumni Record described the programs as “much more than a fine community gesture” and lauded Sauté as “not interested in press clippings and service awards; he is interested in education.”

His boss, however, had no qualms about generating press clippings. The following year, McKean attempted to launch a so-called Rollins College Space Institute, which he envisioned would become the crown jewel of the School of General Studies. 

Despite much hoopla — and lavish media coverage — the liftoff fizzled and the project was never mentioned again in print after 1963. However, the mercurial president continued to be intrigued with new ideas for expanded offerings — none of them involving children’s programs.

When McKean did take note of the School of Creative Arts, he seemed annoyed — perhaps embarrassed — by its presence. Several times, in fact, he threatened to shutter the program over administrative snafus. 

“I have appointed no one to teach in the [School of Creative Arts] for this fall term,” McKean wrote in a 1962 memorandum to Marwick. “If anyone is actually teaching, by this memorandum I will direct the treasurer to discontinue their salaries. No department of this college can or should make laws for itself. Unless the [School of Creative Arts] can conform to the principles and practices of the college, I will recommend to the trustees that it either be discontinued or reorganized.” 

While McKean was justified in insisting that Marwick follow established protocols, such as securing proper approvals for instructor appointments, his tone seemed unduly harsh. The school was, after all, a nonacademic, noncredit program that primarily taught arts, crafts and music to children. 

It is also not quite clear why McKean did not first take the matter up with Sauté, who was nominally Marwick’s supervisor. But Sauté, too, at times incurred the patrician president’s icy ire. In a 1963 memo, McKean expressed concern to Sauté about the caliber of the adjunct faculty in the institute’s degree-granting program.

“No one who would not qualify as a member of the College of Liberal Arts is to teach in the Institute for General Studies,” McKean wrote. “Unless it is possible for us to maintain identical standards in the institute and the liberal arts college, I will recommend that the trustees discontinue the institute at the end of the year.”

Frustrated by what he felt were mediocre programs but unwilling to invest in their improvement, McKean was surely elated in 1964, when the college received a $1 million gift from financier Roy E. Crummer. Now here was something McKean could be proud of — a prestigious, well-funded graduate school that didn’t draw comparisons to a kindergarten, a country club or a community college (then called junior colleges).

The funds were used to build and endow the Roy E. Crummer School of Finance and Business Administration (now the Roy E. Crummer Graduate School of Business), which originally offered both MBA and Master of Commercial Science degrees. 

Said McKean: “[The Crummer School] will help to strengthen the human element in business. It will strive to make men of its students, not machines. The business world needs leaders prepared to think responsibly, not rely on pushing buttons and pulling levers.”

 With the MBA program now having its own dean, McKean dropped the Institute for General Studies and formed the Central Florida School for Continuing Studies, which had responsibility only for Courses for the Community, the School of Creative Arts and a branch campus at Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County. Sauté was retained as the school’s director.

Still, McKean never embraced the School of Creative Arts, nor the multi-named, all-purpose adult education program under which the children’s activities operated. Perhaps he had come to believe that they were detrimental to the college’s vision of itself as a serious academic institution.

Yes, he had allowed both programs to continue — but he complained about them constantly and never articulated a path forward that would gain his favor. The fence-mending outreach initiatives that had seemed so important a decade earlier now seemed to have become annoyances, especially as the Wagner debacle faded into memory.

As McKean approached retirement age, he continued to put forth big ideas. In 1967, he made headlines with a proposal to create a national university through which a student of any age and in any location could earn a low-cost bachelor’s degree through courses on television and radio, videotape recordings and correspondence instruction without setting foot on a physical college campus. 

“We cannot send everyone to college,” he said. “But we can send college to everyone.” The idea presaged later notions of virtual universities and the “colleges without walls” concept.

McKean, who had become an iconic figure in the region through his high-profile presidency, announced that he would retire and assume the newly created role of chancellor by the beginning of the school year in September 1969. 

“I’m just an old art teacher,” he would later tell the Orlando Sentinel. And perhaps he would have preferred just to paint, ensconced in his Park Avenue “scriptorium” (an apartment studio above the Winter Park Land Company) turning out haunting, impressionistic images dominated by blues, greens and blacks — some containing the sort of supernatural elements, such as ghosts and angels, often found in folk art. 

McKean, however, would not be the only departure from Rollins in 1969. In February of that year, Dean of the College Donald W. Hill sent a brief memo to the president: “Mr. Sauté, age 65, may be retired, if desired.” 

Obviously, McKean desired precisely that. In March, he notified Sauté by letter that it was his “unpleasant assignment … to tell you that the board of trustees have agreed, in view of the fact that you are 65 years of age, not to reappoint you to the position of director of the Central Florida School for Continuing Studies (previously known as the School of General Studies.)” 

Sauté was thanked for his years of service and offered an opportunity to teach — likely at an adjunct’s stipend — if he wished. The mathematician, however, resisted. He was healthy and, in his estimation, had done a good job given the limited resources at his disposal. 

True, enrollment in his program had dropped from a peak of 1,155 in 1966 to 828 in 1969, but Sauté had planned to introduce new courses for law enforcement officers as well as programs for public servants in recreation, finance and fire safety. 

Further, the School of Creative Arts, which Sauté allowed Marwick to run as she saw fit, had launched a successful Summer Day Camp two years prior — more than 1,000 youngsters attended its programs — and it had continued to foster goodwill in the community. 

But McKean would not back down — he had, in fact, already extended an offer to someone else — and Sauté’s plea to incoming President Jack B. Critchfield, the 36-year-old chancellor of student affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, was politely rebuffed. 

“In attempting to learn as much as I can about your retirement, it appears that the executive committee of the board of trustees, along with President McKean, decided that this action was necessary and that it should be a firm decision,” wrote Critchfield to Sauté. However, the incoming president continued, he hoped that he could count on Sauté’s wisdom and guidance in the coming months. 

In academia, it seems, pink slips are often accompanied by plaudits.
Sauté was dismissed with decorum at the May 1969 commencement. McKean read a citation, which surely sounded more like a eulogy to the honoree: 

“George Sauté, dedicated professor, concerned citizen, leader in common ventures; as one who has helped lift our vision of world peace, given new directions and dimensions to the education of adults, and helped so many to carry on past their discouragements and even their small hopes; for what you have done and the tradition in which you stand, it is my privilege to bestow upon you as a faithful servant of Rollins, the Rollins Decoration of Honor.” 

And so ended a 26-year career at the college. Sauté pioneered the program that would become the Hamilton Holt School, yet his name is little remembered today. His legacy, however, can be seen most nights on campus when classrooms fill with men and women of all ages and backgrounds — many of whom have already spent the day working or caring for children.

Although he was also named professor emeritus, there is no record that George Sauté, dedicated professor, concerned citizen and faithful servant, ever again taught at Rollins.

The School of Creative Arts continued for a while. But it was absorbed in 1982 by the Division of Non-Credit Courses, which was a subsidiary of what had by then been renamed (again) and was known as the School of Continuing Education. After several other iterations, it became today’s Hamilton Holt School in 1987. 

A last vestige of the School of Creative Arts, the Summer Day Camp, remained until the plug was pulled in 2015. In an email to the families of campers, Rollins Assistant Vice President Patricia Schoknecht wrote that the program was being canceled “after careful consideration and assessment of resources.”

Ironically, the program was more popular than ever, even with three- and four-week sessions costing $825 to $1,100. “We’re a huge fan of it, and we’re sad to see it go away,” said parent Sally Castro in an Orlando Sentinel story about the closure. “It was unique.” Added parent Susan Godorov, who went to the camp as a child and also sent her daughter: “I feel like a gem in the community has been lost.”

Perhaps the children’s programs were a vestige of an earlier, simpler time. But for many Winter Parkers of a certain age — and for many of their children — the after-school hours spent laughing and learning on a college campus made a profound impact. Even if it sometimes felt like anarchy on Ollie Avenue. 

GIVE HIM A BREAK

Dr. Dean Cole’s greatest fear in life seems to be wasting any of it. An orthopedic surgeon who specializes in difficult cases, Cole says he’ll be a surgeon “until I die.” Photo by Rafael Tongol

The patient was not wearing a seatbelt when the crash occurred. His femur was in pieces. So was his pelvis. So was his forearm.  

Doctors and nurses rushed about the Orlando Regional Medical Center emergency room, issuing orders, wheeling in equipment, assessing damage, setting up X-rays. 

I was in the background with my reporter’s notebook, on assignment for Florida magazine, which was delivered with the Sunday edition of the Orlando Sentinel. The subjects of the story were two orthopedic residents. I was with them day and night, going to doctors’ meetings, going on rounds, observing surgeries ranging from hip replacements to shoulder repairs to knee arthroscopes.

This was my first look at the controlled chaos of trauma.  

The bedlam of the emergency room soon gave way to the calm and quiet of the operating room. The patient was buried under coverings, only the wounded areas left exposed for scalpel access. 

The doc in charge didn’t seem much older than the residents. He was so engaged he didn’t notice me. There wasn’t any of the music or banter I heard in other operating rooms.

A screen was next to the patient. It displayed X-ray images of his broken femur. The surgeon referred to it constantly as he inserted instruments into and out of a small incision. He was lining the bones up for the hardware that would hold them in place.

I recalled when my brother badly broke his femur in a motorcycle accident in the 1970s. The scar extended from his hip to his knee.

This surgeon was, in essence, building a ship in a bottle. He worked all night and into the morning. His name was Dean Cole, a hotshot trauma specialist the likes of which the hospital had never seen. He arrived only a few months earlier from Houston, where he worked at one of the busiest trauma centers in the nation.

And I thought to myself, “If I ever break a bone, I’m going to that guy.”

About 25 years later, I was lying prone on the Cross Seminole Trail, my bike on one side and my friend calling the ambulance on the other.

We were coming down an overpass, when I let off the brakes and picked up speed, oblivious to the sharp left turn ahead. An earlier drizzle left the trail slick, and the tires lost their grip. My bike reared like a horse coming across a rattlesnake and I got tossed. 

My left hip absorbed the blow.

I never had a serious crash in all my years of bike racing. It was only when I quit for the sake of safety that the ER trips began. This would be my second. The first was four years prior and involved a somersault over the handlebars that broke six ribs, a collar bone, punctured a lung and dislocated my shoulder.

As before, Seminole County firefighters came to the rescue. 

“Got a doctor?” one of them asked.

The name popped into my head. 

“Dean Cole,” I said.

Cole (left) is a boneyard legend and often the surgeon of last resort for patients with extremely severe injuries. Assisting Cole in this procedure is surgical scrub technician, Brian Barrera.

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The X-ray confirmed my hip was broken. Florida Hospital Altamonte shipped me off to Florida Hospital South, where I expected Cole would be operating on me the next morning.

Between now and the time I first saw him in 1989, Cole had become a boneyard legend. He was the surgeon for patients with bones so shattered that other doctors could not repair them. 

There were construction workers who had fallen from on high. The endless car and motorcycle crashes. The tugboat worker whose leg was torn apart in an accident and badly infected by the oily water. Cole saved the leg from amputation.

His phone never stopped ringing. Cole worked nonstop, often seven days a week, for up to 15 hours a day. As one of only about 10 orthopedic trauma surgeons in Florida, he saw roughly 1,000 patients a year and was labeled by the Orlando Business Journal as “a physician of last resort for patients throughout the state.”

It was no small matter, then, when Cole affiliated with Florida Hospital (now AdventHealth) in 2004. The hospital created a Fracture Care Center for him to run. He got access to a cadaver lab for his research. He was given guaranteed beds for his patients. He got high-tech equipment in the operating room. Cole brought his entire team with him, a group of highly trained assistants, nurses, and technicians that in size would rival the entourage of an NBA all-star.  

I was brought down to pre-op at 5 a.m. for the hip repair. I assumed Cole would be the surgeon, then found out otherwise. And so I refused to go in the operating room. 

“He has a full schedule,” a nurse told me.

“I’ll wait,” I replied.

The hospital staff tried several more times, but I wouldn’t budge.

After about 12 hours, a masked face appeared through the curtain. I recognized it from long ago.

“OK,’’ he said. “I’ll fit you in.”

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Cole pretty much had life figured out early on. He met his future wife, Debbie, in sixth grade. He knew at age 12 that he was going to be a doctor and started studying anatomy in the encyclopedia.

He was a beach kid raised in Mims, in Brevard County, while his dad worked as an engineer at the Kennedy Space Center. He spent his time on the water — surfing, fishing, swimming and even driving a shrimp trawler because he was the best at triangulating positions.

He worked in a boatyard where the owner advised him to forget this doctor stuff and be an electrician. Cole passed the electrician’s exam while in high school, but the goal of being a surgeon had not changed.

“Things became easy at that point because I knew the end point,” he says. “All I had to do was follow the path.”

He attended Titusville and Astronaut high schools, played halfback on their football teams, and opted for Rollins College when offered a scholarship and job as a campus electrician. 

“Rollins isn’t known for pre-med,” he says. “But everyone who made it through their program got into medical school. After going there, it made medical school pretty easy. Rollins prepared you how to study. You could tackle problems. There were small classes. The professors knew you and pushed you on what you could handle.

“I looked at it as work and took it seriously.”

The University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine medical school accepted him into an early admission program after one interview. 

While training to be an orthopedic surgeon at USF, Cole was not happy with the surgical tools. And so he tapped into his background as an electrician and began developing his own. His first patent was for an offset drill that could produce more accurate holes in bones. There would be many more to come.

From USF, Cole went to the University of Texas and a traumatology fellowship at the Red Duke Trauma Institute in Houston — one of the busiest in the nation. For five years he worked in the operating room, seeing and doing everything under the best tutelage possible. He became an assistant professor in the Division of Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Texas Medical School.  

He returned to Central Florida in 1989, returned to the water and warmth of his childhood.

“I decided I couldn’t live north of Orlando,” he says.

Cole (above left, with the author) decompresses from constant 15-hour days by retreating to the Dominican Republic for kiteboarding (below) — a dangerous sport from which he has emerged unscathed. “I don’t get tired,” he once said. Photo by Rafael Tongol (Cole and Author)

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Two weeks after my hip surgery, I paid my first visit to Cole’s office. The waiting room looked like Lourdes. Those seeking cures hobbled in on crutches and in wheelchairs, some with mending bones, others with new knees, hips, ankles and shoulders.

Cole, now medical director of the AdventHealth Orlando Orthopedic Institute, had greatly expanded his repertoire from fractures. 

After a long wait, I was summoned for X-rays and vital signs. And then Cole appeared in my room. “Hello, Michael.” 

He was loose and relaxed — a white doctor’s coat but no tie. His hair was undisciplined. He was lanky and agile, obviously fit and still athletic. He could have slid off a surfboard an hour ago. He sat in front of me — no desk between us — and looked at me intently while talking as if to ensure I didn’t miss a thing.

He said it was a little tricky getting the bones lined up right, as if to validate my intransigence in pre-op. 

I pulled out a piece of paper with questions. He smiled at that and answered each one. He was used to explaining things. Then he mentioned something that grabbed my attention — the bone had not started healing yet — not unheard of at two weeks, but still not great.

The bone had not made any progress in subsequent visits. This is called a “nonunion.” Cole’s concern was that the hardware he installed was designed to hold things together temporarily until the healed bones took over the load. I was approaching the design capacity and, at some point, the hardware could fail.

In which case I would likely face more surgery, beefier hardware and some other intervention to stimulate healing. Near panic, I spent days researching nonunions before coming across a drug called Forteo. Designed to strengthen bones of women with osteoporosis, some research showed it could promote fracture healing when used off-label.

I asked Cole about it over the phone, expecting rejection. Instead, I heard, “Hmm, that’s interesting. Do you know about the cancer risk?”

I did and it was acceptable. Cole’s office got me the Forteo, which is injected daily like insulin. I knew the bone hadn’t been healing because of the sharp pain that came from standing on the bad leg. Over the next couple of months, that pain diminished.

An X-ray taken on a visit a couple months later confirmed what I already knew. The bone was healing.

But that was not the last I would see of Cole.

–––––––

My right knee was no longer functioning. Back in 1982, I had intercepted a pass in a sandlot football game, pivoted to reverse direction and collapsed screaming. My anterior cruciate ligament popped.

Back then, to fix such things, surgeons carved through your knee like a Thanksgiving turkey. And then they immobilized the leg for six weeks in a cast, allowing the surgical adhesions to set in like stone. 

I couldn’t get my range of motion back. Two different surgeons gave me two different solutions, both involving more cutting. I stopped going to doctors and started running. At first, I hobbled like Quasimodo off to ring the bells. Eventually I wound up in the Boston Marathon trying to break three hours. 

After almost 30 years of racing on foot, racing on bikes and backpacking in the mountains, the knee had lived its life. It had become a source of pain and limitation and, as much as the idea terrified me, it had to go. I considered other surgeons — ones who specialized primarily in knee replacements. But I had also kept in touch with Cole, usually through texting, asking him questions about quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s hip injury or golfer Tiger Woods’ shattered tibia.

I appreciated his obsession with perfection, his acknowledgment of what he didn’t know and his practically nonexistent infection rate. It turned out that he was also fascinated with knees, the way they moved in so many directions, their complexity compared with the hip.

“Knees are cerebral,’’ he told me when describing a hip versus knee replacement. “Hips are all shoulders and back.”

Cole regularly performed knee replacements on cadavers to test out techniques and implants. All of this was impressive, but what really stuck in my mind was the Forteo. He had listened to me. He had given me a voice in my treatment. He had let me try it.

And so, having replaced my hip years before, he replaced my knee last September.

I now am biking up the Clermont hills on 50-mile rides with no pain. I recently hiked the Black Bear Wilderness Trail at a record clip. I paddle board, kayak, fish, lug stuff around — all like I used to do.

But I would not kiteboard.

–––––––

I am at the Orlando Executive Airport, about to get on Cole’s private jet, headed for the Dominican Republic. There’s not a whole lot there except for strong afternoon winds and an offshore reef — the combination of which make it a top kiteboarding destination.

With us is Kevin Healy, a Vero Beach chiropractor who was run over by a Mercedes while riding his bike several months ago. The accident split and fractured his pelvis, tore his muscles apart and damaged the nerves. His innards were a disaster. Cole put him back together. The X-rays practically constitute art. Unfortunately, you can’t fix nerves with hardware and there are lingering issues. But Kevin does pretty well.

The fourth person in our group is the pilot, who once suffered a major tibia fracture in a kiteboarding mishap. Cole fixed him, too. If you play hard, he’s a good friend to have.

Cole’s wife, Debbie, is quite accomplished at water sports but didn’t come along this trip. She runs the office, located on North Orange Avenue. She is very tolerant of his absences.

Arriving at the Dominican airport, we are whisked to a yacht. Cole owns that as well, courtesy of all his inventions and patents — about 25 to date. He doesn’t have to do surgery. He operates because he loves it. His private practice does little more than break even because he is the sole doctor and income-generator.

The jet and yacht are more about time management than luxury and wealth. Cole gets out of surgery after midnight on a Thursday. He is on the plane a few hours later at 6 a.m. The flight takes a little over two hours. The boat ride takes a couple of hours more. The small crew anchors off a beach, lowers the dinghy, loads the gear, and off they go. The entire crew kiteboards. 

Cole is a fun boss, a different breed than the usual yacht owner. Nobody calls him Dr. Cole. It’s Dean.

The winds are gusting to more than 30 miles per hour. Portions of the reef stick menacingly out of the water, other corals are dangerously submerged just below the surface. I want no part of getting dragged across sharp coral connected to a runaway kite. 

And so, I hike the beach, watching the kiteboarders dart about at warp speed, changing directions, going airborne, performing maneuvers. At age 65, Cole is last to come in.

“He is not human,” says Melanie, one of the crew. “That’s why we love him.”

Cole is a gunslinger at both work and play. The play is a necessary decompression that allows the work to continue. He still puts in 15 hours days in surgery. “I don’t get tired,” he once told me. Now I believe it.

He still is inventing new tools and medical devices. His greatest fear in life seems to be wasting any of it. 

I ask him if he ever reflects on the thousands of lives he has impacted.

“No, not really,” he says. “I just move forward.”

I ask him how much longer he is going to do surgery.

He considers the question a second.

“Until I die.” 


Mike Thomas, a member of the Maitland City Council, is a former award-winning reporter and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. He now is an occasional consultant and freelance writer, but spends most of his time cycling, paddle boarding, fishing and being a cross country and track dad at Winter Park High School. He can be reached at mikethomas2420@gmail.com.

Toledo - Tapas, Steak & Seafood at Disney’s Coronado Springs. (Courtesy VIAVAL/Alamy Stock Photo.)

A CHEF’S BEST PAL

Pam Brandon, the Doyenne of Disney Dining, has created 22 cookbooks in conjunction with the theme park’s restaurants, including the soon-to-be-published Delicious Disney: Walt Disney World Recipes & Stories from the Most Magical Place on Earth.

If you’re an advocate of alliteration, you might be tempted to label Pam Brandon as the Doyenne of Disney Dining. After all, the Winter Park resident, who began her career as a journalist, has created 22 cookbooks in conjunction with the theme park’s restaurants, including the soon-to-be-published Delicious Disney: Walt Disney World Recipes & Stories from the Most Magical Place on Earth.

The lavishly illustrated tome, which celebrates Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary, was written in collaboration with Marcy Carriker Smothers, a California-based author and media personality whose 2017 book Eat Like Walt: The Wonderful World of Disney Food was dubbed a “must have for any Disney fan” by the Huffington Post.

The same is already being said about Delicious Disney, which includes more than 60 popular recipes from Disney restaurants past and present as well as delicious origin stories behind some well-loved menu items, from the kitschy (the peanut butter and jelly milkshake) to the classy (smoked buffalo with melted fennel and leeks with hearts of palm salad). 

For example, Walt Disney loved fried chicken, which his wife, Lillian, discouraged for health reasons. But when Walt visited Central Florida to announce his vision for the vast acreage that his representatives had clandestinely assembled, Lillian wasn’t around to object to his diet. 

So the boss, whose usual comfort-food indulgence was hamburgers, specifically ordered that fried chicken lunches be delivered to the old Irlo Bronson house, located on the present-day site of the Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, where the entourage of Californians had set up headquarters from which to explore the lake-dotted property.

Walt died eight years before he could have sampled the Hoop-Dee-Doo Fried Chicken, from the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue at Fort Wilderness. But, if you don’t have a spouse who forbids fried foods, you can make it at home by following the recipe reproduced in the book.

The Handwich, also known as “the one-hand sandwich,” has an interesting backstory. It resulted from a challenge by Michael Eisner, then Disney’s chairman and CEO, to create “fun food” and was conceived not by chefs, but Imagineers. The Food & Beverage department got involved to ensure that whatever the research-and-development whizzes imagined could be practically replicated.

The resulting collaboration was a cone-shaped loaf of bread, hollowed out and filled with mix-and-match possibilities such as ham and cheese, steak and cheese, shrimp salad, Italian sausage, barbecued chicken and the bestseller — a combination of salami, cheese and red onions topped by a vinaigrette. 

Handwiches, launched in 1987 and originally sold primarily at Tomorrowland’s Lunching Station, are now ubiquitous. And they offer the added advantage, for hungry tourists, of easy portability. New iterations are still being introduced, although Brandon and Smothers suggest that you considering stuffing your version with Walt’s chili topped with shredded cheddar and crushed saltines.

You get the idea. Delicious Disney, released last October by Disney Editions, is a cookbook and a pop culture history rolled into one oversized 304-page package. Which explains why it’s selling out at theme park retail stores and, through pre-orders alone, is rocketing up the bestseller list among cookbooks available on Amazon.

WONDERFULLY SERENDIPITOUS

Brandon, who wanted to be a teacher, never imagined a career for herself as a culinary celebrity. But she describes the journey as “wonderfully serendipitous,” with her career choices leading unexpectedly to new and even more exciting opportunities.

A native of Parkersburg, West Virginia, the down-to-earth Brandon is no diva despite her rarified stature among legions of Disney aficionados. “Eleven years after I met her, I’m still in awe of Pam’s ability to create community and her boundless but clear-eyed positivity,” says Kendra Lott, publisher of Edible Orlando magazine, which Brandon edits with her daughter, Katie Farmand. “She’s for real, and the scores of people who call her a friend are beyond lucky to do so.”

The only diva-like thing about Brandon is her friendly (but final and firm) refusal to divulge her age. Sure, readers can do the math based on the dates of milestones in her life — for example, she graduated from Marshall University in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and Spanish — but friends say she seems eternally in her 30s.

After graduation, Brandon (then Pam Florence) worked five years on the copy desk at the Charleston Gazette, which she describes as “an old-school newsroom” where reporters hammered out stories on manual typewriters and Brandon made sense of it using scissors, rubber cement, blue pencils and correction fluid. “I just edited,” she says. “At the time, I didn’t want to write.”

She got married (becoming Pam Parks), and after five years with the Gazette left her job — and her pursuit of a master’s degree in journalism — so that she and her “starter husband” could travel across the country in a station wagon, visiting mostly national parks and camping at days end. “I’d never been in a tent in my life,” says Brandon, “but it was an amazing experience.” The couple ended up in Florida, with $32 between them, because Brandon had a favored aunt who lived in Kissimmee.

Her Kerouac period sputtering to an end, Brandon needed a job and found one at Orlando Magazine. She took a story she had written about her year on the road to the legendary Ed Prizer, then publisher, and was hired in 1980 as a typesetter. Soon thereafter, she was promoted to news editor and, as fate would have it, began writing a tourism column that covered Disney and other attractions.

A MEMORABLE MENTOR

“Working for Ed was as good as it got, I thought,” recalls Brandon. “He was an old A.P. (Associated Press) guy. He and his wife, Artice, became like second parents to me. When I went through a divorce, I became a single mother with a young daughter. And Ed and Artice came to my house to reassure me that I always had a place at the magazine.”

Brandon would not be the only young journalist to be unofficially adopted by the Prizers, who were childless and considered the dozen or so staffers at Orlando Magazine (then Orlando-Land Magazine) to be extended family. 

Ed, a gregarious raconteur who gnawed on an ever-present pipe, was a Damon Runyonesque character who had been a Spitfire pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. He reveled in relating sometimes bawdy (and sometimes lengthy) anecdotes about his days as a swashbuckler while the long-suffering Artice quietly, but affectionately, rolled her eyes in mock frustration.

Although the stories often seemed over the top, they were also undoubtedly true. In fact, Ed is believed by historians to have been one of two Spitfire pilots who, in July 1944, strafed a car carrying Erwin Rommel, commander of German forces in Normandy. Rommel, who would take his own life three months later, suffered serious head injuries when he was thrown from the vehicle. 

The incident was significant because it removed one of Germany’s most capable senior commanders from the field at a critical moment, which may have helped the Allies break through the Axis defenses. But, in a 1987 Orlando Sentinel profile, Ed preferred to reminisce about enjoying “the drinking spots and flesh pots of Canada and Europe.”

