LET'S JUST ASK JACK

Jack Lane, this year’s Peacock Ball honoree, is a legendary history professor at Rollins College and the foremost expert on the college’s rich history. He is shown here on campus, in front of the breezeway connecting the Knowles Memorial Chapel and the Annie Russell Theatre.

Jack C. Lane began his academic career at Rollins College nearly 57 years ago as a specialist in military history. “Most military history is written by people with a very patriotic view toward the military, so I thought there needed to be another perspective,” he says. 

Lane’s dissertation and his scholarship have included explorations of American foreign policy. And he would later write several well-regarded books on military topics, including Chasing Geronimo: The Journal of Leonard Wood, May–September 1885 (1970) and Armed Progressive: General Leonard Wood (1978). Both books have been reprinted several times.

Wood (1860–1927) was certainly a compelling subject. In 1885, he was an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army and was stationed with the 4th Cavalry at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He participated in the last campaign against Geronimo in 1886, and was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1888.

Alongside Teddy Roosevelt, Wood commanded the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. Later, he became Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, Military Governor of Cuba and Governor General of the Philippines. He was a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920.

But Lane’s interest in military matters began to wane. Even more fascinating — if, thankfully, not nearly as bloody — was Winter Park and Rollins College. When the late Thaddeus Seymour was appointed president of the college in 1979, he named Lane “college historian” and asked him to begin writing a centennial history to be published in 1985.

“So, I started getting into educational history, higher education,” says Lane, a native of Texas with a master’s degree from Emory University and a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia. Both advanced degrees are in American history.

“I wanted to see where Rollins fit in all of that,” he says. “I saw some opportunities there, so I wrote about it. And then just became interested generally in American cultural history and so sort of drifted away from military history.”

Winter Parkers from that time forward have been the beneficiaries of what Lane describes as his scholarly “short attention span.” His account of the college’s history, as it happened, was completed in 1985 but, due to budgetary constraints, wasn’t published until 2017. 

President Grant Cornwell, who was hired in 2015, read the languishing manuscript — which Lane had posted online — and knew it had to see the light of day.

Better late than never. Rollins College Centennial History: A Story of Perseverance, 1885–1985 was no dry academic tome. Instead it was filled with eccentric characters, near-disasters, daring innovations and heady achievements. And the crackling story was told with the combination of a storyteller’s zeal and a historian’s rigor.

Chapter headers offer confirmation that Lane was granted carte blanche to tell the roller-coaster tale like it really was: “The Struggle for Survival,” “The Search for Stability” and “The College in Crisis,” to name just a few. 

Frequently, money — or a lack thereof — was the problem. Other times, imperious administrators and peculiar professors wreaked havoc. (See the chapters on President Paul Wagner, the “boy wonder” who was fired and refused to leave, and Professor John Rice, the iconoclast who enraged the community with his atheism and arrogance.)

In 1991, Lane and Rollins English professor Maurice “Socky” O’Sullivan compiled a collection of Florida writing ranging from folk tales and Spanish myths to Florida-related work by such writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, John James Audubon, Zora Neale Hurston, Zane Grey, Wallace Stevens, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Jose Yglesias and Harry Crews. Visions of Paradise: From 1530 to the Present (Pineapple Press) won the Florida Historical Society’s Tebeau Award as the year’s best book on Florida history. 

Lane, a meticulous researcher, has always been first and foremost a teacher. During his career at Rollins, he was recognized with the Arthur Vining Davis Fellowship Award in 1972, the Alexander Weddell Professor of the America’s Chair in 1978 and the William Blackman Medal in 1997. At its 2006 commencement exercises, the college awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

In addition, Lane’s stories for scholarly journals and consumer publications such as Winter Park Magazine revealed — and continue to reveal — even more previously untold stories about the community’s past. In 2005, he wrote a corporate history of Winter Park Memorial Hospital, now AdventHealth Winter Park.

During his career at Rollins, Lane was recognized with several prestigious honors, including the Arthur Vining Davis Fellowship Award in 1972, the Alexander Weddell Professor of the America’s Chair in 1978 and the William Blackman Medal in 1997. At its 2006 commencement exercises, Rollins awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

In recent years, Lane — who retired from the college in 1999 and granted professor emeritus status — has conducted historical tours of the campus, assisted as guest lecturer in several classes, and served on the boards of Casa Feliz and the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College.

He has also been a member of exhibition committees for the Winter Park Historical Society. He and his wife, Janne, even live in a designated historic district, College Quarter, in a home that’s listed on the Winter Park Register of Historic Places.

Says Susan Skolfield, executive director of the Winter Park History Museum: “No one has done more to connect the histories of town and gown in Winter Park than Rollins’ favorite historian. Through his writings, lectures and advocacy, Jack has not only been a beloved instructor for Rollins students, but for every Winter Park resident as well. We are delighted to honor him at this year’s Peacock Ball.”

Winter Park Magazine recently sat down with Lane for a conversation, portions of which follow.

Q: You were the first in your family to attend college. What was it like growing up, and what motivated you to become a Ph.D. and then a professor?

A: I grew up in rural Texas about 15 miles from Austin in a small town called Elgin. I was born in the depths of the Great Depression. My father was a truck driver for a local brick company and, as I remember, we lived pretty much paycheck to paycheck. We were poor but not destitute. 

I was the second one in my large extended family to graduate from high school. College was completely beyond my expectations, nor was I encouraged to go.

As I look back, it seems I’ve lived my life in two separate worlds — the first an impoverished world rooted in 19th-century agrarian values, religiously and socially very conservative; the second an urban, academic world, socially and ideologically liberal. On my many return visits to my family’s world, I felt as if I had entered a foreign country. 

After high school, during the Korean War era, I spent three years in the Army Airborne Division. After discharge, with the help of the G.I. Bill, I entered college (at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta). 

An American history class led me to dream of being a college professor. Before that moment, such a possibility had never entered my mind. Later, with the support of my soulmate and wife, Janne, I achieved that unlikely goal. How I got to Rollins is another story. 


As I look back, it seems I’ve lived my life in two separate worlds — the first an impoverished world rooted in 19th-century agrarian values, religiously and socially very conservative; the second an urban, academic world, socially and ideologically liberal.


Q: Were you always interested  in  history? Can you point to a specific time or incident that convinced you that you wanted to be a historian? If you hadn’t been a historian, what field might you have pursued?

A: I was an indifferent student in high school, interested more in sports than academics, but I did enjoy my history courses. As mentioned, I purposely chose an American history course as my first class in college and that set me on my career course. 

I had two dreams when I graduated from high school — one was to be a musician, but with my family’s economic situation, that remained only a dream. The other was to play professional baseball. 

I did play for a semi-pro team for a year while at the same time working in Austin. And in the spring of 1951, I was asked to try out for the University of Texas baseball team. But the Korean War intervened and that never happened. 

The one thing that never entered my mind in those years was a career as a college professor. I didn’t even know what a Ph.D. was.

Q: What brought you to Winter Park and Rollins College?

A: That’s a long story, but here’s a brief version. After receiving a doctorate (from the University of Georgia) in the spring of 1963, I had offers from three big universities, and wasn’t particularly satisfied with any — but by May, the schools wanted an answer. 

Just as I was ready to decide, the department head told me that someone had called him about an opening at a small college in Winter Park, Florida. 

Where the heck was Winter Park, Florida? It was hard to find it on a map. I had never heard of Rollins or even been to Florida, but it sounded like what I wanted — a small liberal-arts college. 

I called, they invited me down, I saw the college and town and fell in love with both. They offered me the position and I accepted. We’ve never left. 

Q: What were Rollins and Winter Park like when you came, and how have they changed?

A: As I began to research the college’s history, I realized that I had arrived at the end of one era and the beginning of another. I was fortunate enough to experience both. 

The first I would characterize as the New England patrician era. The college community was infused with a certain kind of gentility led by independently wealthy New Englanders. There was a sense of elegant leisure and gracefulness. And the town exhibited the same behavior. 

There was a kind of lazy acceptance of the world as it was. I had come from the turmoil and excitement of the early civil rights movement in Atlanta and Athens, Georgia, to a place that seemed totally indifferent to what was happening in the rest of country. I experienced a kind of culture shock.

Then, suddenly, that changed. Older faculty retired, new faculty arrived and so did the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the youth movement. Rollins and Winter Park finally joined the world — and everything changed. 


There was a kind of lazy acceptance of the world as it was. I had come from the turmoil and excitement of the early civil rights movement in Atlanta and Athens, Georgia, to a place that seemed totally indifferent to what was happening in the rest of country. I experienced a kind of culture shock.


Q: What do you think is the single most important event in the history of Rollins, and why? How about for Winter Park?

A: Well, that’s a hard question to answer. There are so many turning points in both their histories. 

The Hamilton Holt era (Holt was president of the college from 1925-49) clearly was a transformative time in the college’s history, when it began to shift — in its mission, in its academics and even in its architecture — from a New England-based college to a Florida-based college. 

Still, for a while it retained a New England patrician culture. As I later realized, the McKean presidency (Hugh McKean was president of the college from 1951-69) was essentially an extension of the Holt era. In the 1960s and 1970s, that patrician culture encountered the modern world and it began to crumble. 

Then, between 1969 and 2004, two dynamic presidents — Thaddeus Seymour and Rita Bornstein — took the college to a whole new level, where it remains today.  

Winter Park went through a similar transformation. It went from a small, intimate service town to one dominated by businesses catering to tourists. The only evidence of that former town today is Miller’s Hardware. Miller’s remains an icon of days long past. 

In Winter Park, we’ve lived through two eras that I call BD (Before Disney) and AD (After Disney). Enough said. Well, perhaps one more comment — I’m personally not nostalgic about some aspects of the little village I found in 1963, where they wouldn’t allow children to live in the apartments we wanted to rent. 

Whatever the town’s charm — and it was very charming — I would not prefer to live in a world of old wealth somnolence.


I’m personally not nostalgic about some aspects of the little village I found in 1963, where they wouldn’t allow children to live in the apartments we wanted to rent. Whatever the town’s charm — and it was very charming — I would not prefer to live in a world of old wealth somnolence. 


Q: Who would you rank as the top five most important figures in Rollins’ history, and briefly why?

A: Well, at the top of the list would be the obvious one, Hamilton Holt. He’s such an iconic figure — not only at Rollins but in the larger community — that it’s difficult to come up with new accolades to express his impact. 

Under Holt’s leadership, Rollins was transformed, both educationally and physically. He established its identity as a proponent of innovative, experimental teaching and learning. His leadership made it a nationally recognized institution of higher education.

Moreover, he transformed the campus with more than 30 buildings constructed in the Mediterranean Revival architectural style. That’s one reason that Rollins is routinely recognized as having the nation’s most beautiful campus.

Then there are two presidents at the turn of the century who would make my list. One was the almost-regal George Morgan Ward (president from 1896–1902, and acting president on two subsequent occasions), who gave the college stability and daringly abandoned the classical curriculum.

