Cross at the Creek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


PRESERVING CRACKER CULTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leslie K. Poole

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

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

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

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


RAWLINGS AT ROLLINS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun and Folkie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


AN UNCOMPROMISED LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Bob Kealing


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

Tom Klusman at Warden Arena, Rollins College.

The Influentials

Photography by Rafael Tongol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Richard O. “Rick” Baldwin

THE GRACIOUS GIVER

CEO, Baldwin Brothers Cremation

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

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

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

 

Sid Cash at Keller Field, Maitland Little League.

 

Sid Cash

THE BIG-LEAGUER

Senior Vice President, Winter Park National Bank 

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

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

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

 

Billy Collins at the Alfond Boathouse, Rollins College.

 

Billy Collins

THE LITERARY LION

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

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

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

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

 

Mary Demetree at Demetree Global, Winter Park.

 

Mary Demetree

THE EMPIRE BUILDER

Chairwoman, Demetree Global 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

Carolyn Fennell

THE JET-SETTER

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

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

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

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

 

 

Meg Fitzgerald at The Leary Group, Winter Park.

 

Meg Fitzgerald

THE LONG HITTER

Property Manager and Community Relations Director, The Leary Group

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

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

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

 

Alan Ginsburg at AHG Group, Winter Park.

 

Alan Ginsburg

THE STAND-UP PHILANTHROPIST

CEO, AHG Group

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

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

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

 

Betsy Gwinn at Rollins College.

 

Elizabeth “Betsy” Gwinn

THE BACH BOSS

Executive Director, Bach Festival Society of Winter Park

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

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

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

 

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

 

Ralph V. “Terry” Hadley III

THE COURTLY ADVOCATE

Shareholder, Swann Hadley Stump Dietrich & Spears

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

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

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

 

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

 

Garry I. Jones
Isis Jones

THE FULL SAILERS

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tom Klusman at Warden Arena, Rollins College.

 

Tom Klusman

THE LUCKY ONE

Head Basketball Coach, Rollins College 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Jack Lane

THE CURIOUS CHRONICLER

Professor of American History Emeritus, Rollins College

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

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

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

 

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

 

Fairolyn Livingston

THE COMMUNITY CURATOR

Chief Historian, Hannibal Square Heritage Center

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

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

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

 

Lawrence Lyman at the Alfond Inn, Winter Park.

 

Lawrence Lyman

THE UP-AND-COMER

Managing Partner and Vice President, Tactical Electronics Company

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

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

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

 

Jesse Martinez at the Alfond Inn, Winter Park.

 

Jesse Martinez

THE GRACIOUS HOST

General Manager, the Alfond Inn

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

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

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

 

Genean McKinnon at Weatogue, her home in Winter Park.

 

Genean Hawkins McKinnon

THE EFFECTIVE INSIDER

President, McKinnon Associates

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

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

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

 

Joanne McMahon at 310 Park South, Winter Park.

 

Joanne McMahon

THE UNSTOPPABLE ENTREPRENEUR

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

James Petrakis
Julie Petrakis

THE CULINARY CREATORS

Chef-Owners, JP Restaurants

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

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

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

 

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

 

Laurence J. “Larry” Ruggiero

THE LEGACY KEEPER

Director,Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art

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

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

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

 

Greg Seidel at The Balmoral Group, Winter Park.

 

Greg Seidel

THE NEEDED NERD 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Debbie Watson

THE WELLBEING WARRIOR

Executive Vice President, Winter Park Health Foundation

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

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

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

 

Cynthia Wood at Rollins College.

 

Cynthia Wood

THE PRICELESS PARTNER

President/Owner, Cynthia Wood Philanthropy Partner

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

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

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

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

Eye Witness

Photography by Rafael Tongol

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was, apparently, right about that. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

They’ve grown. So has she. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rogers, arguably the college’s most famous graduate, formed close, lifelong friendships on campus and in the community. Below is the motto, carved on a wall near Strong Hall, that inspired Rogers as a student.

The Saintly Legacy Of Fred Rogers

Illustration by Jim Zahniser

After Amy Melder became a Christian at the age of 6, she set out to evangelize everyone she cared about. One of the names on the top of her list was a person whom she’d never actually met: Fred Rogers.

Amy was a frequent viewer of PBS’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and had formed a deep connection to the gentle host who made her feel “safe and accepted in his tiny staged living room.”

So she penned Rogers, who died in 2003, a letter to “make sure he knew he was going to heaven.” Within weeks, she received a lengthy response from a man who personally answered every piece of fan mail he received.

He thanked her for the colorful drawing she sent him, which “is special because you made it for me.” And then he addressed the matter that most concerned Amy:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the Scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Fred Rogers was an ordained minister, but he was no televangelist, and he never tried to impose his beliefs on anyone. Behind the cardigans, though, was a man of deep faith.

Using puppets rather than a pulpit, he preached a message of inherent worth and unconditional lovability to young viewers, encouraging them to express their emotions with honesty. The effects were darn near supernatural.

He was Protestant. But if Protestants had saints, Mister Rogers might already have been canonized.

In 1991, Fred Rogers, Class of 1951, was honored with a stone on the Rollins College Walk of Fame in ceremonies overseen by President Rita Bornstein.

When Rogers decided to pursue a career in television, it wasn’t fame he sought. While watching TV during seminary, he “saw people throwing pies at each other’s faces,” which he believed was both “demeaning behavior” and a missed opportunity.

In the wake of World War II, thousands of veterans returned from battle and started families. These shell-shocked heroes risked creating a generation of emotionally stunted children. Television was a perfect vehicle for teaching kids to cope with life’s difficulties and express their feelings, but it was used mostly for mindless entertainment.

“After graduating from seminary, the Presbyterian Church didn’t know what to do with Fred,” says Amy Hollingsworth, author of The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers. “So the presbytery gave him a special commission to be an evangelist to children through the media.”

Fred’s faith surfaced in subtle, indirect ways that most viewers might miss, but it infused all he did. He believed “the space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground,” but he trusted God to do the heavy lifting.

The wall of his office featured a framed picture of the Greek word for “grace,” a constant reminder of his belief that he could use television “for the broadcasting of grace through the land.” Before entering that office each day, Rogers would pray, “Dear God, let some word that is heard be yours.”

Rogers, arguably the college’s most famous graduate, formed close, lifelong friendships on campus and in the community. Above is the motto, carved on a wall near Strong Hall, that inspired Rogers as a student.

Rogers told kids they mattered, that they were worthy of love, and that emotions were to be embraced, not buried. He spoke to children like grown-ups, and helped them tackle topics such as anger, trust, honesty, courage and sadness.

“The world is not always a kind place,” Rogers once said. “That’s something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it’s something they really need our help to understand.”

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helped young viewers process stress incurred during intense periods of cultural upheaval. When it would have been easy to demonize villains, Rogers instead forced viewers to tussle with a question Jesus himself was asked in the gospel of Luke: “Who is my neighbor?” While the question felt different depending on the circumstances, Rogers’ answer never wavered.

“His definition of ‘neighbor’ was whomever you happen to be with at the moment, especially if they are in need,” Hollingsworth said.

Rogers took an artisan’s approach to television production. Each show was designed to meet the psychological needs of children by giving them “a neighborhood expression of care,” in consultation with a team of experts. Rogers thought of himself as something of a surrogate parent, which is why he often utilized puppets and rarely featured other children—he didn’t want to create a sense of “sibling rivalry.”

His hard work helped his show hold its own against flashier, more expensive children’s programs in competing time slots. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood pushed beyond surface-level entertainment and instilled children with a sense of joy, peace and kindness.

Researchers who compared viewers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with viewers of Sesame Street even found that Fred’s fans developed a greater level of patience.

In 1969, The Atlantic documented how the dialogue on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood often felt so personal that it would trigger a “byplay” from young viewers, in which they “may respond vocally to a question and Rogers, anticipating the reply, may follow through to his next point.”

But for some viewers, the connections went even deeper.

In 1998, Esquire reported the story of a young viewer of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with an acute case of autism. The child had never spoken a word until one day he uttered, “X the Owl,” which was the name of one of Mister Rogers’ most popular puppets.

And the boy had never looked his father in the eye either, until the day his dad said, “Let’s go to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.” After this, the boy began speaking and reading, which inspired the father to visit Fred Rogers personally to thank him for saving his son’s life.

Lauren Tewes, the actress who played the cruise director on the television show Love Boat, left the show in 1984 while struggling with a cocaine addiction. One particularly dark morning, the actress says she glanced at her television screen and saw the signature opening of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Something inexplicable happened inside of her, which Tewes later attributed to “God speaking to me through the instrument of Mister Rogers.” She spent the next several decades sober.

Later in Rogers’ life, he recounted the story of a child who was being abused by his biological parents, who reportedly “wouldn’t even give him a winter blanket and wouldn’t give him a bed to sleep in.” Through encountering Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the child began to hope that there were kind people in the world and became convinced that he too should be treated with respect.

The child called an abuse hotline and was rescued. If the story doesn’t seem exceptional enough, consider that the hotline operator who answered the phone adopted the boy.

These are anecdotal accounts, impossible to verify. But they’re of a piece with the stories often told about saints. In that, they reflect the remarkable connection that so many viewers formed with Rogers, and the extent to which many came to regard him not just as an entertainer, but as something very much more.

Rogers affected the lives of millions of children, and I count myself among them. On many afternoons, I sat in front of a television screen where Mister Rogers told me that I was lovable and I was enough. He said he was my friend, and I believed him. My life still bears the fingerprints of his influence.

I can still hear him signing off his show similar to the way he concluded his letter to Amy Melder: “You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” Some have suggested that this message sought to instill children with a sense of self-importance, but to believe that is to fundamentally misunderstand Fred Rogers. At the core of Rogers’ mission was the paradoxical Christian belief that the way to gain one’s life is to give it away.

“The underlying message of the Neighborhood,” Rogers once said, “is that if somebody cares about you, it’s possible that you’ll care about others. ‘You are special, and so is your neighbor’ — that part is essential: that you’re not the only special person in the world. The person you happen to be with at the moment is loved, too.”