After the war, Ed attended the University of Southern California, where he earned a degree in journalism and served as editor of the Daily Trojan. He then joined the AP as a reporter in Detroit, eventually rising through the ranks to become assistant general supervisor at the news service’s headquarters in New York. He lasted there for three years before deciding that hard news didn’t fit his disposition.

“I decided that’s as far as I wanted to go,” Ed told the Orlando Sentinel in a 1987 profile. “I would look around the newsroom at the AP and see outdated bureau chiefs and Pulitzer Prize winners with cigarettes in their mouths sitting at Royal typewriters. They had a cynical attitude toward everything in the world. I would say, ‘Is this what newspapering does to people?’”

Ed and Artice, seeking a sunnier outlook (both literally and figuratively), bought the Orlando-Winter Park Attraction, a digest-sized tourist guide, in 1961. They struggled through the 1960s, initially running the business from the kitchen of their Maitland home. 

But recognizing that the region would enjoy a decades-long boom as a result of Disney and the development that would come in its wake, Ed revamped the modest publication into a full-sized city-regional monthly that tied its success to the growth of what he called “a city of destiny in America.”

And thus was born Orlando-Land Magazine (the word “Land” was dropped from the title in 1981), which from the early 1970s until the mid-1990s — when it fell victim to changing times and a series of disastrous ownership changes following Ed’s retirement — was jammed with ads and considered among the most financially successful city-regional periodicals in the country. 

Orlando Magazine’s editorial pages were filled not with frothy lifestyle articles, as were those of its peers and competitors, but with reportorial (if sometimes boosterish) accounts of new residential and commercial real estate developments and profiles of prominent businesspeople. 

Ed, a skilled and meticulous writer, churned out numerous major stories about Disney and its impact on Orlando, sometimes traveling to headquarters in Anaheim, California, where he was granted unusual access for a reporter. He eventually came to be regarded by the company’s brass as an unofficial corporate historian thanks to his accurate, detailed (and unabashedly enthusiastic) coverage of the theme park’s plans.

MICKEY COMES CALLING

Disney executives trusted Orlando Magazine to get it right. But Ed wasn’t the only writer toiling away on Clay Avenue (and later Gene Street) whom they appreciated. In 1987, just as Disney-MGM Studios was opening, Brandon was visited by Charlie Ridgway, director of press and publicity, and Bob Mervine, public relations manager, who took her to a casual lunch. 

She was, to her surprise, offered a job as senior publicist for the company whose activities she had chronicled for the past seven years. “I didn’t even know what a publicist did,” Brandon recalls. “I had a newsroom background. And then there were Ed and Artice, who had been so good to me. I cried for days trying to make up my mind. When I told Ed, he said, ‘You should take this job. It’s a great opportunity.’”

And so it proved to be. Brandon started out producing a newsletter for media members and later headed publicity for new Disney hotels such as the Dolphin, the Swan and the Yacht & Beach Club. Later she helped to roll out Disney’s Boardwalk and Celebration developments in part by arranging media roundtables with world-renowned architects and community planners such as Robert A.M. Stern and Jaquelin T. Robertson, who created the master plan for Celebration.

“I can’t overstate the importance of Ed Prizer to the biggest chapter of my career,” Brandon says. “I would never have been offered the job with Disney if he hadn’t pushed me to excel. He was such a pro who expected the best. It was a privilege and an honor to live up to his standards. He was a great firsthand teacher who showed me how to create professional relationships with integrity.” 

Those were indeed halcyon days at Disney, adds Brandon, who never got over the thrill of walking up the steps to her office overlooking Main Street USA and working in the same office as other young publicists who were there before her and later became iconic figures in the local public relations world.

Brandon’s predecessors included Carolyn Fennell, who has been a top community affairs executive with the Orlando Aviation Authority for 41 years and counting, and Suzanne McGovern, who had stints with a major travel and tourism-oriented advertising agency before becoming director of college relations at Rollins College and, for the past 18 years, vice president of communications for the Florida United Methodist Foundation.

But when the erstwhile editor married commercial real estate developer Steve Brandon in 1991 and had another child, Will, in 1992, she began to reevaluate her priorities. “I was giving up too much personal and family time,” she says. “I wanted to regain the right work-life balance.”

Brandon resigned her full-time position in 1995, but wasn’t on the sidelines for long. The following year, she became a contractor for the company’s Food & Beverage department as it went on a spree opening restaurants in conjunction with prominent chefs. 

She also worked on special projects unrelated to Disney’s Orlando operation, including Disney California Adventure Park (2001) and Disneyland’s 50th anniversary (2005). Then came the Aulani resort in Hawaii (2011) and Shanghai Disney (2015). 

Since 1996, Brandon, whom Carriker Smothers calls “the ultimate Florida food expert,” has written 22 cookbooks for Disney. But she also wrote The Unofficial Guide to Florida with Kids (2001), Culinary Confessions of the PTA Divas (2005) and co-authored two award-winning Florida cookbooks with her daughter and former Orlando Sentinel food writer Heather McPherson: Field to Feast: Recipes Celebrating Florida Farmers, Chefs and Artisans (2012) and Good Catch: Recipes & Stories Celebrating the Best of Florida’s Waters (2014). 

When Edible Orlando magazine was launched in 2010, Brandon and offspring Katie — demonstrating that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree — signed on as editors. “It’s one thing to promote Disney chefs, but it’s really special to promote local chefs and small farms,” Brandon says. “But most of all, it’s a continuing joy to work every day with my daughter.”

SHARING AND CARING

A resident of Winter Park’s historic Virginia Heights neighborhood, Brandon has also been an effective community volunteer. At the urging of Thaddeus Seymour, the late president emeritus of Rollins College, she served for a decade on the board of the Winter Park Public Library and started a “Bash for Books” fundraiser, winning the library’s Evaline Lamson Meritorious Service Award in 2006.

“Working with Pam on the library board was a highlight of my volunteer life,” says Ann Hicks Murrah, no slouch when it comes to volunteering. “She became not only a friend but a personal hero. She always made any task fun with her sense of humor. And she has a talent for inspiring others and recruiting people to help accomplish goals.”

Subsequently, Brandon chaired several iterations of the annual Peacock Ball for the Winter Park Historical Association (which operates the Winter Park History Museum) and lent her marketing savvy to the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park. 

For 19 years, the Brandons have hosted parties at their home where guests were asked to bring books for the Adult Literacy League. More than 4,000 volumes have been donated so far, she says. Brandon is also integral to the league’s “Reading Between the Wines” fundraiser, recruiting chefs and restaurants to participate.

Eight years ago, leveraging her Disney relationships, Brandon and Edible Orlando founded the annual “Field to Feast” dinner at Long & Scott Farms in Zellwood. The event, which raised money for Second Harvest Food Bank, wasn’t held last year due to COVID-19. But Brandon is hoping that it can be revived in some form this year.

In May of last year, Brandon again called upon her chef buddies to participate in a “Loyal to Local” dinner, sponsored by Edible Orlando and held at the Emeril Lagasse Foundation Kitchen House and Culinary Garden in College Park, which is home base for the Edible Education Experience (EEE). 

The program was started at Orlando Junior Academy, a private school for kindergartners through eighth graders, by instructor Brad Jones and chef Kevin Fonzo, then from K Restaurant. But it was able to become a separate nonprofit and build its own facility with a grant from Lagasse, who learned of it from Fonzo during a trip to Orlando to inspect his own restaurant at Universal CityWalk. (Emeril’s local outpost closed in 2018.)

 Participating chefs in “Loyal to Local” included James and Julie Petrakis from The Ravenous Pig, Fabrizio Schenardi from Four Seasons Resort, Lo Lalicon from Kadence, Wendy Lopez from Reyes Mescaleria and Fonzo, who’s now chef at La Tavola. Brandon also serves on the development board for EEE, which has a teaching kitchen and a culinary garden and offers programming for children and adults.

Although Delicious Disney could still be classified as hot off the press, Brandon is already looking forward to 2023, which will be the 100th anniversary of the Walt Disney Company. In fact, she has begun working on a centennial cookbook with Karen McClintock, global public relations manager for the company’s Food & Beverage department.

“My admiration for Pam runs deep,” says McClintock, who has worked with Brandon on 20-plus cookbooks. “Professionally, she’s the epitome of the perfect partner: dedicated, organized, and fun. Personally, she’s the epitome of a true friend: selfless and loyal.” 

Also, adds McClintock, punctuating each word for emphasis: “Best. Laugh. Ever.” 

GET YOUR COPY

Delicious Disney: Walt Disney World Recipes & Stories from the Most Magical Place on Earth will be available for purchase at most bookstores and through online booksellers beginning in April, which is its official release date. For now, you can pick up a copy at Walt Disney World’s retail shops or order  one through shopdisney.com. 


Editor’s Note: The following are recipes from Delicious Disney: Walt Disney World Recipes & Stories from the Most Magical Place on Earth. Each was personally selected by co-author Pam Brandon, who has added a brief comment about each just for readers of Winter Park Magazine.

Kusafiri Coffee Shop and Bakery at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park.

PLANT-BASED QUINOA SALAD

Kusafiri Coffee Shop and Bakery — Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park

Kusafiri is the word for “to journey” in Swahili, and plenty of guests make a beeline to the little bakery for the colossal cinnamon buns. But we make the trek for the simple curries and this healthful quinoa salad that makes a delicious quick meal.

SERVES 6

Ingredients

1 cup red quinoa
½ cup white quinoa
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup finely chopped dried apricots
½ cup finely chopped red onion
1 cup chopped cucumber
½ cup chopped mint
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Course salt and pepper, to taste

Directions

  1. Combine 3 cups of water and quinoa in medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, cover, and reduce heat to low. Cook for 15 minutes or until liquid is absorbed.
  2. Remove from heat and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
  3. Place cooled quinoa in a large mixing bowl. Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Season to taste.

PAM SAYS: Not all theme park food is hot dogs and burgers — the chefs look for ways to offer healthful, quick-service alternatives in the parks, like this salad that’s served at a walk-up window in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Woody’s Lunch Box in Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. (© Disney. © Babybel 2021. Used with permission. © Bel Brands USA.)

S’MORES FRENCH TOAST

Woody’s Lunch Box — Disney’s Hollywood Studios

BUZZ: “In just a few hours, you’ll be sitting around a campfire with Andy making delicious hot sch’moes.”
WOODY: “They’re called s’mores, Buzz.”
Sch’moes or s’mores, this breakfast from Woody’s Lunch Box will have your family asking for … some more!

MAKES  4 SANDWICHES

Ingredients

2 eggs
¾ cup whole milk
1 ¼ cups heavy cream, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups dark chocolate morsels
1 cup graham cracker crumbs (6 full-size sheets pulsed in blender)
8 (3/4-inch) slices brioche loaf
1 cup mini marshmallows

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400⁰ F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Beat eggs, milk, ¾ cup cream, and vanilla extract in a shallow medium-size bowl. Set aside.
  3. Melt chocolate in a small mixing bowl using double boiler method. Add remaining ½ cup cream to melted chocolate, whisking until smooth. Set aside.
  4. Place graham cracker crumbs in a shallow dish.
  5. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and lightly coat with cooking spray.
  6. In assembly-line fashion, dunk 2 brioche slices in egg and milk mixture, then coat both sides with graham cracker crumbs. Add to heated pan and brown on both sides, then transfer slices to prepared baking sheet.
  7. Spread 1 tablespoon of chocolate-cream mixture on each slice, then top with 2 tablespoons marshmallows. Bake for 3 to 4 minutes or until marshmallows begin to puff.
  8. Create a sandwich with the 2 slices. Repeat steps 6 to 8 for remaining 3 sandwiches. Serve warm.

PAM SAYS: Do calories count at Disney World? The kid in all of us loves a decadent sweet like this, served at Woody’s Lunch Box in Toy Story Land in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

CILANTRO COCONUT CURRY

Sanaa — Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas – Kidani Village

Sanaa serves East African cuisine infused with Indian flavors; this coconut curry is an excellent example of its unique offerings. The restaurant in Kidani Village is authentic in every way, from the spaces used in the cuisine to the savanna-like surroundings. Truly destination dining at the edge of the resort, it’s well worth the trip!

SERVES 4

Ingredients

Curry Sauce

2 cups cilantro, washed and dried, large stems removed
1 cup coconut milk
½ cup mint leaves, washed and dried
½ small jalapeno pepper, seeds removed
2 teaspoons peeled chopped ginger
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons coarse salt
Juice of 1 medium lemon

Vegetable Curry

1 pound of butternut squash, peeled, cut in 1-inch dice
2 cups cauliflower florets
1 small red onion, julienned
1 pound of cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup shelled edamame
Course salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
Rice, for serving

Directions

For Curry Sauce

  1. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and puree until smooth.
  2. Bring to a simmer in a saucepan over medium heat.

For Vegetable Curry

  1. Season vegetables with salt and pepper.
  2. Heat oil in large sauté pan over high heat. Add squash and cauliflower and sauté about 5 minutes. Add onion and sauté 2 to 3 minutes more.
  3. Stir in warm curry sauce, to taste. Serve over rice.

PAM SAYS: You find such diverse cuisine at Disney, and Sanaa at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is one of my favorite restaurants, serving East African cuisine infused with Indian flavors. This super-easy version of a curry has intense flavors from the cilantro, coconut milk, mint and ginger — you could use almost any vegetables in season for this recipe.

Jaleo by José Andrés at Disney Springs.

GAMBAS AL AJILLO
(Traditional Garlic Shrimp)

Jaleo by José Andrés — Disney Springs

With stellar architecture in a blaze of red and yellow that celebrates the Spanish flag, Jaleo by José Andrés showcases the cuisine of the noted chef’s homeland and his legacy of innovative dishes. Just make sure you have plenty of good, crusty bread for dunking in the sauce.

SERVES 4

Ingredients

¼ cup Spanish extra-virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
16 large shrimp, peeled, heads on or off (about 1 pound)
1 guindilla chili pepper, or your favorite dried chili pepper
2 tablespoons brandy
Juice of 2 lemons
Coarse salt, to taste
1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Directions

  1. Heat the olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and sauté until just beginning to brown, about 2 minutes.
  2. Add shrimp and chili pepper and cook for about 2 minutes. Turn the shrimp over and sauté another 2 minutes, until the shrimp is pink.
  3. Add brandy and lemon juice and cook for another minute. Season to taste with salt, sprinkle with parsley, and serve.

PAM SAYS: Some of the best restaurants at Disney World are at Disney Springs, where Jaleo by José Andrés is one of my favorites, serving innovative Spanish cuisine. If you make this dish, look for the freshest head-on Florida shrimp — and make sure you have some good crusty bread for dunking in the sauce.

SEASONAL OLD FASHIONED

Enchanted Rose Lounge — Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort 

It’s easy to become spellbound at Enchanted Rose Lounge, inspired by Beauty and the Beast (2017). The cranberry in the recipe isn’t just for the holidays. It represents the red of the enchanted rose that held the Beast’s life in the balance: “If he could learn to love another, and earn their love in return, by the time the last petal fell, the spell would be broken.” Look for the fairy-tale touches throughout the four rooms, including the chandelier evoking Belle’s ball gown.

SERVES 1

Ingredients

Cranberry Simple Syrup

¼ pound cranberries
1 pound brown sugar
¾ cup water

Seasonal Old Fashioned

5 cranberries
1 quarter slice of orange
3 dashes of orange bitters
¾ ounce of cranberry simple syrup (recipe on this page)
2 ounces of single-barrel bourbon
Ice, to liking
1 orange peel twist, for garnish
1 fresh rosemary sprig, for garnish

Directions

For Cranberry Simple Syrup
Makes about 1 pint

  1. Blend cranberries in blender.
  2. Combine cranberries, brown sugar, and water in medium saucepan and simmer for 20 minutes. Cool; strain syrup through fine-mesh strainer. Keeps for 1 to 2 weeks.

For Seasonal Old Fashioned

  1. Muddle cranberries, orange slice, orange bitters directly into rocks glass. Add fresh ice.
  2. Stir in Cranberry Simple Syrup and bourbon.
  3. Garnish with orange peel twist and rosemary sprig.

PAM SAYS: Just in time for the winter holidays, this cocktail is from Enchanted Rose Lounge, inspired by Beauty and the Beast at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort. (The cranberry also represents the red of the enchanted rose, the mystical flower that has become symbolic of the movie.)

Toledo - Tapas, Steak & Seafood at Disney’s Coronado Springs. (Courtesy VIAVAL/Alamy Stock Photo.)

CREMA CATALANA

Toledo – Tapas, Steak & Seafood — Disney’s Coronado Springs

Here’s a decadent dessert from Toledo – Tapas, Steak & Seafood! Similar to French crème brûlèe, but not as heavy or rich, Spanish crema catalana has a crisp caramelized topping and silky custard.

SERVES 6

Ingredients

Crema Catalana

1 small lemon
2 cups 2 percent milk
½ vanilla bean
1 cinnamon stick
¾ cup of sugar, divided
6 egg yolks
1/3 cup cornstarch

Topping

6 tablespoons sugar, divided
Fresh orange segments

Directions

For Crema Catalana

  1. Peel lemon. Place lemon in a medium saucepan with milk. Split vanilla bean in half and scrape seeds into milk. Add cinnamon stick and ½ cup of sugar.
  2. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until milk reaches a temperature of 200⁰F. Remove from heat and cover. Steep at room temperature for 2 hours.
  3. While milk is cooling, whisk together egg yolks, cornstarch, and remaining sugar in a large mixing bowl until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to use.
  4. Strain cooled milk mixture into a clean saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-low heat. Turn off heat.
  5. Slowly whisk ½ cup of hot milk mixture into egg yolk mixture to temper the eggs. Strain egg yolk mixture into milk mixture, whisking constantly. Turn heat to low and cook whisking constantly, for 5 minutes, until thick.
  6. Remove from heat and pour into 6 individual ramekins. Cool slightly, then cover the ramekins with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours.

To Serve

Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of sugar on top of each crema catalana. Use a kitchen torch and caramelize the sugar until brown and crusty. Serve immediately with orange segments.

PAM SAYS: Disney loves theming food to match the story and design of restaurants, and this silky sweet is on the menu at Toledo – Tapas, Steak & Seafood at Disney’s Coronado Springs’ new Gran Destino Tower. Grab a cocktail in the adjoining Dahlia Lounge, inspired by Spanish surrealism — Walt Disney and Salvador Dali collaborated on a short film called Destino, and the lounge has gorgeous artwork and references to the film.


The recipes and photos used on the preceding pages were selected from Delicious Disney: Walt Disney World Recipes & Stories from the Most Magical Place on Earth (Disney Editions, 2021), and are © 2021 Disney, except for the Gambas al Ajillo dish from Jaleo by José Andrés on page 60 and 61. Jaleo by José Andrés is owned and operated by THINKFOODGROUP, LLC. Its recipe is © 2021 THINKFOODGROUP, LLC and used with permission. Photo © 2021 by Aaron Van.

MEANT TO BE

A Beautiful Day for a Neighbor was originally planned to be a solo statue of Fred Rogers. But sculptor Paul Day made the case that Rogers ought to be shown surrounded by children. This image is of the full-sized clay model from which the bronze sculpture was cast. Photo courtesy of Paul Day Sculptures

Fred McFeely Rogers, known to the world as children’s television icon Mister Rogers, graduated from Rollins College in 1951. But throughout his life, he continued to visit the campus on his seasonal sojourns to Winter Park.

Now, the beloved one-time music composition major, who taught generations of youngsters about kindness and tolerance through his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, will have a permanent presence at the college, where he was inspired by a plaque that reads “Life is for Service.”

British sculptor Paul Day — whose works include The Meeting Place, a 30-foot-tall sculpture in London’s St. Pancras International, a major railway station — has created a bronze tribute to Rogers. 

The word “statue” seems too formal  and fails to convey the work’s complexity, while the word monument” seems too pretentious for such a gracious and unaffected honoree.

So let’s go with “sculpture,” which in this instance stands 7 feet tall and weighs more than 3,000 pounds. It depicts Rogers, seated, wearing his signature sweater and sneakers. On his hand is his best-known puppet, Daniel Striped Tiger, and he’s surrounded by seven entranced children — including one in a wheelchair. 

The pedestal is a bustling montage that depicts habituates of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, both people and puppets, including X the Owl, King Friday XIII and Lady Elaine Fairchilde. The familiar characters preen from balconies and peek from arched castle windows. Along the bottom, in script, are lyrics from “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” 

A Beautiful Day for a Neighbor, set to be on public view beginning October 29, will be placed on campus between the Annie Russell Theatre and Knowles Memorial Chapel. And the timing could hardly be better, since Rogers has undergone a posthumous renaissance in recent years. 

Perhaps that’s because the values for which he stood seem under daily assault, and his gentle and tolerant spirit seems sorely missed in a world plagued by rancor and division. Suffice it to say, we could all use a dose of Mister Rogers and his Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Plenty of people seem to share that opinion. In 2018, director Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a heart-tugging documentary about Rogers’ life, became the top-grossing biographical documentary ever produced to the tune of $ 22 million. (It’s also the 12th top-grossing documentary in any genre.)  

And a big-budget theatrical film, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, was released in late 2019 and starred Tom Hanks as Rogers. Director Marielle Heller’s biographical drama was based on a 1998 essay by Tom Junod (“Can You Say … Hero?”) published in Esquire. 

It’s a Beautiful Day grossed $68 million worldwide and earned an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for Hanks, whom The New York Times described as “the closest thing we have to Mister Rogers — an uncomplicated-seeming, scandal-free man with a long career who never had to issue a public statement that included the phrase ‘It was a different time.’” 

Of course, Rollins has saluted its most famous alumnus before, displaying his sweater and sneakers in the Olin Library’s archives, arranging self-guided tours of Rogers-related locations on campus and publicly celebrating the affiliation at every opportunity.

In 2019, faculty, alumni and students along with a cappella superstars Voctave staged a concert, Mister Rogers: The Musician, at Tiedtke Concert Hall — where a Don Sondag portrait of Rogers hangs in the lobby. 

The event, which underscored Rogers’ formidable musicianship, included familiar songs from his television show as well as selections from an opera he wrote while at Rollins entitled Josephine the Short-Neck Giraffe.

Day’s creation, though, will be a more enduring tribute to a man whose comforting presence and emphasis on essential human values has guided (and still guides) millions of people through personal challenges while easing the trauma of social upheaval and national tragedies.


FAST FACTS

Title: A Beautiful Day for a Neighbor

Sculptor: Paul Day

Weight: 3,000 lbs.

Height: 71⁄2 feet

Materials: The initial clay model was created using wood, steel, aluminum, wire, polyurethane and more than 6,000 pounds of clay. The finished sculpture is bronze with a stainless-steel armature for structural support.

Process: Research and development began in July 2019. It took 11 months and more than 4,000 hours to complete the clay model. A team of four people then spent two weeks making the molds needed to cast the final bronze sculpture at a foundry in the Czech Republic.

Commission Originated by: Allan E. Keen, Rollins College Trustee

Public Debut: October 29, 2021


Just Happenstance

Like much of what happens in Winter Park, the initiative began with Allan Keen, founder and owner of The Keewin Real Property Company and twice chairman of the college’s Board of Trustees (from 2006 to 2008 and 2016 to 2019). He also earned a bachelor’s degree in 1970 and an MBA from the college’s Crummer Graduate School of Business in 1971.

In May 2019, Keen and his wife, Linda, were enjoying a barge cruise along the Burgundy Canal near Dijon, France, with two other local couples, Ralph and Carol Hadley and Jeffrey and Caroline Blydenburgh. 

Not normally an aficionado of sculpture, Keen noticed some intriguing maquettes (scale models of larger originals) in the vessel’s gathering area. The wife of the barge captain pointed out that Paul Day, who happened to be a family friend, was the artist, and asked if they would like to visit Day’s studio near Dijon.

Well, of course they would! Although Day was away when the group came calling, his wife, Catherine, offered a tour and said that her husband would visit them the following afternoon. The British-born sculptor motorcycled to where the barge was docked, and the group enjoyed drinks and conversation. The subject of Fred Rogers never came up — at least not then.

Later, at St. Pancras International en route from the Channel Tunnel (better known as the Chunnel) that connects England and France, Keen took note of The Meeting Place. The statue of an amorous couple embracing was difficult to miss.

While at St. Pancras International, Allan Keen, founder and owner of The Keewin Real Property Company and a Rollins College trustee, saw two juxtaposed works of art that sparked the idea for a Mister Rogers sculpture on campus. One was Day’s The Meeting Place (above), while the other was an installation above the station’s Grand Terrace that reads “I Want My Time With You” (below). Keen, who recognized the neon script from several smaller works that had been on display at the college-owned Alfond Inn, did a quick internet search and found that the artist was the same: Tracey Emin. Voila! The genesis of A Beautiful Day for a Neighbor can be traced to that chance observation. Photos courtesy of Paul Day Sculptures

But so was an installation hanging from wires above the Grand Terrace and visible from most of the station’s first floor. The words “I Want My Time With You” appeared to have been scrawled in quasi-cursive writing by a blunt marker filled with hot-pink neon ink. Recalls Keen: “I thought it looked familiar.” 

As well it would to anyone who had ever been to The Alfond Inn, the college-owned boutique hotel that displays selections from the Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art. The collection was donated to the college by philanthropists Ted and Barbara Alfond, who met while they were students at Rollins and graduated together in 1968.

A quick internet search by Keen revealed that the creator of the neon art displayed at St. Pancras International was Tracey Emin, whose much smaller work using the words “Language Must Speak for Itself” had been displayed behind the hotel’s check-in desk. Then came Keen’s ah-ha moment.

“It sounds really happenstance,” says Keen when trying to explain how this knowledge came to have such (literally) monumental consequences. “Maybe happenstance isn’t the right word. Maybe it was just meant to be.”

Whatever the case, seeing Day’s work in proximity to work from an artist represented in a collection owned by Rollins led Keen to think of Mister Rogers, and how wonderful it would be if Day could create a sculpture of him that would be installed on the campus.

The Keens had only met Rogers once, in 1991 at an intimate dinner held by former Rollins President Rita Bornstein and her husband, Harland G. Bloland. They were particularly close to Rogers’ wife, Joanne, who served alongside Keen for 18 years as a college trustee.

“Fred was exactly as he seemed on TV,” recalls Keen, who adds that just days following the dinner, his two young daughters, Kristen and Kinsley, received handwritten notes from Mister Rogers. 

“Although he was funny and modest, there was an aura about him. You could see how he was able to connect so well with people of all ages.”

An Emotional Connection

Inspiration isn’t easy to logically justify. Ideas come to all of us, sometimes circuitously, and are usually discarded or forgotten. Keen, though, tends to view inspiration as admonition. If an idea truly fires his imagination, as the sculpture did, then he typically finds a way to make it happen.