Then there was William Freemont Blackman (president from 1903–1915), who brought the college back to its liberal education roots when it was drifting toward vocational or professional education. By the way, seven decades later, President Seymour did the same thing.

Also, I’d include the Blackman family, including President Blackman’s wife, Lucy, and their three children. They were by far away the most delightful and entertaining presidential family. The chapter on Blackman in my centennial history book was fun to write. Prophetically, I was presented the Blackman Medal at my retirement.

Still, I think the unsung heroes have been the generations of trustees, faculty and students — particularly those who stuck with the college in times of serious adversity. They never lost the faith when many wanted to throw in the towel. I spend some time revealing their tireless efforts.

Q: You were originally interested in military history, but much of your scholarship is on the history of Rollins. In fact, the only authoritative history of Rollins is your book. Did you feel a sense of mission to document the history of the institution?

A: Well, to answer that question is to reveal one of my character flaws — but I’ll answer anyway. I have a very short attention span when it comes to scholarship. 

I drifted in my scholarly publications from military history to the history of American foreign policy to the history of education to Florida history and finally to the history of Rollins. As you can see, with age my perspectives got narrower and narrower. 

And yes, I felt the college had given me so much that I owed it something in return, and the “authoritative history” as you call it was my contribution. 

But more than that, I realized that the college was losing its institutional memory, and that was very dangerous — and it’s even more dangerous today. Because the college is in this COVID-19 era, it should be reminded that the subtitle of my history is “A Story of Perseverance.” 

This current threat is by no means the first test of resilience the college has faced. Some tests, in fact, have been far more serious. Yet, it’s still here and thriving. 

Q: The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly challenged Rollins and all colleges. But you say the institution has overcome more serious threats. What were they? 

A: I chose the theme of “perseverance” because there were so many periods when it seemed the college wouldn’t survive. But the struggles gave it strength to weather storms of adversity at times when countless other colleges facing similar problems went under.

But to answer your question about a specific period: I would say the immediate years after World War I. The conflict had almost denuded the college of its male students and depleted its finances. It emerged from the war deeply in debt.

Many wanted to give up the struggle as a lost cause. That’s when Hamilton Holt came to the rescue — the college’s knight in shining armor, if you will.

Q: What facet of the college’s history surprised you the most?

A: Well, there was very little that I did know of Rollins’ past, so I found many surprises. Part of my reluctance at first to undertake writing the book was the idea of doing an institutional history — that it would be dull.

But was I wrong. Not only was it not dull, but as I began to dig into the material in the archives, I quickly found the story fascinating. What human drama here!

A group of intrepid Congregationalists (Rollins was founded by the Florida Congregational Association and members of the First Congregational Church of Winter Park) had either the audacity or the foolhardiness to start a college in the Florida wilderness, in a village that had only about 150 souls.

What’s more, they installed a course of study that required extensive preparation in classical languages and literature. For heaven’s sake, there weren’t even any secondary schools in Florida at that time.

How the college survived — through epidemics, freezes, internal conflicts and exhausted finances — was a story that captivated my interest from the very beginning. It involved heroic effort on the part of many individuals.

And then I found that the college’s history was populated by engaging and brilliant personalities — some of whom did the college no favors, and others of whom were instrumental in pulling the institution through its adversities.

Lane wrote several well-regarded books on military topics, including Chasing Geronimo: The Journal of Leonard Wood, May–September 1885 (1970) and Armed Progressive: General Leonard Wood (1978). Visions of Paradise: From 1530 to the Present won the Florida Historical Society’s Tebeau Award as the year’s best book on Florida history. Rollins College Centennial History: A Story of Perseverance, 1885–1985 is filled with eccentric characters, near-disasters, daring innovations and heady achievements.

Q: Did writing the book give you a greater appreciation for Rollins? In what way?

A: Oh my, yes. For so many reasons. Because I knew so little of the college’s past, I had countless “ah ha” moments during my research. I realized that many of the things we were doing academically had been passed down to us from previous generations of leaders.

For example, from my earliest days at Rollins, I sensed that I was expected to be innovative in my teaching, to experiment with new ideas and to create innovative educational programs. These were time-honored Rollins traditions — but I didn’t know that at the time.

Also, I was surprised to learn how long Rollins had been so renowned. It had, all along, attracted brilliant professors and highly regarded figures.

I made two major discoveries in this realm. First, I learned that Zora Neale Hurston was deeply connected to the college, and that two Rollins professors had jump-started her fabulous career.

Second, I learned that Rollins was the seedbed for the founding of Black Mountain College, probably the nation’s most celebrated experimental institution. Former Rollins professors started the school in North Carolina.

Let me just add here what I see as an important insight that came to me as I researched the college’s past. As I mentioned earlier, the college community was in danger of losing its institutional memory. I had that fact reinforced to me time and time again.

As I had been reminding my history students, ignorance of our past can be seriously damaging. For a college, that can mean dangerously wandering into ways that seriously impair its historic mission.

Forgive me if I include a quote from President Cornwall’s forward to the book: “In this time of rapidly shifting changes, one that requires (re)envisioning the role of liberal education in a global context, it is critical that present and future Rollins generations embrace the distinctive character that previous generations strove to build.”

My hope was that Rollins College Centennial History provided assurance that we will never forget this college’s past — and particularly how previous generations doggedly kept alive the commitment to liberal education. That’s one of the meanings of the motto, “Fiat Lux.”


As I had been reminding my history students, ignorance of our past can be seriously damaging. For a college, that can mean dangerously wandering into ways that seriously impair its historic mission.


Q: What accomplishments, personally and professionally, are you most proud  of?

A: My first published book was the most exciting thing that happened to me professionally. Did you realize that only about 1 percent of professors ever get a book published? 

But then — and this one may surprise you — I consider my most enduring accomplishment academically has been to create the Summer Teaching/Learning Workshop for the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS). 

The ACS, of which Rollins is a proud member, is composed of the best liberal-arts colleges in the South. I created and guided a group of facilitators and participants through several summer workshops until it was well established. 

This year will be the 30th year the ACS will offer the Summer Workshop, now headquartered at Sewanee College (near Chattanooga, Tennessee). Professionally, nothing has given me more satisfaction than to see one of my creations help so many young faculty.

Q: What’s one thing most people would be surprised to learn about you? You mentioned earlier wanting to have been a musician, for example. 

A: Well, let’s see — for those who don’t know much about my background, they’d probably be surprised to know that during my early 20s I sang the third part and played drums and vibes with a professional jazz vocal quartet called The Tradewinds. 

We made several recordings, of which I have one. If I may be a bit indecorous (or am I already guilty of that?) I will say that we were very good, and with a little more time may have gone to the top.

But a key member was married and had to leave the road. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have met Janne, wouldn’t have had this beautiful family and wouldn’t have had a career as professor of American history at a wonderful college in a great town. 

As they say, a lot of life depends on luck and I’ve been very lucky. 


THE 2020 PEACOCK BALL

Join the community for the Winter Park History Museum’s 2020 Peacock Ball, honoring Rollins College Professor of History Emeritus Jack C. Lane.

WHEN: Saturday, November 14

WHERE: The Rice Family Pavilion at Rollins College

TIME: TBA

TO ATTEND: For information about tickets and sponsorships, call the history museum at 407.647.2330 or email museum@wphistory.org.

PAST PEACOCK BALL HONOREES

2019
Joy Wallace Dickinson
“Florida Flashbacks” Columnist, the Orlando Sentinel

2018
Randy Noles
Editor and Publisher, Winter Park Magazine

2017
Rita Bornstein
President Emerita, Rollins College

2016
Saluting Life in Winter Park During World War II

2015
Debbie Komanski
Executive Director, Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens

2014
James Gamble Rogers II and John “Jack” H. Rogers
Architects

2013
Alfond Inn Opening

2012
125th Anniversary of Winter Park

2011
Winter Park Community Center Opening

2010
Hugh and Jeannette McKean
Founders, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art

2009
Kenneth Murrah and Harold Ward
Attorneys and Civic Leaders

2008
Rose Bynum, Eleanor Fisher, Eula Jenkins and Peggy Strong
West Side Community Leaders

2007
Thaddeus and Polly Seymour
President and First Lady, Rollins College (1978–90)

MY TURBULENT, TERRIFYING (BUT TERRIFIC) LIFE AS A HEEL

Illustrations by John Nadeau

Nowicki, as the pompous Sir Rupert Birkin (later the equally pompous Lord Larry Oliver), gleefully enraged wrestling fans by hurling insults and interfering with matches.

The stadium lights had a hypnotic effect. As we stepped into the ring, the canvas floor glowed as blue as a TV screen, and the ropes around it might have been the gorged arteries of some man-eating plant.

The announcer introduced us: first, my charge, Mike Masters, challenger for the Southern Junior Heavyweight belt, and then me, his manager, Sir Rupert Birkin. The fans welcomed us with lusty boos and insults. 

I was momentarily stunned: No one out there could possibly know Sir Rupert. I’d barely made up the name in time to get it in the program. I began to wonder what I’d gotten myself into.

Hot-dog wrappers and ice cubes began to sail into the ring. I looked out over hundreds of faces eagerly expecting the worst of us, and an uncanny excitement began to capture me. I walked to the ropes, pointed at some raving stranger and shouted, “Shut up!” 

The boos grew more passionate and someone else shouted back, “You stink, Rupert!” and a Coke cup hit my shoulder. It was 1986 and I was 30 years old, going on 12. I knew this was going to be fun.

I was having my muffler fixed when I read the ad: “WRESTLERS! WRESTLERS! Be a pro,” it shouted, then almost disappeared, like a shadowy figure that whispers, “Hey, mister, over here,” then ducks into some dark doorway. 

I read it again. There existed, it appeared, an institution of higher education known as the Central Florida School of Wrestling.

In an instant, my desultory Saturday blues were swept away. As a kid, I had been fascinated by wrestling, amazed by its athletes and pleasantly appalled by its theatrical license. My brother and I played Jack Brisco and The Great Malenko in the yard until I impaled him on a sprinkler. 

But never once did it cross our minds that wrestlers went to school. I suppose we thought the promoters found new talent by bailing it out of jail. Old daydreams began to stir. When I confided this new inspiration to family and friends, the response was a near-unanimous sneer.

One or two worried about my health, primarily physical. Only my mother was unconcerned: She understood me to say I was going to “resting” school, which she thought redundant in my case but at least indicated I wanted to do something well.

The idea became irresistible. I called the school and said I was a writer. I wanted to attend sessions and find out what a man might have to go through to enter the squared circle.

SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS

“Do you know about my Italian friend?” Rocky Montana asked. The wrestlers in the ring disentangled themselves, and one of them, a new student (me), looked up at him and shrugged. 

“You know what La Scalla is?” he continued. “It’s a famous opera house in Italy. One day, this American opera singer goes there to sing. After he’s done, the audience starts shouting ‘Again! Again!’ So he comes back out, sings it again and they’re shouting at him.”