He was right, of course, that everyone is special. But so was he. There was also no person in the world like Fred Rogers, and given the current state of American television, there might never be again. For nearly 40 years, he entered homes to bandage broken psyches, mend fences of division and preach peace.

Mister Rogers was not just special; he was a saint. He’ll never be officially offered that title, and he’d probably want it that way. Instead, he has been canonized in the hearts of his viewers — Saint Fred, the patron saint of neighborliness.

Jonathan Merritt is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a senior columnist for Religion News Service. He has written more than 3,000 published articles in such publications as The New York Times, USA Today, Buzzfeed, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. He is the author of Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined and A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars. Copyright 2015, the Atlantic Media Company, as first published in The Atlantic. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


PARTING WORDS

I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger: I like you just the way you are. And what’s more, I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.”

— From the final episode of
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood


 

The sneakers and sweater that Rogers wore on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood are displayed in the Rollins College Department of Archives and Special Collections at Olin Library. Nearby, in the lobby of Tiedtke Concert Hall, hangs a large portrait of Rogers by local artist Don Sondag. Images Courtesy of Rollins College

 

WINTER PARK WAS HIS NEIGHBORHOOD

Fred Rogers — or, as his fans knew him, Mister Rogers — was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. But Winter Park claims him as one of its own, in part because he graduated from Rollins College in 1951 with a degree in music composition.

It was at Rollins where he met his future wife, Joanne Byrd, and participated in an array of campus activities, serving on the chapel staff and as a member of the Community Service Club, the Student Music Guild, the French Club, the Welcoming Committee, the After Chapel Club and the Alpha Phi Lambda fraternity.

But he also formed enduring friendships in the city, and visited here regularly for the remainder of his life.

When in Winter Park, he nearly always dropped by the campus, swimming in the pool nearly every day — he was an intramural swimmer in his college days — and sometimes slipping into classes that interested him.

He counted John Sinclair, chairman of the Department of Music and artistic director of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, as one of his closest friends. Rogers’ nephew, renowned composer Daniel Crozier, continues the legacy as a professor of music theory at the college.

Suddenly, it seems — perhaps because of the turbulent times in which we live — Mister Rogers is more popular than ever. Certainly, his message of kindness and civility, which may have seemed corny to cynics 20 years ago, has never been more timely.

In 2018, marking the 50th anniversary of Rogers’ iconic children’s program, PBS broadcast a poignant documentary called Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like. Another documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and will be released to theaters later this year. A U.S. postage stamp bearing his likeness was recently unveiled.

Oh, and there’s more. Tom Hanks has been signed to star in a big-budget Tristar biopic, You Are My Friend, inspired by a real-life friendship between Rogers and journalist Tom Junod.

In the film, Junod is shown as a hard-bitten reporter who reluctantly accepts an assignment to write a profile on Rogers for Esquire — and finds his worldview transformed in the process. The article, now considered a classic of magazine journalism, ran in 1998.

A release date for the film has not yet been announced. In the meantime, though, here are five things you may not have known about Fred Rogers:

  1. His  testimony helped save the VCR and paved the way for Netflix.
    In 1976, Universal Studios filed a lawsuit against Sony Corporation to halt sale of the Betamax — the precursor to the VCR — claiming that home recording would damage television and film producers. When the case came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983, Rogers testified for Sony, saying he didn’t object to people taping his shows and watching them at a more convenient time — particularly if they were able to do so in a family setting. The court — which cited Rogers’ testimony — ruled in favor of Sony, and the case has served as a precedent for the popular recording and streaming technologies we enjoy today.
  2. He was inspired by the "Life Is For Service" motto he saw at Rollins.
    The talented music composition major — who transferred to Rollins from Dartmouth — took a photo of the inspirational engraving, which is on a wall near Strong Hall, and carried it in his wallet for years. It was finally framed and prominently placed on his desk.
  3. He spoke at a kid-friendly speed of 124 words per minute.
    According to research, one reason why children were so captivated by Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood could be that Rogers’ speech was the perfect pace for children ages 3 to 5 to process. The average adult prefers to listen to speech at a pace of 150 to 160 words per minute.
  4. His sweater and sneakers are housed in the Campus Library.
    Rogers famously wore zip-front cardigans that were knitted by his mother. A blue cardigan and a pair of sneakers are among Rollins’ most treasured possessions, and may be seen in the college’s Department of Archives and Special Collections in Olin Library. Another cardigan — a red one — is kept at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
  5. He weighed exactly 143 pounds for the last 30 years of his life.
    Rogers lived a healthy life and was disciplined in his daily routine. Journalist Tom Junod explained that Rogers found beauty in his weight of 143 pounds because “the number 143 means ‘I love you.’ It takes one letter to say ‘I’ and four letters to say ‘love’ and three letters to say ‘you.’ One hundred and forty-three.”

A version of this list originally appeared in Rollins 360, the campus magazine.

Clay isn’t the only medium Sorensen has mastered. Wire “dwellings” are airy, colorful installations that look like X-rays of three-dimensional clay forms. Indeed, if it can be molded or shaped, Sorensen can use it to create art.

Forms of Art

Sorensen is surrounded by pliable aluminum foil ductwork that’s usually used to ventilate clothes dryer exhaust systems. She used the material to create a magnificent piece of art, Ripples in White, which is now part of the Orlando International Airport’s permanent collection. Photo by Rafael Tongol

When Winter Park-based sculptor Barbara Sorensen rummages through the aisles at Miller’s Hardware, she isn’t looking for obscure widgets to repair household appliances, or chemical concoctions to remove mold from her bathroom grout.

She’s looking for artistic inspiration.

“I think at first the staff thought I was a little nuts,” says the ebullient Sorensen, a lively and stylish woman who laughs easily and seems decades younger than her 72 years. “But I found some wonderful material that really works for me.”

At Miller’s Hardware?

The densely packed store is, in fact, where Sorensen discovered tubular aluminum foil ductwork manufactured for use in clothes dryer exhaust systems.

Excited by the creative possibilities, she ordered boxloads of the stuff. And why not? It’s lightweight, easy to bend and shape, and can be torn almost as easily as paper.

“Miller’s Hardware is great,” says Sorensen, who is surely one of only a handful of locals who consider the legendary handyman haven to be an art-supply store in disguise. “Any time I can give them a plug, I do.”

The pedestrian but pliable ductwork — torn into crumpled squares, mounted on wood and painted white — has been repurposed as an immense but whimsical installation at the Orlando International Airport.

Ripples in White, which is part of OIA’s expansive permanent art collection, can be seen at the new South Airport Automatic People Mover Complex.

Sorensen’s works most often use materials from the earth, and call to mind primal forces and ancient mysteries. Her chalices are particularly intriguing, and have been described by one critic as “referring to the landscape, acting as metaphors for time and embodying ideas pregnant with ceremonial and elemental implications.”

No one who has followed Sorensen’s career should be surprised that she has figured out a way to create timeless art using a hardware-store item that, for most of us, serves no purpose apart from removing lint.

Since her earliest work — mystically infused “Pandora’s boxes” inspired by the Greek myth — Sorensen has consistently been inspired by the sheer joy of moving, molding and manipulating materials.

“My work is about the landscape and the environment,” she says. “My process is about how the earth was formed. I look at the landscape, interpret it and reinterpret it, processing it within. Then I give it back, transformed.”

Along the way, whether creating richly textured clay chalices, imposing bronze goddesses, weighty clusters of shields or colorful wire structures that she calls “dwellings,” her work seems both primal and contemporary.

And, unlike most art, Sorensen’s creations cry out to be touched. In fact, visitors are invited to feel the ridges, patterns and pebbles that make the art both a visual and a tactile experience.

Sorensen — with husband Gary and two young daughters — moved to Winter Park 35 years ago because, she says, “we just didn’t like the weather in Wisconsin.”

But she didn’t become a working artist right away.

Sorensen had earned an art education degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison — where she studied under renowned ceramic artist Don Reitz — and had been a high school art teacher prior to relocating.

Once in Florida, however, she became “a car-pool mom,” putting her career on hold while raising children. But by the time the youngsters left for college, she had accrued a decade’s worth of pent-up creativity — and was ready to unleash it.

Sorensen’s works most often use materials from the earth, and call to mind primal forces and ancient mysteries. Her elongated nymphs are particularly intriguing, and have been described by one critic as “referring to the landscape, acting as metaphors for time and embodying ideas pregnant with ceremonial and elemental implications.”

She soon found herself in the pottery studio of Stetson University art professor Dan Gunderson — another Reitz disciple — whom she cites as a major influence on her work.

“When Barbara switched gears, she put the same passion for parenting into her artwork,” wrote Gunderson in 2010, when he curated an exhibition dedicated to her work. “One look at her resumé will prove that she did all the right things. She had the drive to make it happen.”

In 1994 and 1997, respectively, her sculptures were spotlighted at the Albertson-Peterson Gallery in Winter Park and Orlando City Hall. In 1999, the Cornell Fine Art Museum at Rollins College staged Barbara Sorensen: Sculpture as Environment.

“That all got my adrenaline going,” says Sorensen, who seems to have an unlimited supply of the hormone coursing through her veins. Throughout the next decade, museums and private collectors around the country began clamoring for her work.

That’s partly because Sorensen was no ordinary potter. She had found new ways of expressing her artistic vision through primal, heavily textured and highly symbolic forms.

During family ski trips, she studied at Snowmass Village, near Aspen, at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center. There she connected with another soon-to-be mentor, ceramic artist Paul Soldner, who encouraged her to work on a larger scale and “helped me to find my own voice as an artist.”

Soldner, she adds, “told me to give myself permission to experiment and to grow.”

Sorensen’s heavily textured boats symbolize, perhaps, a journey between life and death.

Workshops at Anderson Ranch, Sorensen recalls, consisted of “critiquing, going out for meals and firing kilns on those beautiful days and nights that only Aspen has. I remember a lot of sharing of ideas, of new and important turning points in my work, epiphanies and new directions.”

While out west, Sorensen also soaked up the stunning natural environment during long hikes, and “used the kiln to repeat nature’s formation.” Eventually, the family bought a condominium in Snowmass Village, where the family still spends part of the year.