Upon his return to Winter Park, Keen contacted Rollins President Grant Cornwell, who was enthusiastic, and gauged the interest of potential donors, who were intrigued. No one doubted that if Keen was driving the bus, then it was only a matter of time before Mister Rogers returned to the neighborhood.

“Mister Rogers and the values he represents are important to Rollins and important to me,” says Cornwell. “So I embraced the concept immediately. That said, I never envisioned the scale or storytelling power of the sculpture that Paul Day created — and I never foresaw what a significant installation this would be for Rollins and for the legacy of Mister Rogers.”

Neither did Day, who admits that he had no idea who Fred Rogers was. “I never say no to a commission,” he says from his studio. “But when Allan called, I thought he might be talking about a prominent businessperson or faculty member. Fred just isn’t well known in Europe.”

Google provided Day with everything he needed to know. “I had something of a Damascus Road moment,” he recalls. “I realized how significant Fred was to American national culture.”

Sculptors often create monuments to celebrated people, notes Day, but rarely do they feel an emotional connection to their subjects. “As I researched, I was captivated and extremely moved,” he says. “Fred was important in terms of morality, wisdom and a voice of sanity in an extremely troubled world.”

Day watched old episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and other footage, such as Rogers’ 1969 testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communication in which he rescued a $20 million grant to fund the creation of PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Keen only met Rogers once, at a private dinner party, but quickly realized that the guest of honor “was exactly as he seemed on TV.” The Winter Park developer was, however, a close friend of Rogers’ wife, Joanne, with whom he served as a college trustee for 18 years. Photo by Rafael Tongol

By the end of his six-minute statement, Rogers — who was not then well known — had melted the heart of the subcommittee’s gruff and initially dismissive chairman, Senator John O. Pastore of Rhode Island. “I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful,” said Pastore. “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

That testimony is cited today by many public relations practitioners as perhaps the most effective example of salesmanship ever recorded. But it was, in fact, just Fred being Fred. 

Day also viewed two other statues of Rogers. One, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania — Rogers’ hometown — showed him sitting on a park bench. The other, in Pittsburgh, showed him tying his sneakers. In both, he’s alone — a fact that Day found incongruous. 

“As I began to mull it over, I felt that Fred needed to be seen in context, doing what he did,” says Day. “He always said that everything he did was about celebrating the lives of children. So I thought that the key to creating a successful sculpture of Mister Rogers would be to have him be where he’d want to be — communicating with children.”

But the project was growing larger, more complex and more expensive. Early discussions had been about a life-sized solo figure with a price tag of about $250,000. Now, with the addition of children and a complex pedestal that showed other characters, the total cost of the project including installation had risen closer to $750,000.

Keen was undaunted: “I said I’d raise whatever we needed.” A contract was drawn between Day and Rollins so that Keen could fundraise on the college’s behalf. As he worked his way through his formidable Rolodex — or the modern electronic equivalent — checkbooks were readily opened.

“It really wasn’t that hard,” says Keen. “Nobody said no. I didn’t do any mass solicitation. It was all one-on-one.” 

Inspiration and Perspiration 

In September 2019, as Keen quietly marshaled the finances, Day visited Joanne Rogers at the Fred M. Rogers Center in Latrobe. “That was a critical moment,” says Day. “It was very important for me to get her personal insight and approval. I felt a great sense of responsibility about this.”

Day and Joanne ended up spending several hours together. “Talking to Joanne about Fred made it so personal and visceral in my heart,” says Day, who’s saddened that the warm and witty woman who so effectively carried forward her husband’s legacy passed away before the unveiling ceremony, at which she was to have been the guest of honor.

Later that month, Day made his first visit to Rollins to meet college officials, scout potential locations and talk to people who had personal connections with Rogers, such as John Sinclair, chair of the department of music, and Rogers’ nephew, Daniel Crozier Jr., professor of music, theory and composition. 

He also visited the college’s Hume House Child Development & Student Research Center and spoke with Sharon Carnahan, executive director. Although he didn’t use the children as models, he drew upon their energy as inspiration.

Back in his studio, Day got to work. Progress reports were delivered via Zoom and, after maquettes were approved, a full-sized clay sculpture undergirded by a wire and metal frame was built. 

Keen only met Rogers once, at a private dinner party, but quickly realized that the guest of honor “was exactly as he seemed on TV.” The Winter Park developer was, however, a close friend of Rogers’ wife, Joanne, with whom he served as a college trustee for 18 years. Photo courtesy of Paul Day Sculptures

Representatives from the foundry then made molds of plaster and silicone rubber. The molds were taken back to the Czech Republic and reproduced in wax, from which bronze castings were made and welded together. 

The entire process, from conception to delivery, took nearly a year — just as Day had promised and despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keen says that once the college realized how stunning A Beautiful Day for a Neighbor would be — and considered the sculpture’s likely drawing power — it was determined that the visible and accessible area between the Annie Russell Theatre and Knowles Memorial Chapel would provide an ideal location for Fred and his young friends.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I expect that this chance encounter [with Day] would evolve into an iconic work of art,” says Keen as the unveiling nears. 

“And nothing is more fitting for Rollins’s most famous alumnus than to have a permanent memorial to his life’s contributions. Paul’s work will be a great asset for the community. And the community had great friends in Fred and Joanne.”


A SPECIAL THANK YOU TO KENNETH MEISTER

This commemorative publication was made possible by a gift from Kenneth Meister, founder and senior managing director of Orlando-based KJM Capital. Previously, Meister served as president of AP Capital Holdings, a private investment firm, and has provided senior-level management consulting services to, among others, Raymond James Capital and H.I.G. Capital. He has served as a senior vice president in investment banking with Raymond James Financial and a corporate/securities attorney for Foley & Lardner, where both practices focused on public offerings and mergers and acquisitions for growth companies in the telecommunications and information technology sectors. Meister received both his BBA in Accounting and Finance in 1986 and his Juris Doctor in 1989 from the University of Wisconsin.

FINAL BOW FOR A TROUPER

Photo restoration by Will Setzer at Circle 7 Studio
Original photos courtesy of The Rollins College Department of Archives and Special Collections

As a stage performer, Fred Stone’s most notable star turn was that of the Scarecrow in the original live adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Playing the Tin Man was Stone’s longtime vaudeville sidekick David Montgomery.

Many were sorry to see the Fred Stone Theatre at Rollins College demolished in 2018. The creaky little red-brick building near the Harold & Ted Alfond Sports Center made its debut in 1926 as the First Baptist Church of Winter Park and was bought by the college in 1961 after the church outgrew the space.  

Of course, it’s always sad when an old building is bulldozed — even out of necessity — and doubly so when that building was named in someone’s honor. But as readers of Winter Park Magazine understand, there’s always a backstory — which we’ll get to shortly.

First you should know that by whatever name, the charming church-turned-theater with its boarded-over lancet windows — a place where both preachers and performers answered their kindred callings — had been deemed a safety hazard due in large part to structural damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017. 

Even prior to the storm, however, college officials had determined to replace the venerable venue as soon as possible with a facility more befitting an undergraduate theater and dance program that ranks among the best in the country.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to prepare for a premiere. Rollins President Grant H. Cornwell has announced a $3 million grant from the Florida Charities Foundation toward construction of a state-of-the-art performing arts complex — as yet unnamed — located near where the Fred Stone once stood on Chase Avenue.

The building’s size wasn’t finalized at press time, but the Winter Park Planning and Zoning Board had previously approved up to 11,655 square feet. That’s more than four times the size of the Fred Stone — known by college denizens as simply “the Fred,” which seated just 80 people for its often-edgy presentations. 

Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic — the impact of which has made fund-raising an even greater challenge — at first delayed the much-needed project. Ultimately, though, the college’s agile response to this once-in-a-century health crisis impressed Philip Tiedtke, a member of the board of trustees who heads his family’s foundation.

Tiedtke lauded the college’s ability to adapt to unprecedented challenges while remaining true to its liberal arts mission by reconfiguring indoor classrooms, creating outdoor meeting spaces and, in some cases, using a hybrid approach combining virtual and in-person learning.

The new performing arts facility at Rollins College will be located on the site formerly occupied by the Fred Stone Theatre, which was demolished in 2018. It will be roughly four times larger than the building it replaces — a charming but hurricane-damaged former Baptist church that was bought by the college in 1961 and relocated to the campus in 1965. It was retrofitted as a theater in 1973.

Such deft management ought to be rewarded, thought Tiedtke, whose giving is usually predicated on problem solving. As a longtime patron of the arts, he didn’t need much time to identify where a targeted donation could have the most immediate impact.

“After the Fred Stone was torn down, you had kids dancing on concrete floors,” he says. “This gift was needs-based and about the quality of education. I said, ‘We have to get these kids into a building, and we have to start it now.’”

The new venue, like the Fred Stone, will offer intimate, experimental productions, many of them student directed. It will also encompass a costume shop and a dance studio. The ornate Annie Russell Theatre, built in 1931 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will continue to host the college’s mainstage series.

“We’re so grateful to the Florida Charities Foundation and to Philip’s visionary leadership,” says Cornwell. “[The new theater] is critical to the educational excellence and rigor of one of our top-ranked academic programs. Generations of students will benefit from this investment.” 

The Tiedtkes have been generous friends to the college — and to the arts in general — for decades. Tiedtke Concert Hall, located within Keene Hall (which houses the college’s music department), is named for Philip’s father, the late John M. Tiedtke, who chaired the board of trustees for the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park for 54 years.

So the foundation’s gift was indeed good news, especially for performing arts students who routinely (and justifiably) complained about Fred Stone, the building. But what should we know about Fred Stone, the man? 

Film prospects for Stone seemed promising when he was cast as Katharine Hepburn’s sickly father, Virgil Adams, in RKO’s Alice Adams (1936). To everyone’s surprise and relief, the prickly Hepburn treated Stone with the respect due a show business veteran, and the two became fast friends.

FROM VAUDEVILLE TO BROADWAY

The Colorado-born Stone, though little-remembered today, began his career in the 1880s as an acrobat with traveling circuses. He graduated to vaudeville and minstrel shows (unfortunately, his act often involved blackface routines) and later snared starring roles in musical comedies and legitimate theater. In his waning years, he played character roles in motion pictures.

As a stage performer, Stone’s most notable star turn was that of the Scarecrow in the first production of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, where his comedic acting chops and acrobatic dancing style won rave reviews through more than 1,300 performances between 1903 and 1907 in touring companies and on Broadway. 

He married actress Allene Crater, who had a minor role in Wizard, and eventually the couple had three daughters, all of whom became performers and often shared the stage with their legendary father. The family lived comfortably in Forest Hills, New York, where Stone bought property northwest of his home and built two cottages, a stable, a riding track and a polo field

Stone, together with longtime performing partner David Montgomery, appeared in a series of successful revues throughout the early 1900s. Most were hits in New York first and then went on tour — demonstrating that Stone’s name meant boffo box office in the boondocks as well as on Broadway.

Concurrently, as Stone’s stage successes multiplied, he made a series of undistinguished silent films, none of which appear to have survived. In the early days of the cinema, it seemed, the triple-threat trouper was best appreciated in person. Critics were smitten with Stone’s energy, charisma and versatility — attributes that could elevate sometimes mediocre material. 

Vanity Fair’s P.G. Wodehouse declared that “Fred Stone is unique. In a profession where the man who can dance can’t sing and the man who can sing can’t act, he stands alone as one who can do everything.”

And he did, indeed, do everything in  stage productions of The Red Mill (1906), The Old Town (1910), The Lady of the Slipper (1912), Chin-Chin (1914), Jack O’Lantern (1917), Tip Top (1920), Stepping Stones (1923), Criss-Cross (1926), Three Cheers (1928), Ripples (1930), Smiling Faces (1931), Jayhawker (1934), Lightnin’ (1938) and a revival of You Can’t Take it With You (1943).

Three Cheers — which costarred daughter Dorothy — was notable because Stone had been sidelined for several months after his small airplane crashed, causing career-threatening injuries. Famed cowboy philosopher Will Rogers filled in for his close friend, who amazed doctors by fully recovering and dancing as energetically as ever upon his return to the stage.

In Ripples, Stone and Dorothy appeared together as Raggedy Andy and Raggedy Ann. This otherwise silly romp is worthy of mention because the music was by Jerome Kern, who would become one of the most important popular music and musical theater composers of the 20th century. His contributions to the Great American Songbook include “Ol’ Man River,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” 

Sinclair Lewis’ Jayhawker — which costarred youngest daughter Carol — marked Stone’s debut as a dramatic actor. He played the lead role, Ace Burnett, a U.S. Senator from Kansas who tries in vain to stop the Civil War. The show ran only three weeks on Broadway and generated tepid notices. Opined Variety: “[Stone] impresses rather pleasantly and it seems a shame to have wasted his talents thus.”

Lightnin’, a revival of a 1918 musical comedy about “Lightnin’” Bill Jones, a carousing lawyer whose wife runs a seedy hotel that straddles the border of California and Nevada, was described by Variety as “dated and a creaky mixture of crude melodrama.” But the same review praised Stone, describing him as “something of a theater tradition who brought enthusiastic and friendly applause.”

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You is familiar to modern audiences and remains widely performed. Stone starred as Martin “Grandpa” Vanderhof — played by Lionel Barrymore in the 1938 film adaptation — the curmudgeonly patriarch of a zany extended family. The revival played to packed houses and warm reviews. 

Stone would reprise the role twice — once at Rollins for a 1946 fundraiser and once four years later, near the end of his career, for the Las Palmas Theatre in Los Angeles.

Fred Stone returned to Rollins in 1939 and performed with students in Lightnin’ (above), a fundraiser for the Fred Stone Laboratory (later the Fred Stone Theatre). Flanking Stone are (left to right): Helen Bailey, Alice Elliot, Caroline Saudlin, Victoria Morgan, Deedee Hoenig and Virginia Kingsbury. Three years prior, Stone had filmed My American Wife (below), in which his performance as Ann Sothern’s grandfather prompted The New York Times to acknowledge that the veteran actor “had suffered plenty with his recent assignments but gets a much better chance here to show what he can do. When he is not present on screen, he is missed.”

QUITE A CHARACTER (ACTOR)

In his 60s and too old for acrobatic dancing, Stone bought a home in Hollywood and began to pursue opportunities for character roles in films. Prospects seemed promising when he was cast as Katharine Hepburn’s sickly father, Virgil Adams, in RKO’s Alice Adams (1936). To everyone’s surprise and relief, the prickly Hepburn treated Stone with the respect due a show business veteran, and the two became fast friends.

But the triumphant premiere for Alice Adams at Radio City Music Hall was overshadowed for Stone when he received word the following day that Will Rogers had been killed in a plane crash. At a private funeral in Hollywood Hills and a public memorial service held at the Hollywood Bowl, a grieving Stone sobbed openly and had to be physically supported by his wife and daughters as they walked to their seats.

Almost immediately, though, Stone was back at work in Paramount’s The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) — only the second feature film to be shot in Technicolor. It followed the travails of rustic Kentuckians battling railroad and mining interests. 

Adapted from a bestselling 1908 novel by John Fox Jr., The Trail of the Lonesome Pine starred Henry Fonda in one of his first film roles and was another financial and critical success. Stone believed that he had found a niche playing sympathetic rural characters and hoped to solidify his post-stage career in westerns — a genre for which he seemed well suited.

As a film actor, Stone was certainly busy in 1936, appearing in several bargain-basement RKO releases. But he quickly grew to dislike the studio, which was notorious for its skimpy budgets and hurried production schedules. 

That summer, Stone returned to Paramount to make My American Wife, where his performance as Ann Sothern’s grandfather prompted The New York Times to acknowledge that the old barnstormer “had suffered plenty with his recent assignments but gets a much better chance here to show what he can do. When he is not present on screen, he is missed.”

After making several forgettable B-movies for Warner Brothers, Stone finally got his western — and it was a mighty good one. In the Samuel Goldwyn Company’s The Westerner (1940), Stone received third billing behind Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan. 

The film, directed by William Wyler, earned an Oscar for Brennan, who played corrupt Judge Roy Bean, and Oscar nominations for Best Original Story and Best Art Direction. Stone, in what would be his final screen role, played a homesteader struggling against Bean and his cattle-ranching allies.

Stone’s Rollins connection was through his brother-in-law, novelist Rex Beach (above). Beach and Stone remained lifelong friends, except for a two-year period when they were estranged over a rift about boxing and bigotry. Beach had helped to promote a boxing match between champion Jack Johnson and former champion Jim Jeffries (below) in hopes that Jeffries, who was white, could win the title back from Johnson, who was African American. Stone knew the fight would be a bloodbath and was appalled at Beach’s racism.

VICTOR HUGO OF THE NORTH

Stone’s Rollins connection was through his brother-in-law, novelist Rex Beach, who was married to Allene’s older sister, Edith. The hard-living Beach, who attended the college from 1891 to 1896 but failed to graduate, was nonetheless regarded as an important alumnus. 

He had traveled to Alaska in 1900 during the gold rush but didn’t strike it rich — at least not from prospecting. He did, however, mine numerous colorful tales, and in 1906 wrote a bestselling novel, The Spoilers, based upon a true story of corrupt government officials seizing gold mines through fraudulent means.

The Spoilers — which was described by one critic as “throbbing with the blood-blindness of ferocity” — was adapted as a stage play and was filmed five times with versions starring Gary Cooper (1930), John Wayne (1943) and Jeff Chandler (1955).

The prolific Beach, sometimes called “the Victor Hugo of the North,” wrote countless short stories and several dozen adventure novels. All sold well early in the 20th century and several, in addition to The Spoilers, were adapted for the screen.

Literary sorts never cared for Beach, which neither bothered the writer nor impacted his bank account. One reviewer described his work in general as “big, hairy stories about big, hairy men” while others criticized his formulaic approach to storytelling. His readers, not surprisingly, tended to be young men who hung on his every word.

Beach and Stone shared a proclivity for macho thrill-seeking and took at least one trip together to Alaska for a bear hunt. They remained lifelong friends, except for a two-year period when they were estranged over a rift about boxing and bigotry.

Stone sometimes sparred with his friend and neighbor “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, a former World Heavyweight Champion who had become a vaudevillian following his retirement from the ring. 

Corbett told Stone that Beach and writer Jack London had helped facilitate an upcoming prize fight between champion Jack Johnson, an African American, and former champion Jim Jeffries, an overweight alcoholic who had not stepped into a boxing ring for five years.

Beach, like many white boxing aficionados of the era, was horrified that the cherished championship belt was held by a “dreaded negro” and believed that even a dissolute Jeffries could defeat the usurper and reclaim the title for its “rightful owners.” 

Stone — who feared that the fight would be a fiasco and was offended by the hateful rationale behind it — confronted his brother-in-law about what he had heard from Corbett. When Beach confirmed that he and London had indeed helped recruit Jeffries to face Johnson, and the reasons why they had done so, Stone was horrified. He vowed never again to speak to Beach.

Johnson handily won the match in 1910 and sisters Allene and Edith, after two frosty years, finally negotiated a reconciliation between their feuding husbands. 

From a modern perspective, it seems discordant that Stone, who performed in blackface and routinely exploited racial tropes, took such umbrage at Beach’s beliefs, which were, sadly, not uncommon at the time. But Stone surely knew and shared stages with the handful of African American entertainers who were popular enough to perform on the mainstream vaudeville circuit.

We know, for example, that Stone admired Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who caused a sensation with an intricate “stair dance” in which he tapped his way up and down a small staircase. Robinson tried to secure a patent on the choreography, but when that effort failed, other dancers — Stone included — learned the routine and performed it with impunity. Only Stone, however, sent Robinson a check — a quiet gesture of respect from one great hoofer to another. 

As for Beach, perhaps the thrashing that Johnson administered to Jeffries caused him to reconsider his position. More likely, though, Stone and Beach simply agreed to disagree for the sake of family harmony.

It was Beach, in fact, who lured Stone to Rollins in 1929. The actor, just a year removed from his potentially catastrophic and widely publicized airplane crash, had made a triumphant comeback and was on tour with daughter Dorothy in Three Cheers when he visited the campus.

There, to Stone’s great surprise, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature (Litt.D) by President Hamilton Holt, who had doggedly pursued Will Rogers for that year’s honor but settled for Rogers’ less famous but equally worthy friend — a circumstance surely unknown to the honoree. 

Beach took the pulpit at Knowles Memorial Chapel and described Stone as “probably the best-loved figure on the American stage, who has brought more mirth to the hearts of the theatergoing public than any man before the footlights. He makes them laugh, but the tear is not far behind the smile.”

Stone showed his appreciation to Rollins in 1939, when he returned for a week’s run as the director and star of Lightnin’ to raise funds for the Fred Stone Laboratory (later the Fred Stone Theatre). The project involved adding a stage to Comstock Cottage, a wood frame house at the corner of Fairbanks and Chase avenues that had previously been a dormitory for the Chi Omega sorority. 

Within the rambling structure, workshops, classes and performances were held for 34 years until it was deemed a fire hazard and demolished in 1973. Before the dust had settled, an erstwhile Baptist Church — by then known as Bingham Hall and used for faculty gatherings — was retrofitted as a theater and inherited Stone’s moniker and mission. 

(The versatile building — named for Mortimer Bingham, a charter member of the board of trustees — had been purchased by the college in 1961 but remained at the corner of Comstock and Interlachen avenues until in 1965, when it was moved on campus to Chase Avenue.)

Stone, who never attended college, was back at the place he affectionately referred to as “my alma mater” in 1946 to appear in and direct You Can’t Take It With You, in which he reprised his role as Martin “Grandpa” Vanderhof, and again in 1947 to appear in and direct Mark Twain by Harold M. Sherman, who had also written the screenplay for the tear-jerking 1944 Warner Brothers biopic The Adventures of Mark Twain. 

Both shows, held at the Annie Russell Theatre and co-starring members of the Rollins College Players, were fundraisers for the drama department. The Orlando Sentinel praised Stone’s performance in Mark Twain as “uncanny” and noted how much the actor looked like the irascible humorist when costumed in a white wig and walrus mustache.

Naturally, Holt persuaded Stone to appear at the Animated Magazine during his 1939, 1946 and 1947 sojourns to Winter Park. As most Winter Parkers know, the Animated Magazine was the brainchild of Holt and Professor of Books Edwin Osgood Grover, who annually assembled prominent speakers from the fields of literature, business, academia and politics for an event that drew thousands to the campus.

In 1929, Beach (above) persuaded Stone (above right) to visit Rollins, where the actor was awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature (Litt.D) by President Hamilton Holt. Within the Fred Stone Laboratory (below), as it was originally called, workshops, classes and performances were held for 34 years until the building was demolished in 1973. Before the dust had settled, an erstwhile Baptist Church (bottom) — by then known as Bingham Hall — was retrofitted as a theater and inherited the old trouper’s mission and moniker. The photograph shows the building as it was being moved to its Chase Avenue location in 1965.

TAKING THEIR FINAL BOWS

Stone’s last years were heartbreaking. He began to lose his vision to glaucoma, developed dementia and suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1955. When Allene died in 1957, his daughters opted not to tell him. Indeed, his condition had deteriorated to the point that he often ceased to recognize her anyway. Declared “the Grand Old Man of the theater” by The New York Times, Stone died at his Hollywood home in 1959 at age 85. The following year, his work in theater and film earned him a place on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

During Stone’s sad decline, one of his few visitors other than immediate family members was his cousin, a former song-and-dance man who had more recently achieved fame for his portrayal of “Doc” on the CBS western series Gunsmoke. In a fitting coincidence, Milburn Stone, accompanied by co-star Amanda Blake (“Miss Kitty”), visited Rollins just a month after Fred’s death. The duo lent star power to the local CBS affiliate’s cerebral palsy telethon and answered student questions at the Annie Russell Theatre.

Stone’s friend Beach also suffered in his final years. He and Edith had settled near the Highlands County city of Sebring on substantial acreage, where Beach eased his frenetic writing pace and turned his attention to experimental farming. 

But Edith died in 1947 and Beach was diagnosed with throat cancer shortly thereafter. He took his own life in 1949, at age 72, because pain from the disease had become so severe. Rollins accepted his ashes, along with his wife’s, and had them buried near the Alumni House on campus. Rex Beach Hall, a dormitory, was erected in his memory.

So, as broadcaster Paul Harvey once intoned, now you know the rest of the story. And you may be wondering if the new theater will carry Stone’s name. A spokesperson for the college said no decision had yet been made, but that Stone would be recognized in some way.

As well he should be, perhaps with a lobby display using items from the Betty M. Mitchell Collection of Fred Stone Theatrical Materials at the college’s department of archives and special collections. Mitchell was a neighbor of Charles Collins, husband of Carol Stone, and the collection was donated by her daughter, Joyce.

After all, while not a household name today, Fred Stone was, according to Beach, as stellar a human being as he was a performer.“To my way of thinking,” said Beach at the ceremony awarding his friend an honorary doctorate, “the biggest thing about Fred is not his genius as an entertainer and his hold upon the affections of the American public, nor is it the fact that, in spite of his enormous success, he made good with but few advantages; it is the fact that, in spite of his enormous success, he has remained a simple, unspoiled, honest and charitable man.” 

Von Weller with her children, Cade and Caitlin, at Ward Park.

THE INFLUENTIALS 2021

It’s time again to recognize Winter Park Magazine’s Most Influential People. The program, in its seventh year, recognizes those who — sometimes quietly — make a difference through their professions, their volunteerism, their philanthropy, their talents or their community engagement.

The selectees are presented in the summer issue and celebrated at a big event at the Alfond Inn, which was canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is tentatively scheduled for October 23, outdoors at the Alfond, and will celebrate the Classes of 2020 and 2021.

Here are the people who have already been Influentials. The Classes of 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, 2019 and 2020 included: Roy Alan and Heather Alexander, Richard O. “Rick” Baldwin, Jim Barnes, Dan Bellows, Justin Birmele, Anna Bond, Rita Bornstein, Jill Hamilton Buss, Jeffrey Blydenburgh, Daniel Butts, Michael Carolan, Sid Cash, Charles Clayton III, Billy Collins, Grant and Peg Cornwell, Linda Costa, Julian Chambliss, Patrick Chapin, Judy Charuhas, Carolyn Cooper, Chris Cortez, Deborah Crown, Jere F. Daniels Jr., Mary Daniels, Robynn Demar, Mary Demetree, Betsy Gardner Eckbert, Jeff Eisenbarth, Dykes Everett and Andrea Massey-Farrell.

Also: Carolyn Fennell, Bill Finfrock, Allen Finfrock, Meg Fitzgerald, Sue Foreman, Scot and Christine Madrid French, Shawn Garvey, Hal George, John Gill, Alan Ginsburg, Steve Goldman, Sarah Grafton, Elizabeth “Betsy” Gwinn, Ralph V. “Terry” Hadley III, Jane Hames, Larry Hames, Frank Hamner, Ena Heller, Debra Hendrickson, Catherine Hinman, Eric and Diane Holm, Herb Holm (deceased), Charlene Hotaling, and Jon and Betsy Hughes.