Then Rocky made his point: “Seven times this happens, until the signer finally says, ‘Look, thanks very much, but I’m a little tired and I really gotta go.’ At which point, this little Italian guy way up in the balcony leans over and yells, ‘You’re gonna do it again until you get it right!’”

Rocky was the trainer at the Central Florida School of Wrestling, and that story could have been his school’s fight song — or its aria. Struggling there on my back, trying to squirm my way out of a head-scissors, I began to understand viscerally that there was no trick. 


The boos grew more passionate and someone else shouted back, “You stink, Rupert!” and a Coke cup hit my shoulder. It was 1986 and I was 30 years old, going on 12. I knew this was going to be fun.


Professional wrestling is an art, at least down there at the level of the mat. And there is a distinct order to the mayhem that occurs in the ring. Each hold and its reversal is as precise as a dance step — a thing of beauty if you know it well, an impossibility if you don’t. 

Never before had I felt the weight of my ignorance so literally; no matter what I tried, those legs stayed locked around me like whale jaws. I had been shown how to break the hold, but I couldn’t do it right and couldn’t coordinate my moves. I considered tickling the man.

“Try it again, girls,” Rocky ordered, and we did. Twenty or 30 times.

So, is wrestling fake, or what? By now, everyone knows that wrestling is “sports entertainment” in which the outcomes are predetermined. But back then, there was still a pretense that chaos in ring — and outside it — was entirely spontaneous. 

I wasn’t entirely sure myself.

“What’s a fake? “ Rocky asked rhetorically, in response to my timidly posed question during my first day at the gym. “A fake is something you don’t see. In wrestling, we make you see what you believe.”

Continued Rocky: “If somebody comes in here and asks, ‘Is wrestling fake?’ I tell them, ‘Let’s get in the ring and see how much of it is fake.’ But if you ask some legitimate question, like, ‘How much of it is showmanship?’ that’s another story. This ain’t no trick. This is hard work.”

Wrestling is a kind of heavyweight ballet. Maybe two dozen basic holds, throws and reverses make up the essential tools of ringwork from which hundreds of variations and combinations are possible. 

To survive, let alone succeed, a wrestler must master of most of these possibilities and be able to improvise the rest. To be a good wrestler takes years of training — practicing holds and breaking them until each is simple, seamless and effective.

But the word “ballet” can be misleading. Wrestling is indeed like dance in the sense that it’s two (or more) people using movement to entertain. Although who’ll ultimately win is known by the combatants, the matches are more akin to jazz improvisations. 

A working wrestler (or “worker”) will have six or seven matches a week, each in a different city against a different opponent. Even if they wanted to rehearse, there’d be no time. Each wrestler works his own instrument against the other as the crowd lays down the beat.

At Rocky’s gym, in a warehouse in Pine Hills, we were taught that it wasn’t enough just to step into the ring. “Walk around, check for any weak spots, check the ropes, let the crowd know you’re there,” Rocky explained, which seemed easy enough. 

“No, no, no, you’re too tight!” he shouted. “You gotta look comfortable in there. Loosen up! Well, don’t sashay! You’re a wrestler. Strut a little!” When I had finally put acceptable purpose in my stride, Rocky grunted me out of the ring and brought me over to Topper, an accomplished alumnus who was about my height, but twice as massive. “Take him through the lock-up,” Rocky said. 

I took a deep breath.

There were no formal classes at the Central Florida School of Wrestling — no lectures and few moments when everyone’s attention was focused on the same thing. There was one ring, a punching bag, a couple of barbells and plenty of floor space where students could pair off to work on holds. 

Most of the teaching was done by experienced students, while Rocky stood by the door or sat on the ring apron, watching. He interrupted only when things provoked his displeasure — which is not to say infrequently.

Learning the ropes

Rocky Montana’s 35 years in wrestling, like everything else about the sport, were shrouded in mystery. He said he was trained by the legendary Antonino Rocca, “Argentina Rocky,” back in Brooklyn in the early ’50s, along with another legend, Bruno Sammartino. 

After that, he said, he wrestled all over the world, alone and with his brother, Lenny, who together were called The Medics and The Assassins — two tag teams that had earned a place in wrestling infamy. 

Rocky showed us trophy belts that proclaimed him a seven-time Georgia State Champion and an International Heavyweight Champion. He claimed that he had worked against such luminaries as Dory Funk, Dusty Rhodes and Andre the Giant.

There is, of course, no wrestling hall of records to verify any of this. But watching Rocky in his rare moments in the ring washed away any doubts about his ability. 

From an unlikely-looking collection of 55-year-old arms and legs issued moments of transcendent athletic grace that could come only with years of experience doing it with — and as — the best.

Nowicki, a Winter Park-based actor who most recently appeared in the critically acclaimed AMC TV series Lodge 49, says his stint as a bad-guy wrestling manager taught him “to find the juiciness in playing bad.”

Fortunately, Rocky was occupied while Topper patiently taught me the lock-up, a basic opening move in which the wrestlers meet in the center of the ring and lock arms at the neck and shoulders. 

From there, he showed me the upper wristlock and how to reverse it into the hammerlock, and how to reverse the hammerlock back into the upper wristlock. 

This is the first combination taught to a wrestler, and it introduces much more than the moves themselves. The contact, and the effort to apply the holds correctly, felt invigorating. 

But the obvious power behind Topper’s moves was an unsettling new sensation — and he wasn’t even trying. It was like the first time you touch a loaded gun; invariably, you imagine what it’s like to have one pointed at you.

I’ve never been a quick study, and that day I was particularly slow. “Step out, go under,” Topper called. “That’s it, pivot, Whoa! Whoa! Easy!” Each placement of the hands, the length of each step and the timing of each pivot is critical. And even though I could understand each separately, I couldn’t harmonize them. 

My gracelessness caused Topper a little suffering and “stretched” him, as they say in the ring. But he was remarkably easy, or “light,” on me. Wrestling is a balancing act between danger and spectacle. Every hold is legitimate and can be disabling. But it’s a working-class sport: If a man doesn’t wrestle, he doesn’t get paid. 

So, a wrestler who is “light,” who can control his man without hurting him so badly that he can’t make his next match, is admired. One who is “heavy,” a “crowbar,” is a real menace. In those awkward first few hours, there was no tool sold at Sears crude enough to compare with me.

Rocky saw it immediately. “Relax,” he admonished. “You’re stiff as a board. You get tight, nobody can work with you. Look at your elbows — they’re still sticking out like wings. Relax your shoulders.”

Relaxing was about the last skill I expected would be handy to a wrestler. But watching the better students in the ring proved the truth of it. A relaxed athlete can adapt to any situation — but the tight ones lose concentration when something goes wrong.

While a student learned the fundamentals, Rocky tested him — there were, perhaps unsurprisingly, no women in the class — for the fortitude that can’t be read in a person’s physique. 

“To be a professional wrestler, a man’s gotta have it in his head and in his heart,” Rocky said. “If he don’t, what’s the point of my training him, taking his money? If he can’t take me shouting at him, what’s he gonna do in front of a crowd? He’d go nuts.”

“THE FANS’LL KILL YOU”

During my first few weeks, I constantly expected Rocky to conclude that even for a writer, I was a hopeless wrestler. I fell into the habit of apologizing whenever I missed a move and thought I hurt my partner. Rocky was unimpressed: 

“You can’t worry about hurting a guy a little. What are you gonna do, stop the match to apologize? You ain’t gonna have to worry about that other guy. The fans’ll kill you.”

The people I trained with were not, as one might have expected, mutants or marginal personalities. They were, by in large, serious athletes. There was a fireman and an executive chef, a male stripper and a probation officer, a couple of truck drivers, a lineman for a utilities company and a Marine sergeant. And they all shared a passionate hunger to fulfill a dream.

They didn’t talk much about the sacrifices, but they were considerable. There were the long hours in the gym; for beginners, at least two days and two nights a week. 

And there were the injuries, which were undeniably real. The elbow, knees and forehead of any wrestler become veritable gardens of scar tissue. Shoulder separations and broken legs are common.

“Taking a bump” is the euphemism for the crash landing you endure when a wrestler throws you through the air. 

The floor of a ring is usually plywood or aluminum with a thin layer of canvas-covered padding. Colliding with it is probably the quintessential wrestling experience: exhilarating and unkind, a matter of graceful technique or a painful lack of it. 

Taking a bump properly comes down, again, to relaxing. “That first bump is always the worst,” Rocky chuckled. “It’s all in the mind. It hurts a lot more to think about than to do.”

The point is more than just knowing how to fall — it’s also learning how to fly. When a wrestler feels a throw coming, he must launch himself into the air so that he retains control of how and where he hits. 


While he made no claims to it, Rocky built character as well as wrestlers. To him, those who worked out at his gym were family. (At least two over the years became his adopted sons.) Rocky’s lesson was the honor of hard work well done.


And these flights can begin from some rather dramatic heights and radical relationships to gravity. Bumps separate the men from the wrestlers.

One evening I was in the ring with Terry, who stood 6-foot-6. He whipped me into the ropes and as I bounced back toward him, I saw that he was positioned to administer a body slam. 

Before I could point out that I hadn’t yet been trained for that, he scooped me up over his shoulder, inverted and unloaded me like a sack of grain. It seemed like an eternity before I hit the canvas.

The notion that pain ends when the spirit leaves the body was the only confirmation I had that I was still alive. That, and the sounds of merriment from outside the ring. But before I could make notes for self-improvement, Terry pulled me up by the hair and hoisted me for another slam. 

This went on for a while. I took a variety of bumps and even found, much to my surprise, that I had begun to enjoy them. Rocky was right: After the initial shock, the thrill takes over from the fear.

Good thing, too. Because of my size, which is laughable by wrestling standards, as soon as I was taking bumps, my usefulness at the gym grew geometrically. Students who needed to practice throws sought me out, since my comparatively light weight made it easier to work on the mechanics. 

And a few of these bumps became the stuff of legend. One pair of legs accustomed to dealing with 250-pound wrestlers nearly launched the 165 pounds of me into the trophy collection on top of the office. This move came to be known among my cohort as “the journalist.”

Of course, it wasn’t all blood and sweat on the mat.

On occasion, Rocky would bring us home with him after a workout to watch tapes of exceptional matches. We would arrive with the intention of studying the tapes with dinner (which Rocky’s wife, Johnnie, would improvise for us with saintly forbearance) and normally not leave until well after even the family dogs were snoring.

While he made no claims to it, Rocky built character as well as wrestlers. To him, those who worked out at his gym were family. (At least two over the years became his adopted sons.) Rocky’s lesson was the honor of hard work well done. 

The tapes were dissected move by move. Key moments were replayed again and again, slower and slower. “Did you see that? What did he do?” Rocky asked until someone answered.

 

 

MAYHEM AND MELODRAMA

Wrestling, along with everything else, is melodrama, the modern morality play — particularly modern since good and evil have nothing to do with the outcome.