Sorensen’s works, according to New York-based art critic Eleanor Heartney, “are rich with meaning — simultaneously referring to the landscape, acting as metaphors for time and embodying ideas pregnant with ceremonial and elemental implications.”

Goddesses — their elongated bodies twisting and stretching skyward — are breathtaking allusions to such forces of nature as whirling winds, erosion and ultimate decay. But they’re unquestionably beautiful; alluring in their slim, precarious balance.

Her shields are ornamented with runes, pebbles, circles, incisions, crests and boldly colored bands.

Pandora’s boxes often feature lids embedded with actual gems and golden surfaces. Chalices, sometimes delicately poised on tiny bases, are adorned with colorful flounces that hint at the gowns of Minoan maidens.

Encrusted half-moons of clay become formidable shields, their surfaces gloriously ornamented with runes, pebbles, circles, incisions, crests and boldly colored bands. Most even bear the artist’s fingerprints.

Works from Sorensen’s boat-inspired series rest on floors or are suspended as if by magic from ceilings, casting ghostly multiple shadows and representing, perhaps, a journey between life and death.

Sorensen — whose work can be found in countless private and corporate collections — was never particularly fond of making flawless pottery on a wheel; she prefers to pull, twist, stretch and squeeze the clay, and to experiment with glazes, textures and unexpected enhancements.

Clay, in fact, isn’t the only medium she has mastered.

Clay isn’t the only medium Sorensen has mastered. Wire “dwellings” are airy, colorful installations that look like X-rays of three-dimensional clay forms. Indeed, if it can be molded or shaped, Sorensen can use it to create art.

Wire “dwellings” are airy, colorful installations that look like X-rays of three-dimensional clay forms, while another series, inspired by wind, features strands of rope swirled to resemble tiny funnel clouds.

Other series reflect natural phenomena, such as the subtle shifting of sand dunes and the impact of wind and water on the striated stone outcroppings in Utah’s Zion National Park.

Works reflecting these assorted themes can be seen throughout Sorensen’s Windsong home — hanging on the wall, occupying nooks and crannies, and standing guard over gardens and a backyard swimming pool.

She works mostly in her garage, although she has warehouse space for materials in the Orange Blossom Trail area.

“My work isn’t the normal stuff that people turn out in clay,” she says. “And I’m always discovering new things. For example, clay had become sort of limiting. That’s when I went to Miller’s Hardware and found the dryer ducting.”

Although Sorensen’s work is prized everywhere, it’s particularly revered locally.

To some, Ripples in White calls to mind the effect of wind on water.

In 2010, the Museum of Florida Art in Deland staged Barbara Sorensen: Topographies, which was curated by Gunderson — her onetime professor. It was, at that time, the most complete overview of her work ever assembled.

An expanded version of Topographies came to the Orlando Museum of Art in 2012. The dramatic entrance to the exhibit was a cluster of stoneware speleothems — stalactite and stalagmite formations — that rose from the ground and descended from the ceiling.

More recently, the Mennello Museum of American Art unveiled a permanent display of Sorensen’s sculptures — including an enchanting “Chalice Forest” — on the facility’s grounds.

Inside the museum hung Ripples in White, which was spotted by a fellow Winter Parker: Carolyn Fennell, senior director of public affairs and community relations at OIA. Fennell thought the piece would be ideal for OIA and suggested that it be acquired by the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

“I’ve followed Barbara’s work for years,” says Fennell, who thought Ripples in White would be ideal for OIA’s collection since it evokes the calming vibe of the region’s many lakes. “There’s so much anxiety associated with travel, and we know that an art piece can really offer relief.”

A detail from the work shows the complex shapes into which Sorensen hand-twisted the raw material before coating it with white paint.

Sorensen says she thrilled to have her work in OIA’s collection: “After all, Orlando is my town, so I couldn’t be more proud. It’s so exciting.”

What’s next for Sorensen? She isn’t slowing down, although she says she doesn’t do much heavy lifting any more — she has an assistant for that — and primarily concentrates on commissioned work.

She isn’t finished with metallic ductwork, she adds, although you never know what new medium she may encounter during her next visit to Miller’s Hardware.

Notes Sorensen: “If people acquire my art, that enables me to make more. And even though I’ve fulfilled a lot of my goals, I’m still discovering new things and think I still have something to say.”


Several Winter Park artists have floor installations at the Orlando International Airport. Henry Sinn’s Field of Ferns (above), located in Terminal A near the tram, features a variety of stylized ferns in turquoise, green and other colors against a vivid yellow background. Grady Kimsey’s Florascape (below left), located in Terminal A near Gates 123 and 124, is brimming with wildflowers and sunshine. Victor Bokas’ Florida Vacation (below right), located in Terminal A near Gate 103, is nautically themed, dominated by abstract fish.

AN ARTFUL WELCOME

One of the most extraordinary collections of Florida-themed art isn’t in a museum. It’s in the Orlando International Airport. And more than 44 million people every year see at least some of it.

“Art is a growing focus of airports,” says Carolyn Fennell, a longtime Winter Park resident and senior director of public affairs and community relations for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. “They’re moving from being simply receptacles to being welcoming gateways. More and more, you’ll see airports creating a sense of place through art.”

Fennell says that’s more important than ever because of the increased anxiety associated with air travel. “Art can offer relief,” Fennell says, while also highlighting what’s special about the region.

At OIA, most of the art — floor mosaics, sculptural installations, and an array of large-scale paintings and photographs — focuses on the natural environment.

Not all the works are literal representations. Winter Park-based sculptor Barbara Sorensen’s recently installed Ripples in White, which can be seen at the new South Airport Automatic People Mover Complex, is fashioned from crumpled clothes dryer duct material. But it calls to mind ripples of water seen in the region’s thousands of lakes.

Ripples in White hangs on a wall. But Wellness Garden, installed late last year at the west end of the A-Side of the Main Terminal, is on the floor. It’s South Dakota-based artist Scott Parsons’ 28-by-32-foot homage to the region’s rich agricultural history.

The most recent art installation at OIA is Wellness Garden, completed late last year at the west end of the A-Side of the Main Terminal.

Subsequent epoxy-terrazzo “welcome mats” will showcase technology, attractions and the space industry.

About half the artists whose work appears in the OIA collection are from Florida. Three, in addition to Sorensen, have Winter Park roots. All created vivid floor mosaics that have by now been admired — and trod upon — by millions.

Henry Sinn’s Field of Ferns, located in Terminal A near the tram, features a variety of stylized ferns in turquoise, green and other colors against a vivid yellow background.

Grady Kimsey’s Florascape, located in Terminal A near Gates 123 and 124, is brimming with wildflowers and sunshine. It’s a favorite with children, who can often be seen carefully traversing the stems or jumping from flower to flower, hopscotch style.

Longtime Winter Park resident Carolyn Fennell, the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority’s senior director of public affairs and community relations, says that OIA boasts one of the largest public art collections in the Southeast.

Victor Bokas’ Florida Vacation, located in Terminal A near Gate 103, is nautically themed, dominated by abstract fish. A segment of that piece was used by OIA on a collectible trading card as part of a program sponsored by the Airports Council International.

Art has been integral to OIA ever since the facility opened in 1981. And a portion of construction funding for expansions and improvements is still earmarked for art acquisition. Today, OIA’s collection is among the largest public art collections in the Southeast.

“Our art collection from ceiling to floor has been recognized locally and nationally,” says Frank Kruppenbacher, OIA’s chairman. “We’ve always said this airport is more than an airport. It’s a reflection of the experiences of Central Florida.”

Adds Fennell: “We want our art to reflect the Orlando experience. When you arrive here, we want you to know you’re in Florida just by looking at the art.”

— Randy Noles

A 300-square-foot screened back porch and a carport pergola were added to the rear of this circa-1925
west side home as part of an extensive remodeling project. Neighbors had assumed that the once-forelorn frame structure was destined for demolition.

Cute and Cozy

Photographs By Rafael Tongol

 

A 300-square-foot screened back porch and a carport pergola were added to the rear of this circa-1925 west side home as part of an extensive remodeling project. Neighbors had assumed that the once-forelorn frame structure was destined for demolition.

When Susan Skolfield noted that the ramshackle bungalow across the street from her tidy home on Garfield Avenue had been sold, she assumed that the new owner would tear it down and build something new.

A lifelong Winter Parker who serves as executive director of the Winter Park History Museum, Skolfield is all about preservation. But she had little expectation that 411 Garfield, which was built around 1925 and sits at the corner of Garfield and Virginia Drive, could be salvaged.

After all, that’s how it usually goes on the west side.

The traditionally African-American neighborhood was designated by the city’s founders in the 1880s as a place where “Negro families of good character” could own property near where they worked, which was often for affluent residents on the opposite side of the railroad tracks.

The area — which includes the redeveloped Hannibal Square business district and some pricey infill residential projects — has been gentrifying in recent decades.

The stark racial divide is, of course, no longer codified. Although African-Americans still comprise the majority of west side residents, diversity is increasing as buyers descend upon the last bastion of affordable housing in Winter Park’s red-hot urban core.

“The location is amazing — just two blocks from Park Avenue — and the neighborhood is truly multiethnic,” says Skolfield, who moved to the west side in 2014. “When I found my place, I thought, ‘This is it.’”

Skolfield’s home was built in 1996. Despite the west side’s proud heritage, it encompasses relatively few homes that date from the 1920s. Most were built in the 1950s and 1960s.

That’s why forlorn 411 Garfield was such a diamond in the rough. Make that very rough.

Evelyn Kelly, a Californian who buys and renovates homes for use as vacation rentals, knew as soon as she saw it that 411 Garfield — which was in disrepair and had been victimized by decades of patchwork repairs — could be salvaged.

Kelly, who retired in 2014, had spent 18 years with Associates Purchasing, a Los Angeles-based Knoll furniture dealership that offered interior design services to major commercial clients.

All the while, however, she had been buying and restoring intriguing older homes across the U.S., and marketing them as vacation rentals. Her first such project was in Santa Monica, where she rehabilitated a cluster of five circa 1920s bungalows.

Buying 411 Garfield was, in part, a business decision. It would enhance Kelly’s portfolio by adding a location squarely within the tourism capital of the world, yet seemingly far removed from the crowded tackiness that such a designation denotes.