Also: Susan Johnson, Gary I. and Isis Jones, Phil Kean, Allan Keen, Linda Keen, Tom Klusman, Randy Knight, Debbie Komanski, Linda Kulmann, Cindy Bowman LaFronz, Jack C. Lane, Whitney Laney, Steve Leary, Fairolyn Livingston, Chevalier Lovett, John (deceased) and Rita Lowndes, Lawrence Lyman, Lambrine Macejewski, Paula Madsen, Jesse Martinez, Brandon McGlammery, Genean Hawkins McKinnon, Joanne McMahon, Micki Meyer, Johnny Miller, Anne Mooney, Ronnie Moore and Patty Maddox.

Also: Alex Martins, Marc Middleton, Kristine Miller, Elizabeth Tiedtke Mukherjee, Stephanie Murphy, Tony and Sonja Nicholson, David Odahowski, Betsy Rogers Owens, James and Julie Petrakis, Jim and Alexis Pugh, Jana Ricci, John Rife, John Rivers, Randall B. Robertson, Laurence J. “Larry” Ruggiero, Greg Seidel, Peter Schreyer, Polly Seymour, Thaddeus Seymour (deceased) and Shawn Shaffer.

Also: Jason Siegel, John and Gail Sinclair, Sarah Sprinkel, Susan Skolfield, Sam Stark, Chuck and Margery Pabst Steinmetz, Bronce Stephenson, Dori Stone, Matthew Swope, Paul Twyford, Bill Walker, Fr. Richard Walsh, Jennifer Wandersleben, Harold A. Ward III, Debbie Watson, Todd Weaver, Bill Weir, Chip Weston, Pete Weldon, Cynthia Wood and Becky Wilson.

On the following pages, please meet the Class of 2021 — which is every bit as deep and impressive as previous classes and, as always, includes some people you may not know as well as some longtime community icons. They come from all walks of life but share a love for Winter Park — and a desire to keep it as special as the founding visionaries intended.


Photography by Rafael Tongol

Adjaye at his “Sunken House” project in London. Photo by Ed Reese, courtesy of Adajaye Associates

“It’s not so much about big or small as it is about the chance to make a 21st-century community centerpiece that engages the beauty of the park, maximizes social interactive spaces and holds collaborative learning at its core.”

Sir David Adjaye

Principal and Founder, Adjaye Associates

THE ARTFUL ARCHITECT

Sir David Adjaye was born in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, and has homes and offices in London, New York and Ghana. But he is surely one of Winter Park’s Most Influential People because he designed, in collaboration with Orlando-based HuntonBrady Architects, arguably the most important civic project ever constructed in the city — the Winter Park Library & Events Center, which occupies a 23-acre site in Martin Luther King Jr. Park. Indeed, the Adjaye factor elevates the $41.2 million campus, which consists of two separate but synergistic buildings, to international significance among aficionados of architecture — stature that not many small-city libraries and events centers achieve. At 54, Adjaye is considered among the most acclaimed architects working today. His commissions include the Smithsonian Institution’s 665,000-square-foot National Museum of African American History and Culture, with three tiers of inverted half-pyramids wrapped in ornamental metal latticework. (In 2017, after the museum opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Adjaye was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.) Other striking Adjaye-designed structures include the 460,000-square-foot Moscow School of Management, with four elongated buildings precariously perched over its large circular base, and the 82,000-square-foot Studio Museum in Harlem, with huge niches on its glass-and-concrete façade to display works of sculpture. Although the Winter Park project is relatively small (35,000 square feet for the library, 18,000 square feet for the events center), Adjaye says he was excited by the opportunity. “I found it incredibly progressive how the city envisaged both the library and events center as a destination,” says Adjaye, winner of the 2021 Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal for his body of work. “They understood the potential for this new campus [to offer] lifelong learning, respite and recreation. I was struck by this shared vision to create a dynamic, multifaceted public enhancement on this beautiful lakeside site.” Still, if Adjaye follows local Facebook pages — which he likely does not — then he knows that a vocal minority of armchair architects in this tradition-laden city don’t care for his decidedly avant garde style. Works of art that are both great and convention-defying are often controversial at first but tend to endure over time. Frank Lloyd Wright’s cylindrical design for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, for example, was criticized in the late 1950s but is today considered an architectural masterpiece. Indeed, by hiring Adjaye Associates the city got a world-class design as well as the sizzle that comes from affiliating with a high-profile “celebritect.” Adjaye, it turns out, has an affinity for libraries and an interest in their evolution from “simply repositories for books to spaces for multigenerational social incubating.” His two public libraries in Washington, D.C., were described by the Washington Post as having “well-channeled exuberance, a playfulness that is never merely arbitrary … [they] deserve to be on any serious architectural tour of the District.” In London, Adjaye designed two Idea Stores, which are rebranded public libraries that encompass the attributes of civic centers and exude a hipper, more welcoming vibe. Winter Park’s own destination for social incubation is slated to open in early December of this year after delays caused by two citizen-initiated lawsuits — both of which were thrown out of court — and an unsuccessful effort by newly minted commissioners to “pause” work despite the city’s significant investment in design and site prep. Such contentiousness was perhaps inevitable. After all, the $30 million bond issue that made it all possible was approved in 2016 by barely more than 200 votes. Then costs increased when the city okayed a rooftop venue, a porte-cochere for the events center, a sloped auditorium for the library and an outdoor amphitheater near the lake. No, the project did not carelessly careen “over budget.” It could certainly have been built for $30 million. However, knowing full well that additional sources of revenue would be required, commissioners opted for enhancements. And for the most part, the tab has been covered. Orange County put up $6 million in Tourist Development Tax money after local leaders positioned the project as an attraction for visitors, and the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) committed another $1.2 million out of its coffers. The balance was to come from philanthropy, which was bolstered in May when Philip and Sigrid Tiedtke, through the Florida Charities Foundation, donated $750,000 to build the amphitheater — which will be named, appropriately, Tiedtke Amphitheater. In any case, commissioners who engaged this unconventional architect — and took a calculated risk on paying for upgrades to his spectacular design — have already seen their judgment vindicated. “Civic projects are very much at the heart of my practice,” says Adjaye. “It’s not so much about big or small as it is about the chance to make a 21st-century community centerpiece that engages the beauty of the park, maximizes social interactive spaces and holds collaborative learning at its core.” 

THE BOTTOM LINE: 

Adjaye may never again visit Winter Park after the ribbon is cut on the Library & Events Center. But his name will be prominent in local history books written decades from now as the architect who designed the city’s internationally acclaimed social and intellectual centerpiece.

Anderson on Park Avenue.

“We should do things through the lens of a plan instead of a lens of exceptions. Residents should feel like they’re being heard, and their feelings are what we’re acting on. They shouldn’t have to stay up until 3 a.m. worrying about what the commission might do.”

Phil Anderson

Mayor, City of Winter Park

THE VILLAGE’S VOICE

Mayor Phil Anderson’s campaign had his name plop-ped right in the center of his ubiquitous yellow-and-blue signs. That’s appropriate, Anderson says, “because I’m a centrist; I want to be a bridge that unites people.” In March, Anderson, 61, a civil engineer by training and now a semiretired developer of senior-living communities, defeated retired teacher and Florida Virtual School executive Sarah Sprinkel, a former three-term city commissioner who had been one of Winter Park’s most reliable vote-getters. The race was one of those 53-47 splits that have marked several recent campaigns for city office, reflecting not only the fact that two good candidates were in the race but also the degree of factionalism present in local politics. Anderson, a city commissioner from 2008 to 2011, particularly appealed to voters who were concerned that large-scale redevelopment, such as the original Orange Avenue Overlay plan, would damage the city’s legendary village charm. (The plan, with Sprinkel’s support, was initially adopted only to be rescinded shortly thereafter by a newly elected slate of commissioners.) Such issues, Anderson says, wouldn’t be so divisive if the city would do a better job communicating — more specifically, employing strong visuals to show residents what proposed new projects would look like. “Residents need more information that they can relate to,” he says. “We need to move away from the pro-development versus anti-development dialogue that we’re always having.” For one thing, says Anderson, that’s an oversimplification. He notes that his campaign knocked on 4,000 doors, and neither he nor his volunteers found many zealots who could be counted as entirely in one camp or the other. Anderson, at least, can relate to the hurdles developers face when trying to do business in Winter Park. In 2015, a subsidiary of Bridge Seniors Housing Fund Manager — a company co-founded by Anderson two years prior — sought to purchase the city’s Progress Point property at the intersection of Denning Drive and Orange Avenue and develop a two- and three-story senior living facility there. Anderson’s company ultimately withdrew the offer after an array of complications arose, among them: an after-the-fact appraisal that deemed the property worth more than the original asking price; opposition to the proposed use voiced by, among others, Mayor Steve Leary; and uncertainty over how to resolve parking challenges in the area. It was all just as well, says Anderson today, because he’s looking forward to a significant chunk of Progress Point becoming a public park as part of a revised plan for the Orange Avenue Overlay. “We should do things through the lens of a plan instead of a lens of exceptions,” says Anderson. “Residents should feel like they’re being heard, and their feelings are what we’re acting on. They shouldn’t have to stay up until 3 a.m. worrying about what the commission might do.” A graduate of Georgia Tech, Anderson moved to Winter Park in 1998 to start CNL Retirement Properties, a real estate investment trust. He stayed at the Park Plaza Hotel and fell in love with the charming town he viewed from the hotel’s balcony. He later fell in love with the charming Jennifer Devitt, then director of the Rollins College EMBA program, whom he met via a blind date arranged by a friend. In 2004, he proposed to her next to the Memorial Fountain in Central Park. Jennifer had two young girls, Phil had two young boys, and the blended family “was like the Brady Bunch,” Anderson says. (Many locals know that daughter Kimberly Devitt, one of last year’s Winter Park Magazine People to Watch, is director of business development for Maitland-based Corkcicle.) Anderson subsequently served a term on the city commission — during which the national economic collapse posed fiscal challenges — and his family supported (and continues to support) such good causes as the Boys & Girls Club of Eatonville, the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens and the Winter Park History Museum. Anderson is also the founding treasurer of the Winter Park Land Trust, which promotes opportunities for the city to expand parks and greenspace. On top everything else, Anderson, the son of missionaries who lived as a child in the Philippines, is a partner with his brother in an Escambia County Subaru dealership — all of which may delay his longtime dream of traveling the U.S., at a leisurely pace, in a motor home. In the meantime, however, he’ll focus on his goals for Winter Park, which include enhanced communication between the city and the public, upgraded technology (including the laying of fiber optic cabling) to create a “smart city” better able to manage traffic, implementation of measures to boost the post-pandemic economic recovery (he would consider economic incentives to attract new businesses downtown), and adoption of an Orange Avenue Overlay plan that will anger as few people as possible. Most important — and perhaps most challenging — is his goal to “find the center” and, where possible, to achieve consensus instead of contention.

THE BOTTOM LINE: 

Anderson becomes mayor at a pivotal time in the city’s history, as its businesses have struggled with economic travails caused by the pandemic and its residents have adopted heatedly opposing viewpoints on major issues (the Library & Events Center, the Orange Avenue Overlay, the Henderson Hotel, etc.). Can Anderson hit a reset button on the tone of civic dialogue and promote informed debate while balancing the need to grow with the importance of preserving the city’s village ambiance?

Bernat at the Winter Park Library & Events Center.

Sabrina Bernat

Executive Director, Winter Park Public Library

THE NEW AGE LIBRARIAN

You’ll have to forgive Sabrina Bernat, 35, for sounding like a kid on a thrill ride when talking about the new Winter Park Library & Events Center set to open in early December: “It feels like the moment of giddy exhilaration as you crest the top of the roller coaster and get ready to scream, laugh and throw your hands in the air. Woohoo!” Bernat, who grew up in tiny Floral City in Citrus County, says the nearest library was in the “big city of Inverness.” With her first library card, young Sabrina checked out so many books that she could hardly carry them. What could be better, she thought, than working at a library? After earning an undergraduate degree in literature and fine art and a master’s degree in library science from the University of South Florida, Bernat did just that in Beverly Hills (Florida) and Kissimmee before joining the Winter Park Public Library in 2015 as assistant director. She became executive director in December 2019, just before construction began on a new library with a companion multiuse civic space and amphitheater. Now, Bernat is busily preparing to move into the state-of-the-art complex taking shape in Martin Luther King Jr. Park — and hopes to win over skeptics who tried so hard to derail the project. “Friction creates energy: plans and ideas changed, people came and went, needs grew or metamorphosed,” she says. “Our community didn’t just build a library — it forged one. We’re ultimately all the stronger for it.” Bernat — whose husband, Mike, is a computer engineer — is the smiling face of a New Age library that she envisions as a place of diversity and inclusivity serving people from “cradle to infinity” and providing “an environment where the serendipity of new ideas sparked by conversation leads to better lives for everyone.” She’s thankful for the staffers “who can take my cheerful nonsense and spin it into reality.” Building the complex has been a roller-coaster ride, prolonged in part by a 2016 bond validation lawsuit that ultimately was thrown out. Bernat — a graduate of Leadership Winter Park, a program of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce — is cooking up some cheerful nonsense for the grand opening. “There’s a pair of fairy wings hanging on my wall right now,” she says. “I’m sure those are going to come into play!” Woohoo!

THE BOTTOM LINE:

There could be no more effective spokesperson for the expanding role of libraries in the digital age. And that role will be important in Winter Park, where some believed that the old facility was just dandy and the new complex was too costly.

Bradley on the campus of Rollins College.

Lauren Bradley

Director of Strategic Communications, Rollins College

THE MESSAGING MAVEN

Lauren Bradley has a gift for writing. But at the University of Florida, when she had to decide her major, she chose public relations over journalism. In public relations, she says, “I can control the message; I can craft it the way I want to.” Bradley has been effectively managing messages for municipalities and organizations for more than 20 years, with the last 12 years at Rollins College — where she’s director of strategic communications and responsible for all internal and external messaging. It’s never boring. “Every day is different,” she says. “There’s always something to learn.” Last year, PRNews named Bradley to its 2020 class of Top Women in PR — professionals whose traits include “the ability to think outside the box to create new programs that drive business results.” Bradley was perhaps born with communications savvy. She’s the daughter of local public relations pioneer Jane Hames and civically active tax attorney Larry Hames (both previously honored as Influentials). But Bradley, 43, has made her own way using a journalist’s instinct for a good story and an advocate’s skill in spinning the narrative. She honed her skills as a public information officer for the City of Orlando and the City of Daytona Beach, dealing with everything from hurricanes to political hubbubs. After earning a master’s degree in mass communications from the University of Florida in 2007, Bradley took an agency job in Chicago, where she also met her husband, Thomas, a digital marketing specialist. But after two winters, she was ready to come home, and Thomas was game. At Rollins, Bradley helped navigate the college’s highly effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic, earning plaudits from PRNews for launching an e-newsletter that kept faculty and staff abreast of the rapidly changing situation. With two daughters, ages 8 and 10, Bradley serves as a troop leader for Girl Scouts of Citrus and is a board member for Goodwill Industries of Central Florida, where her father has been chairman of the board and interim CEO. She’s also a graduate of Leadership Winter Park, a program of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce. As the pandemic abates, Bradley is crafting happier stories — including the phased opening of Lakeside Neighborhood, an amenity-rich, $71 million student housing project, and the on-campus installation of a large-scale sculpture of Fred Rogers this fall.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

As Rollins College embarks on its most ambitious building program since the Hamilton Holt era, someone with Bradley’s skills is required to maximize its benefit while keeping a curious community in the loop.

Dyer and his corgi, Seamus, at Azalea Lane Park.

Tom Dyer

Partner, Dyer & Blaisdell Founder, Watermark

THE PRIDE PIONEER

In 1994, when Tom Dyer started the Watermark newspaper to serve Orlando’s growing LGBTQ community, he was trying to influence only one person: Tom Dyer. “The audience for the newspaper was me,” he says. “I knew I was gay and not sure I was thrilled about it. Not sure I could have a happy, open, productive life here without being in fear all the time of how people would react.” Dyer’s influence has grown exponentially since he convinced the man in the mirror. Watermark has been catalyst and chronicler of the LGBTQ community’s emergence as a social, cultural, political force in Orlando and beyond. Some 20,000 copies of the biweekly are distributed in more than 500 locations throughout Metro Orlando and Tampa Bay, while a robust website attracts readers worldwide. “At first, politicians didn’t want to talk to us,” says Dyer, a graduate of DePauw University who attended law school at the University of Florida. “In 10 years, if you were running for office, you really did need to talk to Watermark.” How to gauge the seismic impact? In 1998, a trepidatious City of Orlando allowed the newspaper to hang rainbow flags downtown for Gay Pride Month — and was roasted by televangelist Pat Robertson, who predicted that apocalyptic hurricanes would ravage the wicked city. In 2014 — doomsday averted — Dyer was presented the Key to the City by Mayor Buddy Dyer (no relation), which was just one of many honors for his continuing activism. Dyer’s family, including his four siblings, moved from Wisconsin to Maitland when he was 12. All the kids graduated from Winter Park High School and his mother taught fashion merchandising there. After law school, Dyer joined a small practice in Orlando and got involved with the Metropolitan Business Association (now the Pride Chamber). It was there he began his bridge building, inviting Linda Chapin, then chair of the Orange County Commission, to address the group — the first elected official to accept a speaking invitation from the MBA. “It was a very brave thing for her to do,” Dyer says. “A big moment for Orlando.” Dyer, who turns 66 in July and serves on the education committee of the onePULSE Foundation, sold the newspaper in 2017 to focus on his law practice, Dyer & Blaisdell, having left his Watermark on a transformed community.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

It’s hard to imagine how risky Dyer’s decision to publish an LGBTQ newspaper was as recently as 1994. But the newspaper was in the vanguard of a movement that, within a decade or so, made sexuality virtually a moot point even among most conservatives. Dyer deserves no small measure of credit for opening hearts and minds in Central Florida.

Grieger at the offices of the Winter Park History Museum.

Christy Grieger

Executive Director, Winter Park History Museum

THE TIME TRAVELER

“When people come here, there’s a feeling and an energy that you don’t find in every town,” says Christy Grieger, executive director of the Winter Park History Museum. “[Original developers] Oliver Chapman and Loring Chase created something special that’s still preserved here. History has an echo, and we are its voice.” Grieger, for certain, is its voice these days. The City of Culture and Heritage has plenty of culture to go around — but its heritage is squeezed into just 800 square feet. Nonetheless, the aptly nicknamed “little museum that could” — which occupies a room inside the 97-year-old building that once served as the Atlantic Coast Line’s freight depot — has for years enjoyed an outsized community presence with creative exhibitions and lavish events. Grieger, 48, knows plenty about events. She previously worked in event sales and management at Hello! Florida and, later, at the House of Blues in Disney’s Lake Buena Vista. She then headed human resources at a family-owned printing business before becoming executive assistant to the energetic Susan Skolfield at the museum. When Skolfield departed, the 11-member board of the Winter Park Historical Association — the nonprofit that owns and operates the museum — had a worthy successor already on the payroll. Grieger, who has a sociology degree from the University of Pittsburgh, has always been an achiever. In college, she captained the swim team and broke a school record in the 200-meter backstroke. “Swimming taught me discipline — getting up for practice, setting goals, working as a team member — and sociology taught me about people,” she says. In addition to local history, Grieger — who has two daughters: Ada, 14, and Liv, 11 — enjoys antiquing and is an avid amateur photographer. She’s proud of the museum’s latest exhibition, Rollins: The First 50 Years, and will continue such programs as recording oral histories, offering a speaker series and hosting the annual Peacock Ball. “Penelope — Princess of the Peacocks” will still share stories and songs with children every Monday morning. Yes, the museum may be small, but it manages to draw about 15,000 visitors annually. It’s also efficient, operating on a $248,000 annual budget (including a $76,000 contribution from the city). Entrepreneurs like Chapman and Chase would surely be pleased that the echo of their effort still reverberates.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

Winter Park was built by generations of visionaries from whom today’s civic leaders could learn valuable lessons. Therefore, the museum serves a crucial function by reminding us that the city’s combination of livability and panache is the result of smart decisions spanning more than 135 years.

Jenkins in Knowles Memorial Chapel.

Katrina Jenkins

Dean of Religious Life, Rollins College

THE RELATABLE REV

Katrina Jenkins was doing infrastructure before infrastructure was cool. “I’m here to build bridges,” she said in 2016 after being named dean of religious life at Rollins College, making her the first female, the first African American and the first Baptist to hold the job — which, before she was hired, had been simply called dean of the chapel. Jenkins, however, has an expansive mission to accompany her expansive title. She provides spiritual guidance, mentors students in their spiritual development and advances the college’s mission to foster global citizenship and responsible leadership. Prior to being chosen by Rollins after a national search, Jenkins pioneered interfaith programs at Illinois College, a private school with a long Christian heritage, and Bentley University, a business school in Waltham, Massachusetts. “Religion is messy, spiritualism is messy,” she says. But “The Rev,” as Jenkins is known on campus, loves the mess. “People come as they are. It doesn’t matter if you’re of faith or not, I journey with you.” For Jenkins, it’s a journey that began early. She grew up in Stratford, Connecticut, “one of those wacky kids who enjoyed church. I started volunteering and it was just one of those things that stuck.” She graduated from Syracuse University and, after a short detour in the healthcare industry (pharmaceutical sales and training), returned to her true path, earning a Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School and ordination by American Baptist Churches USA. Jenkins, 52, is ecumenical in her faith outreach and eclectic in her off-pulpit passions, which include science fiction, community theater, the music of Earth, Wind & Fire, and pro sports of every sort — including the Mets (baseball), the Lakers (basketball) and the Cowboys (“God’s gift to football”). Some duties as dean of religious life are those of a traditional chaplain, including conducting worship services at Knowles Memorial Chapel and performing marriages, baptisms and funerals. And then there’s the more complex and challenging task of building a spiritual infrastructure, through which she connects disparate faiths within the college’s diverse international community. She doesn’t expect kumbaya and understands that there’ll be issues and arguments. “But it means we choose to be in a relationship with one another. You might disagree with someone, but you’re not going to call them a hate monger on social media. We choose the opposite of hate.”

THE BOTTOM LINE:

In a time of increasing cynicism and division, Rollins College remains an oasis of understanding and inclusivity. Jenkins will help shape the next generation to be more tolerant, inquisitive and welcoming of differences than this generation has been.

Kramer on the grounds of The Mayflower at Winter Park.

Steve Kramer

President and CEO, The Mayflower at Winter Park

THE SENIOR EXECUTIVE

Steve Kramer, who in just over five years has set The Mayflower at Winter Park on course for the largest expansion in its 33-year history, was hired without any experience running a life plan community. But Kramer, president and CEO since August 2015, had been a manager and executive in the hospitality and healthcare industries for more than 20 years. And he’ll be at the helm as a $108 million project called Bristol Landing at The Mayflower takes shape. Located on 16 acres just west of the existing campus, Bristol Landing will encompass seven buildings with 50 two- and three-bedroom water view apartments, a 9,800-square-foot clubhouse and restaurant, and an 84,842-square-foot healthcare building offering skilled nursing, short-term rehabilitation and memory-care services. Kramer, 51, grew up in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, where his father was a foreman in a steel mill. Having enjoyed his early employment at an upscale restaurant, he decided to major in hotel, restaurant and institutional management at Penn State. (He later earned an MBA with a concentration in healthcare management from the University of Michigan.) Kramer then spent almost five years in various management capacities at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, the iconic restaurant-and-gift store chain. Yes, he can whip up a mean batch of biscuits if required, but it’s the company’s simple mission statement, “Pleasing People,” that has stayed with him. From restaurants, Kramer moved into healthcare food service, which in turn led to executive positions at healthcare systems in rural North Central Pennsylvania. Before sunny Florida beckoned, he was president and CEO of North Penn Comprehensive Health Services in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. Kramer and his wife, Kathy, have one son, Kolby, 19, who has just joined the Navy. Kramer — who became certified as a master scuba diver after relocating to the Sunshine State — is on the board of the Rotary Club of Winter Park and is treasurer of LeadingAge Florida, an association that supports facilities serving seniors. He’s also a graduate of Leadership Winter Park, a program of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce. The Mayflower, founded in 1989, is consistently ranked among the region’s top retirement communities and is home to some of Winter Park’s most accomplished people. Adds Kramer: “Now we’re going to have additional facilities that not only match but further exceed our reputation.” 

THE BOTTOM LINE:

The Mayflower, although it opened in 1989, seems as though it’s been around forever — and has set the bar for other retirement communities in an increasingly competitive market. Kramer will oversee a major expansion designed to help the community maintain and even elevate its appeal among well-heeled seniors.

Macnab, with solar panels as a backdrop, advocates for sustainability.

Deirdre Macnab

Former President, Florida League of Women’s Voters

THE ARDENT ACTIVIST

When she was in college, says Deirdre Macnab, “I was too shy even to stand up and say my name. My father told me being shy was a waste of time.” So she took a public speaking course. Now everyone in Central Florida who cares about democracy, women’s issues and the environment knows her name. So do cable-television hosts such as Rachel Maddow, John Oliver, Al Sharpton and others who’ve had her on their shows to amplify her causes. And so do politicians who’ve tried in the past (they’re still trying, by the way) to suppress voting and to adopt gerrymandered congressional districts. As president of the Florida League of Women Voters, Macnab spearheaded a drive to get two Fair Districts constitutional amendments on the 2000 ballot, both of which passed and eventually — following four years of lawsuits — led to the redrawing of congressional and state senate boundaries. That effort, among other accomplishments, earned Macnab the title “Central Floridian of the Year” in 2012 from the Orlando Sentinel. A native New Yorker from a politically connected family, Macnab earned an MBA from Columbia University and began a career as a consultant and marketing executive in Manhattan. She and her then-husband later moved to Nashville, where she was elected to the school board, and to Atlanta, where she joined a local league chapter to make what civil-rights icon John Lewis called “good trouble.” In 2004, the family moved to Winter Park, where Macnab continued her league involvement — ultimately becoming president — and steered the organization in a more activist direction on a variety of hot-button issues. In 2014, the league and its allies raised a ruckus over a scheme (subsequently abandoned) to purge the voter rolls, and successfully sued the state over a law that placed restrictions on voter-registration drives. These days, Macnab — who takes frequent trips to Colorado to help manage a family cattle ranch — is involved with alliances to protect rivers and promote solar power as well as the league’s initiative to expand the use of electric vehicles. Still, there’s no rest for the weary. Laws that critics say seek to disenfranchise voters have been proposed (or have already passed) in 43 states following the 2016 election. “If called upon I will try to be helpful,” Macnab says. “We need to protect the delicate foundation of democracy.”