The fans have always appreciated wrestling as much on an emotional as an athletic level. For the sake of the fans, wrestlers work “in character,” which gives the sport its larger-than-life quality. 

It’s a simple matter of adding showmanship, making the match easy to understand for everyone in the arena, all the way up to the last fan in general admission.

“Showmanship came into wrestling 40 years ago,” Rocky explained. “Until then, college wrestlers would turn pro, add a few punches and do basically what they did in school. People got bored. Then along came this out-of-work actor who calls himself Gorgeous George and everything changes. All of a sudden, what he says and does is just as important as how he wrestles.” 

There are no cheerleaders in wrestling; it’s up to the grapplers to rile up the crowds. Like Gorgeous George and the colorful characters who followed, we worked constantly at “selling” the spectators, getting them involved in the match by sharing it with them — facially and vocally. 

A lack of expression is a serious flaw. “My god! You’re laying it into the man — look like you mean it,” Rocky would demand. “And you, you’re in trouble. Why are you hiding your face? Let’s see it!” 

Lee Strasberg would be impressed by the attention paid to shedding inhibitions.

A wrestler chooses his competitive persona based on what works for him. But there are more than just moves and tactics to consider — there’s also the question of how he relates to the crowds. 

A brawler, a bad guy, a “heel,” must be able to rile them. The heel is always the visiting team, the hated rival, and must revel in it. A good guy, or “babyface,” need only do well at being liked.

Finally, I asked Rocky for a chance to practice what I had learned in a real match — to feel what it was like to work in front of a volatile crowd. He was sympathetic, but my size and inexperience were problems.

He suggested instead that I work as a manager. Mike Masters had a match forthcoming with Bo Brandon for the Dixie Wrestling Alliance Junior Heavyweight Championship. Mike was looking for a woman, a valet, but couldn’t find one with the enthusiasm to train. 

I signed my waiver, then Mike and I got down to work.

Because a manager’s purpose is to manipulate the match, using anything from psychological mischief to outright interference, he must train first as a wrestler simply to know when and what to do. 

Performed well, the role inflames crowds with the constant promise of misconduct. But a manager must be prepared to pay a price to an enraged adversary. 

The offer to manage had, in itself, been a surprise, but even more so was the thrill I got from my training as a very bad character. Because a manager’s main function is tipping the scales, he almost always works with a heel — a babyface would have little use for him. 

Secrets of working up the crowd’s venom were revealed to me, and I took unalloyed pleasure in practicing them. I imagined with pure delight the hatred of hundreds (well, sometimes dozens), all at my command. 

I did have one asset to bring into the ring. I, like Gorgeous George, had worked as a professional actor before I started wrestling. This wouldn’t be the first time I’d been paid to make a crowd angry.

I was warned that the more effective I was, the more hated I would be. And that the biggest risks in wrestling, by far, occur where the managers roam away from the mat.

Wrestlers, by and large, at least retain a basic respect for one another’s lives — but that’s not always true of the patrons.

“Worry about the fans,” Rocky warned, time and time again. “The fans will hurt you worse than any worker.”

He told stories about a manager working outside the ring who accidentally fell over on his back into the crowd, which surrounded him and began kicking and punching him until he was dragged back to the safety of the ring — by his opponent.

The night before the match, I lay awake in bed reviewing what Mike and I had planned, working up new and colorful insults to yell at the fans. I practiced my diatribes over and over again under my breath until my mouth watered. 

I couldn’t sleep. I wondered what my mother would think, or if she’d even show up. I thought about all those nuns who gave me B-pluses in conduct in grammar school.

ROAR OF THE CROWD

The dressing room before the match was a kind of temple of doom. We were segregated by ethical disposition — the babies in a real locker room and the heels in a maintenance closet. 

Ordinary-looking men entered the room and transformed themselves into horrifying visions of ill will. I shook hands with workers who introduced themselves as “The Bulldog” and “Cousin Leroy,” wary of revealing any more.

When Brandon, our opponent for the evening, finally entered the ring, the crowd was ready for him. During the shakedown, I antagonized him, he took a swipe at me and Mike clobbered him. The match was underway.

I found myself fascinated by the crowd. They were like a living Edvard Munch painting, cursing Mike’s every move. I returned their curses, which only made them holler louder and drew me to them like a magnet.

The referee happily accommodated the other portion of my job by coming over to order me back to my corner, which allowed me the chance to argue the rules and left Mike effectively alone with Bo.

The ref ignored my taunts and accusations. But I could always draw his attention by heading for the fans. I decided to get to know them better.

It was a good match, with quick moves and some big bumps on both sides. The upper hand passed back and forth and the crowd’s emotions went with it. I was down by the front row exchanging insults with a man who seemed ready to pull off his jacket and take on both of us. 

Suddenly, something in the ring caught my attention. I looked up just in time to see Brandon pull Mike down and apply the dreaded figure-four leglock. Shades of my youth!

And more importantly, my cue.

A man in a figure four is helpless by himself. It’s a “submission” hold, which means there’s no way out except surrender. Or interference from a third party.

I began screaming at the referee to break the hold, claiming it had been taken illegally, but he declined, claiming that he hadn’t seen it. Mike was thrashing wildly on the mat, refusing to give, but unable to dislodge the champion. 

I looked around for help. Usually, several members of the heel fraternity will be watching another’s match, ready to assist a fellow despot in distress. But none was coming.


I landed on my nose in a plate of jalapeños and bean dip, while the rest of me skidded into the laps of two squealing older sisters, who fell backward out of their chairs, dousing us all in cola and ice. I remember the hungry, furious faces of the crowd closing over me like a pack of wolves approaching an injured elk.


There wasn’t any choice — not that I preferred one. I jumped up onto the ring apron. As I stepped through the ropes, I heard the crowd scream at Brandon to watch out and felt sheer excitement surge through my body in anticipation of what was to come.

I snuck behind the referee and laid a few good boots into Bo’s shoulder, breaking the hold. The mob went berserk. I paused at the ropes to snarl at them, but couldn’t even hear my own voice. It felt wonderful.

Meanwhile, Mike and Bo were rolling around the ring, appearing to be dazed and in agony. The crowd was frantic, pleading desperately with Brandon to get to his feet. Both men were grabbing for the ropes, trying to pull themselves up, but it appeared that Mike would make it first and go for the pin. 

The crowd sensed a gross miscarriage of justice coming, and its cries reached a hot peak. And then, just as all seemed lost for the good guys, the referee pointed at me and declared a disqualification.

The cries turned jubilant — and it was my turn for shock and fury.

The hold was illegal, I shrieked, and it was my right to break it if the referee wouldn’t. I became the victim of injustice. The insults and threats inspired me, as I turned from the crowd to the ref and back again to the crowd. I was so busy emoting, I almost forgot that the hard fist of True Justice was bound to fall. 

And it did.

In an instant Brandon was on me. I rolled out of the ring, but Brandon stayed on my heels and the crowd chased along with him, lusting after my blood. He caught me by the arm, threw me down and then dragged me up for a body slam. The noise from the stands rose as I did — and erupted into cheers when I hit the ground.

It had been a good match. The work was good, and the crowd had dug it.

I was filling my car up at a service station after the match when Rocky pulled in. I was nervous about what he thought of my inaugural public brawl. 

“Not bad, babe,” he said, and paused. “Listen, we gotta talk.”

“What about?”

“How far you want to go with this?”

“The story?”

“Wrestling!”

“I’m having a great time. I like it. Why?”

“The guys wanna know. They like you as a manager.”

I don’t know how long I stood there with the pump in my hand after Rocky drove off. Later, he made me an offer I didn’t refuse: I became his newest “son” and prepared for world domination — of the Dixie Wrestling Alliance.

 

AN EVIL GENIUS

I practically moved into Rocky’s gym, muscled up and studied the Big Book of Villainy cover-to-cover. 

“Sir Rupert Birkin,” after some thought, was reborn as “Lord Larry Oliver, Evil Genius of the South,” a six-time world light-heavyweight champion who hailed from the Falkland Islands and had returned from retirement (or was it deportation?) to foster a stable of sweat-stained young barbarians eager to Fight the Bad Fight.

We wrestled in shopping centers, junior-high gyms, double-A ballparks and country-western bars across Florida. Lord Larry and his boys became the DWA’s main storyline — and I frequently found myself on the card in the main event, tag-teaming with one of my lads to steal a belt or inflame a grudge. 

We were the ones to hate: I had a potted plant thrown at my head, many a beer flung in my face and was nearly strangled by a fan who rushed the ring and lassoed my neck with her purse strap.

I was having a blast.

Then a funny thing happened: a couple of years or so into this adventure, my legit acting career began to revive. I don’t know if Lord Larry’s escapades had helped me to find a new level of creative freedom, but producers became interested in me again and I started to get offers. 

I split my time between the ring and the stage for a while until a series of unfunny trips to the ER made me consider real retirement for the Evil Genius.

Lord Larry worked his last match on a warm spring evening in 1987, four years after I’d wandered into Rocky’s gym. I was doing a play in Sarasota and our performance week ended with a Sunday matinee.

My drive back to Winter Park would take me, more or less, past the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, where the guys were wrestling that night. So, I dropped in.

I met Rocky by the dressing rooms, and he had an idea: Lord Larry should crash the Battle Royale (a match in which the ring is initially filled with wrestlers until all but one has been tossed out). 

He had a new kid he liked, and figured a steady hand would be helpful getting him through his first big win. I found a seat in the stands, and when one of the babies “spotted” me the insults flew — and the game was on.

Rocky wanted me keep the kid busy for a while until there were just three of us left, then let him toss me over the top rope (and out of the match) so that the newcomer could duke it out for the victory.

But Rocky’s plan, as always, came with a few wrinkles. A born innovator, he had long wondered: If dinner theaters made money, why couldn’t dinner-wrestling boost his bottom line? That night he was going to find out — and had ordered the ring to be surrounded by cafeteria tables.


Many’s the time on a set (and not a few times in my relationships) that I’ve hit a tricky patch and wondered, “What Would Lord Larry do?” He has never failed to respond — and I have the scars to prove it. I learned that being able to take a bump can be what saves you anywhere in life.


For a premium, a few hungry fans could get ringside seats and a choice of burgers, hot dogs or nachos plus a large soda. But the folks who set up the arena had put the tables right up next to the ring, as you would for a boxing match, instead of right inside the first row of bleachers, as is best when bodies will be flying around. 

Also, the kid — though undeniably talented, huge and scary-looking — was utterly green and had never been in front of a crowd as big and raucous as this one.

There’s a way to throw a man over a rope: Pick him up, invert him for a body slam, carry him to the side and let him set a hand on the top rope; then give his legs a light shove and let him pivot over and down to the floor, where he’ll hopefully land on his feet. 

A variation, but not a good one, is to simply fling your opponent out of the ring — especially appealing if there are tables covered with mustard and Pepsi cups. That’s what happened to me.

I landed on my nose in a plate of jalapeños and bean dip, while the rest of me skidded into the laps of two squealing older sisters, who fell backward out of their chairs, dousing us all in cola and ice. I remember the hungry, furious faces of the crowd closing over me like a pack of wolves approaching an injured elk.