It was also a personal decision. The home would give Kelly a warm-weather address in a city that she found enchanting. “I had fallen in love with Winter Park,” she says.

What’s more, it was love at first sight.

Kelly’s daughter and grandchildren had visited Central Florida many times to enjoy the tourist attractions, particularly Disney World. They had discovered the low-key City of Culture and Heritage while on vacation.

In 2016, Kelly joined them for a trip.

The home at 411 Garfield was water damaged, termite-ridden and structurally shaky. The front porch had been enclosed by perhaps the world’s worst handyman, and interior rooms had been chopped up to accommodate two tenants.

“My daughter kept saying, ‘While we’re here, you’ve just got to see Winter Park,’” she recalls. “‘You’ve got to see downtown, you’ve got to see Rollins College, and you’ve got to stay at the Alfond Inn.’”

Who wouldn’t be dazzled after seeing all that?

So, Kelly — who was dividing her time between vacation homes in California, Georgia and Mexico — contacted Christy Knox and Liz Jones, then affiliated with Kelly Price & Company in Winter Park and now with Mainframe Real Estate in Orlando.

She wanted a home in the heart of the city, and within walking distance of its shopping, dining and cultural amenities. And she didn’t want to spend seven figures.

“We showed Evelyn 411 Garfield, and she loved it from the minute she saw it,” says Knox. “The place was a disaster. But she recognized that it was in an up-and-coming area. She had the vision for what it could be.”

Disaster might be putting it mildly.

Today, adventurous owner Evelyn Kelly enjoys living in a cozy vintage home with all the modern bells and whistles just blocks from Park Avenue.

The home was water damaged, termite-ridden and structurally shaky. Interior rooms had been chopped up to accommodate two tenants, and the most recent occupants had kept numerous dogs inside, with predictable consequences. The front porch had been enclosed by perhaps the world’s most incompetent handyman, and there was no central air conditioning.

Nonetheless, Kelly bought the property last year for $259,000.

“My first reaction was, ‘We should probably just tear this down,’” recalls Jason Sellers, owner of SEI Custom, the builder whom Knox and Jones recommended to Kelly. “But we say, ‘Whatever you can dream up, we can build.’”

Skolfield, who was amazed when no bulldozers showed up, says she would sometimes walk across the street and peer into windows to check progress. Eventually, she met Kelly — and found a kindred spirit.

“She was so gracious,” says Skolfield of Kelly. “When I learned that she was really restoring the home, I was so excited. It takes a special kind of person to do something like this. You need passion and vision, and Evelyn has both.”

Given her profession, Skolfield was also interested in the history of the home. Much to her surprise, she discovered that her friend Ruthenia Beacham Moses had lived there as a young woman.

In fact, Moses told Skolfield, the home had been moved to the west side in late 1959 or early 1960  — something Kelly hadn’t even known.

“I’m not sure where the place came from,” Moses says. “My grandfather bought a grove where the house is now. He told my mother, ‘You’re a good daughter, so I’m going to clear part of the grove and put a house there for you.’”

Christy Knox and Liz Jones (top, left to right), then affiliated with Kelly Price & Company in Winter Park and now with Mainframe Real Estate in Orlando, showed Kelly their listing at 411 Garfield, a home that they frankly described as “a disaster.” But when Kelly showed interest, Knox and Jones put her in touch with contractor Jason Sellers (above right), owner of SEI Custom, whose motto is “whatever you can dream up, we can build.” Part of what Kelly dreamed up was a long combined living room and kitchen with heart pine floors that would encompass space previously chopped up into several claustrophobic rooms.

Moses’ grandfather was Willy W. Wallace, who owned a concrete company in Orlando. Her mother, Olivia Wallace Beacham, is still living and celebrates her 100th birthday this year. Her father, Rev. David S. Beacham, was a traveling Church of God in Christ minister and west side community leader who died in 1999.

Moses left 411 Garfield to attend Bethune Cookman College (now Bethune Cookman University) in Daytona Beach. After graduation, she returned and lived there again from 1968 to 1970. The Beacham family owned the home until 2002, when they sold it for $250,000.

“We had the prettiest yard on the street,” recalls Moses. “They divided it into apartments. It was looking bad. I remember driving by and thinking, ‘This isn’t Mom’s house.’ I’m so glad to see what’s happened with it now.”

In fact, because of the size of the lot — just 40 feet by 100 feet — a McMansion at 411 Garfield was never in the offing. But Kelly could certainly have opted to raze the 1,200-square-foot home and build a new one.

The master bedroom opens onto the inviting back porch. Like the rest of the home, the bedroom is furnished with a combination of new furniture and eclectic antique pieces. Savannah-based interior designer Jane Coslick, who collaborated with Kelly on the restoration of a cottage on Tybee Island in Georgia, is responsible for the warm and welcoming ambiance.

Indeed, she probably could have done exactly that for less money. But the fact that she chose to renovate helps the neighborhood maintain its unpretentious ambiance — and preserves a vestige of the west side’s past.

“Oh, there may have been times that I thought I had made a mistake,” shrugs Kelly, who declines to say what the project cost in total. “But the places I’d done in Santa Monica were even worse. And I couldn’t be more happy with how it all turned out.”

Kelly credits the unflappable Sellers and her friend, Savannah-based interior designer Jane Coslick, for transforming the decrepit eyesore into a cozy and quirky cottage that, unlike some newer west side homes, reflects the character of the neighborhood.

Outside is lushly landscaped, allowing 411 Garfield to reclaim the mantle of “prettiest yard on the street.” Inside is highlighted by a long, combined living room and kitchen.

The living room has an electric fireplace, while the kitchen is outfitted with bright retro-style Big Chill appliances guaranteed to make a visitor smile. The décor combines vintage and modern elements, with plenty of bright colors.

One of the 1,200-square-foot home’s two bathrooms has a walk-in shower. The other, which is connected to the master bedroom, has a soaking tub with an overhead shower. Both bathrooms boast cement tile floors featuring a colorful and whimsical design.

The floors throughout are heart pine, and there are two bedrooms and two bathrooms. Every square inch is thoughtfully and efficiently used, so closet space is substantial for a home so small. A 300-square-foot screened back porch and a carport pergola have been added.

Kelly and Coslick had collaborated before, on a funky Tybee Island, Georgia, cottage that was featured in a 2014 issue of Coastal Living magazine. Today, the Tybee Island home — located a block from the beach — is part of Kelly’s vacation-home rental inventory.

And so is 411 Garfield. Although Kelly has embedded herself in Winter Park — she attends First United Methodist Church and has joined the Winter Park Women’s Club — the property is posted on her website, frontporchvacationrentals.com. It’s priced at $175 per night, with a five-night minimum and no parties or events allowed.

The kitchen is outfitted with bright retro-style Big Chill appliances guaranteed to make a visitor smile. A coffeemaker and other kitchen necessities are hidden behind a spacious floor-to-ceiling pantry.

But don’t expect it to be available often, since Kelly — who could live anywhere she pleases — plans to be in residence most of the time.

When she’s in town, you can probably find her relaxing on the back porch. She even likes the fact that the railroad tracks are only a block away.

Notes Kelly: “I’m from the country. I lived in California, but I was born in Texas and raised near the railroads. I love to hear the trains go by.”

Lane’s fascinating new book was originally written to commemorate the college’s 125th anniversary in 1985. It wasn’t published at the time, but a revised version was released in November of 2017.

Surprising History

“It dawned on me that the college community was in danger of losing its institutional memory — and I felt a strong obligation to make sure that didn’t happen. That sense of responsibility overrode any other considerations.” — Jack Lane.
Photo by Mitchell Lane Thomas

 

Few cities and colleges have origins as intertwined as those of Winter Park and Rollins College. But, until now, there had been no comprehensive history of the state’s oldest institution of higher learning. At least, not one in print.

The Rollins centennial celebration in 1985 seemed an ideal opportunity to tell the college’s entire story, from its founding by enterprising town boosters in 1885 through its emergence as one of the most respected small liberal arts colleges in the U.S.

Enter Jack C. Lane, then a professor of history and now a professor emeritus and college historian, who was asked by then-President Thaddeus Seymour to write a book marking the anniversary.

Lane was at first reluctant, fearing that an institutional history would invariably be a dry tome that would generate little interest beyond administrators and a handful of alumni.

But he quickly realized that the story of Rollins was jam-packed with eccentric characters, near-disasters, daring innovations and heady achievements. He quickly embraced the project, combining a storyteller’s zeal and a historian’s rigor.

Yet the completed manuscript — fascinating and revealing as it was — gathered dust for more than three decades.

Lane posted it online, and in recent years some of the more colorful chapters were expanded and excerpted in Winter Park Magazine. Those excerpts always generated significant reader interest — and prompted questions about when the book would become available.

Finally, though, it’s been published. Rollins College Centennial History: A Story of Perseverance, 1885-1985 (Story Farm Inc.) is a handsome hardback available for $21.95 from the usual online booksellers and at the Rollins College Bookstore.

Lane’s fascinating new book was originally written to commemorate the college’s 125th anniversary in 1985. It wasn’t published at the time, but a revised version was released in November of 2017.

But don’t expect a typical self-congratulatory coffee-table book filled with pretty pictures and effusive promotional copy. Lane’s work is, instead, a meticulously researched, warts-and-all look at the college’s ups and downs through a century of tumult and triumph.

The chapter headers offer confirmation that Lane was granted carte blanche to tell it like it really was: “The Struggle for Survival,” “The Search for Stability” and “The College in Crisis,” to name just a few. Often, money — or lack thereof — was the problem. Other times, imperious administrators and peculiar professors wreaked havoc. (See the chapters on President Paul Wagner and Professor John Rice.)

But by 1985, when Lane completed his manuscript, the charismatic Seymour had righted the ship. Today, Rollins enjoys lofty national academic rankings and is bolstered by a healthy endowment of more than $370 million.

No one was better suited to write this roller-coaster of a history than Lane, who had at the time taught at the college for more than 20 years, serving on an array of committees and logging a stint as chairman of the history department in the 1970s.