THE BOTTOM LINE:

Macnab was flamboyant — often dressing as Susan B. Anthony at public events — but savvy and knew how to navigate the hallways of power in Tallahassee and get things done. Democracy needs powerful advocates these days, and Macnab’s most important legacy may be inspiring other strong women to follow her lead. 

Maines (standing) and Miller outside Ted Maines Interiors.

Ted Maines

Owner and President, Ted Maines Interiors

Jeffrey Miller

Partner and Shareholder, SeifertMiller

THE UNTIRING ACTIVISTS

It would take a spreadsheet the size of a bedsheet to
chart the array of public and private organizations across the political, cultural and social landscape of Winter Park and Orlando touched by power couple Jeffrey Miller and Ted Maines — and their partner Donatella, the media star of the threesome. Donatella, a 10-year-old Italian Greyhound, is co-couch — er, make that co-chair — of the annual Paws for Peace walk that benefits Harbor House of Central Florida, a shelter for victims of domestic abuse and their pets. Donatella, despite her sweet nature, is a forceful fundraiser when she pops up on billboards and appears on television shows. “When she’s on the screen the phone bank blows up,” says Maines, owner and president of Ted Maines Interiors. In April, Donatella’s sixth year as co-chair with Maines, the walk exceeded its goal and raised nearly $70,000. Over nearly three decades, Miller, 69, and Maines, 63, have served as volunteer leaders or event hosts for some 20 organizations devoted to causes ranging from ballet, fine arts and historic preservation to AIDS support, human rights, hospitals, libraries and Holocaust awareness. The 1993 March on Washington for LGBTQ rights lit the fuse on the couple’s activism. “Ted and I went and came back energized,” Miller says. They were founding members of the Rainbow Democratic Club and Central Floridians United Against Discrimination, which later became Equality Florida. Miller, a Lakeland native who attended law school at the University of Florida, and Maines, a New Jersey kid who majored in business management and accounting at Rutgers University, met in Key West in 1983. “It was love at first sight,” says Maines. But, given the tenor of the times, not marriage. The couple made it official in New York City, two years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that struck down prohibitions against same-sex marriage in every state. Maines, whose 27-year management career included a stint as CEO of Historic Creations Design and Development in Maitland, started his interior design business in 2010. Miller, who in the 1980s worked for what he describes as a “very conservative” downtown firm where he didn’t feel safe revealing his orientation, co-founded SeifertMiller, a personal injury and wrongful death practice, in 1996. Today, Miller and Maines are the most celebrated husband-husband team in local philanthropy and routinely appear on media-compiled lists of the region’s most powerful people. “There’s a certain obligation that comes with that,” Miller says, “an obligation to be that person who gets involved and tries to make the community a better place.” Their good works continued during the pandemic, though not at the same breakneck pace. Their laser focus these days is on construction of the new Holocaust Museum for Hope and Humanity in Orlando. Miller, past president of the Holocaust Center Board, is co-chair of the project, while Maines is on the fundraising committee. Donatella, of course, will help where she can.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

There are no Central Floridians more active in civic affairs than Ted Maines and Jeffrey Miller. Their current focus is on the new Holocaust Museum for Hope and Humanity, which could draw 75 million annual visitors to downtown Orlando.

The Malzahns outside their home.

Gus Malzahn

Head Football Coach, UCF

Kristi Malzahn

Wife, Mom, Booster

THE GOOD KNIGHTS

Billboards across Florida (and parts of Georgia) show a familiar fist-pumping coach alongside a UCF logo and a proclamation that “the future of college football is in Orlando.” The coach, Gus Malzahn, was tapped in February to helm the Knights, and believes that he can eventually deliver a legitimate national championship to an upstart program that brashly claimed the title for itself — to the amusement and annoyance of Alabama fans — in 2017. But the Knights had a strong case to make: In a Peach Bowl matchup, they had beaten the only team to beat the Crimson Tide in the regular season: the Auburn Tigers, then coached by — Gus Malzahn. Last year, in a shuffle apparently orchestrated by the football gods, UCF Athletic Director Danny White left to take the same job at Tennessee and took Head Football Coach Josh Heupel with him. White was replaced by former Arkansas State Athletic Director Terry Mohajir, who had worked with Malzahn during his first and only season coaching the Red Wolves. Mohajir might well have sought out a hot young assistant coach who would likely have bolted for a Power 5 program after a couple of good seasons with the Knights. Instead, he chose a battle-tested veteran who had powered through eight pressure-packed seasons in the SEC and had become one of only two active head coaches to notch three wins against Nick Saban (the other is former LSU Head Coach Les Miles). Malzahn, despite playing for a national championship (losing by a field goal to FSU) and compiling a 68-35 record, was let go by Auburn in 2020 following a sub-par 6-4 season. And so it was that Gus, 55, and his wife, Kristi, 52, took up residence in the City of Culture and Heritage — a place that Kristi describes as “a little utopia; it has such a warm and fuzzy feeling that it just draws you in.” Gus, who grew up in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and played football at the University of Arkansas and Henderson State, says UCF is a perfect fit because “the foundation is in place to take the next step — and I believe that more now than I ever have.” Kristi, an ebullient former insurance agent who now describes herself as happy to be a mom and a coach’s wife, says that she and Gus are interested in charities that help children. Gus has a particular fondness for the Boys & Girls Club, where he says he learned valuable life lessons as a youngster. The Malzahns, who met while she was an eighth-grader and he was a junior at Fort Smith Christian Academy, have two adult daughters, Kylie Peek and Kenzie Stander, and two grandchildren. So, is the future of college football really in Orlando? Perhaps — but it might be more accurate to say that the future of college football is in Winter Park.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

There’s no reason to believe that UCF didn’t make a great hire with Gus Malzahn, who isn’t looking to make a name for himself (he’s already done that) but is genuinely excited and energized by the opportunity here. Kristi, a funny and outspoken Southern charmer, is likely to have a high community profile and be a terrific ambassador for her husband’s program.

BREAKING NEWS
As this issue of Winter Park Magazine was going to press, the College Football Playoff expansion subcommittee announced that it was “strongly considering” increasing its championship field from four to 12 teams, with slots for the six highest-ranked conference champions and six more at-large selectees. Under the proposed new structure, UCF — a member of the Group of Five’s American Athletic Conference (AAA) — would have earned playoff berths in 2017 and 2018. A decision is not expected before September and would be unlikely to take effect before the 2023 season. What might this mean for fans of the Knights? For starters, the hometown team could compete for a national championship by dominating the AAA instead of by chasing an elusive affiliation with a Power Five conference.

Mandell outside his home.

Robert A. Mandell

Public Servant

THE DEVELOPER DIPLOMAT

Not many people have been appointed to important posts by both President Obama and President Trump. But Robert “Bobby” Mandell — entrepreneur, attorney, developer and diplomat — can count two presidential nods among his accomplishments. In 2011, he was tapped by Obama to serve as ambassador to Luxembourg, where he remained until 2016. In 2019, he was named by Trump (who was required by statute to appoint a Democrat) to the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Previously, he was one of the region’s most important homebuilders and chaired both the Florida Environmental Regulation Commission and the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority. He also served on the boards of AdventHealth Orlando and the Burnham Institute, and co-chaired a capital campaign for United Cerebral Palsy that raised $6.5 million for construction of the UCP Bailes Early Childhood Center in east Orange County. A Miami native, Mandell attended the University of Florida, where he earned a law degree in 1972. He practiced for a time in Punta Gorda, then joined Greater Construction Company, founded by his father, Lester Mandell, and his great uncle, Lester Zimmerman, along with associate Jack Lazar and land-use attorney John Lowndes. Mandell, who started as a laborer on construction sites, then held a succession of executive positions before buying the company in 1998. Following a 2005 sale to Arizona-based Meritage Homes, Mandell remained as president and chairman emeritus. He met Obama, a young U.S. Senator from Illinois, through Mel Martinez, a former Orange County chairman and then a U.S. Senator from Florida. “I had dinner with him and was mesmerized,” recalls Mandell, 73. Soon thereafter, Mandell became a major fundraiser for Obama, who had launched a longshot race against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. We all know how that story turned out. President Obama would later appoint Mandell to the President’s Trade Council and nominate him for the ambassadorship. During his stint as a diplomat, Mandell started “The Luxembourg Forum,” which brought together the U.S. Supreme Court and the European Court of Justice, and the embassy “adopted” the nearby Kannerland orphanage. Mandell, a painter of unusual talent (he signs his work with the distinctive imprint “RAM”), is married to Julie Walker Mandell, and the couple has four adult children. He is now a partner in two healthcare-related technology companies. 

THE BOTTOM LINE:

Mandell is indicative of a proud but frayed tradition of successful business people using their acumen to make the world a better place through government service.

Seeley outside the Winter Park Community Center.

Jason Seeley

Director of Parks & Recreation, City of Winter Park

THE PARKS PROPRIETOR

Nowhere in Jason Seeley’s job description does it say he’s point man for dealing with overflowing trash cans and aggressive squirrels. He just wouldn’t have it any other way. “My number is on the website,” says Seeley, director of the city’s first-rate Parks & Recreation Department. “When a resident calls with a problem it doesn’t go to a secretary or assistant, it goes to me, no matter how large or small — like an aggressive squirrel in the park. It’s my job to handle the problem, not hope it goes away on its own.” Seeley is the anti-Ron Swanson, the grumpy parks director on the sitcom Parks and Recreation who believes “government is garbage” and seeks to undermine it. Overseeing a system with 11 parks, 14 mini-parks, seven playgrounds, two swimming pools, a golf course and a tennis center, Seeley does everything he can to counteract the image fomented by his TV counterpart. He grew up in a very conservative family, Seeley says, where the prevailing belief was that government workers “are sort of lazy and don’t do their job — I never want that said about the department I work in.” Seeley, 41, was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and moved to New Smyrna Beach when he was 16. He planned to teach and studied history at the University of South Florida while holding down — and enjoying — part-time parks jobs in Tampa. After graduating, he took a job as athletic and aquatic assistant with the City of Casselberry, which married his twin passions of teaching and parks. And the rest is history — a succession of parks and recreation gigs in Cape Coral, Dunedin and Seminole County before joining Winter Park in 2011 as chief of recreation before moving up to the director’s role in August 2019. Most locals who are involved in recreational programs know Seeley through his role as staff liaison to parks-related city advisory boards as well as to civic groups and youth sports organizations. He’s a graduate of Leadership Winter Park, a program of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, and with his wife, Bessie, has a son, Harrison, who’s in first grade. According to Seeley, “being able to come to work for the City of Winter Park and lead this department is my proudest achievement.” Ron Swanson would never understand.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

For local residents, few if any city perks are more important than beautiful parks and robust recreation programs. For the service-focused Seeley, delivering what residents expect and demand is as much a passion as a job — an attitude that makes him effective and has endeared him to those who believe that such amenities are crucial to the enviable quality of life Winter Park.

Spencer in the offices of Timbers Resorts.

Greg Spencer

CEO, Timbers Resorts

THE DREAM BUILDER

When Timbers Resorts CEO Greg Spencer began to investigate moving the company’s corporate headquarters from Carbondale, Colorado — a picture-postcard small town just northwest of Aspen — he wanted to find a location that combined sophisticated panache with top-notch schools and proximity to an international airport. Spencer, 51, who was born in Orlando, seemed to recall that Winter Park fit the bill in most respects. “The city was a fit for our brand and the ethos of our company,” says Spencer. “The kind of people who live in Winter Park would be our buyers.” Central Florida’s concentration of hospitality industry professionals was likewise a major plus, says Spencer. So, in February 2019, he and a handful of other Coloradans moved into West Morse Boulevard offices that were decked out to reflect the company’s mission — which is to develop and operate hotels, boutique resorts and posh private-residence vacation communities in alluring locations around the U.S. (and one in Tuscany, Italy). The company — which has $250 million in annual sales and a $2.5 billion portfolio of properties — employs 40-plus people in its Winter Park office. But that number could double as expansion opportunities put on hold by COVID-19 are revisited, including a new venture called Soleil Hotels & Resorts. Wherever the company has a presence, corporate citizenship is emphasized. Before the paint was even dry at headquarters, Timbers Resorts had committed to sponsorships for the Taste of Winter Park and Ye Olde Hometown Christmas Parade. Spencer, who joined the company in 2007 as a project manager, holds a B.S. in political science from Florida State University, where he was an ROTC corps commander. He became a logistics officer in the Air Force and left military service as a captain, joining Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) in Atlanta and specializing in major bank mergers. He later earned an MBA from Webster University and another master’s degree in real estate development from Columbia University. Spencer and his wife, Suzanne, a women’s health nurse practitioner, have two daughters: Avery, 7, and Morgan, 11. Family is more important now than ever to the hard-charging, globe-trotting CEO, who late last year was diagnosed with liver cancer following a physical examination prompted by the relocation. Luckily, the disease was caught early enough to successfully treat. Notes Spencer: “I guess you could say moving to Winter Park saved my life.”

THE BOTTOM LINE:

It was major coup for Winter Park to be chosen as the corporate headquarters of a prestigious international company. Best of all, its CEO is a native Central Floridian who values the city’s unique assets.

Stephenson at the native garden in Central Park.

Bruce Stephenson

Professor of Environmental Studies, Rollins College

THE NEW URBANIST

If you’ve enjoyed all that is verdant, lush and canopied in Winter Park, it’s likely Bruce Stephenson has had something to do with it. The professor of environmental studies at Rollins College, a former city planner, is the go-to New Urbanism advocate in a city that holds its greenspaces sacrosanct. Stephenson helped craft the master plan for downtown’s Central Park, which has since led to its expansion, the placement of the SunRail station and, to Stephenson’s delight, a one-acre native garden that he works with his students. “It’s a hint of the wild nature right in the heart of Winter Park,” he says. Last fall, Stephenson’s efforts were recognized with the John Nolen Medal from the Congress for the New Urbanism. (Stephenson wrote an award-winning biography of Nolen, a visionary landscape architect who in 1923 designed the state’s first master plan, for the City of St. Petersburg.) His student-involved planning projects have led to the Cady Way Trail, the boardwalk at Mead Garden and — in collaboration with the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation — an ongoing restoration of the natural habitat at the Genius Preserve on Lake Virginia. Stephenson is known for bringing zeal, humor and persuasive research to the planning table. And he’s not afraid to be bold. One idea he has floated is connecting the Rollins campus to Interlachen Avenue with a pedestrian walkway beneath busy Fairbanks Avenue. Stephenson, 65, who joined the Rollins faculty in 1988, holds a bachelor’s degree from Florida Southern College, a master’s degree from Ohio State University and a Ph.D. from Emory University. And he not only preaches New Urbanism, he lives it; he gave up his car in 2015 and lives part-time in Portland, Oregon’s Pearl District, a prototype urban renewal project. His book, Portland’s Good Life: Sustainability and Hope in an American City, was recently published. Locally, Stephenson serves as a trustee for the Winter Park Land Trust and, with his students, helped to craft the nonprofit organization’s proposal for a 1.5-acre park at Progress Point — vacant city-owned property at the intersection of Denning Drive and Orange Avenue. The park, he says, would eventually become the most prominent gem in an “emerald necklace” of parks and greenspaces. Notes Stephenson: “If you can create synergy with this park on Orange Avenue like Central Park has with Park Avenue, then everybody wins.” 

THE BOTTOM LINE:

Stephenson’s voice will be important at a time in Winter Park when redevelopment is revving up and many new projects cause controversy. He’s an environmentalist who also understands how smart, mixed-use development can enhance a city’s appeal. 

Strauss at a foundation-owned private park across from the Osceola Lodge.

Richard Strauss

Trustee, Treasurer, Executive Vice President, Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation and Charles Hosmer Morse Foundation

THE LEGACY KEEPER

Richard Strauss remembers walking a couple of steps behind Hugh McKean as the former Rollins College president led Sir Gus, the kissing camel, to the middle of Central Park. The gentle animal, owned by Orlando’s Bahia Shrine, was a featured attraction at Christmas in the Park, an event launched in 1979 by the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. McKean and his wife, Jeannette Genius McKean, founded the museum, which is renowned for its collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. “It kind of chokes me up a little bit,” says Strauss as he explains that, like the crowds who turned out, McKean was a big Gus fan. So much so, in fact, that he mused aloud about buying his own camel — and wondered whether it should have one hump or two. Ultimately, Strauss wasn’t sent camel shopping — but would have happily done so if asked. “Mr. McKean was delightful in that I never knew what to expect,” says Strauss, who was chosen by the McKeans more than three decades ago to manage the business and investment assets of the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation and the Charles Hosmer Morse Foundation, which honor the memories of Jeannette’s mother and grandfather, respectively. The Morse Foundation owns the Morse Museum, while the museum’s funding comes primarily from the Genius Foundation, which also supports an array of other good causes. The Genius Foundation’s holdings in Winter Park alone include the 50-acre Genius Preserve and more than 20 revenue-producing commercial properties. Strauss, 78, believes that his most important role is carrying on the McKeans’ legacy of bringing beauty to the community they loved. It’s a privilege, he says, to have worked so closely with these community icons — whom he still respectfully refers to as “Mr. McKean” and “Mrs. McKean.” A Pennsylvania native — something he shares with Hugh McKean — Strauss graduated in 1963 from the Keystone State’s Washington & Jefferson College with a degree in economics. He began his career in accounting and finance with Westinghouse but sought a warmer location and moved to Central Florida in 1979. He joined the Winter Park Land Company — incorporated by Charles Hosmer Morse in 1915 — as general manager in 1988. Strauss and his wife, Marianne, have six adult children as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Says Strauss: “When you love what you do, then it’s not really a job.”

THE BOTTOM LINE:

Strauss, a walking repository of local history, was tapped by Hugh and Jeannette Genius McKean to deploy their assets for the good of the city — and, along with trustees of the two foundations, he takes that responsibility seriously.

Von Weller with her children, Cade and Caitlin, at Ward Park.

Julie von Weller

Owner, Freshly Cast

THE TEAM BUILDER

Julie von Weller, 40, runs a women’s fashion consulting business and is mom to two children: Caitlin, 12, and Cade, 8 — “kind souls,” she calls them. Her husband, Ryan, is managing director of a company that develops affordable and workforce multifamily housing. She also consults for Winter Park-based ACi Architects, where her father, Larry Adams, is founder and CEO. Let’s face it: Von Weller is busy — just like most people who juggle careers and families. But she found it worrisome that so few in her age cohort are involved in city issues or cast ballots in city elections — as evidenced by the 8 percent turnout of voters under age 50 in the March 2020 contest for two city commission seats. And she wasn’t alone. Consequently, like-minded young (defined as under age 55) residents coalesced on social media and a group called Winter Park Voter emerged. Its purpose was “to create a collaborative space for those in our peer group to find factual information and have their voices heard.” Von Weller, however, is not the group’s president or spokesperson. In fact, she says, Winter Park Voter doesn’t have a formal leadership structure and its followers don’t agree on every issue. Says von Weller: “If  Winter Park Voter was about one person, it wouldn’t have grown organically the way it has.” On its Instagram and Facebook pages, the loosely configured coalition has encouraged participation in city meetings. It has co-sponsored a 2021 mayoral debate with Rollins College. And it has, on occasion, opined on controversial issues, such as its support of the now-rejected Henderson Hotel. It has also pushed for diversity on city advisory boards, dialogue surrounding single-member districts, and pandemic-era support for small businesses by occasionally prohibiting vehicles on Park Avenue and allowing restaurants and retailers to expand their outdoor footprints. Through a Fund Our Fields social media push, the group successfully advocated for drainage and turf improvements on sports fields at Ward Park and Martin Luther King Jr. Park. Von Weller, who has a degree in public relations from the University of Florida, is herself a force of nature, collaborating with women to refine (or redefine) their personal styles through Freshly Cast, her small business, and volunteering for Support Our Scholars and Habitat for Humanity of Winter Park-Maitland. She’s a former president of the Park Avenue Merchants’ Association (she co-owned a boutique, Thread, for six years) and in 2013 raised funds to expand the YMCA of Central Florida’s “Links 2 Learning” program for disadvantaged youth. “Oh, don’t ever tell me I can’t do something,” she says. “Because if you do, you’d better believe I’m going to find a way to make it happen.”

THE BOTTOM LINE:

Von Weller has a get-it-done ethos and a vision for making Winter Park a place where everyone can constructively participate in problem solving.

 

When the Royals sold their studio in 1985, Edith allowed herself a moment of wry reflection during an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. “I never had any children of my own, but I have a lot of ‘children’ who stick close by me,” she said. “I walk along a street and someone will come up and say, ‘My mother or sister or daughter took classes from you.’ I’m almost to the point where people say, ‘My granddaughter took classes from you.’” Original photo courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center

THE ROYAL WAY

With research by Laura Lewis Blischke and additional material by Randy Noles
Photo Restoration by Will Setzer at Circle 7 Studio

Over the course of 40 years, Edith Royal taught lessons in dance and life while creating an enduring local audience for high-quality dance performances. Husband Bill, who left his job at a can manufacturing company to run the business, liked to joke that he had "traded cans for the can-can." Original photo courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center

Elizabeth Parsons had trained at New York City’s prestigious School of American Ballet, whose founding choreographer was the legendary George Balanchine. She knew plenty about great dance teachers when she moved with her husband, Dee, from Kentucky to Orlando in 1961. 

Consequently, Parsons wasted little time before she looked up Edith and Bill Royal in Winter Park. By then, the couple and their Royal School of Dance had earned a reputation that stretched far beyond sleepy Central Florida.

“I knew what [Edith] had to offer and how beautiful it was,” says Parsons, who had taken classes from “Mrs. Royal,” as she was known to her students, at conventions of Dance Masters of America, the national organization for dance educators. “This is a lady you would seek out because you knew of her love and devotion for dance.”

Once upon a time, the heartbeat of Central Florida dance was in Winter Park. The Royals, whose school began humbly in 1947 with a handful of students at the All Saints Episcopal Church parish hall, were prominent local residents in the 1960s and maintained two studios here as well as others in Orlando. 

Over the course of 40 years, the couple built a dance kingdom for the region that was — and remains to this day — unequaled in size or influence. They mentored three generations of dancers, sent many on to successful professional national and international careers, and created an enduring local audience for high-quality dance performances. 

It was the Royals, for example, who in 1963 began the beloved Central Florida tradition of presenting The Nutcracker each holiday season with a full orchestra.

Parsons, now 81, took and taught classes at the Royal School for 12 years and performed with its student company, Ballet Royal. She was among the acolytes who became important figures in the Orlando-area dance community. 

Although she and her husband left Central Florida for a decade, upon their return Parsons founded the Dr. Phillips High School Visual and Performing Arts Dance Program. In 1981, she opened her own school in Windermere, which closed last year after four decades of training hundreds of youngsters in the joy and discipline of dance. 

Other notable alumni of the Royal School of Dance included Barbara Watson; her brother, Kip Watson; and Kip’s first wife, Patti Stevens, who together founded the Southern Ballet Theatre in the 1970s. In 2002, the region’s first professional dance company became today’s Orlando Ballet.

“Every great city has a great ballet, and that holds true for Orlando,” says Robert Hill, artistic director of Orlando Ballet. “What I’ve learned in my nearly 12 years here is that the foundation for Orlando’s appreciation and love for ballet and dance is attributed to the Royals and their commitment to the art — that is their legacy.”

Edith, known as Edie to friends, was born in Philadelphia in 1918, during the deadly flu pandemic. Her father was a machinist at a textile mill. Her mother enrolled Edith, a self-described “sickly” child, in dance classes for exercise. But to the little girl, dance became much more than healthy physical exertion. Original photo courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center

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Edith, known as Edie to friends, was born in Philadelphia in 1918, during the deadly flu pandemic. Her father was a machinist at a textile mill.  Her mother enrolled Edith, a self-described “sickly” child, in dance classes for exercise. But to the little girl, dance became much more than healthy physical exertion.

In Philadelphia, Edith studied under acclaimed dance instructor Florence Cowanova, whose pupils had included Oscar-winning actress Grace Kelly and pioneering television comedienne Imogene Coca — whose original dream was of being a ballerina.

As a young woman, Edith performed in New York-, New Jersey- and Pennsylvania-area nightclubs, dinner theaters and opera ballets. She started her own dance school in 1939 in the basement of her family’s three-story home. 

Edith met Bill, an employee of the Crown Can Company in Philadelphia, at church. They married when she was 21 and he was 24. In 1943, as wartime production ramped up, Bill was tapped to manage the company’s manufacturing facility on Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando. 

In a 1989 oral history interview for the Winter Park Public Library and Winter Park Historical Association, Edith recounted Bill’s first impression of Central Florida: “He called me the day after he arrived and said, ‘You know, I don’t think I am ever coming back; this is wonderful! You could have a house down here, and grass!’”

So Edith drove down to join her husband — and the dance of their lives began.

At the time, Central Florida had only one dance school: Ebsen School of Dance, at Pine Street and Hyer Avenue in the Lake Lawsona district of Orlando. The school was founded in 1921 by “Professor” C.L. (Christian Ludolf) Ebsen, the father of actor and dancer Buddy Ebsen.

The younger Ebsen, a formidable hoofer who learned to dance at the school along with his sisters, Vilma and Helga, might have played the Tin Man in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz had he not been allergic to the metallic makeup required. 

Instead, he appeared on stage, in films and on television, ultimately becoming a pop culture icon as Jed Clampett on the CBS sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. Vilma — who appeared in several Broadway musicals with her brother — and Helga later opened their own dance studios in California.

When Edith called on C.L. Ebsen — a native of Germany who was an advocate of what was then known as “physical culture” — he hired her on the spot to teach dance. She taught at Ebsen’s school for five years and helped him establish the Central Florida Dance Company around 1945.

“I dared not come out in the open with the idea for a ballet company here for many years, because it seemed hopeless,” the elder Ebsen said in 1949, two years before his death. “Now the idea has taken root throughout Florida.”

Edith and her employer had indeed elevated the dance scene in Orlando. However, Edith had ambitions of her own. 

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In the exuberant postwar era of the 1940s, Winter Park wanted to dance, too. Several prominent women sought out Edith and asked her to open a closer-to-home studio that their daughters could attend. Edith agreed, at first teaching one day per week at All Saints. Then two days per week. Then three days per week.

In 1948, the Royal School produced its first annual recital at the Winter Park High School (now Winter Park Middle School) auditorium. The show was themed Vacation Time, and took the audience on a dancing journey around the world.

By 1950, Edith’s venture had outgrown its headquarters at the church. So she and her 32 students relocated to the old post office building at 128 North Park Avenue, at the corner of Welbourne and Park avenues. 