No one really knows what became of Lord Larry after that fateful match in Kissimmee. Some claim that he never made it out of the arena, while others insist that he’s raising thoroughbreds on his family estate near the Drake Passage. 

Grainy photos have turned up of someone resembling him at Putin’s dacha during the Winter Olympics and climbing out of a Bentley at Spago
with Lindsay Lohan (neither of them are wearing underwear).

Well, none of that is true. I know. Lord Larry has been with me the whole time. The truth is that the life of an unrepentant scoundrel is buckets of fun. Also, chicks really do dig bad boys — even ones who are just pretending. 

I stayed pretty lucky with the acting thing, working in a bunch of films and television shows, more often than not as the villain. Rocky and Lord Larry had taught me to find the juiciness in playing bad, to crave leaning out over the edge, and I guess it showed. 

Many’s the time on a set (and not a few times in my relationships) that I’ve hit a tricky patch and wondered, “What Would Lord Larry do?” He has never failed to respond — and I have the scars to prove it. I learned that being able to take a bump can be what saves you anywhere in life. 

Rocky passed away about a year after the Silver Spurs show, and the DWA passed with him. I hear him in my thoughts from time to time, often when I’m working, and it’s still a bit of a shock that one of my dearest and most important mentors was a busted up old ex-gangster from Staten Island.

But there you have it.

I don’t think Rocky created Lord Larry as much as he found him hiding within me and turned him loose — which means I probably owe him my career and most of the good times that have come with it. 

Between Rocky and Lord Larry, I have the world’s weirdest guardian angels. What I wouldn’t give for a chance for the three of us to pull on the tights and do somebody wrong one more time. 


ABOUT THE ARTIST

JOHN NADEAU, COMIC CREATOR

John Nadeau, 50, began his career as an illustrator in the late 1980s as a penciller for Wolverine, a comic book featuring the ill-tempered Marvel Comics mutant superhero who was infused with adamantium (a fictional metal alloy) that made him virtually indestructible. (Hugh Jackman played the character in a string of hit Marvel movies.)

He later moved to rival DC Comics to draw the iconic Green Lantern series. His work for Oregon-
based independent publisher Dark Horse Comics included stints as a penciller and cover painter for Aliens — based on the sci-fi horror films.

Nadeau also drew various Star Wars titles including X-Wing: Rogue Squadron and comics featuring assassin Boba Fett (a Star Wars character) in titles as Boba Fett: Twin Engines of Destruction. Recently, Nadeau has cowritten (with author Dan Jolley) the series Murder Society for the Dark Horse anthology Dark Horse Presents. 

He also works as a commercial artist and architectural renderer for various clients in Central Florida and around the world, including the Walt Disney Company, HHCP Architects, GoConvergence, Simiosys, OBM International, Resorts World Sentosa and others. In 2018 he began doing paintings in oil for The Art of Disney galleries.

Nadeau was born in Syracuse, New York, but spent most of his life in Central Florida. He’s a graduate of Winter Park High School, Valencia Community College and the University of Central Florida.

He’s currently writing and drawing his own science fiction graphic novel, Vector. The first issue was released last November.

Heupel (left) and White (right)

THE INFLUENTIALS 2020

It’s time again to recognize Winter Park Magazine’s Most Influential People. The program, in its sixth 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, postponed to September 30 this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are the people who have already been Influentials. The Classes of 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 and 2019 included: Roy Alan and Heather Alexander, Richard O. “Rick” Baldwin, Jim Barnes, Dan Bellows, Anna Bond, Rita Bornstein, Jill Hamilton Buss, Jeffrey Blydenburgh, Daniel Butts, Sid Cash, Charles Clayton III, Billy Collins, Grant and Peg Cornwell, Linda Costa, Julian Chambliss, Patrick Chapin, Carolyn Cooper, 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, 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, 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, Steve Leary, Fairolyn Livingston, John and Rita Lowndes, Lawrence Lyman, Lambrine Macejewski, Paula Madsen, Jesse Martinez, Brandon McGlammery, Genean Hawkins McKinnon, Joanne McMahon, Micki Meyer, Johnny Miller, Anne Mooney and Ronnie Moore.

Also: Patty Maddox, Elizabeth Tiedtke Mukherjee, Stephanie Murphey, Tony and Sonja Nicholson, David Odahowski, Betsy Rogers Owens, James and Julie Petrakis, 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: John and Gail Sinclair, Sarah Sprinkel, Susan Skolfield, Sam Stark, Chuck and Margery Pabst Steinmetz, Bronce Stephenson, Dori Stone, Matthew Swope, 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 2020 — which is every bit as deep and impressive as previous classes, and 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 make it even better.


Photography by Rafael Tongol

Justin Birmele

Chief Executive Officer,
AdventHealth Winter Park

THE CARE CONNECTOR

For Justin Birmele, who became CEO of AdventHealth Winter Park in January, healthcare isn’t a job, but a calling. On his journey into the local hospital’s executive suite, Birmele listened to God and channeled his parents — both of whom are nurses. When Birmele was 9 years old, they moved to Orlando to work for Florida Hospital, the Altamonte Springs faith-based nonprofit that was rebranded as AdventHealth in 2018. “My pathway has literally been in the footsteps of my parents,” says Birmele, who has spent more than 20 years in healthcare — from his first job in high school as a file clerk in a doctor’s office to managing more than 1,300 employees and 300 physicians — “everyday superheroes,” he calls them — in Winter Park. Birmele was born in Kettering, Ohio, in the same hospital his parents served as operating room and emergency room nurses. His father’s contract with the U.S. Army took the family to Germany. Then, seeking a warmer climate, they relocated to Orlando, where Birmele graduated from Forest Lake Academy, a Seventh-Day Adventist high school. He later attended Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee, where he earned a degree in psychology. He also holds a master’s degree in healthcare administration from Webster University, and recently completed AdventHealth’s inaugural (and selective) Executive Leadership Program. In the community, the genial Birmele — who’s hard to miss at a towering 6-foot-5-inches — volunteers for numerous good causes and serves on the boards of Seniors First Inc., the Oviedo-Winter Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce. He and his wife, Lindsey, a licensed mental health counselor, have a 2-year-old daughter. Birmele took charge at AdventHealth Winter Park — where he was previously COO — during a period of robust growth. He oversaw projects that included completion last year of the Nicholson Pavilion, an $85 million expansion encompassing 140 private rooms. A new 27,000-square-foot emergency room facility now under construction will open in 2021. Birmele — like many Influentials — is a graduate of Leadership Winter Park, a program of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce. But his values were shaped largely by his parents: “They taught me to do more than expected in caring for others.”

WHAT HE SAYS:
“To help me find the energy [for my responsibilities] I make morning devotion and prayer a priority. My faith is the foundation of my wellbeing — and I find that time alone with God really jumpstarts my day in a very positive direction.”

WHAT THEY SAY:
“A smart administrator who really cares for people … the embodiment of AdventHealth’s values … a family man and a community leader … Justin lives his faith.”

Michael Carolan

Shareholder, chair of the Real Estate Department,
Winderweedle, Haines, Ward & Woodman

THE FORWARD THINKER

They say timing is everything. Michael Carolan began his career in real estate law at Winderweedle, Haines, Ward & Woodman in 2008, just as the economy tanked and the Great Recession took hold. In 2020, he began his term as chair of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce just as the COVID-19 pandemic caused closures and quarantines. “I seem to start when things are cratering,” he says, ruefully. But Carolan, who exudes a calm demeanor and boasts a background in finance, is just the kind of person you want on your side during troubled times. Through the chamber, he’s working to ensure that a shaken business community survives, revives and once again thrives. A graduate of Duke University — the alma mater of both his parents — Carolan’s undergraduate degree is in economics. He worked at PCE Investment Bankers in Winter Park as a financial analyst for two-and-a-half years before he decided to attend the Fredric G. Levin College of Law at the University of Florida, from which he graduated cum laude in 2007. At Winderweedle — which was founded in 1931 — Carolan joined a respected team that included both his father, Rusty, and his future wife, Nikki. Carolan currently chairs the venerable firm’s real estate department and represents lenders and borrowers in a wide range of commercial financial transactions. He and Nikki married in 2012 and have two children, ages 6 and 3. Carolan’s energy and relative youth make him an ideal fit at the chamber, which in recent years has strengthened its advocacy effort and bolstered its value for members beyond its signature social events. Appointed to the chamber board in 2016, Carolan served as treasurer for two years — earning Chairman of the Year honors in 2017 — before becoming chair elect. He wants more Winter Parkers in his age group to become involved in the community — and to vote in city elections in comparable percentages to those of their elders. At 6-foot-5, Carolan, a Florida Super Lawyers “Rising Star” (2019 and 2020), already stands out in a crowd — and will no doubt stand out as a community leader in years to come.

WHAT HE SAYS:
“I like to think I’m a good listener and try to understand the interests and intents of different parties, and use that to find common ground and build from there.
I also maintain a pretty even keel in high stress situations, and people seem drawn to that.”

WHAT THEY SAY:
“Mike is a natural leader who inspires confidence because of both his savvy and his personality … Winter Park’s future is in good hands with people like Mike … a great representative for the chamber.”

Judy Charuhas

Executive Director and Co-Founder,
WinterParkLostPets.com

THE PET DETECTIVE

Judy Charuhas remembers when Arlo, her little border terrier, went missing. “He got out through the gate,” she says, reliving the terror she felt. “We found him a block away on a porch, having snacks with somebody.” Most lost-pet stories don’t end so quickly. That’s why, more than a decade ago, Charuhas created WinterParkLostPets.com with Shelley Heistand, a realtor with Coldwell Banker on Park Avenue. Since then, the nonprofit website has helped find and reunite more than 2,000 lost pets — from dogs and cats to ferrets and parrots — with their eternally grateful people. On the resource-packed WPLP site are photos of pets lost, found and reunited — including most recently Mosely the chihuahua, Leia the tabby, Armani the Persian, Soggy the lab mix, Pebbles the dachshund and Tony the cockatiel. Before WPLP, the standard method for finding a lost pet was to tape a note and a grainy photo to a power pole. “Shelley would also often get calls when dogs got out because she was a Realtor out in the community,” says Charuhas. The two neighbors discussed the problem and came up with the idea for a website where frantic owners could post information. (The service was soon expanded to include email alerts and notices sent to followers on social media.) Heistand told Charuhas: “If you find someone to do it, I’ll pay for it.” Heistand remains sponsor of the website while Charuhas is WPLP’s public face and self-described “Energizer Bunny.” She handles postings, coordinates events, and — as a mental health therapist honored for her work with Pulse victims and survivors — provides pet loss grief counseling. WPLP, which serves the Winter Park-College Park area and sponsors free microchipping and pet safety education programs, runs on an annual budget of $5,000 (in a good year) and relies solely on donations. Gifts are especially welcome this year since the group’s annual fundraiser, “The Running of the Chihuahuas,” fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic. Donations can be made through the Winter Park Lost Pets Foundation, a registered nonprofit. Charuhas and her husband, Patrick, relocated to Winter Park from Chicago in 1983, and share their home with canine companions Lily, Olive and Sparky.