When he retired in 1999, Lane received the William Freemont Blackman Medal — named, appropriately, in honor of his favorite past Rollins president — for distinguished service. Six years later, at the 2006 commencement exercises, Rollins awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

In addition to Rollins College Centennial History, Lane has published three books and numerous articles on American military history, foreign relations and the history of education. In recent years, however, he turned his scholarly attention to the history of Florida.

In 1991, he and another Rollins history professor, Maurice “Socky” O’Sullivan, compiled a collection of Florida writing ranging from folk tales and Spanish myths to Florida-related work by writers such 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.

In addition to writing, during his retirement Lane 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.

Winter Park Magazine sat down with Lane to discuss his lively new book.


Q: Your book is subtitled Centennial History, so obviously it was written to be published in 1985. What was the origin of the book, and why was it not published at the time?

AGood question, and one that many others, I imagine, have been asking. Well, the road to publication was a bit circuitous. In 1984, President Thaddeus Seymour, with the college’s 100th anniversary imminent, called to ask if I would be interested in writing Rollins’ centennial history.

I was a little hesitant about accepting, because I was involved in writing another book that would have to be postponed. But later I thought: I’ve been at the college for more than 20 years, and I know almost nothing about its history.

It dawned on me that the college community was in danger of losing its institutional memory — and I felt a strong obligation to make sure that didn’t happen. That sense of responsibility overrode any other considerations.

Besides, the president offered to appoint me college historian, and allow me a year off from teaching to complete the project. So, I said yes.

I completed a first draft at the end of the year, after which I returned to full-time teaching, leaving me little time to revise and rewrite. Plus, the administration had published a pictorial history that I had put together during my research. It was difficult, I was told, to find funding to publish the historical narrative.

So, I put the manuscript aside. I turned to other scholarly endeavors, and the whole project sort of went dormant.

Rollins was founded in 1885 by the Florida Congregational Association and members of the First Congregational Church of Winter Park, which, according to Lane, “had either the audacity or the foolhardiness to start a college in the Florida wilderness, in a village that had only about 150 souls.” Photo Courtesy of The Rollins College Archives

QSo, what was the impetus to publish it now, more than 30 years later?

AThe impetus came from the college’s new president, Grant Cornwell. Shortly after he arrived, I approached him at a social gathering to ask him about his recent trip to India.

“Funny you should ask,” he said. “On the plane on the way home, I read your centennial history manuscript, and I think we should publish it, if you’re willing to work on it some more.”

He couldn’t have surprised me more. It had been more than 30 years since I’d even looked at the manuscript. To tell you the truth, I could remember little of what I’d written, or what the quality of my research and writing had been.

But the president caught me at a moment in my retirement when I had little in the way of scholarly activity going on. I said yes, but added that it would have to remain a centennial history. Frankly, I just didn’t have the energy to conduct the research required to write about the years since 1985. He agreed.

If I might add something here — for several reasons, the gap between writing, rewriting and publication proved to be fortuitous. That 30 years gave me the perspective to make revisions and additions that, I think, greatly improved the original manuscript.

And my writing style, I hope, had much improved. I spent a year rewriting virtually the entire book.

Finally, given the transformations taking place today in higher education — and particularly in liberal education — it seemed to be a propitious time to make public the richness and significance of the Rollins story.

And more importantly, it seemed to be an equally propitious time to remind the present campus community of the significance of institutional memory.


QWhat facet of the college’s history surprised you the most?

AWell, as I mentioned before, there was very little that I did know of Rollins’ past, so I had many surprises. Part of my reluctance at first to undertake this project 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 depleted finances, epidemics, freezes, internal conflicts and the effort of heroic individuals — was a story that captivated my interest from the very beginning.

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.


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

AWell, at the top of the list would be the obvious one, Hamilton Holt (president from 1925 to 1945). Holt is 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 on the college.

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.

What other figures? Well, two at the turn of the century: the almost-regal George Morgan Ward (president from 1896 to 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 to 1915), who brought the college back to its liberal education roots when it was tending to drift 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 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.


QWhat was the most difficult period for the college? Did it ever seem as though it might not survive?

AI’ve chosen the theme of “perseverance” because there were so many periods when it seemed the college wouldn’t survive. But rather than damaging the college, the struggle 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.


QDid writing the book give you a greater appreciation for Rollins? In what way?

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

Nowicki keeps two photographs from his time at Winter Park High School. One is of the school’s formidable drama teacher, the late Ann Derflinger (left). The other is from the school’s 1973 production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah! Wilderness, in which he starred as angsty teen Richard Miller. Nowicki counts Derflinger as one of the most influential people in his life.

Tom The Actor

Busy actor Tom Nowicki has steadfastly remained in Winter Park, even though most of his film and TV roles take him elsewhere. “It’s great to be able to work and then come back to a place I can call home,” he says. “It’s so easy to live here. It’s friendly and accessible and green.” Photo by Rafael Tongol

Actor Tom Nowicki is often recognized. Sometimes, he’s recognized as Kris Kristofferson, with whom he appeared in 2011’s Dolphin Tale, a hit family drama that also starred Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman.

Nowicki and Kristofferson bear a passing resemblance to one another, particularly when Nowicki’s reddish hair — lightened to white from exposure to swimming-pool chlorine — is worn shoulder-length.

But more often these days he’s recognized as himself, from featured roles in dozens of films and television programs spanning a career that’s approaching the 40-year mark. “Hey, look,” says a woman at sipping a latte at the Park Avenue Starbucks. “That’s Tom, the actor.”

More precisely, that’s Tom, our actor.

When he isn’t on location, you can usually find Nowicki and his friend, Kristina Lake Latimer, at Lake Baldwin Park surrounded by furry friends. Nowicki helped lobby the city to designate an off-leash oasis where dogs can romp. Photo by Rafael Tongol

Amanda Bearse (Married with Children), Davis Gaines (Phantom of the Opera) and Billy Gardell (Mike and Molly) — all of whom boast deep Winter Park roots — are more widely known. But none is as prolific. And only Nowicki has continued living locally — despite professional pressure to move someplace else.

Nowicki admits that having a New York or a Los Angeles address would be advantageous in his line of work. But perhaps not as advantageous as it once was.

Most films these days are made in Canada, Georgia, North Carolina and other places where, unlike Florida, filmmakers are offered significant incentives. He’d be racking up frequent-flyer miles regardless.

“It’s great to be able to work and then come back to a place I can call home,” says Nowicki, 61, whose family moved to Winter Park from Detroit in 1968. “It’s so easy to live here. It’s friendly and accessible and green.”

Then he adds, only partially in jest: “Lake Baldwin Park is great; maybe that’s really the reason I stay here.” The park is a 23-acre waterfront expanse, 11 acres of which are dedicated to off-leash dogs.

Nowicki is still frequently recognized for his role in 2009’s Oscar-winning theatrical film The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock.

 

More recently, he landed a recurring role in a Discovery Channel miniseries called Manhunt: Unabomber, in which he plays a dogged FBI agent who tracks Ted Kaczynski into the Montana wilderness.

‘I KNOW THAT FACE’

Nowicki has been in so many television programs — more than 100 credits and counting — that a dedicated couch surfer might see him portraying a hapless prosecutor on rerun of Matlock, and then, with the click of a button, see him again, this time portraying a Russian spy on a rerun of Burn Notice.

He’s also been in at least 50 feature films, covering an array of genres — comedy, drama, action, science fiction and horror. But perhaps his most high-profile role in recent years was in the biographical sports drama The Blind Side (2009), starring Sandra Bullock, who won an Academy Award for her role as Leigh Ann Tohey.

Tohey, you’ll recall, is a successful interior designer who becomes the adoptive mother of a promising football prospect, Michael Oher (Quinten Aaron).

Nowicki portrays the uncompromising literature teacher whose class Oher must pass to become eligible for a college scholarship. Later that year, the character was later parodied by Seth Myers during the 2009 ESPY (Excellence in Sports Performance) Awards, broadcast on ABC. Oher was played by Peyton Manning.

“That was quite a moment, seeing your role become part of a comedy skit,” says Nowicki. “Seth was great, but they could have called me and had the real guy.” (Spoiler alert: Oher goes on to become an All-American at Old Miss, and plays for eight seasons in the NFL.)

But for every Blind Side-style blockbuster — which Nowicki says pays the bills — there’ve been meatier roles in edgy independent productions, stints on network and cable television programs and even stretches as a pro wrestling heel and a caddish roller-derby mogul.

More recently, Nowicki landed a recurring role on Manhunt: Unabomber, a Discovery Channel miniseries in which he portrayed dogged FBI agent Tom McDaniel, who tracked Ted Kaczynski into the Montana wilderness.

He now has a recurring role in Mr. Mercedes, a television adaptation of Stephen King’s hard-boiled detective novel of the same name. The show airs on Audience TV, a streaming service available through AT&T U-verse or DirecTV.

Coming up, Nowicki will portray a French mesmerist in The Path, a Hulu original series, and has several theatrical films and a new TV series — Lodge 49, produced by Academy Award-nominated actor Paul Giamatti — in post-production.

Nowicki has done voiceover work, produced several art-house films and appeared in countless plays, tackling roles that range from Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire to a gay concentration-camp prisoner in Martin Sherman’s Bent.

Once a regional theater regular, Nowicki is more selective about his stage work these days. The money isn’t very good, for starters. And it can be tough to sell an agent on the idea of a long-term theater commitment if a much more lucrative gig in a film or a television program might be just around the corner.

Still, Nowicki says the gig he enjoyed the most was at the American Stage Theater Company in St. Petersburg. He portrayed the mysterious Mr. Lockhart — actually, the devil himself — in a 2010 production of The Seafarer, playwright Conor McPherson’s dark and drunken Christmas-themed comedy.

“I was asked to do the show, and at first thought I was a terrible choice for the role,” he recalls. “But it all came together in a magical way. It was eight shows a week in a three-week run — and I never got tired of going to work. That’s the best gauge I can give you for how much I enjoyed it.” 

A true actor’s actor whom casting directors know will wring the most from any role he tackles, Nowicki has never wanted for steady work. He typically stays busy at least 30 weeks a year, and — despite the usual ups and downs — has never experienced a truly alarming dry spell.