A year later, when the school again needed more space, Edith and Bill bought a large home at 534 Chase Avenue from the estate of a retired minister. They outbid adjacent Rollins College for the property — which boasted 100 feet of frontage on Lake Virginia — by $1,000. The Royals lived upstairs and operated the school downstairs. 

Those 15 years on Chase Avenue were, Edith later recalled, “the happiest years of my life” as a dance teacher: “Oh, that place had heavenly, big camphor trees and a lot of fruit trees. It was just wonderful, it truly was. Bill made a big circular driveway so the cars could come in and drop the children off. The kids loved to play in the trees — you practically had to shake the trees to get them down so they could come in to take their class.”

Edith’s growing reputation and the welcoming environment in which she taught attracted even more students. In 1951, the school’s annual recital was held at the larger Orlando Municipal Auditorium (today the Bob Carr Theater). 

Florida Travelogue — with a cast of more than 160 young dancers — was themed around the state’s history, with the ballet portion inspired by the legend of Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth. 

Among the cast members were the brother-and-sister duo Kip and Barbara Watson, ages 11 and 15, who had become like family to the Royals and would one day continue their beloved teacher’s legacy in Central Florida. In fact, Kip and Barbara lived in the Chase Avenue home with their mother, Phyllis Watson, who was the costumer for the school’s dance recitals and student company productions.

In 1953, the school had grown to the point that Bill was able to leave the Crown Can Company to become its business manager, set designer and backstage wrangler for performances. He famously joked in newspaper interviews that he moved from “cans to the can-can.”

It was a wonderful play on words, but only a slight exaggeration. The Royal School — which counted more than 500 students by 1955 — provided students a complete education in dance forms that included (if not the can-can) ballet, jazz, tap, modern and acrobatics as well.

Bill, always athletic, wanted to work with kids and began teaching tumbling classes, which led to the training of many male dancers — a rarity for schools at the time. Cast lists for early performances show that there was no shortage of boys eager to fill the male roles in stage productions.

To provide the most serious students with performing opportunities, Edith founded a student company in 1952. In 1953, the company — originally called “Ballet Petit” before being renamed the Ballet Royal two years later — staged its first full-length dance, Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka, with the Florida Symphony Orchestra.

In 1963, the symphony and the ballet joined forces on The Nutcracker, a holiday tradition that continues to this day. When planning their first full production of the Tchaikovsky classic, the Royals visited George Balanchine in New York City for consultation on choreography, sets and costumes.

Barbara Watson danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy that year and a young Linda Maybarduk, who went on to dance with the National Ballet of Canada and became a favorite dance partner of Rudolf Nureyev, played the role of Clara. In 1999, Maybarduk would write The Dancer who Flew: A Memoir of Rudolf Nureyev. 

Initially, The Nutcracker couldn’t fill the Municipal Auditorium’s seats for one performance. By the time the Royals sold their school in 1985, they were offering five performances to meet the demand for tickets.

In the exuberant postwar era of the 1940s, Winter Parkers wanted their children to dance. Several prominent local women sought out Edith, who was then teaching in Orlando for C.L. Ebsen (father of Buddy Ebsen) and asked her to open a closer-to-home studio that their daughters could attend. Original photo courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center

The Ballet Royal performed many times with the symphony. As choreographer and artistic director, Edith would meticulously research each ballet, and produced such classics as Billy the Kid (Aaron Copland), Cinderella (Sergei Prokofiev) and The Firebird (Igor Stravinsky).

One production that Royal never forgot was Les Sylphides (Frederic Chopin) with legendary Native American prima ballerina Maria Tallchief, whom The New York Times had dubbed “one of the most brilliant American ballerinas of the 20th century.”

“[Tallchief] was calming and lovely,” Edith recalled. “She came to us and said, ‘Oh, you will have to help me because I haven’t done this ballet for a long time.’”

The Royals also produced an annual Evening of Ballet at the Annie Russell Theatre at Rollins in addition to recitals and performances at schools and for civic clubs. 

The company also performed at Lake Eola, Mead Garden, Loch Haven Park and with the symphony for its Pops Series. If dance was presented anywhere in Central Florida, it was more than likely that the Royals were the impresarios.

Bill and Edith sold the Chase Avenue home to Rollins in 1958 but continued to lease it back from the college for more than a decade. In 1965, the couple moved into a home at 1295 Park Avenue, where they often welcomed students and held parties after annual productions of The Nutcracker.

And their enterprise had continued to grow, with a branch studio on Edgewater Drive in College Park by 1953 — which relocated to Smith Street in 1958 — and a small studio in Mount Dora. Another Winter Park studio opened at Aloma Avenue and Strathy Lane (today the site of CenterState Bank) in 1960. An additional Orlando studio on Michigan Avenue began welcoming students in 1969. 

The former nerve center for the Royal School of Dance on Chase Avenue was demolished by the college in 1970. Today, the site is a parking lot for the Harold & Ted Alfond Sports Center. But for years it was a magical place; a home-away-from-home for young dancers where the air was always thick with creativity and excitement.

Even so, the Royals — passionate as ever — were far from finished. They had been around long enough that the children of their earlier students were now learning about dance — and life — in one of their other studios. Often, the teachers were Royal School alumni.

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Most Royal School students took what they learned about discipline, practice and pride in a job well done and applied those lessons while pursuing a range of careers. Some, though, became dance teachers and others went on to impressive careers as dancers.

Russell Sultzbach was one of four former male students — others were Dermot Burke, Gregory Huffman and Luis Perez — to become stars of the Joffrey Ballet in New York City. Sultzbach remembers mowing the lawn at Chase Avenue and painting the walls at the Aloma Avenue studio.

He began taking classes at the Royal School when he was 11. When he was 14, he received his first scholarship to the Joffrey Academy of Dance. He became an acclaimed soloist for the prestigious company in the 1970s.

Sultzbach fondly recalls jumping into the Royals’ station wagon for a men’s class at a crosstown studio or loading into buses for trips to Florida Dance Masters conventions around the state. (Later the Royals would lead field trips to New York, where students were enthralled by professional ballet companies and Broadway musicals.) 

“We were dancing like crazy,” Sultzbach recalls. “The Royals instilled in us what a real dance company looks like.”

Indeed, if the Royals were the mother and father of Central Florida dance, many of their students became sons and daughters of the art form and built on the Royals’ legacy. It’s here that the lineage gets wonderfully complicated.

Kip and Barbara Watson (later Riggins) had successful careers in New York before returning to Central Florida. In 1962, Kip married Patti Stevens, a one-time Royal Dance student and a former Miss Winter Park who performed on and off Broadway and was a June Taylor dancer on The Jackie Gleason Show. 

Kip, Patti and Barbara established The Performing Arts Company together in 1974. In 1978, they changed the name to Southern Ballet Theatre and made cultural history of their own, launching the region’s first company consisting of professional dancers — six of them, on 40-week paid contracts — who performed at the Bob Carr Theater. 

Sultzbach, who had suffered from knee problems that curtailed his career as a dancer, returned to Central Florida in 1980 to become ballet master at Southern Ballet — which was then located at the old OUC building on Orange Avenue — and in 1989 married Southern Ballet dancer Phyllis Watson.

This particular Phyllis Watson was the daughter of Kip and Patti. She was named for her grandmother, the Royals’ talented costume designer who lived with her dancing children at Chase Avenue. The Watsons, then, were Sultzbach's in-laws. 

Kip later formed the Harwood-Watson Dance Studios with Eliza Harwood-Watson, a Southern Ballet dancer whom he married after his marriage to Patti ended. Patti, then married to Darden Restaurants executive Rick Walsh, formed the School of Performing Arts in Fern Park (previously the Kip Watson Dance Studio) and brought aboard Sultzbach, her son-in-law, as a teacher and partner. Sultzbach's daughter Phyllis also taught at the school.

Later generations of Royal Dance students included Rollins graduate William Bartlett, who danced with American Ballet Theatre II, North Carolina Dance Theater, the Atlanta Ballet and Ballet du Nord in Roubaix, France.

There was also Kim Marsh, who danced with the Milwaukee Ballet from 1989 to 2003 and is today a full-time faculty member and assistant to the school director at the Orlando Ballet School; and Maura Hayes, 1979 Miss Dance of Florida, a 40-year Disney veteran and current director of operations at Times Square Studios, a Disney subsidiary in New York City. 

Says Hayes: “The Royals opened their doors to thousands of students and provided a place to not only dance, but to learn about life’s values and to instill a positive vibe.” 

In 1921, Central Florida had only one dance school: Ebsen School of Dance, at Pine Street and Hyer Avenue in the Lake Lawsona district of Orlando. The school was founded by C.L. Ebsen (above), a “physical culture” advocate who was also the father of actor and dancer Buddy Ebsen. Royal taught at Ebsen’s school for five years and helped him establish the Central Florida Dance Company around 1945. But Edith had ambitions to open her own studio (below), which she did, attracting not only children but their mothers for lessons and increasingly elaborate recitals and performances. Original photo courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center

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The Royals sold their three dance schools — which then had more than 1,500 students — and retired in 1985. In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Edith — whom the story referred to as the “grande dame of Central Florida dance” — said it would be difficult to shake the habit of going to the studio each day and then allowed herself a moment of wry reflection.

“I never had any children of my own, but I have a lot of ‘children’ who stick close by me,” she said. “I walk along a street and someone will come up and say, ‘My mother or sister or daughter took classes from you.’ I’m almost to the point where people say, ‘My granddaughter took classes from you.’”

Edith’s former students, many of whom remained in contact with her for decades, considered the Royals to be major influences in their personal and professional lives. One was Parsons, who says that the Royals “were devoted to their students — not just while they were with them.” 

Parsons recalls that when her husband’s job took them to four different Southern states, Bill would call ahead to a dance studio to vouch for her ability as a teacher. “All of their students were their children,” she says.

Jami Russell, who took lessons at the Royal School from ages 4 through 16 and danced in the Ballet Royal in the 1960s, enjoyed a successful career as an insurance salesperson working mainly with groups. She said early dance training and performing experience gave her the confidence to give group presentations to executive teams. 

“Mrs. Royal commanded respect because she was just so knowledgeable,” Russell recalls. “But I was never scared of her. She was very professional and matter of fact in her teaching style. She expected you to act like an adult — and you did.”

Several former students described Edith as “regal.” But Russell and others believe that descriptor was more a reflection of how she carried herself than of her unpretentious personality; she always maintained a dancer’s impeccable posture — back straight, chin up — and moved gracefully. 

“Mrs. Royal didn’t coddle you, but she was definitely approachable,” Russell adds. “Sometimes, you’d want to hug her. She was like a mom to a lot of kids.”

Meredith Myers, an IT professional who attended the Royal School from ages 4 to 12 in the 1970s and 1980s, says Edith mastered what’s today called “an executive presence.” Yes, Myers recalls, she was kind and nurturing, “but when she dropped in on a class you instinctively upped your game because you wanted to make sure that she knew that you knew how to dance.”

Recitals, Myers recalls, were run with the rigor of professional productions, from rehearsing to costuming to dancing. Misbehaving or being unprepared was unthinkable, she says. “If you were cutting up or not taking it seriously, you’d be gone,” says Myers, who adds that Edith’s approach taught her the importance of not slacking off — in dance or in life.

Russell and Myers — as well as other female former students — agree that the Royal School was also important because it offered girls a socially acceptable opportunity to exercise and become more physically fit. “I probably shouldn’t say that today, but it was true then,” says Myers.

The Royal School enrolled plenty of male dance students, of course. But most sports activities in schools were limited to boys in the days before Title IX, the federal program that mandated equal access to all programs at institutions that received federal funds. Before Title IX, which was adopted in 1972, one in 27 girls played sports. Today that number is two in five.

Parents could also get involved, from watching classes from behind glass partitions through sewing pointe shoes for younger dancers, working backstage at performances and recitals, and even performing supporting roles in The Nutcracker.

Martin Koshar, now retired, was a top executive at Lockheed-Martin (then Martin-Marietta) when he appeared in several Nutcrackers in the 1970s and 1980s. Koshar’s daughters Jan (Litschgi) and Jennifer (Campbell) were longtime Royal School students and Ballet Royal company members.

Their button-down dad, much to their delight, learned a few rudimentary steps of choreography and appeared in the family gathering scenes at the opening of several performances.

“Well, I didn’t have any dance experience to speak of,” Koshar recalls. “But I, and a lot of parents like me, participated. It gave me a way to support my daughters’ activities, and we made a lot of friends. Plus, I liked the fact that the children were learning self-discipline and other lessons that would help them later on.”

From its humble beginnings at All Saints Episcopal Church, the Royal School of Dance moved to a now-demolished home on Chase Avenue and opened a branch studio on Edgewater Drive (later Smith Street) in College Park. There was also a studio on Michigan Avenue in Orlando and, for a short time, even an outpost in Mount Dora. But most Winter Parkers remember the Aloma Avenue location, where CenterState Bank is today. Original photo courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center

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Bill died in 1990 and Edith followed in 1996. Their incalculable legacy includes not only teaching but supporting and promoting dance as an art form. They hosted the Southeastern Regional Ballet Festival in 1962, 1966 and 1975, and Bill served as president of the Southeastern Regional Ballet Association (now Regional Dance America/Southeast). 

They also held offices and were part of the training school faculty for Dance Masters of America, which named Edith its Member of the Year in 1981, and Florida Dance Masters, where Edith chaired the scholarship program for 18 years — and now has a scholarship named for her. For 14 years, Edith also choreographed the Miss Florida pageant.

But as time has passed, the Royals have been remembered primarily by dance insiders or former students, about 300 of whom share memories on a Facebook page for alumni. Many local arts figures are better known than the Royals because their profiles are bolstered by foundations and buildings bearing their names. 

Kip died in 2011 and Barbara in 2020. Patti died in 2018, and the School of Performing Arts, which had been run by Russell and Phyllis for several years during Patti’s final illness, closed the following year. The school attracted thousands of young dancers and a who’s who of local women looking to stay in shape — among them Harriett Lake, the late philanthropist who in 2018 would donate $5 million toward construction of today’s Harriett’s Orlando Ballet Centre.

The Harwood-Watson Dance Studios is the last school in Winter Park with a tangible Royal touch. A large photo portrait of Edith, signed by her students at her funeral, hangs in its lobby.

When the Royals sold their studio in 1985, Edith allowed herself a moment of wry reflection during an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. “I never had any children of my own, but I have a lot of ‘children’ who stick close by me,” she said. “I walk along a street and someone will come up and say, ‘My mother or sister or daughter took classes from you.’ I’m almost to the point where people say, ‘My granddaughter took classes from you.’” Original photo courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center

But the Royals’ love of dance endures. Their impact can be seen where little children are learning arabesques, where professional dancers are fulfilling their dreams, where innovative choreography energizes the stage and where audiences pack houses for performances.

“Dance in Orlando would not be what it is today without the Royals,” says Harwood-Watson. “Without our history, it would not have progressed.”

Rick Walsh, who watched much of local dance history unfold during his marriage to Patti, agrees: “If there was a Mount Rushmore of Central Florida dance, it would have the Royals, Kip, Barbara and Patti on it,” says Walsh, now president of the Knob Hill Group, an investment and consulting company in Orlando. 

Walsh, in fact, is working to get a plaque installed at Harriett’s Orlando Ballet Centre recognizing at least the three Royal proteges who began the city’s first professional dance company. Such recognition would certainly be past due for local legends of the art form.

All the kudos would undoubtedly please Bill and Edith. But the fact is they were probably too busy to give much thought to how they might be regarded by future generations.

“We did nothing in our lives but the studio,” said Edith in an oral history interview. “That was our whole life — the studio and the ballet company.” For every lover of dance in Central Florida, that sounds like a life well lived. 

For Susan Lilley, the deadly manchineel apple trees that she discovered in the Florida Keys “captured my imagination more than the Pirate Torture Museum.”

FLORIDA’S WILDER HEART

Wilder Heart’s roster of contributors includes academicians, poets, activists, a birder, a veterinarian, a fisherman, an artist, a journalist, a gator hunter, a tribal chief, a citrus grower, a civil engineer, an environmental lawyer and a river guide.

When Marjory Stoneman Douglas, born and raised in Minneapolis, was 4 years old, her family visited Tampa. There, boosted aloft, she delightedly picked an orange from a tree in the garden of their hotel. And the rest is Florida history.

Literary license tempts us to draw a straight line from that early harvest to Douglas’ later migration to Florida, her blossoming as a crusading conservationist and her epic ode to the Everglades, River of Grass, published in 1947. 

The line has since become a baton passed to an army of Douglas disciples in the race to preserve and protect “the land of flowers” from deflowering by what some call progress.

“The Grand Dame of the Everglades,” who died in 1998 at age 108, is survived not only by her beloved river — which was considered merely a swamp prior to her scholarly yet readable bestseller — but by legions of citizens inspired to sustain the cause through their own activism and writing. 

A sampling of outstanding essays about the state’s persistently threatened environment — and even some poetry — have been collected in The Wilder Heart of Florida: More Writers Inspired by Florida Nature, published by the University of Florida Press in March. It’s a sequel to The Wild Heart of Florida, which was released 20 years ago. 

Royalties from book sales will go to The Nature Conservancy’s Florida Chapter, which owns and manages approximately 55,159 acres in the state including four preserves that are open to the public: Apalachicola Bluffs & Ravines in Liberty County, Blowing Rocks Preserve in Martin County, the Disney Wilderness Preserve in Osceola County and Tiger Creek Preserve in Polk County.

In their introduction to Wilder Heart, editors Jack E. Davis, a professor of history at the University of Florida and a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea; and Leslie K. Poole, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Rollins College and a Pulitzer Prize nominee for environmental writing at the Orlando Sentinel, offer a rather bleak outlook: 

“With the dawn of each day, Floridians awaken to a rapidly diminishing future for the state’s unique and glorious natural systems. As the bulldozers rev up, cars enter highways and construction cranes begin to swing, our wild spaces become more precious and threatened. The loss is not only habitat for flora and fauna, but also reflects a darkening of the state’s soul — a place built on the idea of finding Eden, health and beauty. What better way to understand and acknowledge the magnitude of such losses than to celebrate our wildest treasures?” 

Essays from such historically significant figures as Marjory Stoneman Douglas (above) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (below) are among the highlights of Wilder Heart. Douglas’ chapter, “Excerpts from the Gallery,” is curated from a daily column she wrote for the Miami Herald, where her father was editor in chief, in 1923. Stowe’s “Up the Ocklawaha: A Sail into Fairy-Land,” is from 1873, when the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a citrus grower in Mandarin.

And celebrate the writers do — even if some of them consider the festivities more akin to a wake. The 26 essays and eight poems in Wilder Heart are organized in six chapters with titles that, when read aloud, sound like a mini haiku about Florida: “Beckonings,” “Revelations,” “Animals,” “Water,” “Terra Firma” and “At the Heart.” 

The book’s roster of contributors includes academicians, poets, activists, a birder, a veterinarian, a fisherman, an artist, a journalist, a gator hunter, a tribal chief, a citrus grower, a civil engineer, an environmental lawyer and a river guide. 

Essays by legends such as Douglas and Harriet Beecher Stowe, (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) are also included. Douglas’ chapter, “Excerpts from the Gallery,” is curated from a daily column she wrote for the Miami Herald, where her father was editor in chief, in 1923. The short pieces presage her later activism.

“Look out your window,” Douglas writes. “Can you see a pine tree? If you can, you’re lucky. They are going fast. And every day somebody cuts down a few more to make a new subdivision that, without them, will be as raw and ugly as plain dirt without trees can be. Do you own a pine tree? Then you are lucky. But if you appreciate it, you are more than that. You have a genuine eye for beauty, which is another word for spiritual common-sense.”

Stowe’s “Up the Ocklawaha: A Sail into Fairy-Land,” from 1873, was originally published in the Christian Union. The New England-born author and abolitionist — who had moved to Mandarin, near Jacksonville, and bought a small citrus farm — recounts a seemingly mystical journey along the river aboard a tiny steamer en route to Silver Springs.

 

“Growth seemed to have run riot here, to have broken into strange goblin forms, such as [19th century illustrator Gustave] Doré might have chosen for his weird imagining,” Stowe writes. “Here, where foraged nature has been let alone, where the fiery heat and the moist soil have conspired together, there is a netting and convoluting, a twisting and weaving and intertwining of all sorts of growths; and one might fancy it an enchanted forest, where the trees were going to change into something new and unheard of.”

Wilder Heart, which is rich in history and deep in science and expertise, nonetheless maintains a tone of wide-eyed wonder and sensuous delight — directed straight at the wild heart that beats within many Floridians. And we do mean wild.

The collection begins with a macabre poem, “Seduction in Key West,” by Orlando poet laureate Susan Lilley, and ends with a witty but revelatory essay, “Florida is a Pretty Girl,” by fiction writer Frances Susanna Nevill, who compares the state to an attractive woman who is constantly set upon by greedy users. Everything in between is, in its own way, just as compelling.

“Our most pressing challenge is to find ways to connect the dots between hearts and minds,” Temperince Morgan, executive director of The Nature Conservancy, writes in the foreword of Wilder Heart. “Anyone who has spent time here can’t help but fall under the spell of our weird, wild state.”

Winter Park is represented in the eclectic assortment of contributors by a quintet of authors, all of whom have ties to Rollins College: Poole, Bruce Stephenson and Claire Strom are professors, while Gabbie Buendia was a valedictorian in the Class of 2019. Lilley was an instructor in the college’s English department and now teaches literature at Trinity Preparatory School. 

Each can point to a moment or a memory that initiated their enduring psychic bond to Florida. For Buendia, it was a reluctant, fretful first hike at age 17 in the Econ wilderness while wearing cheerleader practice gear. For Lilley, it was a childhood of falling asleep at night and awakening in the morning to the beauty of Lake Sue, just outside her window.

For Strom it was flying from North Dakota to Orlando for a job interview and marveling at the stunning abundance of water — ocean, lakes, lagoons, rivers, ponds — she saw from her window seat. 

And for Stephenson, it was seeing tranquil and orderly Winter Park for the first time, on a bus ride with the Merritt Island Mustangs high school basketball team for an away game against the formidable Winter Park Wildcats.

Leslie Poole, now a professor, began her career as a journalist. She became fascinated with environmental issues by reporting about them. Photo by Rafael Tongol

‘THEY’RE KILLING THE GOOSE THAT LAID THE GOLDEN EGG’

For Poole, 63, a Florida kid blithely immersed in nature’s blessings, her path was set as a result of doing journalism about preservationists. Telling their stories and describing their causes opened her eyes to the incalculable value and fragility of her environment. 

Poole grew up in Tampa. Her mother’s family grew oranges in Micanopy, south of Gainesville, until the Great Freeze of 1894-95; her father came from a line of family farmers in Live Oak. But little Leslie seemed determined to prove that being outdoorsy wasn’t hereditary.

“I was never what you’d call a nature girl,” admits Poole, who says her mother often had to chase her out of the house. She rode her bike for hours and explored the woods, forming an unconscious bond with the outdoors.  

“In high school I’d go out to remote lakes with friends and go skiing — that was sort of my social group,” she says. “It was a safe, serene place. When I got older, I came to realize how much of that world had disappeared. As a teenager, you don’t think about that.” 

These days, however, Poole makes certain that her students in environmental studies do think about that. Taking an approach not unlike her mother’s, she chases her students out of the classroom and shows them what she’s so passionate about — and what they’re on the verge of losing unless they’re vigilant.

“My class is all about field trips,” she says. “My students aren’t there to make a fortune; they’re there to change the world. I want them to see the beauty and smell the blossoms and see the wildlife. I took them to Lake Russell [in Osceola County] and had them put their hands in the lake and realize that the water is headed for the Everglades.”

Sometimes, the field trips are nearby. Poole has walked classes — often including many freshmen from out of state — to Mead Botanical Garden, which is open to the public, and the Genius Preserve, which is private property owned by the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation. Both are just minutes from campus. 

On one outing to the Genius property, students were awed by the sight of trees laden with oranges — not a typical sight in the Northeast or the Midwest — and were permitted to pluck a few star fruit from a Carambola tree. “When I was growing up it was no big deal,” Poole says. “For these kids it was so exciting.”

The aha! moment for Poole came in the late 1980s when she was a journalist with the Orlando Sentinel working on “Florida’s Shame,” series of investigative stories on unfettered growth in Central Florida. Jane Healy, then the paper’s associate editor, won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials related to the series, while Poole was a nominee for her reporting.

Florida’s Shame caused considerable consternation in the development community, resulting in an estimated $500,000 worth of canceled advertising schedules from builders. Says Poole: “Importantly, the series pushed the state to adopt tougher growth management regulations. Which [Governor] Rick Scott gutted. But that’s another story.”

Indeed, it’s the never-ending story, and struggle, that’s become Poole’s life. Like her students, she wants to change the world mostly by keeping it the same — protected from the ravages of modernity and commercialism. Hard political reality, however, has made her a realist. 

“That’s the truth about Florida — indeed about the world — today. Few unspoiled spots of nature exist,” she writes in her Wilder Heart essay, “Woodpeckers and Wildness.” Consequently, Poole gains satisfaction from small but significant victories, and recounts one in Wilder Heart — the resurgence of the nearly extinct red-cockaded woodpecker at the Disney Wilderness Preserve.

“Few unspoiled spots of nature exist,” writes Poole in “Woodpeckers and Wildness,” her Wilder Hearts essay.
But she celebrates a victory in the book — the resurgence of the nearly extinct red-cockaded woodpecker (right) at the Disney Wilderness Preserve. The preserve, writes Poole, is an 11,500-acre oasis “at the edge of Central Florida’s suburban chaos.” But she credits the theme park with creating and funding the preserve, which is run by
The Nature Conservancy.

The preserve, writes Poole, is an 11,500-acre oasis “at the edge of Central Florida’s suburban chaos.” Disney and the theme parks, she continues, “are the engines that turned the rural citrus-growing region into a traffic and development nightmare, displacing wildlife, wetlands and forests.”

Yet it was also Disney, Poole adds, that led the way in creating and funding the preserve — run by The Nature Conservancy — “setting an example of how collaboration between diverse partners can create something ‘wild’ in a place where nature is slowly vanishing. Ah, the irony. But ahhhh, the wonderful result.”

Poole is also a champion of the leadership roles women have historically played in Florida’s environmental battles. In her 2015 book, Saving Florida: Women’s Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth Century, Poole salutes these women and details their struggles and triumphs. She also teaches a course called “The Three Marjories” that explores the work of Douglas, author Marjory Kinnan Rawlings (Cross Creek) and scientist Marjorie Harris Carr.

Carr, the least well-known of the trio, helped write one of the first environmental impact statements in support of a lawsuit brought by Florida Defenders of the Environment (which she co-founded) and the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund. The groups were aligned against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its ill-fated Cross Florida Barge Canal on the Ocklawaha River ecosystem.