WHAT SHE SAYS:
“Of course, the pets themselves don’t have words. We must be their voice. We must speak on their behalf and tell the community, ‘I am lost. Help me get home.’”

WHAT THEY SAY:
“I get weepy, in a good way, when I look at the website … Judy and Shelley have one of the best feel-good stories in Winter Park … the world is a better place because people do things like this.”

Chris Cortez

Co-Founder, President and CEO,
Blue Bamboo Center for the Performing Arts

THE MUSIC MAN

Guitarist Chris Cortez penned a song in the late 1980s about a man with no arms, whom he saw painting with his feet. “It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do about it,” goes the chorus. Cortez, cofounder, president and CEO of Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts, lives those words. He has persevered along the long and winding road of a musical career, no matter the odds or obstacles. At his funky nonprofit concert hall, which opened in 2016, he has united Central Florida’s vast reserve of musical talent with appreciative audiences. Four years into the venture, he’s producing up to 300 shows annually — in every genre imaginable — that collectively gross about $300,000 between ticket sales and sponsorships. “It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the most rewarding,” says Cortez, a Cincinnati native who moved to Orlando at age 2 with his family, including his mother, Virginia “Ginny” Cortez, a founding member of what is now the Orlando Repertory Theater. His father, Joe, a Martin Marietta technical writer, gave the talented 9-year-old a $13 guitar and (perhaps inadvertently) launched the career of a jazz player, pop vocalist, record producer and entertainment empresario. After graduation from Edgewater High School, Cortez played with various Top 40 bands and performed at Walt Disney World, including a regular gig with Kids of the Kingdom. He also played guitar with a jazz fusion group called, prophetically, Blue Bamboo. The combo, which was the house band at a downtown Orlando nightclub called Daisy’s Basement, allowed Cortez to polish his artistry. In 1986, however, he left Central Florida for almost 30 years, during which time he played in house bands, directed music at a casino and produced more than 30 CDs — including six of his own. He met Melody, his wife and partner in Blue Bamboo, in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2015, at a career crossroads in Houston, the couple saw opportunity in the form of a 6,000-square-foot yellow warehouse on Kentucky Avenue. Music now is a mission; thanks to a $10,000 grant from the City of Winter Park, Blue Bamboo presents at least 25 free concerts yearly and others that raise money for local charities.

WHAT HE SAYS:
“I begin with ‘it’s possible’ and everything else is logistics.”

WHAT THEY SAY:
“Before Blue Bamboo, there were really no comparable venues here … Chris and Melody spotlight great talent, both familiar and unfamiliar … every sophisticated city needs a place like this.”

Bill and Allen Finfrock

President (Bill Finfrock) and CEO (Allen Finfrock),
Finfrock Industries

THE CONCRETE IDEALISTS

Bill Finfrock (president) and Allen Finfrock (CEO) are the third generation of family members to lead Finfrock Industries, a fast-growing design-build company founded by their grandfather, Robert J.D. Finfrock, who moved to Winter Park 75 years ago and began developing concrete products — just roof and floor tiles at first — for residential and commercial construction. Soon the company expanded into other concrete products and building components. Robert D. Finfrock (Bill and Allen’s father), a structural engineer, became an innovator in the design and construction of prestressed concrete buildings. Today, with more than 700 employees, Finfrock ranks No. 1 on the Orlando Business Journal’s list of the region’s largest general contractors, and No. 9 on the publication’s list of largest privately held companies. But while its corporate offices — along with its fabrication and assembly plants — are located in Apopka, the company’s owners are dyed-in-the-wool Winter Parkers. Bill (the older brother by a year) and Allen both attended Winter Park High School before completing civil engineering degrees from Vanderbilt University and then, in 1997, simultaneously earning MBAs from the Crummer School of Business at Rollins College. (Their dad is also a WPHS, Vandy and Crummer alum.) Under the brothers’ leadership, Finfrock has more than quadrupled in size over the past three years with projects that include hotels, student housing and luxury multifamily residential properties. And the company’s parking garages — five of which are in Winter Park — can be found all over the U.S. In 2017, Finfrock built its largest parking garage in a single phase (3,000-plus spaces at the Walt Disney World Resort), followed by its largest hotel (2,800 rooms at Universal Orlando Resort). However, the most high-profile Finfrock project locally has been Juno, a seven-story, 268-unit luxury multifamily housing complex at Ravaudage, the 73-acre mixed-use development by Sydgan Corporation at Lee Road and U.S. Highway 17-92. Finfrock is also seeking to build a new boutique hotel on West Morse Boulevard, consideration of which was postponed by the city as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bill is a past chair of Habitat for Humanity for Seminole County and Greater Apopka, and the AdventHealth Cancer Institute Board. Allen has been a leader in industry-related organizations, while both are graduates of Leadership Orlando. In construction circles, Finfrock is known for its patented DualDeck floor and ceiling assembly, in which two layers of prefabricated concrete are separated by a truss system with a building’s mechanical systems located in between.

WHAT THEY SAY:
“I think back to the ’70s and ’80s in Winter Park, and it had great charm but was starting to look a little threadbare. You have to reinvest in a city to keep it economically viable.” (Bill Finfrock)

Winter Park offers a great quality of life, including walkability and amenities such as the canals. But a city needs to continually replenish itself.” (Allen Finfrock)

WHAT OTHERS SAY:
“Concrete doesn’t sound exciting — but these guys have revolutionized the commercial construction industry … brilliant engineers and businesspeople whose work is top quality … they want to see Winter Park thrive, and their projects reflect that.”

Larry Hames

President,
Laurence C. Hames Esq.

THE CALM COUNSELOR

When Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer proclaimed “Larry Hames Day” in November of last year, it was because the longtime Winter Park attorney had stepped in as interim CEO of Goodwill Industries of Central Florida when the previous CEO resigned after just nine months on the job. During what might otherwise have been a tumultuous time for the organization — which has more than 2,000 employees across six counties — Hames’ impeccable reputation and Zen-like calm reassured supporters that all would be well. While the recognition by Dyer was appreciated, Hames — a lawyer for more than 40 years and president of Laurence C. Hames Esq. since 2009 — has always quietly performed his civic duties without any expectation of accolades. After graduation from Emory University in Atlanta, Hames attended the Frederic G. Levin School of Law at the University of Florida and earned both a J.D. and an LL.M. (an advanced legal degree in taxation) before beginning an eight-year stint heading the tax practice group at Lowndes, Doster, Kantor & Reed. Despite a busy career, Hames has chaired the board of the Goodwill Industries of Central Florida Foundation and the related GoodSource Staffing Services, a temporary jobs agency that helps hard-to-place job seekers build solid work records. He’s also a member of the Family Board at AdventHealth Winter Park and a past board member of the Heart of the City Foundation — which supports ministries of First Presbyterian Church of Orlando — and the Foundation for Orange County Public Schools. In addition, Hames headed the Glenridge Middle School PTA (his kids were students) and was a founding board member of the Millennium Rowing Association, a nonprofit organization that helps support the Winter Park High School crew team. Hames is today chairman of the board of supervisors for the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the governing entity for land that encompasses Walt Disney World. He and his wife, Jane, a public relations entrepreneur (and a past Influential), have three accomplished daughters. Hames’ late father, Clifford, will be remembered by most Central Floridians as vice chairman of the board for SunBank and an organizer of the Winter Park Health Foundation in 1994. Says Hames: “I think he’d be proud of how his children and grandchildren are stepping up.”

WHAT HE SAYS:
“My personal style is based on a calm and studied approach to everything. Some — like my wife, occasionally — may find this frustrating because of its measured pace. But I find that it works well because it generally makes others calm, too.”

WHAT THEY SAY:
“Larry is not one to seek the spotlight, but he sees what needs to be done and does it … every day ought to be Larry Hames Day.”

Frank Hamner

Founder,
Frank A. Hamner P.A.

THE ARDENT ADVOCATE

Attorney Frank Hamner has a Naval officer’s spirit and an Alabama woodcutter’s work ethic. Hamner maintains a legal practice specializing in construction litigation. But it’s his work as general counsel for such high-profile clients as the Holler and Demetree families — both of whom have extensive commercial real estate holdings — that often places him front and center during development disputes in sharply divided Winter Park. The hard-charging litigator, employed at GrayRobinson for almost a decade before opening his own practice, grew up in Fayette, Alabama, the adopted son of a pulpwood cutter and a garment-factory worker. He joined the U.S. Navy after high school and within two years was tapped for an engineering scholarship that landed him at Auburn University, where he majored in electrical engineering. After graduation, Hamner returned to the Navy as a surface warfare commander on carriers and destroyers, serving two tours in the Gulf War. Hamner left active duty in 1992 to attend the Fredric G. Levin School of law at the University of Florida and married Lauren Frey, daughter of late U.S. Representative Lou Frey. The couple, who met at Auburn, have three children, ages 18 to 23. (Hamner also has two grown children from a previous marriage.) Apart from his legal practice, Hamner has served such organizations as the March of Dimes, the Central Florida Zoo, Junior Achievement of Central Florida and, of course, UCF’s Lou Frey Institute of Government and Politics. In 2012, representing the Winter Park YMCA, Hamner helped achieve city and community consensus regarding a controversial YMCA expansion proposal. This year, Hamner advocated for the Orange Avenue Overlay, a zoning ordinance that would have provided a foundation for cohesively redeveloping the slapdash thoroughfare. Two Hamner clients, Demetree Holdings and Holler Properties, are among the three largest landowners (along with the city) in the 75 acres that were impacted. The overlay plan was initially approved — but then abruptly rescinded by a newly elected city commission. Demetree Holdings had, at press time, filed suit against the city, although Hamner is not the attorney of record. The genial but no-nonsense attorney has a lighter side: For the past decade, he has emceed Mead Botanical Garden’s annual Great Duck Derby, calling the races and sharing “the best duck jokes ever.”

WHAT HE SAYS:
“My thing is not development. My thing is positive change. If you don’t grow or change, you stagnate.”

WHAT OTHERS SAY:
“Frank is a standup guy who cares deeply about the community … a straight shooter … as an attorney he’s a fighter, but in person he’s as down-to-earth as you could meet.”

Whitney Laney

Realtor,
Fannie Hillman + Associates

THE GOOD SAMARITAN

Whitney 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 Mall 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), 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, 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 two children: Barron, 7, and Hensley, 5. 

WHAT SHE SAYS:
“I don’t take anything for granted. I learned very young to be grateful for every blessing and to understand the fragility of life and circumstance.”

WHAT THEY SAY:
“Whitney is a force of nature … she lives her faith through her actions … she’s absolutely selfless … Whitney doesn’t only send thoughts and prayers — she sends herself and her positive energy.”