Major star stature has seemed tantalizingly within reach several times. For example, in 2000 Nowicki beat out Corbin Bernsen (L.A. Law, Psych) for a leading role in L.A. Confidential, a television pilot based on the Academy Award-winning 1997 film.

The pilot starred Kiefer Sutherland, who at 24 was already an established film star. It was praised by Entertainment Weekly as “the show to watch” for the coming season. “I felt like that was where my entire career was leading,” Nowicki recalls. “I thought it was my time and my moment.”

However, the networks — perhaps daunted by the expense of shooting a series set in 1950s Los Angeles — passed on the project. Sutherland went on the following spring to star in the Fox espionage thriller 24. Nowicki, who had figured L.A. Confidential would run for five or six seasons — went back to Winter Park.

He was discouraged — as all actors have been — but undaunted. He continued to audition, and to approach every role offered to him with undiminished seriousness and professionalism.

In the 80s, on a lark, Nowicki became a theater critic for the Winter Park Outlook, a weekly newspaper. He wrote under a pseudonym, Rupert Birkin, whose reviews were incisive and, to some, insufferable. Birkin is a character from D.H. Lawrence’s 1920 novel Women in Love. Nowicki even used a photo of Lawrence atop his column — but no one made the connection.

DERFLINGER’S DISCIPLE

Nowicki’s prodigious work ethic was the result of training by Ann Derflinger, the legendary drama teacher at Winter Park High School who inspired him, encouraged him — and terrified him.

The formidable Derflinger, who died of cancer in 1984 — and for whom the school’s auditorium is today named — influenced hundreds of Winter Park High School graduates, whether they pursued acting as a career or not.

“I was scared of her at first,” recalls Nowicki of the 5-foot-tall dynamo who exerted — and still exerts — an outsized influence in his life. “I think I’d be a little scared of her now. She believed in the theater. When you got praise from her — which was rare — it was exhilarating. It was as though she, and she alone, spoke for the theater gods. Her approval meant everything.”

Derflinger, who had graduated from Rollins College and enjoyed a brief career as a stage actress before deciding to teach, was a meticulously stylish woman known to favor strong perfume. That scent, plus the rapid-fire clip-clop of her high heels, warned backstage slackers of her approach.

“I can even still smell her,” says Nowicki, who adds that Derflinger’s insistence that nothing less than 100 percent commitment was acceptable — even in high school productions — continues to guide him. “She knew how much it meant. That’s stayed with me.”

Nowicki, who keeps Derflinger’s professional head shot by his bed, counts his best-actor “Derfie” award — which was given annually at the school for outstanding achievement in student plays — among his most cherished possessions.

His first Winter Park High School role was as Reverend Hale in a 1972 production of The Crucible. He had never acted before — his career goal was to be a doctor — and had only auditioned because doing so, he was told, would earn him an extra credit in his literature class.

“The experience was an utter shock,” Nowicki recalls. “Standing in the wings, waiting to go, was electric and relaxing at the same time. I knew I’d found what I had to do for the rest of my life.” His lead role as Richard, the errant son in Eugene O’Neil’s Ah! Wilderness, earned him his coveted Derfie.

Derflinger, who was also known to idolize actor Paul Newman, encouraged Nowicki to study drama at Yale University, at least in part because Newman had studied there.

What Derflinger apparently didn’t realize — nor did Nowicki, until he arrived in New Haven as a freshman — was that Yale had recently dropped its undergraduate theater program. There were student productions — Nowicki directed two of them — and the chance to audit classes at the renowned Yale School of Drama. But that was exclusively a graduate program.

“So, I found myself in the classics department, studying in Greek,” Nowicki says. “The classes were tiny, and the faculty members were ridiculously brilliant. I’d learn as more having dinner at their homes than I’s learn in a classroom.”

Nowicki keeps two photographs from his time at Winter Park High School. One is of the school’s formidable drama teacher, the late Ann Derflinger (left). The other is from the school’s 1973 production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah! Wilderness, in which he starred as angsty teen Richard Miller. Nowicki counts Derflinger as one of the most influential people in his life.

CLANDESTINE CRITIC

But Nowicki was frustrated by the lack of an undergraduate theater program. So, in 1977 he took a year off and returned to Winter Park, where he began appearing in plays at Rollins, which sometimes used non-student actors in its productions.

There, he fell under the influence of another memorable character, theater director Robert Jurgens, who cast him The Runner Stumbles, The Norman Conquest and One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest at the Annie Russell Theater.

“Dr. Jurgens was really cunning about his process,” says Nowicki. “He pretended to be this gruff, no-navel-gazing kind of guy. But his work was as deep as anybody’s. And he taught young, self-absorbed actors a critical lesson: The real craft of acting, along with honesty and passion, is being loud and clear enough that the audience can recognize all the clever things you’re doing.”

Nowicki graduated from Yale in 1978 with a degree in English literature — Greek had simply become too difficult, he says — then was off to London, where he studied Shakespearean and classical acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

“I loved London so much that I begged every female classmate to marry me, so I could get a visa and stay,” Nowicki says. “But despite what you might hear about British schoolgirls, they’re not easily fooled.” He returned to Winter Park to plot his next move.

While appearing in local plays, he began a just-for-fun stint as theater critic for the Winter Park Outlook, a weekly newspaper. He wrote under a pseudonym, Rupert Birkin, and his reviews were incisive and, to some in the local theater community, insufferable.

For example, Birkin was banned from Once Upon a Stage Dinner Theater in College Park after he penned a review comparing the flag-waving patriotism of 1776, the theater’s current offering, to “a Marxist pageant.” The long-defunct venue’s owner told the newspaper’s editor that Birkin was “a pompous jerk.”

Birkin is, in fact, a character in D.H. Lawrence’s 1920 novel Women in Love. Nowicki even selected a drawing of Lawrence to accompany his column, assuming that some savvy reader would make the connection. None did — and the wickedly witty Birkin became a minor local celebrity before mysteriously resigning his post at what he termed “the drama desk.”

“I knew I couldn’t write under my own name,” says Nowicki. “I was acting with some of these people around town, and anything I had to say, good or bad, would make things tricky. It was a good choice, as it happened, since I discovered that I had a fairly profound mean streak — at least while posing as a critic.”

Still, Nowicki adds, it was interesting to write character as Birkin, whom he describes as “this overwrought, braying jackass who spared no one. And I did try to even things up with the loftiest praise, where it was deserved — although I may have failed in that regard.”

Nowicki then began auditioning for plays statewide. There were, at the time, 30 professional theaters “that paid enough for a 24-year-old.” He got his Actors’ Equity card in 1980, which he marks as the beginning of his professional career.

Nowicki’s first film role was in 1984’s Harry & Son, which starred Paul Newman and Robbie Benson. The film was directed by Newman, whom Nowicki remembers as gracious and surprisingly tolerant of the nervous rookie who accidentally backed a Corvette into a bank of lights. Recalls Nowicki: “I was sure I was going to be whipped or fired — or both.”

In fact, Nowicki became friendly with Newman, and told him about Derflinger, who was by now gravely ill: “Paul said, ‘Tom, have got a script?’ I got my script and took it to his trailer. On it he wrote a long, personal note to Miss Derflinger, thanking her for the work she’d done inspiring young actors. He even signed a photograph — something he almost never did — and me to give it to her.”

Back in Winter Park, Nowicki presented the script and picture to Derflinger, who was hospitalized. “That was the first time I’d ever seen her not entirely poised,” he says. Derflinger died just months later, at just 44, and was buried in Winter Park’s Palm Cemetery.

Nowicki’s New York agent, Justin Busch of Clear Talent Group, calls Nowicki “a really transformative character actor. He can play an upscale CEO, or a blue-collar, down-on-his-luck guy. Not everyone can pull off that dichotomy.” Known as an actor’s actor, Nowicki has never suffered through a serious career drought.

DIALOGUE AND DROP-KICKS

Nowicki’s early career was a heady time, when some community leaders were touting Orlando as “Hollywood East.” A handful of films were shot here — none of them very distinguished — and Nowicki was in most of them: from Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) with Jim Varney to The Waterboy (1998) with Adam Sandler. His role in Parenthood, the 1989 family comedy starring Steve Martin, didn’t make the final cut.

But Nowicki’s most interesting work, at the time, wasn’t in television or film: it was in the “squared circle,” as the late Gordon Solie, the dean of professional wrestling announcers, described the enclosure in which musclebound behemoths enact carefully scripted — but often bloody — matches that featured body slams, arm locks, drop kicks, sleeper holds and figure-four leglocks.

In 1987, Nowicki noticed a classified ad for a “wrestling school.” He was intrigued — it was not then widely known just how choreographed professional wrestling was — and enrolled. After all, wrestling was nothing if not theatrical.

The game 165-pound actor was taught the tricks of the trade by Rocky Montana, a grizzled heel (villain, in wrestling parlance) whose small-time Dixie Wrestling Alliance staged matches in local armories and high school gyms. The seemingly mismatched pair became close, and Nowicki was welcomed into the carny culture that wrestling exemplifies.

“I just thought [wrestling] would be fun to go and do, and write about,” says Nowicki, who at the time contributed freelance stories about topics that interested him to local magazines. “And it was.”

The tale of Nowicki’s association with the Dixie Wrestling Alliance became a hilarious — and at times poignant — magazine piece that described his rough-and-tumble training regimen.

But it also sympathetically explored the sometimes-desperate dreams of grappling glory harbored by about a dozen other students, all of whom grew up idolizing the likes of Dusty Rhodes and Rick Flair.

The piece, which ran in the Orlando Sentinel’s Sunday magazine section, described the reaction Nowicki received when he announced his intention to pursue wrestling:

“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.”

He did do well, although not as a wrestler. He obviously didn’t have the size to credibly match up against a would-be Hulk Hogan. But his acting chops served him well as a manager — the character who ostensibly guides the careers of other wrestlers, usually heels, and routinely interferes in their matches.

And so it was that the pompous “Lord Larry Oliver” became a fixture at Dixie Wrestling Alliance matches, shouting insults at jeering crowds — using a condescending British accent, of course — and employing foreign objects to gore the opponents of his evil minions.

Nowicki quickly recognized that wrestling could appeal to playgoers with a sense of humor. He persuaded Montana to stage a program of matches at Theater Downtown, an Orlando performance venue frequented by arts-loving hipsters.