The canal was eventually decommissioned, thanks in no small part to Carr. And yes, Poole is aware that Douglas spelled her name “Marjory,” rendering the title of her course not strictly correct. And yes, she’s aware that Rawlings — unlike Douglas and Carr — was a writer of fiction and autobiography, not an environmental crusader. 

Still, the fact that these three women — whose names were pronounced in the same way, at least — were three of the most consequential figures in the history of Florida environmentalism is remarkable, to say the least. 

And speaking of women, did you know that it was a coalition of women’s clubs that lobbied for legislation to establish Florida’s first state park, Royal Palm Park, which was later the nucleus of Everglades National Park? That was in 1916 — before club members even had the right to vote. Their activities are also chronicled in Saving Florida.

Adds Poole: “When I’m asked, “What can I do?’, I say, ‘Register to vote.’ It’s clear that the environment is a political animal. You’ve got to be involved in politics. I’ve seen an awful lot of willful ignorance from the State Legislature, refusing to act. I hate to use the cliché, but they’re killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Gabbie Buendia, a Rollins valedictorian in 2019, wasn’t much interested in exploring the wild as a youngster.

‘IF I CAN GET TO THE RIVER, I CAN FIND MY WAY BACK’

Gabbie Buendia’s essay, “The River That Raised Me,” could have been subtitled, “How a Type-A Personality Found Happiness in the Wild.” Her family emigrated to Florida from the Philippines when she was 2 years old. Buendia grew up in Casselberry and rarely ventured into the family home’s backyard.

“I didn’t really have a connection with nature when I was a kid,” she says. “I was fearful for the most part of the other life out there, like animals. One time I tried to do the camping thing. I wasn’t very prepared, and it was a cold night. I was like, ‘I don’t think I like this.’”

Instead, Buendia was laser-focused on a path to excellence at Lyman High School. She was a cheerleader and valedictorian of her class whose environmental activism was limited to swearing off use of disposable plastic water bottles. 

“My perceptions of how to enjoy natural spaces and what kind of people enjoyed them were greatly misinformed,” Buendia writes in her Wilder Hearts essay. “They were influenced by limited access to positive environmental experiences growing up and a lack of representation of people of color in the outdoor spaces and activities that I did have the chance to participate in.”  

Molten impressions might have hardened to stubborn beliefs if Buendia hadn’t warily accepted an invitation from a friend named Amy to boldly go where she never wanted to go: the wilderness, on a hike. “I didn’t know what to do and what to bring,” she writes. For her inaugural walk on the wild side, Buendia wore her cheerleading practice gear and an old pair of Nikes.

The expedition was through the confusingly named Little Big Econ State Forest, located near Geneva in rural Seminole County. The moniker is a combination of the Little Econlockhatchee River and the larger Econlockhatchee River, which meet just south of the forest. 

A hike through the confusingly named Little Big Econ State Forest however, changed Buendia's viewpoint and pointed her in the direction of environmental activism. Buendia’s honors thesis was entitled Earth Mommas: The Impact of Mothers on the Environmental Justice Movement.

Despite a few harrowing moments, the hike was ultimately transforming. Initially, though, Buendia treated the ground as a minefield, cautiously remaining a few steps behind Amy. 

“I hesitated to follow when [Amy] climbed trees for a better view or when she headed toward more challenging paths,” Buendia writes. “At one point, a snake appeared on the path and caused me so much anxiety that we could not continue until Amy put me on her back and jumped over it.”

Those don’t sound like the words of a born explorer but Buendia returned, again and again, “to take a walk or to write, to do my homework, to talk out loud. I came to the river to cry my eyes out, and I came to the river whenever I didn’t know where to go,” she writes. That first hike, at age 17, “reframed my perceptions and understanding of natural spaces and where I fit into it all.”

At Rollins, Buendia majored in environmental studies, got involved with “green” organizations and delved deeper into exploring preserved land. 

Once during finals week, she had spare time before a test and decided to make the most of it by tromping through the Econlockhatchee Sandhills Conservation Area — 706 acres of pine forests, oak hammocks and open scrub near the town of Christmas in east Orange County.

“I arrived just as the morning dew was beginning to sparkle and evaporate off the saw palmetto and gopher apple shrubs,” she writes. After a while, however, Buendia realized she was lost in paradise — and so was her phone’s GPS. 

“I had only 40 minutes to orient myself and get my butt to class,” she writes. “Looking up from my watch, I observed the flat landscape of unending sand, grass and trees. I knew I just needed to start moving … and I whispered to myself, ‘If I can just get to the river, I can find my way back.’”

She eventually made her way to the Econlockhatchee and later back to campus “with muddy shoes, a new story” and an exhilarating epiphany about the value of “how beautiful a little disorder and chaos can be.”

Buendia’s honors thesis was entitled Earth Mommas: The Impact of Mothers on the Environmental Justice Movement, which was the culmination of eight months researching how women — specifically mothers — play a unique and instrumental role in leading movements to protect the environment.

Shortly before graduating from Rollins in 2019, Buendia notched another milestone: becoming a U.S. citizen. Then, after graduation, she became an environmental activist through an internship with the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. 

A river runs through her now. She writes: “The river taught me patience, exploration, flexibility — the courage to embrace discomfort.”

Orlando Poet Laureate Lilley’s childhood home was in Winter Park, along Lake Sue. “The last thing I saw at night were lights blinking across the lake,” she recalls. “It was a comforting, mysterious body of water.”

‘IN A NETHERWORLD BETWEEN CELEBRATION AND LOSS’

Susan Lilley’s poem “Seduction in Key West” raises the question: If plants have feelings, is one of them rage? Can vegetation exact revenge — revenge more satisfying than the swamp’s passive-aggressive reclaiming of early human settlements?

“Seduction” starts out as a tone poem to the boozy, diaphanous travel-poster Key West of “white-lattice cafes with their fragrant garlic and Key Lime daiquiris” where a cruise ship “opens its maw like a great white shark and expels the tourists onto dizzy Duval Street” in search of “conch fritters, salty edged tequila and clattering shell necklaces.”

But it soon descends into something darker about “steel-hearted pirates and Spaniards seeking gold” and how Seminoles and Calusas lashed the invaders to the deadly green manchineel apple tree and “let the tree’s poison sap eat slowly through the clothing to the skin, to the bones beneath.”

There are likely no colorful postcards depicting that in souvenir shops. Lilley learned about the manchineel apple tree on a guided tour of the small islands around Key West conducted by a marine geologist. She says: “It captured my imagination more than the Pirate Torture Museum.”

Born in Lake County, Lilley, 67, grew up in Winter Park in her family’s home on Lake Sue. “I remember waking up every day and seeing the lake and the cypress trees,” she says. “The last thing I saw at night were lights blinking across the lake. It was a comforting, mysterious body of water. It really had an effect on my imagination.”

Lilley was a late-blooming poet, publishing her first collection, Night Windows, at age 52 in 2006. She’d always had the urge but lacked the chutzpah to write seriously. “I thought, ‘There’s so much good poetry out there. Why mine?’” She followed her debut with Satellite Beach (2012) and Venus in Retrograde (2019).

“When I was a child my grandmother lived in a big citrus area,” she says. “I remember spending Christmas at her place, and on cold nights you could smell the orange refineries. It smelled like cake. Groves covered the countryside — it was such a gorgeous sight from the road. Now it’s completely gone. It was so visual and sensual; you could smell the blossoms in the spring. Oh, my god.”

Lilly worries about the environment that shaped her sensibility. “I can’t help but swoon over the beauty — but it’s heartbreaking to see the swallowing up of majestic places that can’t be replaced. It feels like we’re in a netherworld between celebration and loss.”

What’s a poet to do? In “Seduction,” Lilley imagines a modern-day tourist venturing out without a guide to a small island where “in a dim circle of a forgotten world, this lonely tree waits and spreads its bright green danger.”

Is the poem a revenge fantasy — poetic justice on behalf of a Florida environment violated by intruders seeking gold? It’s not polite to ask poets such direct questions. But it’s no stretch to read “Seduction in Key West” not just as a cautionary tale for today, but the earliest recorded case of Stand Your Ground.

Claire Strom, a professor of history at Rollins, was entranced by all the lakes she saw from the vantage point of an airplane flying over Central Florida. But she discovered that very few of the lakes were accessible by foot. Photo by Rafael Tongol

‘BUT MOST OF ALL, I MARVELED AT THE WATER’

Claire Strom, professor of history at Rollins, arrived here by way of two places that are environmental opposites of Central Florida: North Dakota, arid and cold; and Cambridge, England, tidy and manicured for centuries.

February in Fargo is a study in gray and white. As the plane carrying Strom descended in the sunshine and warmth of Central Florida, “I was captivated by the palm trees, vibrant bougainvillea, and live oaks draped with Spanish moss. But most of all, I marveled at all the water,” she writes in “Wilderness from the Water,” her Wilder Hearts essay.

Strom, 57, specializes in agricultural history and rural studies. She writes books with titles such as Making Catfish Bait out of Government Boys: The Fight Against Ticks and the Transformation of the Yeoman South. The environment is her avocation and passion wherever she goes. 

“I like to know the history of where I am,” she says. While teaching at North Dakota State University, she wrote a book about Fargo. She and her husband, Jim, explored the state by canoe.

“We used to do the Crow River in northern Minnesota,” she says. “One of the things that’s so different in Florida is the ecological diversity. Otters, alligators, a wide range of birds. You really don’t see that much in the North Woods.”

Strom was eager to investigate the myriad bodies of water that had enticed her from 30,000 feet. This is when she was reminded that she wasn’t in England anymore. She was born in Boston but had grown up in Cambridge and attended Oxford, where she was a coxswain on the rowing team.

“Most of England has been influenced by humans for millennia,” Strom says. “One of the things I miss so much about England is that it’s carved up by ancient byways and pedestrian footpaths protected by old medieval laws. It’s still very easy to get out into the countryside.”

In the U.S., she discovered, not so much. Strom found that most of those watery jewels she spied by air weren’t easily accessible. “Unlike the rivers of my English childhood, Florida rivers run through difficult terrain — marshes and thickets — so access by foot is difficult,” Strom writes. “Lakes, too, are difficult to reach, with shorelines either privately owned or swampy.”

As a historian, Strom enjoys exploring the ruins of places such as Bulowville in Flagler County. Florida is dotted with once-thriving communities, now reclaimed by nature, that were originally built around logging and sugar mills. What’s left of Bulowville’s sugar mill, built in 1836, can be seen at the Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park, located near Flagler Beach. Photo by Donna Murane

There was only one way in: “Jim and I bought kayaks and opened ourselves to a whole new Florida, one dominated by nature where we could go all day without seeing other humans.” 

Strom was fascinated to discover in the remote waterways the remnants of once-thriving communities Bulowville in Flagler County and Centralia in Hernando County, which were built around logging and sugar mills. These company towns, long since reclaimed by nature, were lively places populated by hundreds of families with access to stores and even movie theaters.

“The historian in me loves the cognitive dissonance,” Strom writes. “Floating past an alligator just off the dock where Bulowville stood, I imagine the stink of the processing sugar and the mounds of fermenting indigo leaves. Jim and I wave at an African American family from Sanford fishing in their favorite spot, where a century before hundreds of slaves had toiled loading cotton bales for transport out to the St. John’s. I think about the deep scars cut by cypress falling in the forest, the piercing shriek of a train whistle, the never-ending racket of the massive sawmill blades.”

Nature seems to have reclaimed much of the wilderness, but Strom notes that “the nature there now is not the nature that preceded it. They cut down all the cypress. The regrowth is different from what was there before. What you see now looks primeval but it’s not.”

Strom is cautiously cautious about the future of Florida’s environment.

“On the one hand, we see great strides being made, like the clean-up of Lake Apopka,” she says. “My husband and I saw a panther out at Merritt Island. At the same time, there are more and more people taking up more and more land. So, there are pluses and minuses.”

The biggest F-minus in Strom’s environmental gradebook goes to the cruise industry. “One of my passions is snorkeling,” she adds. “The cruise industry is ruining reefs around the world — Mexico, Belize, the Keys. Yes, I’m sorry that some people would lose their jobs. But if I could wish one industry away, it would be cruising.”

Stephenson, a professor of environmental studies at Rollins, says that Florida’s environmental doomsday clock is now at about 11 p.m., although he adds that the pace has slowed slightly in recent years. Photo by Rafael Tongol

‘THE POSTER CHILD OF UNRESTRAINED GROWTH’

Bruce Stephenson might never have become a city planner if he hadn’t moved to the city that planning forgot. His family relocated from Kansas City to Merritt Island when he was 14. 

“We lived on the Indian River lagoon and had a great life close to nature, but Merritt Island was one of the worst-planned places anywhere,” he says. “Courtney Parkway had two yellow lines but no park enhancing the way. Sidewalks were foreign objects and the Baptist church defined civic space. I didn’t know what city planning was — but when I went to college, I learned that’s what was missing in Merritt Island.”

His first inkling that the unincorporated Brevard County town lacked something came earlier, when his high school basketball team traveled to Winter Park for a game and he had his first look at a city that had essentially abided by the plan its founders drew up in the 1880s. 

Stephenson saw streetside trees, public artwork, a downtown that wasn’t a shopping mall and comfortable places to gather that made a cohesive civic statement about what the city’s values were. He recalls thinking: “Oh, this is what planning is.” 

He had also seen the ways in which poor planning made nature’s wrath worse. A severe drought in the winter of 1971 dried out mucky soil in the St. Johns River flood plain, turning it into a flammable peat-like substance. 

Bruce Stephenson, who hasn’t owned a car since 2015, rented one to get to one of his favorite haunts, the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest (above) near Frostproof in Polk County. It’s the setting for his Wilder Heart essay, “The Natural Aesthetic of the Naked God,” which urges “tapping into nature’s wild heart” as “the antidote to the cacophonic consumerism that prices our lives and steals the soul.”

“We started getting fires in February and they kept up for six weeks,” Stephenson says. “I had just seen Tora! Tora! Tora! Looking inland from Merritt Island, it was like the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. It was all exacerbated by poor planning that created environmental problems.”

In 1976, when Stephenson graduated from high school, no certified city planning program was offered anywhere in Florida. He earned a master’s degree in city and regional planning at Ohio State and was a city planner in St. Petersburg for three years. He wrote his first book, Visions of Eden, about urban planning in the city once known as “Heaven’s Waiting Room.”

Now a professor of environmental studies at Rollins, Stephenson serves as a consultant to Winter Park and to Portland, Oregon. He helped prepare the Winter Park Central Park Master Plan and led the ecological restoration of the Genius Preserve. A Stephenson class project led to construction of the Cady Way Trail. His new book, Portland’s Good Life: Hope and Sustainability in an American City, was just published.

Stephenson, who hasn’t owned a car since 2015, rented one to get to one of his favorite haunts, the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest near Frostproof in Polk County, the setting for his Wilder Heart essay, “The Natural Aesthetic of the Naked God.” It’s an existential meditation that extols “tapping into nature’s wild heart” as “the antidote to the cacophonic consumerism that prices our lives and steals the soul.” 

The essay demonstrates that Stephenson can thunder like an Old Testament prophet: “The poster child of unrestrained growth, Florida is in peril. Its unique system of land and water has been engineered into the backdrop of suburbia. Awash in toxic algae, red tide, and saltwater intrusion, this specter is matched by the state’s mechanized death. In road-rage-riveted metropolitan Orlando, a driving fatality occurs every 44 hours, pedestrians are impaled weekly, and bicyclists die at an equally foreboding rate.”

Yet Orlando is not doomed, Stephenson says, thanks in part to the city’s Greenworks Plan, a variety of initiatives adopted in 2018 to make the city more resilient to the impact of climate change, and to the State Legislature’s appropriation of funds for natural lands acquisition.

Stephenson, 65, has been at Rollins since 1988. How close to midnight was it on the environmental doomsday clock for Florida then? And now? “I would say it was like 10:30 then,” he says. “It’s 11 o’clock now — but the clock is not moving quite as fast.”

Does anybody really know what time it is? Not really. Does anybody really care? Read The Wilder Heart of Florida and you’ll meet plenty of people who do. 


For Susan Lilley, the deadly manchineel apple trees that she discovered in the Florida Keys “captured my imagination more than the Pirate Torture Museum.”

Seduction In Key West

Susan Lilley

Back behind the white-lattice cafes with their fragrant garlic
and Key Lime daiquiris, vines that go back centuries
grow wild around the dumpster. Long before
the gay tea dances and Hemingway and smugglers
and rum runners, this string of islands witnessed steel-hearted
pirates and Spaniards seeking gold, Seminoles, and the murderous
Calusas, who executed enemies by tying them
to the green manchineel apple tree and walking
away to let the tree’s poison sap eat slowly
through the clothing to the skin,
to the bones underneath.

It’s Saturday, and the cruise ship opens its maw
like a great white and expels the tourists onto dizzy
Duval Street. The town is ready for them with conch
fritters, salty edged tequila, clattering shell necklaces,
and a replica of an eye-gouging machine
at the Pirate Torture Museum. Six times a day the guides
at Hemingway’s revive old scandals, still tart and delicious
after fifty years. Ghosts must love the old
gossip here in the glimmery aquamarine daylight.
Vacation girls show off new henna tattoos
on ankles and arms and down low on sunburned backs.

No Calusas remain. But the poison apple still grows
on the smallest, wildest keys, flowering and sending forth
seductive green fruit, which most creatures wisely ignore.
Even a tiny Key deer knows better than to stand
under this tree in the rain. But imagine a tourist
who seeks the unspoiled, who might take a canoe
without guide or map, negotiate the floating mangroves
that encircle each island like a guardian net of leaves,
and filled with wonder, walk his camera to the inevitable
clearing where, in a dim circle of a forgotten
world, this lonely tree waits
and spreads its bright green danger.

From The Wilder Heart of Florida: More Writers Inspired by Florida Nature, edited by Jack E. Davis and Leslie K. Poole.
Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

PEOPLE TO WATCH

Photography by Rafael Tongol

Who’ll lead Winter Park into the future? Who are the People to Watch? It’s a valid question, since most of the city’s highest-profile movers and shakers seem to be baby boomers and beyond.

Winter Park Magazine’s annual compilation of the Most Influential People has featured a handful of under-40 honorees — although many more have tended to be, well, a little older than that.

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 but may yet embark on new adventures). The first such list was published last year.

Those featured included Clayton Louis Ferrara, Michelle Heatherly, Chase Heavener, the Hill Brothers (Drew, Gray and Gregg Jr.), Chris King, Amie Morgan, the Orosz Brothers (Matt, Steve and Andrew), Emily Russell, Taylor Womack and Adam Wonus.

Once again, we found no shortage of millennials (often defined as being born between 1981 to 1996) who are making a mark and belong on our 2021 list. 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 existence doesn’t mean that those under 40 may not still be selected for our more traditional annual Influentials list. The additional list, however, makes room for some Winter Parkers whose most important contributions may be yet to come.

We wanted to limit People to Watch to 10, but ended up with a 13 (including a pair of siblings). In any case, there were far more nominees than space to profile them — which demonstrated that this project has staying power for years to come.

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. So, let’s meet Winter Park Magazine’s 2021 People to Watch.

Sydney Bellows Brownlee

Vice President, Leasing and Property Manager,
Sydgan Corporation

Morgan Bellows

Vice President, Construction Property Manager,
Sydgan Corporation

When hard-charging Winter Park developer Dan Bellows renamed his company Sydgan Corporation, it wasn’t just a loving father’s homage to his young children, Sydney and Morgan (“syd” plus “gan” equals “Sydgan”). “I knew that I’d be in business with my kids in the future,” says the elder Bellows, best known for morphing Hannibal Square into a trendy shopping and dining destination. “But I didn’t pressure either of them. They made their own decisions to come aboard.” Sydney, 27, vice president and leasing and property manager, joined the family business in 2014. Morgan, 30, vice president and construction project manager, followed two years later. They arrived via very different paths, reflecting their yin and yang personalities. “Morgan was happy to work on his studies,” says Sydney. “I was the cheerleader.” Following graduation from Winter Park High School, Sydney studied arts and media culture at King’s College in New York, where she interned at the Rachael Ray Show. She also founded a nonprofit called Better Than a Cupcake, which held an annual fashion event that showcased student-designed clothing and raised money to benefit a children’s charity. (The effort was inspired, she says, by Winter Park Fashion Week.) But after two years in the Big Apple, she returned home and earned a degree in event management from UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. Morgan, also a Winter Park High School graduate, went to Auburn for its excellent building construction program — not a surprising choice considering his lifelong familiarity with construction sites. The siblings worked at different jobs — she in marketing, he in construction management — before joining their dad to help manage his ever-expanding portfolio, most notably Ravaudage, a 73-acre mixed-use project underway at Lee Road and U.S. Highway 17-92. In addition, Sydney and Morgan are involved in a nonprofit called Traditional Neighborhoods — she’s president, he’s vice president — that works to improve the lives of young people on the city’s west side. In 2013, the organization spearheaded relocation of the west side’s historic Grant Chapel to a triangular parcel at New York and Lyman avenues. As part of the move, the company renovated the structure, renaming it the Chapel & Hudson’s Cellar Hannibal Square and repurposing it as a venue to host weddings and other special events. Fictional portrayals such as HBO’s Succession suggest that a family business can be perilous and fraught with melodrama — but not in this case. “My granddad ran a business for 50 years with a lot of our family involved, and showed me how it can work,” Bellows says, referring to the fondly remembered Bellows TV Town. “We all do what we’re good at. I have my area, Sydney has hers and Morgan has his. Being able to trust one another and have undying loyalty is awesome.” Sydney and her husband, Chapman Brownlee, have a daughter, Alli, 2, and a son, Thomas, born in October. Morgan and his wife, Tristan, have a daughter, Avery, 1. The kids will be able to grow up with one another; Morgan lives in Hannibal Square on Virginia Avenue, while Sydney is awaiting completion of a new home nearby. “We’re diagonal to each other,” she says. “I can throw a rock and hit his driveway!”

Amy Calandrino

Founding Principal/Broker,
Beyond Commercial

“You won’t be surprised to know I cooked 10 pounds of chicken over the weekend for arroz con pollo,” says Amy Calandrino, laughing. Not if you’re a regular visitor to Amy’s Apron, a food-and-lifestyle blog addressing everything from soup to nuts to Amy’s weight (“Amy’s down 50 pounds!”). The only surprise is that Calandrino, 36, has time to own and operate a commercial real estate company (Beyond Commercial) and a digital advertising and marketing company (Verde Works). She also helps manage her husband Phil’s law firm and is a tireless civic powerhouse. The subtitle of her blog — “On the Back Burner: The Adventures of Amy in and around the Kitchen” — is a misnomer. There’s seemingly no back burner in Calandrino’s life. It’s all bubbling away on a massive front burner. A classic Type A personality, she hasn’t slowed down despite having a 1-year-old son, Giovanni, and a baby girl is due next April. However, lest anyone suspect a Superwoman complex, Calandrino is bracingly honest: “I don’t do my own laundry or clean my own house. I have a management company for that.” Which is good news for organizations such as Easterseals, the Victim Service Center of Central Florida, the Valencia College Foundation scholarship program and Inspire Central Florida (training and employment opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities), for which she advocates. In addition to numerous accolades from real estate organizations, Calandrino was named the 2017 Winter Park Chamber of Commerce Ambassador of the Year. She’s also a graduate of the chamber’s Leadership Winter Park program and immediate past president of the program’s Alumni Council. Calandrino grew up in a working-class home in Vermont, not far from the Canadian border, and in 2007 became the first in her family to earn a college degree (from Rollins College, where she majored in English). Long before Amy’s Apron, Calandrino learned the importance of feeding the soul. “I spent at least a day a week at nursing homes growing up,” she says. “On Sunday, I’d roll the patients to church, roll them to lunch and roll them back, then sit down and talk to them about history. I loved hearing their stories. It was like having a living book in front of you.” She’s even thought about telling her own story: “I think my first book would be titled I Never Met a Stranger.”

Ali DeMaria

Executive Director,
Winter Park Day Nursery

Ali DeMaria always thought she wanted to work with children. But after graduating from the University of Colorado with a degree in psychology, she didn’t have a more specific career path in mind. “So, I waited tables,” she says. “Isn’t that what all psychology grads do?” During college, she had taken a semester off to lifeguard at Walt Disney World and work as a server at Planet Hollywood in Disney Springs, where she developed a fondness for Central Florida’s warm weather. After graduating, she relocated from the chilly Rocky Mountains and took a job as trainer and server at Mimi’s Cafe at the Mall at Millenia. Little did she know, she was setting the table for her future. “I found myself spending more time with the children of the guests than the adults,” she says. “I was carrying babies around with me in the restaurant while the families ate.” Suddenly, her path was clear. DeMaria added “interested in working with children” to her CareerBuilder profile and soon got a call from the Winter Park Day Nursery, a beloved local institution founded in 1939 to serve working mothers whose husbands were in the military during World War II. DeMaria joined the nonprofit nursery in 2005 as a teacher, and later became family services coordinator and director of education before then-board chair David Isaacson, an investment advisor, made her an offer that she thought she could refuse: executive director. “I don’t have a business degree,” she told him, “I’m six months pregnant. Are you sure this is what you want to do?” Isaacson was sure — and a decade later, no one has any regrets. DeMaria, who turned 40 in January, found her calling as a director who “has done pretty much every job in the building.” She has raised staff retention — which for decades fluctuated between 40 and 60 percent — to 92 percent. She and her husband, Geoff Lee, have a son: Dillon, 8, who was the inspiration for arguably her most notable achievement — adding a program at the nursery for infants and toddlers. And all the while she’s kept learning, earning a master’s degree in mental health counseling and a certificate in marriage and family therapy from Rollins College in 2010 and 2011. Shortly thereafter, she also notched advanced level childcare and education program director credentials from the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Kimberly Devitt

Manager, Business Development,
Corkcicle

Kimberly Devitt, along with three siblings, sat on the board of a charitable nonprofit as a teenager. Like making their beds and eating their veggies, says Devitt, it was a house rule for the youngsters to serve on the board of the Anderson-Devitt Foundation, set up by their parents to “instill the idea in us of giving back.” Each child — Devitt thinks of them collectively as “the Brady Bunch” — was given the opportunity, after conducting thorough due diligence, to choose an organization for support. Devitt’s first recipient was the First United Methodist Church of Winter Park, which was raising funds for a mission trip. The experience launched her on a path of volunteerism that today finds her involved with more than a half-dozen organizations — from the Joe R. Lee Branch of the Boys & Girls Club of Florida in Eatonville to Young Professionals Winter Park, a program of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce. Naturally, she’s still involved in her family’s foundation as well. With degrees in public relations and mass communication from the University of Florida, Devitt gravitated to the cyber universe of websites, blogs, digital marketing and search-engine optimization. In 2016, a friend suggested that she apply at a new Maitland-based company with a cool — and we do mean cool — product. Shortly thereafter, Devitt became the second full-time employee at Corkcicle, which had developed an iceless in-bottle wine chiller, as marketing manager. Today, she’s head of business development at the upstart startup, which in 2019 notched $66.7 million in sales of sustainably manufactured canteens, mugs, tumblers, cups, lunchboxes, cooler bags, bar accessories and household goods galore. A portion of the proceeds help support clean-water initiatives around the world. Devitt’s proudest professional moment was becoming the youngest person ever named to the board of directors of the Public Relations Society of America (Orlando Branch). The personal achievement that might please her parents the most isn’t listed on her resumé. “The pandemic has given me a chance to reconnect with many people,” she says. “I kept hearing from friends asking if anyone is hiring. So, I’ve been able to leverage my network to connect job seekers with employers. It’s nothing fancy. I have a Google spreadsheet to keep track of who is hiring and who’s landed jobs. With so many people out of work, every placement has become especially meaningful to me. I find it incredibly fulfilling.”