Chevalier Lovett

Senior Vice President and Managing Director, Organize Florida

THE OPERATIC ACTIVIST

Chevalier Lovett learned early the importance of preparation for crises. “They teach you in school the need to be prepared, and I realized we were not having those conversations at home.” So, he took matters in his own hands. “I planned an evacuation route from our house in case of fire.” Fire marshal Chevalier was 6 years old. His next project: “I made workout plans and a health and fitness plan for my sister, my mother and me, and gave them report cards on how they did.” That launched Lovett on a journey of good works that have encompassed everything from the YMCA (a past membership and program director in Winter Park and Jacksonville) to Opera Orlando (a board member and performer as a lyric baritone) to the United Negro College Fund (a marketing and social media committee member). He sits on half a dozen other boards, mentors young people through Valencia Promise, a program that helps prepare high-schoolers for college, and is worship/music director at First United Methodist Church of Winter Park. All this is in addition to Lovett’s day job as senior vice president and managing director of Orlando-based Organize Florida, an influential social justice nonprofit with branch offices in Kissimmee and Tampa. Chevalier — “Chev” to his friends — was named for French singer-actor Maurice Chevalier, a favorite of his grandmother. That’s apt for a classically trained pianist and vocalist who has appeared in musicals, operas and in 2018 directed and accompanied the Jones High School Concert Choir in a performance at Carnegie Hall. Lovett’s heart, though, is in Winter Park, where he grew up on the west side in a house built by Habitat for Humanity of Winter Park-Maitland. “I was ‘voluntold’ by my mom, Valerie, to help build it,” says Lovett, a voracious reader and a 2018 graduate of Leadership Winter Park, a program of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce. “I said to my mom recently, ‘You’re very close to the mortgage being paid off — let me help take care of it.’ She said, ‘I’m going to hang up now and cry.’ It was my way of paying it forward.”

WHAT HE SAYS:
“My mother said, ‘For you to get the future I want for you, you’ll have to fight for it, work for it and build toward it.’” 

WHAT THEY SAY:
“Being around Chev, I’m reassured about the country’s future … an outstanding and talented young man … tackles everything with youthful enthusiasm.”

Alex Martins

CEO, Orlando Magic

THE HOOPS HONCHO

It’s hard to imagine Orlando without the sports-business-philanthropic enterprise that is the NBA’s Orlando Magic. And it’s just as hard to imagine the Magic without Alex Martins. In 1989, when General Manager Pat Williams sought a public relations director for the fledging franchise, he was turned down by his first seven choices before Martins, a Villanova University grad and a twentysomething assistant sports information director at Georgetown University, took the job. The ambitious young workhorse — as he was aptly described by Williams — stayed until 1998, before accepting executive marketing positions with the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets and the NFL’s Cleveland Browns and serving as tournament director for the Tavistock Cup, a PGA-sanctioned event held at Orlando’s Lake Nona and Iselworth country clubs. In 2005, Martins returned to the Magic and was named president and COO before becoming CEO in 2010. Martins notes that he and Charles Barkley joined the NBA on the same day in 1984 — Barkley as a rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers, Martins as an assistant in the team’s PR department. But unlike his outspoken friend, Martins believes that “it’s the responsibility not only of athletes but teams to be role models. Sports have an incredible platform to impact society beyond just playing games.” Martins, certainly, has walked the walk. His fingerprints can be found on virtually every major local civic project and philanthropic effort over the past 30 years — including the opening of the Amway Center in 2010 and the development of the Orlando Magic Youth Foundation, which has distributed some $25 million to local nonprofits. He is vice chair of the University of Central Florida board of trustees, and has served on a host of commissions dealing with issues ranging from homelessness to economic development. Martins learned a lot about leadership from his late boss, Magic owner Richard DeVos, who “treated every usher, every ticket taker, every employee like they were the most important person in the room.” Martins and his wife, Juliet — with their two daughters in tow — moved from Windermere to Winter Park in 2007. Says Martins: “We fell in love with the feel of the entire community.” 

WHAT HE SAYS:
“True leadership is leading by example. Don’t expect or require anyone to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself.”

WHAT THEY SAY:
“Professional sports is pretty cutthroat, but Alex is such a genuinely nice and compassionate man … whether the Magic win or lose, they’re a credit to the community and to the culture of corporate citizenship created by the DeVos family and Alex.”

Marc Middleton

Founder and CEO,
Growing Bolder LLC/Bolder Media Group

THE AGEISM AVENGER

Marc Middleton, former anchor at WESH-Channel 2, hasn’t appeared on a local news-cast for 14 years. After a 16-year run at the local NBC affiliate, he walked away from his high-profile job only to become even more recognizable as founder of a burgeoning multimedia empire focused on providing hope and inspiration for the 50-plus crowd. Bolder Media Group, based in Winter Park, produces the Growing Bolder television show, which can be seen on more than 300 PBS stations nationwide, and publishes Growing Bolder Magazine, a hefty quarterly filled with stories of ordinary people living extraordinary lives. There’s also a syndicated Growing Bolder radio show. More recently, Middleton has written a provocative book, Growing Bolder: Defy the Cult of Youth, Live with Passion and Purpose. And in partnership with Florida Blue, the state’s leading insurer, his company has launched a membership organization that includes access to the online Growing Bolder Portal and its videos, documentaries, newsletters and special offers. Now Bolder Media has debuted a traveling live event, Growing Bolder: Launchpad to What’s Next, which Middleton describes as “a three-ring circus of innovation and motivation.” An Ohio native, Middleton attended FSU on a swimming scholarship. He had been a sportscaster in Savannah and Phoenix before being hired in 1988 by WESH, where he became a community institution along with colleagues Bill Shafer and the late Wendy Chioji. (He also met his future wife, Jill Kalstrom, who was a producer at the station.) But the upbeat Middleton became increasingly disenchanted with local news, where the philosophy seemed to be “if it bleeds it leads.” In 2006 he resigned, assembled backers who shared his vision and started Bolder Media. He was soon joined by Shafer, his on-air sidekick, and Chioji, who became a roving correspondent. Practicing what he preaches, in 2010 Middleton resumed competitive swimming after a 37-year layoff and subsequently helped set six relay world records. In 2014, he traveled to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro along with Chioji (then battling cancer for a third time) and other survivors of the disease along with their families. The resulting documentary, Conquering Kilimanjaro, aired nationally on the RLTV network.

WHAT HE SAYS:
“The key to living a happy and engaged life is simply to pursue your passions. That’s what keeps people alive, and that’s a powerful message for people of any age.”

WHAT THEY SAY:
“An inspirational figure who has identified a market eager to hear his message … a crusader who’s effective because of sincerity and great communication skills … Marc has made a difference in more lives than he’ll ever know.”

Kristine Miller

Executive Director,
The Gardens at DePugh Nursing Center

THE GUARDIAN ANGEL

Kristine Miller brings a heart for help-ing and a head for systems to her job as executive director and administrator at The Gardens at DePugh Nursing Center. Since taking the helm at the historic (and cozy) 40-bed facility three years ago, Miller — usually called Kris — has had a major impact. In December, DePugh won accreditation by the Joint Commission — the nation’s oldest and largest healthcare accrediting organization — and was named one of the state’s few Governor’s Gold Seal healthcare facilities. It’s also five-star rated by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Miller grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, where her father was a nuclear engineer and her mother was a social worker. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a mathematics and political science degree, Miller didn’t initially envision a career in nursing home management. That was the province of her husband, Kevin, who ran a facility in rural Western Maryland, where the couple began raising their three children, now ages 13 to 24. Miller, who earned an MBA from Frostburg State University, ultimately accepted a management position at Oakland Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center, a 120-bed facility near their home, where she spent seven years and says she “loved every minute.” Later, she worked in human resources and organizational development for Beitzel Corporation, a diversified contractor, and its subsidiary Pillar Innovations, a manufacturer of machinery. When Kevin Miller (who has since begun a career in real estate) took a job at Westminster Towers in Orlando, he hired away DePugh’s administrator. Kris Miller, though, was a perfect fit for the small nonprofit, which opened in 1956 as an outgrowth of charitable work by legendary west side advocate Mary Lee DePugh. Miller, during her stint, has been a hands-on manager who emphasizes a family work culture. For example, her new employee bonus program, giving back a percent of operational profits, has helped reduce turnover by one-third. When families suddenly need a nursing home, Miller notes, few have a plan. She adds: “Not only are we here, but we do a really good job at what we do.”

WHAT SHE SAYS:
“I want The Gardens to become an integral part of the community, a resource for families in planning for the future needs of the elderly and an example of the excellent care that can be received here in Winter Park.”

WHAT THEY SAY:
“Kris gracefully and forcefully deals with adversity, graciously passes kudos along when she could have retained them herself, and deals understandingly with families experiencing great emotional distress and sadness.”

Jim and Alexis Pugh

Philanthropists

THE POWERHOUSE PATRONS

Bursting with starry imagery and with 32 colorful backlit abstracts embedded in the ceiling, the intimate Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is a jewel box of a venue — hosting everything from stand-up comedians to operatic productions. In fact, the Pughs have the distinction of being the only Influentials to be photographed at a place named in their honor. That’s only fitting, since they donated millions of dollars of their own money and helped to raise millions more over the course of a decade to turn the longstanding dream of a world-class, multitheater complex into a reality. The $600 million project, financed through a combination of public and private funds, will be completed later this year with the opening of Steinmetz Hall, named for another pair of Winter Parkers (and past Influentials) Chuck and Margery Pabst Steinmetz. Jim Pugh, founding chair of the arts center’s board of directors and the project’s leading light for 18 years, is now chairman emeritus of the company he founded, Epoch Properties, which is one of the largest developers of upscale multifamily projects in the U.S. (He also owns Barnies Coffee & Tea Co., with a flagship café on Park Avenue.) Born in Winter Haven — his father was a carpenter, his mother a citrus canning plant worker — Pugh worked three jobs to pay tuition at the University of Florida, from which he earned a degree in construction management before becoming an Army Ranger. As a businessperson, Pugh has for decades been a civic force through his service on countless nonprofit boards, among them the Holocaust Resource & Education Center. He recently spearheaded a fundraising drive for the center, which plans to build an expanded museum in downtown Orlando. In 2018, Pugh was named a member of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans alongside a who’s who of luminaries who’ve made a difference through altruism and philanthropy. The Pughs, who married in 1987, pursue their individual philanthropic interests. Alexis Pugh, who has a journalism degree from West Virginia University and spent 35 years as an advertising and public relations executive, is a member of the boards of the Bok Tower Gardens National Historic Landmark in Lake Wales, the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College and Harbor House of Central Florida — a domestic violence shelter. She’s also an active supporter of her alma mater, serving on the WVU  Foundation Board and recently helping to fund the College of Media’s Alexis and Jim Pugh Media Innovation Lab.