A full house enjoyed the no-holds-barred evening, which presaged by a decade the wholesale melding of wrestling and show business by Vince MacMahon Jr. and the World Wrestling Federation.

Sadly — or perhaps fortunately, at least for him — Nowicki’s wrestling career was ended by injuries he sustained during a Battle Royale, in which a cadre of wrestlers attempt to toss one another over the top rope. The last man standing is declared the winner — but that man was not Lord Larry Oliver, who suffered several broken ribs as the result of a hard fall.

Later, from 1999 to 2001, Nowicki’s wrestling background informed his portrayal of the disreputable Kenneth Loge III on Spike TV’s RollerJam, a glitzy revival of the down-and-dirty roller derby programs that were popular in the 1950s.

The self-righteous Loge — billed as “the most hated man in sports” — was “commissioner” of the World Skating League, and one of three triplets fighting for control of the league. Nowicki also played brothers Benny and Lenny as well as their mother, Drucilla. The show, which borrowed many familiar wrestling tropes, was filmed at Universal Studios Florida.

Even Sen. John McCain wanted in on the fun. During the 2000 presidential primaries, McCain’s campaign contacted producers to ask if Loge would appear alongside the eventual GOP nominee at a rally in Florida. Why anyone believed that this pairing would bolster McCain’s chances remains a mystery.

“We told them that [Loge] had already endorsed Pat Buchanan,” says Nowicki, who figured that the irascible right-wing windbag would be precisely the sort of character that the overbearing roller derby mogul would have supported for the presidency.

AN ACTOR’S ACTOR

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nowicki had recurring roles in The New Leave it to Beaver, Superboy and Swamp Thing, all of which were shot in Orlando. He later played a Russian astronaut in The Cape, a series filmed in and around Cape Canaveral in Brevard County.

There was also a slew of made-for-television movies, and longish stints on NBC’s Matlock and the USA Network’s Necessary Roughness.

Nowicki’s big-budget theatrical credits included Remember the Titans (2000), a feel-good football flick starring Denzel Washington, and The Punisher (2004), a vigilante action thriller based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name.

In The Punisher, Nowicki played a machine-gun toting bad guy who gets his comeuppance. In fact, his character’s brutal onscreen slaying was ranked by Fangora magazine as among the “Top 10 Deaths in Film History.”

Since then, it’s been an unbroken string of indie movies and television appearances. In fact, between his recent projects and reruns, Nowicki has become almost ubiquitous on television.

“There aren’t too many actors in Florida who can say they make a living doing nothing other than acting,” says Traci Danielle, president of Orlando-based Brevard Talent Group, one of the agencies that represents Nowicki.

“I like to work with actors who have that chameleon-like quality, and Tom does,” adds Danielle, whose roster includes about 75 clients. “He can play anything. He’s part of my A-team — which means he can consistently close the deal.”

Nowicki’s New York agent, Justin Busch of Clear Talent Group, agrees: “Tom is a really transformative character actor,” Busch says. “He can play an upscale CEO, or a blue-collar, down-on-his-luck guy. Not everyone can pull off that dichotomy.”

It’s Nowicki’s personal qualities make him an even better actor, Danielle says: “Tom’s such a great human being. He’s so humble, and he has real empathy. He’s the type of guy who, if he had just had a dollar, would give it to somebody else who he thought needed it more.”

Or, he might use it to help aging or injured animals. In 2001 Nowicki co-founded — with his friend, Winter Park resident Kristina Lake Latimer — a business called Hip Dog Canine Hydrotherapy & Fitness, which offers swim therapy for dogs that have mobility issues as a result of conditions such as arthritis and amputation.

In 2011, the pair turned the operation — which did too much pro bono work to ever be profitable — over to Beverly and Peter McCartt, who expanded its services to include conditioning and weight-loss programs for dogs.

“I found out I was the world’s worst businessman,” says Nowicki, who still swims with the company’s furry clients when he’s in town. “Beverly and Peter have done so much more with it; they’ve turned it from something aspirational to something truly real.”

When Nowicki isn’t traveling, he can usually be found at Lake Baldwin Park accompanied by Dexter, his one-eyed springer spaniel. “Having dogs has changed my life in profound ways,” says Nowicki, who adopted his first dog, a sainted Labrador retriever mix whom he named Shea, in 1994.

Shea, in fact, provided the impetus for Nowicki — and like-minded locals with dogs who liked to romp — to successfully lobby the city for creation of an off-leash park in the little-used tract then known as Fleet Peeples Park. They formed a nonprofit, now known the Friends of Lake Baldwin Park, to protect and enhance the wooded waterfront space.

In Shea’s day, dogs weren’t welcomed on most sets. Now, though, Nowicki is able to take Dexter with him on some dog-friendly shoots.

What does the future hold for Winter Park’s most visible resident actor? All Nowicki can say for certain is that he’ll continue to perform.

“I’ve never had another serious job, besides acting,” he notes. “And I’ve never wavered or had any thought of finding something else to do. I’m at the stage of my career where I still have a chance to be a big dog — and if not, at least I can provide support to a different big dog.”

Illustration by Pablo Loboto

Well Versed

Illustration by Pablo Loboto

Billy Collins is known for writing about everyday life with quirky sincerity. So, assuming “January in Florida” accurately reflects his state of mind, then the former two-term U.S. poet laureate — a much-traveled native New Yorker — seems to have adapted well to life in lush and laid-back Winter Park.

Collins — who is droll and self-deprecating — doesn’t take himself nearly as seriously as one might expect, given his stature as a literary icon. Or perhaps he does. “It’s mildly ironic,” he says. “The writer not taking himself that seriously distracts the reader from how seriously he takes himself.”

One thing, though, is certain. Even the most serious poets usually labor in obscurity, while the sometimes not-so-serious Collins churns out bestsellers and packs venues around the world.

He has been adopted by locals as their favorite resident celebrity — no offense to Carrot Top — and the most important writer to have a Winter Park address since novelist Irving Bacheller (Eben Holden: A Tale from the North Country) lived here before World War II.

Poet Robert Frost, who, like Collins, enjoyed enormous popularity during his lifetime, once said: “There is a kind of success called ‘of esteem,’ and it butters no parsnips.” Collins would undoubtedly agree.

January In Florida

The weather here does not feel
like the actual weather around me.

It seems more like the weather
someone would describe to me over the phone
while I sat in a chair by a window
as the snow piled up against the trees.

Yet here I am, barefoot on a dock,
lily pads and reeds in the foreground,

the sparkling lake beyond,
cypress and palm on the far shore,
and above it all, a soft blue empty sky.

The radio mentioned a high of 80,
but no matter how the day improves,

I will not pick up the phone
and call my friend in northern Minnesota

then listen patiently to his recent woes—
the thing with his secretary,
and the arrest of a nephew—

while I observe a pair of wading egrets
or the splashy landing of a pair of ducks.

Nor will I dangle my feet in the water
as I wait for as long as it takes
for him to get to that inescapable topic
that surely cannot be avoided much longer.

Collins, shown here on the front porch of Osceola Lodge, home to the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College, thinks of his “writing self” as an altogether different person. That self, he notes, is “monastic, detached, doesn’t have a job — he drinks tea and I drink coffee.” Photo by Rafael Tongol

He counts among his biggest boosters people who don’t otherwise care for poetry, but are engaged by the humor and poignance that emanate from his comfortably hospitable verses. Such universal appeal is, in large part, why Collins always has plenty of butter for his parsnips.

“Billy is truly a national treasure, even an international one, and we are extraordinarily lucky he has landed with us,” says Gail Sinclair, executive director of the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College. “What a gift we’ve had, having him here.”

Sinclair often asks Collins, who holds the lofty title of senior distinguished fellow at the institute, “to consult his Rolodex, or whatever the electronic equivalent of that is,” and call upon friends to be part of the popular speaker series that she manages from offices in historic Osceola Lodge, once the seasonal home of Winter Park benefactor Charles Hosmer Morse.

Paul McCartney, Paul Simon and Garrison Keillor — now an unexpectedly controversial figure due to a sexual harassment allegation — have been among those who’ve happily obliged. Cartoonist Jules Feiffer, playwright Marsha Norman and TV journalist Jane Pauley also came to Winter Park at Collins’ behest.

“These days, I basically run the Billy Collins business,” says the 76-year-old poet, a wiry man with a balding pate and an on-again, off-again goatee.

Business is booming; Collins’ books — including last year’s The Rain in Portugal — typically land on the New York Times bestseller list, which is an anomaly for collections of poetry. Consequently, nearly every week finds Collins standing behind a lectern somewhere, reading his work and meeting his fans.

“I answer mail, respond speaking invitations, that sort of thing. But because I’m a writer, I make spare time in the morning to write. I sit in the same chair — sometimes with an encyclopedia — and read poems to get in the proper state of mind. Something usually results.”

Collins writes only in Fabio Ricci notebooks using Palomino Blackwing pencils — preferably the pearl edition. The lined notebook pages are filled with poems in various stages of completion, the scribbled words adorned with arrows and strikethroughs.

“I’ve never worked on a computer,” he says. “This way, I can make a mess on the page. Plus, I can leave behind a diagram of how the poem came together.”

One work in progress involves novelist Charlotte Bronte and naturalist John Muir — who share an April 21 birthday, but otherwise appear to have had little in common. That is, until now.

The Billy Collins business is booming. His books — including last year’s The Rain in Portugal — typically land on the New York Times bestseller list, which is an anomaly for collections of poetry.

A POET’S PROGRESS

Collins was born in Manhattan and grew up in Queens and White Plains, New York. His father, William (Bill), worked for an insurance agency, while his mother, Katherine (Kay), was a nurse who quit her job to raise the couple’s only child.

Bill — a dapper extrovert who called his son “Champ” — brought home editions of Poetry magazine, which made an impression on the writerly youngster.

“Being a poet requires that you have a deep and sustaining interest in yourself,” says Collins, who remembers writing his first poem — it was about a sailboat he saw traversing the Hudson River — at about age 10. “So being an only child is perfect preparation for a career in poetry.”

After graduating from Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, Collins attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, earning a B.A. in English. He then enrolled at the University of California, Riverside, earning an M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in Romantic poetry.