Jeremy DiGorio

Director of Finance and Treasury,
Rollins College

Jeremy DiGorio is the human opposite of Halley’s Comet, which appears once every 75 years. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that DiGorio, 32, can be seen every 75 minutes on the campus of Rollins College, where he’s director of finance and treasury. “I need to be around people all the time,” says the self-confessed “extreme extravert.” DiGorio’s husband, Neal Robinson, gently encourages his high-energy spouse to spend at least one work night per week at home. But birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim and Jeremy’s gotta connect. It’s true that DiGorio’s rather dry job title, redolent of numbers and graphs, doesn’t sync with his technicolor persona. “When people meet me and I tell them what I do, they do a double take,” he admits. The title also belies perhaps DiGorio’s greatest gift: leadership training. His goal is to help people discover their unique talents — sometimes hidden even to themselves — and to focus on putting those talents to good use. That’s why, in addition to his responsibilities within the college’s financial operation, he teaches undergraduate courses in leadership and serves as an informal leadership mentor to members of the campus community. “As a country, we see charismatic, outspoken individuals as leaders,” notes DiGorio, who began his Rollins career in 2013 as assistant director of its Center for Leadership and Community Engagement. In that position, he developed mentorships, workshops and conferences focused on leadership skills. (Previously, he had been a graduate assistant for Leadership Programs at the University of Connecticut, where he earned a master’s degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs.) DiGorio, who completed the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce Leadership Winter Park program in 2019, believes that you don’t have to be bombastic to be effective. That’s why he strives to discover those who exude quiet authority but may lack the confidence required to take charge. “I help them have positivity and confidence in their skill set,” he says, recalling that as a kid he gave his little sister “fake math tests” to help her succeed in school. “It’s about connecting people with their passion, so they connect to action.” Even DiGorio’s daydream involves a leadership position: “In 20 years, I’d love to be a full-time professional driver for the Winter Park Boat Tour.” And beyond that? “I hope eventually to be a leader in my retirement community.”

Brad Doster

Founder and CEO, Macro Re

When the proposal for a new Winter Park Library and Events Center became embroiled in controversy and acrimonious debate, the library board of directors was fortunate to have been headed by someone with experience being calm in the eye of a storm. And, best of all, he was a proven winner. Board president Brad Doster, 36, was a four-sport standout at Winter Park High School — golf, football, lacrosse and volleyball — where he was known for imperturbable leadership and making clutch plays. As a freshman, Doster led the Wildcat golfers to a second-place finish in the state tournament and earned a scholarship to the University of Kentucky, where (also as a Wildcat) he captained the golf team and became an All-SEC player. After college, Doster signed a development deal with Nike and gave himself three years to “see if I can get to the show [pro tour]. When that didn’t happen, I got out and got a job in the real world.” An Academic All-American, Doster’s business degree led him to the financial services industry. But his civic involvement was sparked by Chris Gardner, CEO of Hub International Florida, an insurance brokerage where Doster was vice president of financial services. “Chris helped me understand there are other things in life besides yourself, and that community involvement is important,” says Doster, whose name may be familiar to longtime residents through the family-owned floor-covering business established by his grandfather. (Doster Floor Covering was sold in 1996.) “I didn’t fully appreciate that as a 27- to 28-year-old.” He polished his game through the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce Leadership Winter Park program, and served a term on the city’s parks and recreation advisory board before being selected for the library board eight years ago. He was named board president in 2018 and served two terms — during which years of being yelled at by coaches prepared him well. One man, Doster recalls, “came up to me after a presentation and said, ‘How can you sleep at night with this project?’ I know change is hard, but once it’s finished, everyone is going to look back and be very pleased it happened.” Doster and his wife, Carlea, have a daughter, Campbell, 5, and a son, Bradley, 3. “I can’t wait to take my kids to the new library and share all the special experiences they’ll have.” In 2020, Doster founded and became CEO of Macro Re, a national network of insurance and financial experts specializing in the protection of business assets.

Kyle Dudgeon

Assistant Division of Director of Economic Development, City of Winter Park

He’s an Infrastructure Nerd by day, a Ninja Warrior by night. Make that would-be Ninja Warrior. “I’ve always wanted to compete on [the reality TV show] American Ninja Warrior,” says Kyle Dudgeon. “I’ve had a few injuries that have prevented me from training, but maybe one day I’ll get there.” Meanwhile, the Infrastructure Nerd remains a warrior for Winter Park. Dudgeon, 34, is the city’s assistant division director for economic development, which includes management of its Community Redevelopment Agency. The CRA collects tax increment finance revenue and implements strategic plans and economic development initiatives to benefit designated areas, including downtown Winter Park (which encompasses the Park Avenue and Hannibal Square business districts) and the burgeoning U.S. Highway 17-92 corridor. It’s a bureaucratic mouthful, but it’s also music to your ears if you’re into such matters as parking studies, sewer connections and traffic flow. Dudgeon is all in. He grows passionate recalling when, as Casselberry’s economic development planner, he recruited residents to help paint a colorful street mural. “It’s pretty neat,” he says. “It slows traffic and brings character and distinction to the neighborhood.” In Winter Park, Dudgeon — who joined the city in 2014 as its economic development planner — was facilitator (one of his favorite words) of such projects as the narrowing of Denning Drive from four lanes to three lanes, with the addition of landscaping and installation of a multiuse trail on the east side. The project was recognized by the Florida Redevelopment Association as the best transportation and transit enhancement in 2019. Dudgeon is also the city’s liaison with such business advocacy groups as the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce. “I’ll be the first to tell you it’s not me on my own,” he says. “It requires a team above all else.” Dudgeon grew up in Buffalo, New York, where he played in a state championship marching band and later served as an intern for the U.S. congressman for whom his mother worked. “It was instilled in me early,” says Dudgeon. “I come from a family that values helping others and providing opportunities for people other than yourself.” Dudgeon’s eclectic vision is evident in his journey at the University of Buffalo, where he began as an architecture major and earned degrees in environmental design and urban planning. In his current role, “there’s never a shortage of engagement,” he says. “Whether it’s music, art, health, education, real estate, finance, entrepreneurship, housing or nonprofit work — there’s some way to be involved and make an impact.” 

William “Will” Grafton IV

Certified Financial Planner,
Grafton Wealth Management at Merrill Bank of America

When William “Will” Grafton IV was growing up, “each Thanksgiving there were always a couple of people at the table who nobody knew.” They were strangers — people in need of food or warmth or simply a family for a day. Grafton’s mother, Sue, never wanted anyone to go without, and instilled a spirit of giving in her children. “If someone needed help, she was the one who would be there,” says Grafton, 34, who as an adult would model those lessons in compassion as a volunteer for a host of organizations, including the Winter Park YMCA Family Center; the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens; the Victory Cup Initiative, an annual best-practices competition for local charities; and the Finley Project, a nonprofit that offers a holistic care program for grieving mothers who have lost an infant. Grafton says he was also in awe of his dad, William III, who inspired him to seek a career in financial management. That may sound like an odd choice for a 5-year-old boy, who’s more likely to want to be firefighters, ballplayers or dump-truck drivers. But when Grafton’s teacher asked her students to draw a picture of what they would look like as adults, young Will’s stick figure sported a friendly smile, an ill-fitting business suit and red power tie. The caption read: “I am a bank man.” Grafton’s ambition never wavered — well, except perhaps for “the pipe dream of being a basketball player.” As a student at Winter Park High School, Grafton had grown to 6-foot-5 and played varsity hoops for the Wildcats. (He was also a high jumper for the track team.) But, realizing that he would never be another Pete Maravich — his idol — he remained on his original career track as president of the school’s accounting club. After earning a financial services degree at the University of North Florida, Grafton joined his dad’s firm — which started as Grafton Wealth Management and is now Grafton Wealth Management at Merrill Bank of America — as a certified financial planner. “What I wanted to do came to fruition,” he says. “I don’t see myself doing anything else.” Grafton and his wife, Kyle, have two children — William Grafton V, 5, and Eloise, 2. Now he’s the role model — albeit a modest one. “I don’t love to talk about myself,” he says. “I prefer that people see me as someone who leads by example, doing the right things at the right time.”

Juan Hollingsworth

Intern Architect, HuntonBrady
President, Hannibal Square Community Land Trust Board of Directors

For Juan Hollingsworth, board president of the nonprofit Hannibal Square Community Land Trust, life keeps coming full circle. The Chicago native earned a master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology, located just two blocks from the now-demolished housing project where his mother grew up. Now, Hollingsworth is deeply involved in an organization dedicated to making the dream of homeownership a reality for low- and moderate-income families. The trust — created in 2003 over concern about the displacement of west side residents due to soaring property values — acquires property, builds or rehabs homes and offers 99-year ground leases to qualified buyers, thereby removing the often-prohibitive cost of land from the equation. If you’re looking for a success story, then look no further than Hollingsworth and his wife, Marketa, a third-generation Winter Parker, who bought their first home from the trust. Eight years later, they had built up enough equity to sell it — the maximum allowable profit is capped — and upsize as their family expanded to include a daughter, now 7, and a son, now 2. “I believe a home is the gateway to building family wealth,” says Hollingsworth, who became the first homeowner in his family. “That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing on the board.” An intern architect at HuntonBrady Architects, Hollingsworth, 38, will achieve architect status after taking the requisite licensing exams — which he says he’ll do “when my kids let me.” However, his intern status belies the important work Hollingsworth has done for the firm. He was, for example, a project architect/coordinator — from schematics to completion — for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Hollingsworth also hopes to eventually revive “Sole Survivor,” a sneaker business he started a decade ago but had to set aside because of other demands on his time. And, perhaps most important, he wants his family — particularly his mother, Paula, who “worked really hard not to put us in housing projects” — to experience the satisfaction and security of owning a home. Says Hollingsworth: “I want to renovate a home or multiunit residential building — hopefully something historic — for my mother when she retires.”

Whitney Melton Laney

Realtor, Fannie Hillman + Associates

Whitney Melton Laney didn’t set out to be an exemplar of the maxim that “virtue is its own reward.” It just happened that way. Laney, a Realtor with Fannie Hillman + Associates, has served as emcee for events sponsored by local chapters of the American Cancer Society, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Children’s Home Society of Florida. Earlier this year, she co-chaired (with Sarah Grafton, a past Influential) “A Pair to Remember,” a fashion show at the Mall at Millenia to raise funds for Easterseals Florida. And from 2008 to 2011, she was event coordinator for the “Baby DJ” Christmas toy drive at WXXL-FM (FM106.7), where she was an on-air personality. In memory of a friend who took his own life, in 2011 Laney founded the Donald L. DeVane Foundation to raise funds for the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. And she has made multiple life-affirming mission trips to the Philippines to work with the Bob (father of Tim) Tebow Evangelistic Association. Lifting up others began early for Laney: “When I was really little, I remember going with my mom to Harbor House [for women and children fleeing abusive domestic situations]. We hung out in the cafeteria, talked to them and served them food. I realized then how fortunate I was.” Since then, every time Laney has seen an opportunity to lend her head, heart and hands to help people in need, she has seized it. When Hurricane Dorian shattered the Bahamas in 2019, Laney coordinated a grassroots relief effort that included Air Unlimited, a local aircraft charter company, and hurried to the devastated Caribbean nation to personally deliver food and medical supplies. “I saw things and heard stories you can only know if you were there,” she says. “I always cry when I talk about it.” Laney, 36, previously an on-air personality at WPOZ-FM (better known as Z88.3), is also a dynamic public speaker who tackles such topics as self-esteem and bullying. In addition, she’s a member of the Winter Park Public Library board of directors. For all her far-flung contributions, Laney says her most rewarding adventure has been raising her children.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Readers with sharp memories will remember that Whitney Melton Laney was also one of Winter Park Magazine’s Most Influential People earlier in 2020. However, due to an editor’s error, the profile that was published contained several factual misstatements. How could we rectify the mistakes? Well, since Laney is also under age 40, this issue’s People to Watch feature seemed to offer a perfect opportunity to re-run the corrected profile. Also, since the earlier Influentials issue, Laney has married Frank Butterfield, an executive vice president of sales and marketing, and the couple’s blended family includes four children, two boys and two girls.

Kesha Thompson

Recreation Coordinator,
City of Winter Park Department of Parks & Recreation

Kesha Thompson’s official job title in the city’s Parks & Recreation Department is recreation coordinator, which offers no hint of her unofficial job as respected community counselor and role model for youngsters. For nearly two decades at the department, most recently as its senior administrative staffer, Thompson, 37, has offered a sounding board and sympathetic ear for all who need one. “For some reason, kids like me a lot,” says Thompson, which isn’t particularly surprising since she has five of her own — ranging in age from 6 months to 14 years — in a blended family with her husband, Eric. For some reason, non-kids like Thompson a lot, too. “I love talking to seniors,” she says. As part of her job, Thompson — who was raised in Hannibal Square — is a city liaison to the annual Unity Heritage Festival at Shady Park, which attracts an older crowd. “I just love listening to all their stories,” she says. Still, it’s Thompson’s affinity for young people — especially girls, who gravitate toward her — that has allowed her to influence so many young lives. “I’m not as young as them, but I’m not so old that I can’t relate,” she notes. “I tell them to set high standards for themselves and to go for whatever they want.” Thompson’s personal mission statement on her Facebook page says it all: “Here’s to strong women — may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.” What now looks like destiny for a natural people person was, in fact, serendipity. As a Winter Park High School junior, Thompson took a job as a summer camp counselor and joined the city full time right after graduation. Now in her 19th year as a municipal employee, she realizes that she could have sought a higher-paying position in the private sector. And she still wants to finish college — which she advises her young protégés to do — and perhaps pursue paralegal studies. “I started and stopped and started and stopped” at Valencia College and Seminole State College, she says. But, she adds, “I love my job — I love the interaction I have daily with so many different people.” What’s not to love? Helping uplift and inspire her fellow citizens — especially young people — every day. Does it get any better than that?

Laura Walda

Shareholder, Lowndes

Laura Walda’s proudest personal achievement, second only to “marrying my best friend (David Meek II),” is running a marathon. “It was one and done for me,” she says. “I’m slow.” But she’s also steady and undaunted. Walda, 38, a shareholder at the Lowndes law firm, has a track record of taking on steep uphill challenges — starting with her entry into the legal profession in the aftermath of the Great Recession. “Not the best time,” she says. At Lowndes, the cum laude graduate of the Indiana University School of Law was assigned to the firm’s commercial real estate practice, a realm historically dominated by men. She has since thrived as lead or co-counsel on numerous multimillion-dollar transactions. And on January 1, she took the reins as president of the Orlando chapter of CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women), a 12,000-member organization working to advance the careers of women in commercial real estate. In Winter Park, Walda has served on the city’s planning and zoning board and the advisory board of Keep Winter Park Beautiful and Sustainable. And she’s the new president of the board of directors of the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. (As a law student, Walda was a summer clerk for now-retired Ninth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Walter Komanski, whose wife, Debbie, is the Polasek’s executive director and CEO.) “Winter Park is a very special place to live, but change is going to happen,” she says. “We need to embrace change that makes sense for families and business. I’m a person of compromise. I believe that’s the way things get done — by having conversations where you can get to ‘yes.’” Walda is also an active member of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, serving on its board of directors and its government affairs committee. She also graduated from the chamber’s Leadership Winter Park program. And, as if Walda didn’t have enough on her docket, there’s also WP Voter, which she started last year with three friends to get more locals under age 50 to the polls during municipal elections. “I love 70-year-olds,” she says. “Both my parents are over 70. But we also need younger voices at the table.” In the 2020 city commission races, the percentage of under-50 voters rose from 8 percent to almost 30 percent, she says. A great start, but as Walda knows, it’s not a sprint — it’s a marathon.

C2 General Contracting in Longwood, which has its own millwork operation, is re-creating the Waddell House’s gingerbread-laden porches based on designs by architect Randy Bumbalough and old photographs of the façade.

‘A HOME HAS TO HAVE A SOUL’

Photography by Rafael Tongol

Brooke and Rhett Delaney drove by the Waddell House nearly every day — but never imagined they’d have an opportunity to restore and occupy it. “Growing up in New Orleans, we were surrounded by history,” says Rhett. “That’s what we were accustomed to.” Adds Brooke: “In New Orleans, architecture is valued. A home has to have a soul.”

Manhattan ad man Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) has had enough of city life. Instead of a crowded apartment, he envisions a spacious, single-family home in Connecticut where he and his wife, Muriel (Myrna Loy), can put down roots and raise their children in a stress-free setting.

The 1948 film, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, follows the travails of the hapless Blandings clan as they buy a home intending to remodel it, but ultimately tear it down when they learn that it’s on the verge of collapse.

They build anew with the help of a flinty assortment of local tradespeople who explain that most aspects of the project are either impossible or twice as costly as anticipated.

It’s a screwball comedy, but also a horror story. And some 65 years later, Mr. Blandings’ experience remains a cautionary tale for those who wish to remodel an old home but begin the process uninformed and unprepared.


“It’s all a conspiracy, I tell you! The minute you start, they put you on the all-American sucker list. You start out to build a home and wind up in the poorhouse. And if it can happen to me, what about the guys who aren’t making $15,000 a year? The ones who want a home of their own. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you — against every boy and girl who were ever in love!” — Jim Blandings


Rhett and Brooke Delaney aren’t all that different from Jim and Muriel Blandings — they’re young, earnest, enthusiastic and enamored with historic structures. But, unlike the celluloid couple, they know exactly what they’re getting into.

The Delaneys know that buying and restoring an old home with character will cost the same or more than a new home with state-of-the-art bells and whistles — and none of the headaches. Regardless, they insist, bring it on.

Rhett, 36, a branch manager at Movement Mortgage, and Brooke, 32, a veterinarian at Winter Park Veterinary Hospital, moved to Central Florida from New Orleans in 2007, after Hurricane Katrina. 

“Growing up in New Orleans, we were surrounded by history,” says Rhett. “That’s what we were accustomed to.” Adds Brooke: “In New Orleans, architecture is valued. A home has to have a soul.”

Since July, the Delaneys have been the proud owners of the Waddell House, 1331 Aloma Avenue, which was built in 1897 (or 1901, depending upon the source) by William and Cartie Waddell of Wisconsin. William Waddell served as what would now be considered a city commissioner and deputy marshal, and his wife ran the Osceola Inn.

Here’s how the Waddell House looked in the early part of the 20th century. The people on the porch are unidentified, but the distinctive structure — once forlorn, now under renovation — is familiar to most Winter Parkers who drive along Aloma Avenue. Photo restoration by Will Setzer, Design 7 Studios

Unlike most older homes in Winter Park, the Waddell House isn’t located in College Quarter or East Virginia Heights, the city’s two designated residential historic districts. (A stretch of Interlachen Drive and Downtown Winter Park also have historic district status.)

The white, two-story Victorian charmer with green trim and distinctive porches — two in the front, one for each story, and one in the rear — sits rather incongruously along a busy thoroughfare on an oversized lot (150-by-190 feet). It’s an ideal location for another of the city’s ubiquitous McMansions. Or maybe even three.

In 2005, however, the families of previous owners Charles B. and Lurinda J. Smith had the home placed on the Winter Park Register of Historic Places, which offered protections from lot splitting and demolition, and required historically accurate exterior remodeling. 

The Smiths could have chosen to raze the 2,400-square-foot structure and, with city approval, split the lot into three 15,200 square-foot parcels. Instead, they chose to protect this genteel reminder of the city’s past. But for a time, the gesture seemed to have been in vain.

In February 2019, a Tennessee couple, David Dunaway, a retired lawyer, and his wife, Deborah, a nurse practitioner, bought the Waddell House for $480,000 — without an inspection — and declared that it would become their “forever home,” according to a story about the acquisition in the Orlando Sentinel. 

The Dunaways assured city staffers that their intention was restoration. However, they said, all three porches — especially the front porch on the second floor — were unstable and would have to be taken out and replaced. The frilly porches, which stretched the width of the home, provided much of its charm.

Of course, such structural issues wouldn’t be unexpected in a poorly maintained home more than 120 years old. But a demolition permit and approval from the city’s Historic Preservation Board would be required before work could begin. And, because of the home’s historic designation, the replacement porches would have to match the originals.

Although the Dunaways applied for a permit on July 8, they inexplicably had the front and rear porches removed on July 13 — before the permit was issued and before the board had granted its stamp of approval. At that point, as one might expect, everything went off the rails. 

Winter Parkers, many of whom had occasion to drive past the Waddell House almost daily, were concerned when they noticed that the porches had vanished and that the structure was draped with a blue post-hurricane tarp. But concern turned to outrage when it was reported that no one in authority had signed off on the demolition.

The city building department issued a stop-work order on July 15, by which time the Dunaways had returned to Tennessee. In the meantime, the loosely affixed tarp allowed water intrusion, which damaged the home’s horsehair plaster walls and heart of pine floors. 

Jeff Briggs, the usually patient but increasingly exasperated city planning manager, was initially unable to reach the Dunaways and get an explanation. 

The Delaneys look forward to quiet afternoons on their newly constructed back porch, which is shaded by a camphor tree that’s 22 feet in circumference and probably as old as the house itself.

Not being from Winter Park, the Dunaways had not experienced the wrath of locals when a historic structure is threatened. A “Save the Waddell House” campaign had already begun on social media when the city issued a notice of violation on October 9. 

On October 16, the Dunaways responded and promised to secure the tarps. But they also revealed that they had hired a structural engineer to “do a complete appraisal on the structural integrity of the home to determine if repairs are possible or feasible or if the home needs to be demolished.” 

Uh-oh.

The tarps were secured on October 22. But when no steps were taken to restore the porches, a hearing was set before the city’s Code Enforcement Board for December 5. The board ordered the Dunaways to submit restoration plans in seven days or face a $250 fine for each day they remained in violation.

Attending the meeting was the couple’s Longwood-based attorney, Kevin Donaghy, who announced that an engineer had judged the home structurally unsound. The Dunaways, Donaghy said, have “reached an impasse where they cannot afford to repair the entire home.” Why would they replace the porches on a home that they would have to tear down?

It was alleged by some that the neglect was strategic. Christine Dalton, a member of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, emailed Briggs and reiterated that “this is a strategy of many property investors — create conditions for deterioration, then hire a structural engineer to write a report stating that the building is unsafe and therefore must be demolished.”

Then, in a confusing sequence of events, the Dunaways reversed course and agreed to take out a loan so they could proceed with their original plans. Shortly thereafter, however, they told city officials that personal reasons would prevent them from restoring their “forever home.” 

Just in the nick of time, though, new buyers emerged who were eager to take on the project. Enter Rhett and Brooke Delaney, who paid the Dunaways $520,000 and closed on the increasingly forlorn Waddell House in July of 2020 — almost exactly one year following the ominous porch fiasco between the previous owners and the city.

Briggs — along with hundreds of locals, many of whom were preparing to mobilize around a rescue effort — could hardly could have felt more relieved. 

“The city and the Historic Preservation Board are very fortunate to have had this property purchased by people who are willing to restore it and make it a showplace,” Briggs says. “It’s also nice to see that the city can actually enforce its regulations.” 

A communitywide “amen” was almost audible. The Waddell House would not need to become a cause célèbre, as had been the case with Casa Feliz and the Capen-Showalter House. 

“It’s incredible how well built this place is,” says Rhett as he sits outside a circa 1930s tin shed in the backyard, where a camphor tree 22 feet in circumference provides shade. Inside the home, workers tear out walls and reveal the grand old lady’s stubborn wooden bones. “Old homes like this are worth saving. I hope it lasts another 123 years.”

The Delaneys will add about 1,800 square feet of living area through a two-story extension at the rear that will encompass a first-floor office and a second-floor master bedroom. The addition will feature a wraparound back porch.

There’ll also be two-and-a-half bathrooms added to the existing two bathrooms (neither of which, oddly, are located downstairs). Later, a carriage house will be built on the west side and connected to the main structure by a porte cochere. The circular driveway will be lined by bricks delineating a period-appropriate oyster shell driving surface.

Rhett adds that no major surprises have been encountered so far, except for evidence that a squatter had lived in the home’s attic. As it happened, an unauthorized tenant had indeed been ushered out by the Winter Park Police Department in 2018 — but left some of his belongings behind.

C2 General Contracting in Longwood, which has its own millwork operation, is re-creating the Waddell House’s gingerbread-laden porches based on designs by architect Randy Bumbalough and old photographs of the façade.

The project architect is Randy Bumbalough of Arc Design Lab in Orlando, while the general contractor is C2 General Contracting in Longwood. C2 has its own millwork operation and, in addition to overseeing the renovation, is re-creating the gingerbread-laden porches based on designs by Bumbalough and old photographs of the home. 

“Hopefully when we’re done, no one would know at a glance that the porches aren’t exactly what they were originally,” says Mark Chipperfield, C2’s general manager.

Rhett says the project will be complete by September 2021, at which time he and Brooke — plus a child due in December 2020 and three talkative parrots — will move from an old home into an even older one. The couple currently lives on Hollywood Avenue in what may be the city’s only remaining Sears Roebuck kit home. 

What will the ultimate tab be for this labor of love? The Delaneys demure when asked to discuss costs — but it wouldn’t be surprising if rehabilitation of the existing structure, construction of the additions and furnishing the home (mostly with antiques, they say) totals as much or more than the purchase price.

So what? In Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, naysaying attorney Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas) gives his friends Jim and Muriel some rare encouragement when their home is finally completed, revealing in his contrition that he has finally come to understand what’s truly important: 

“Ever since this thing started, I’ve been the voice of doom about the project. Every step of the way I’ve been convinced that you were getting fleeced, bilked, rooked, flimflammed and generally taken to the cleaners. Maybe you were. Maybe it cost a lot more than you thought it would. Maybe there were times when you wish you’d never started. But when I look at what you two have got here … well, I don’t know.”

Then the Cole character hits the proverbial nail on the head: “Maybe there are some things you should buy with your heart, not your head.”

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