WHAT THEY SAY:
“Winter Park is an ideal place to live. The people here are special and care about the community; there’s a lot of great work and volunteerism going on.” (Jim Pugh)

“I love the beauty of the town. I love the brick streets and the ability to walk downtown from our home. Park Avenue is a treasure, but it’s sad to see so many empty storefronts right now.” (Alexis Pugh)

WHAT OTHERS SAY:
“I’m not sure who else would have had the tenaciousness and stature to lead the Dr. Phillips Center to completion … the Pughs are best known for the arts center, but have made a difference in so many ways … Jim’s biography is a classic American success story — and it’s even better because he and Alexis pay it forward.”

Jason Siegel

President and CEO,
Greater Orlando Sports Commission

THE GOOD SPORT

If Orlando wins its bid to be a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup under the leadership of Jason Siegel, president and CEO of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission (GO Sports), you can thank the college professor who scheduled Siegel’s organic chemistry lab at 7 a.m. The crack-of-dawn class for premed students persuaded the Binghamton (New York) University undergrad to drop plans to become a doctor and switch to economics — setting him on a path to becoming a sports impresario. Medicine’s loss has been Orlando’s great fortune. Since arriving in 2011 as managing partner of the revived Orlando Solar Bears hockey franchise, Siegel — a Philadelphia native who had been an executive at minor-league hockey franchises in New Jersey and Texas — created plenty of excitement around the Solar Bears, which topped the ECHL (East Coast Hockey League) in attendance during his tenure. As head of GO Sports since 2016, Siegel has helped lasso some 200 elite events — including WrestleMania 33 (2017), first- and second-round games in the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament (2017), the MLS All-Star Game (2019) and the NFL Pro Bowl (2017-2020). The NCAA also brought its Men’s and Women’s Tennis Championships to Central Florida in 2019 and was set to return in 2020 until the COVID-19 pandemic prompted cancellation. The virus also scuttled the 2020 Monster Jam World Finals XXI — but the Special Olympics USA Games are coming in 2022 and many more big events are in the pipeline. In fact, GO Sports during Siegel’s tenure has generated more than $500 million in economic impact for the community, which is running out of awards to bestow upon him — Orlando Business Journal CEO of the Year (2017), Orlando Magazine’s 50 Most Powerful (2019) and I4 Business’ Leader of the Year in Sports Tourism (2019) have been among the kudos. Siegel’s impact extends beyond arenas and playing fields to the wider community, where he and his wife, Sarah Grafton (a past Influential), serve on a variety of philanthropic organizations and are active supporters of the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens and the Winter Park History Museum — for whom they have charmed supporters as emcees of the organization’s annual Peacock Ball. 

WHAT HE SAYS:
“Good is not good enough when better is expected.”

WHAT THEY SAY:
“Jason is a relationship builder … he’s one of the most respected people in our industry and a strong advocate for Winter Park … there’s tremendous competition for these big events — not many people could have been as successful as Jason at landing them.”

Paul Twyford

Co-founder and President,
Winter Park Distilling Company

THE FREE SPIRIT

Paul Twyford says he was never a rah-rah, school-spirit type at Winter Park High School: “I wasn’t in any clubs; I wasn’t the student council guy.” Thirty years later he is, arguably, the city’s leading “spirits” guy — in bottle and soul — as co-founder of Winter Park Distilling Company, the first (legal) distillery in Central Florida. Starting the business in 2010 with childhood friend Andrew Asher thrust Twyford into the limelight and transformed the avowed nonjoiner into a community butterfly. “I didn’t really have that high on my list of goals,” says Twyford, who now holds leadership positions with the Winter Park History Museum, the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce and his alma mater, Rollins College, where he’s on the advisory board of the undergraduate department of business. “It’s a measure of giving back to a community that embraced a lot of things I’ve tried to do,” he says. But when Twyford completed his economics degree, his first inclination was to head for Wall Street. “I had friends who went that route,” he says. “But I’m sort of a nonconformist who doesn’t color inside the lines.” Career lightning struck on a vacation out west. “I expected to see some beautiful wineries and craft breweries,” he recalls. “Then I stumbled upon some craft distilleries. I thought, ‘Why don’t we have any of these in Florida?’” Twyford went to Asher, an attorney, with the idea of making bourbon, whiskey, vodka and rum in Central Florida. “Andrew said it would be easier to go into the uranium enrichment business,” he laughs. Nevertheless, they persisted — and in 2010 opened for business in a small Winter Park warehouse. Soon, they were selling award-winning spirits around the world. In 2015, the distillery moved to a gentrifying commercial stretch of North Orange Avenue, in the former State Auto Body building. Twyford, Asher and his wife, Francesca, then opened The Bear and Peacock Brewery next door. The “brewstillery” began a retail sales operation and became a visitor destination, often drawing 200 people a week for tours. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the company began making hand sanitizer and donating much of it to nonprofits and first responders.

WHAT HE SAYS:
“I try to be a positive guy who lifts up the people around me. I think people who know me know I’m a straight shooter, and they appreciate that honesty.” 

WHAT THEY SAY:
“Paul is indicative of the eclectic entrepreneurs who’ve been successful in Winter Park … interesting, funny and committed to his craft
and to the community.”

Heupel (left) and White (right)

Danny White

Vice President and Director of Athletics, University of Central Florida

Josh Heupel

Head Football Coach, University of Central Florida

THE KNIGHT SHIFT

As point men of the University of Central Florida’s surging football program, Danny White, athletic director, and Josh Heupel, head coach, have become BMOC — Big Men On Campus. And off campus, too, in Winter Park, where both live with growing families that have taken root and blossomed like azaleas. When courted by UCF — White in 2015 and Heupel (who was hired by White) in 2017 — they knew the Golden Knights as a program on the rise. They were enticed by state-of-the-start athletic facilities at UCF and the region’s stature as a tourist-entertainment mecca — big plusses for recruiting. The surprise bonus, they agree, was Winter Park, which neither had ever explored during previous trips to Central Florida. There are, of course, many family-oriented neighborhoods in east Orlando. So why did White and Heupel choose the City of Culture and Heritage, which sits nine miles from UCF as the crow flies? There were the usual reasons: beautiful homes, brick streets, massive oaks and a tight-knit sense of community. But faith played a major role, too. “Our search for Catholic schools started our direction toward Winter Park,” says White. He and his wife, Shawn, settled on St. Margaret Mary for their four children. Heupel and his wife, Dawn, were also seeking a Catholic education for their two children, who joined the White siblings at the highly regarded parochial school. White was athletic director at the University of New York at Buffalo when UCF came calling. “I told the kids we’re moving next door to Mickey Mouse — not a hard sell,” he laughs. Heupel, who spent most of his coaching career as an assistant under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, relocated from Missouri, where he had spent a season as quarterback coach for the Tigers at Mizzou. “The community has been fantastic,” he says. “Our kids absolutely love what they’re involved in.” The high-profile commuters have been impressed by the support of their neighbors for the Knights football program, which famously proclaimed itself national champion after a 12-0 season in 2019. But UCF is more than a football school. In 2018-19, both the men’s and women’s basketball squads merited NCAA Championship invitations — with Johnny Dawkins’ men’s team nearly upsetting top-seeded Duke in the second round. CBS Sports ranked the Knights’ 2018-19 across-the-board athletic performance 17th best in the country.

WHAT THEY SAY:
“I tell [my kids] every day they have a country club existence. It’s such a wonderful community.” (White)

“One summer day our players finished working out at 11:15, and by 12:15 my kids were in the water taking surfing lessons.” (Heupel)

WHAT OTHERS SAY:
“Danny and Josh are first and foremost tremendously family centered … both are quality people in every way … anybody who knows the history of UCF athletics should really appreciate how far they’ve brought it to national prominence.”

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

NAKED TRUTH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OH, BY THE WAY …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POLICING EXPRESSION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMUSEMENT TO OUTRAGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SECOND ACTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE PUNDIT'S PERIL

EXCLUSIVE BOOK EXCERPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A TREAT FOR TRUE TRANSCENDENTALISTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MEN ARE BRUTES, WOMEN ARE POTENTIAL HYSTERICS

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

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

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

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

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


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

— Prestonia Mann Martin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HAMMER BOY’S UNHINGED REVENGE — BUT WHAT FOR?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

— Oliver Johnson (Hammer Boy) Keyes


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

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

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

COMMONERS, CAPITALS AND MRS. ROOSEVELT

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

— Hamilton Holt


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

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

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

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

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

THE GENIAL GENIUS OF GENIUS DRIVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

— John Martin


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

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

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

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

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


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

GRANDMA'S DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Suzanne Graffham (left) preps a young bridesmaid.

TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY

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

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

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

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

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

Going to the Chapel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homey and Historic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gracious Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unique and Boutique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down to Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clubs and Churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New and Notable

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

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

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

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

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


Taking the Worry Out of Weddings

Suzanne Graffham (left) preps a young bridesmaid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Catherine Hinman

THAD - AN APPRECIATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TADDEO THE GREAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIG MAN, BIG IDEAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUDDENLY SEYMOUR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CITIZEN THAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE NEXT ADVENTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

— Mary Seymour, 2002

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

Thaddeus Seymour. Photo by Rafael Tongol


A Pretty Good Magician for a College President

By Daniel R. DeNicola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In Memorium

WENDY CHOIJI

Living well on borrowed time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Catherine Hinman

DEFY WITH WENDY

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

Photo by Phil Coale/Associated Press

LOU FREY

A bipartisan civic champion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of the Lou Frey Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Catherine Hinman

Adam Wonus on the shores of Lake Killarney.

PEOPLE TO WATCH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clayton Louis Ferrara at the French House at Rollins College.

Clayton Louis Ferrara

Executive Director,
IDEAS for Us

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

Michelle Heatherly at the offices of Demetree Global.

Michelle Heatherly

Director of Operations/Strategic Development,
Demetree Global

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

Chase Heavener on Lake Maitland.

Chase Heavener

Creator/Entrepreneur

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

Drew, Gregg and Gray Hill at Park Hill Townhomes.

Drew Hill, Gray Hill and Gregg Hill Jr.

Principles,
Hill/Gray/Seven

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

Chris King at the offices of Elevation Financial Group.

Chris King

Founder and Chief Executive Officer,
Elevation Financial Group

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

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

Amie Morgan

Director of Leadership Programs,
Winter Park Chamber of Commerce

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

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

Matt, Steve and Andrew Orosz

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

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

Emily Russell at Rollins College.

Emily Russell

Vice President, Platform Project Management,
StackPath

Director,
Winter Park Land Trust

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

Taylor Womack at The Mayflower at Winter Park.

Taylor Womack

Director of Sales and Marketing,
The Mayflower at Winter Park

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

Adam Wonus on the shores of Lake Killarney.

Adam Wonus

Partner,
Atrium Management Company

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

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

WHERE PANSY BLOOMED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Amazing Grace

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

Grace Livingston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Matter of Dress, or Undress, at Rollins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BELIEVE IT OR NOT!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep breath.

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

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

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

CHAMPS AND CHUMPS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SKIN IN THE GAME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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