Collins, who had never been west of the Mississippi River, recalls driving cross-country to California in a Sunbeam Alpine convertible while reading Miss Lonelyhearts, a black comedy by Nathaniel West. He propped the book open on the steering while navigating pre-interstate two-land roads.

His first classroom post was as a teaching assistant at San Bernadino Community College. Then it was back to New York and Lehman College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY), where he taught English and composition. (Although he stopped teaching seven years ago, Collins remained affiliated with CUNY for a half-century, retiring last year as poet in residence.)

Teaching provided a steady paycheck, but Collins, from the time he was in high school, always thought of himself as first and foremost a poet. He assigned his students the task of memorizing a poem of their choosing, hoping that the work would remain with them for life.

EXPECT TO BE DELIGHTED 

Collins’ first book of poetry, The Apple That Astonished Paris, was published in 1988. The collection included some of his most anthologized poems, including “Introduction to Poetry,” “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House” and “Advice to Writers.”

He also published poems in Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, The Paris Review and Poetry Magazine, refining along the way a witty and at times sentimental poetic persona that Collins refers to as his “writing self.” That self, Collins notes, is “monastic, detached, doesn’t have a job — he drinks tea and I drink coffee.”

In any case, Collins the writer has thus far produced 13 volumes of published poetry, while Collins the personality has appeared regularly on A Prairie Home Companion — the first time in 1998, after which his book sales skyrocketedand on other NPR programs, including Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The TED Talk in which he recites two poems about the inner thoughts of dogs has garnered nearly 1.6 million views.

In some academic circles, being popular means being dismissed. Collins, though, makes no apologies for writing poetry that people from all walks of life can enjoy. Not long ago, at his annual standing-room-only public reading at Rollins, he summed up his philosophy — and revealed his worldview — when answering an audience member’s question about his approach to writing.

“Some people expect to be disappointed by life,” he said. “I expect to be delighted.” The crowd at Knowles Memorial Chapel was, well, delighted.

“If you break away from the pack and attract a broader audience, sometimes you’re derided by the very people who complain about a lack of readers for poetry,” Collins notes. “If being accessible means it’s easier to get into the poem, then I’d compare that to an accessible building. It’s easier to get into — but once you’re inside, all sorts of interesting things can happen.”

Says Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn: “We seem to always know where we are in a Billy Collins poem, but not necessarily where he’s going. He doesn’t hide things from us, as I think lesser poets do. He allows us to overhear, clearly, what he himself has discovered.”

A typical Collins poem opens unambiguously enough. Take the one at the top of this story. Just don’t take it for granted. The scene may be a placid lake but, as usual, there’s something underneath the surface. In this case, it’s a contradiction — one that’s never resolved: The speaker feels both perfectly at home and somehow out of place.

Perhaps a bit like Collins himself. He’s thrilled to be in Winter Park, of course, but you get the impression that he’d sooner give up the lofty titles that have come his way than give up the 914 prefix — Westchester County, in the Hudson Valley — still on his cell phone.

AN UNANTICIPATED ELEGY 

Collins was still teaching at Lehman College in 2001 when he was asked by Librarian of Congress James Billingham to serve as the country’s poet laureate. “Such a thing never occurred to me,” he says. “I didn’t think I was serious enough.”

The primary duty of a poet laureate, according to the Library of Congress, is to deliver a couple of lectures and “to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.”

However, most poet laureates use their bully pulpits to launch poetry-related initiatives of their own creation. For Collins, it was “Poetry 180,” for which he selected 180 poems — one for each day of the school year — to be read and discussed in high schools.

But after September 11, 2001, the largely honorary post gained unanticipated gravity. As the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks approached, Collins was asked to write a poem commemorating the victims — and to read it before a joint session of Congress held in New York City.

“I didn’t think I was up to it,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t think I can. I write poems about walking the dog.’ But I promised that I would show up and read something. It was my sense of Catholic responsibility.”

Collins — in his usual gentle, comforting tone — delivered a masterful elegy called “The Names,” which alphabetically incorporated the surnames of those who had been killed. As cameras scanned the audience of lawmakers, it was clear that many were holding back tears. The poem concludes with a heart-wrenching finale:

Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat.
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

Collins, not wishing to appear exploitative, initially refused to include “The Names” in any of his books. It first appeared in The Poets Laureate Anthology, released by the Library of Congress in 2010. It was finally published in a Collins anthology when Aimless Love was released in 2013.

Collins’ stature has helped to draw A-list celebrities and even a living legend or two to the Rollins campus for performances, lectures, readings and discussions. Among them have been Paul McCartney (top), Paul Simon (center) and Jane Pauley (bottom).

WHAT HE DID FOR LOVE

Winter Park wasn’t on Collins’ radar until 2002, when he did a reading at Valencia College — then Valencia Community College — and met attorney Susannah Gilman, who had previously written him a fan letter. Well, a fan email to be more precise.

In the book-signing line, when Gilman’s turn came, she reminded Collins about the correspondence. Then, much to her amazement, the poet pulled a printed copy out of his jacket pocket. At the time, both were near the end of troubled first marriages. They struck up a friendship that became a romance — at first, a long-distance one.

“I kept reminding Billy that he could live anywhere he wanted,” says Gilman, a writer of poetry, essays and fiction who blogs on a site called The Gloria Siren (a play on the name Gloria Steinem). “He had this idea of Central Florida being all about Disney. So, I took him to Winter Park and it reminded him of the villages he knew in upstate New York.”

Everything fell into place in 2008, when Collins accepted the position of senior distinguished fellow at the fledgling Winter Park Institute. His affiliation gave the institute instant credibility. And his celebrity status attracted — and still attracts — big-name guest speakers.

Collins and Gilman spend their days bicycling, reading, writing and golfing. Gilman, who no longer practices law so she can accompany Collins to his far-flung speaking engagements, admits that it isn’t easy writing poetry when you’re living with a poet laureate.

But the two critique one another’s work, and Gilman describes Collins as “tough, but very encouraging.”

When Collins isn’t writing or traveling, he enjoys the company of friends — some famous, some not. He looks forward to a longstanding annual golf getaway in Arizona with comedy writer Brian Doyle Murray, literary agent Chris Callahan and poker writer John Stravinsky, grandson of the legendary composer.

He enjoys jazz — no surprise there — but also listens to bluegrass and classic country music, favoring Hank Williams, Buck Owens and the harmonies of the Everly Brothers.

LION IN THE SUBTROPICS

Prestigious organizations are always bestowing upon Collins awards of one kind or another, which indicates that his work — appealing to novices though it may be — is held in equally high esteem by most credentialed arbiters of what’s truly worthy.

Accolades include the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry — he was the inaugural recipient — as well as fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1992, he was chosen by the New York Public Library to serve as “Literary Lion.”

Last year, Collins was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an honor society of the country’s 250 leading architects, artists, composers and writers. Founding members included William Merritt Chase, Kenyon Cox, Daniel Chester French, Childe Hassam, Henry James, Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Vedder and Woodrow Wilson.

More frequently these days, Winter Park settings are appearing in Collins’ work. “Cemetery Ride,” which was published in the Atlantic and later included in Aimless Love, is about a bicycle excursion through the city’s historic Palm Cemetery, during which the poet greets many of the permanent occupants by name and speculates about their lives.

My new copper-colored bicycle
is looking pretty fine under a blue sky
as I pedal along a sandy path
in the Palm Cemetery here in Florida,

wheeling past the headstones of the Lyons,
the Campbells, the Vesers, and the Davenports,
Arthur and Ethel, who outlived him by eleven years
I slow down even more to notice,

but not so much as to fall sideways on the ground.
And here’s a guy named Happy Grant
next to his wife Jean in their endless bed.
Annie Sue Simms is right there and sounds

a lot more fun than Theodosia S. Hawley.
And good afternoon, Emily Polasek,
and to you too, George and Jane Cooper,
facing each other in profile, two sides of a coin.

I wish I could take you all for a ride
in my wire basket on this glorious April day,
not a thing as simple as your name, Bill Smith,
even trickier than Clarence Augustus Coddington.

Then how about just you, Bernice Owens?

Would you gather up your voluminous skirts
then ride sidesaddle on the crossbar
and tell me what happened between 1863 and 1931?

I’ll even let you ring the silver bell.

But if you’re not ready, I can always ask
Amanda Collier to rise from her long sleep
beneath the swaying gray beards of Spanish moss

and ride with me along these sandy paths

so I can listen to her strange laughter
as some crows flap in the blue overhead
and the spokes of my wheels catch the dazzling sun.

Gilman agrees that Collins has public and private personalities. The private version, she insists, is even more endearing than the charmingly rumpled figure who disarms audiences with his wit and warmth.

“When I go to Billy’s readings, I’m never nervous for him,” she says. “He’s a pro. He can read the audience. And after it’s over, I can say, ‘I get to go home with that guy.’”

“Home,” in this case, being Winter Park.

Lucky for her. Lucky for us.


UNDERGROUND POET

A New Yorker to the core, Billy Collins is especially quite proud of a poem that will never make it into one of his books: Called “Subway,” it was commissioned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority though its “Poetry in Motion” program to mark the opening of the new Second Avenue subway line on the Upper East Side.

The poem — an ode to the workers who labored to build the city’s mind-boggling subway system — was reproduced on a commemorative poster designed by graphic artist Sarah Sze.

If you’re lucky, you might’ve gotten a signed poster from Collins himself — who’s a past New York State poet laureate. Earlier this year, he was in the Big Apple distributing them out to surprised commuters.

Otherwise, you can find the bright blue posters decorating subway cars throughout the busiest underground transit system in the Western Hemisphere.

“We invited Billy Collins to write a poem since his way with words speaks to all New Yorkers, with a purity of thought that gets to the meaning in a way we all understand,” says Sandra Bloodworth, director of MTA Arts & Design, which runs the Poetry in Motion program. “And he does it with a lyrical brilliance.”

Subway by Billy Collins, b. 1941

connect with us

Winter Park Publishing
Company, LLC.
201 West Canton Ave., Ste. 125B
Winter Park, FL 32789

ph: 407-647-0225
fx: 407-647-0145

Copyright 2018