MEANT TO BE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


FAST FACTS

Title: A Beautiful Day for a Neighbor

Sculptor: Paul Day

Weight: 3,000 lbs.

Height: 71⁄2 feet

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

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

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

Public Debut: October 29, 2021


Just Happenstance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Emotional Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiration and Perspiration 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A SPECIAL THANK YOU TO KENNETH MEISTER

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

FINAL BOW FOR A TROUPER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FROM VAUDEVILLE TO BROADWAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

QUITE A CHARACTER (ACTOR)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VICTOR HUGO OF THE NORTH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TAKING THEIR FINAL BOWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE INFLUENTIALS 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photography by Rafael Tongol

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

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

Sir David Adjaye

Principal and Founder, Adjaye Associates

THE ARTFUL ARCHITECT

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

THE BOTTOM LINE: 

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

Anderson on Park Avenue.

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

Phil Anderson

Mayor, City of Winter Park

THE VILLAGE’S VOICE

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

THE BOTTOM LINE: 

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

Bernat at the Winter Park Library & Events Center.

Sabrina Bernat

Executive Director, Winter Park Public Library

THE NEW AGE LIBRARIAN

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

THE BOTTOM LINE:

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

Bradley on the campus of Rollins College.

Lauren Bradley

Director of Strategic Communications, Rollins College

THE MESSAGING MAVEN

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

THE BOTTOM LINE:

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

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

Tom Dyer

Partner, Dyer & Blaisdell Founder, Watermark

THE PRIDE PIONEER

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

THE BOTTOM LINE:

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

Grieger at the offices of the Winter Park History Museum.

Christy Grieger

Executive Director, Winter Park History Museum

THE TIME TRAVELER

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

THE BOTTOM LINE:

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

Jenkins in Knowles Memorial Chapel.

Katrina Jenkins

Dean of Religious Life, Rollins College

THE RELATABLE REV

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

THE BOTTOM LINE:

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

Kramer on the grounds of The Mayflower at Winter Park.

Steve Kramer

President and CEO, The Mayflower at Winter Park

THE SENIOR EXECUTIVE

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

THE BOTTOM LINE:

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

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

Deirdre Macnab

Former President, Florida League of Women’s Voters

THE ARDENT ACTIVIST

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

THE BOTTOM LINE:

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

Maines (standing) and Miller outside Ted Maines Interiors.

Ted Maines

Owner and President, Ted Maines Interiors

Jeffrey Miller

Partner and Shareholder, SeifertMiller

THE UNTIRING ACTIVISTS

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

THE BOTTOM LINE:

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

The Malzahns outside their home.

Gus Malzahn

Head Football Coach, UCF

Kristi Malzahn

Wife, Mom, Booster

THE GOOD KNIGHTS

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

THE BOTTOM LINE:

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

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

Mandell outside his home.

Robert A. Mandell

Public Servant

THE DEVELOPER DIPLOMAT

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

THE BOTTOM LINE:

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

Seeley outside the Winter Park Community Center.

Jason Seeley

Director of Parks & Recreation, City of Winter Park

THE PARKS PROPRIETOR

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

THE BOTTOM LINE:

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

Spencer in the offices of Timbers Resorts.

Greg Spencer

CEO, Timbers Resorts

THE DREAM BUILDER

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

THE BOTTOM LINE:

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

Stephenson at the native garden in Central Park.

Bruce Stephenson

Professor of Environmental Studies, Rollins College

THE NEW URBANIST

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

THE BOTTOM LINE:

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

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

Richard Strauss

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

THE LEGACY KEEPER

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

THE BOTTOM LINE:

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

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

Julie von Weller

Owner, Freshly Cast

THE TEAM BUILDER

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

THE BOTTOM LINE:

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

 

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

THE ROYAL WAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

––––

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FLORIDA’S WILDER HEART

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘IN A NETHERWORLD BETWEEN CELEBRATION AND LOSS’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘THE POSTER CHILD OF UNRESTRAINED GROWTH’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Seduction In Key West

Susan Lilley

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

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

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

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

PEOPLE TO WATCH

Photography by Rafael Tongol

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

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

Consequently, we’ve had several suggestions to initiate a similar annual list exclusively for the city’s up-and-comers (and, of course, those who’ve already arrived but may yet embark on new adventures). The first such list was published last year.

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

Once again, we found no shortage of millennials (often defined as being born between 1981 to 1996) who are making a mark and belong on our 2021 list. The same was true of Generation Xers (often defined as being born between 1965 to 1980).

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

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

People to Watch, then, is essentially an extension of our well-established Most Influential People list. Its existence doesn’t mean that those under 40 may not still be selected for our more traditional annual Influentials list. The additional list, however, makes room for some Winter Parkers whose most important contributions may be yet to come.

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

On the following pages, then, are an assortment of younger people who are doing remarkable things and are leaders in the community’s business, creative, charitable and philanthropic worlds. So, let’s meet Winter Park Magazine’s 2021 People to Watch.

Sydney Bellows Brownlee

Vice President, Leasing and Property Manager,
Sydgan Corporation

Morgan Bellows

Vice President, Construction Property Manager,
Sydgan Corporation

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

Amy Calandrino

Founding Principal/Broker,
Beyond Commercial

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

Ali DeMaria

Executive Director,
Winter Park Day Nursery

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

Kimberly Devitt

Manager, Business Development,
Corkcicle

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

Jeremy DiGorio

Director of Finance and Treasury,
Rollins College

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

Brad Doster

Founder and CEO, Macro Re

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

Kyle Dudgeon

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

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

William “Will” Grafton IV

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

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

Juan Hollingsworth

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

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

Whitney Melton Laney

Realtor, Fannie Hillman + Associates

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


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

Kesha Thompson

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

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

Laura Walda

Shareholder, Lowndes

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

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

‘A HOME HAS TO HAVE A SOUL’

Photography by Rafael Tongol

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh-oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A $71 million Lakeside Neighborhood for student housing is nearly complete at Rollins. Its dorms will honor three past presidents: Hugh McKean, Thaddeus Seymour and Rita Bornstein. Said current President Grant Cornwell: “Each of these storied leaders laid the groundwork to make Rollins the great college it is today, and set the stage for those of us who have the honor of stewarding its mission to educate our students for global citizenship and responsible leadership, empowering our graduates to pursue meaningful lives and productive careers.”

UNDAUNTED

Editor’s Note: Rita Bornstein, president of Rollins College from 1990 to 2004, is known is known today as a prodigious fundraiser and the president who elevated the institution into the upper tier of liberal arts colleges. Although her professional accomplishments are well known, Bornstein has written little about her personal life and the forces that shaped her into one of the most significant leaders in the college’s history and, after retirement, into a civic dynamo and community icon. Now, she has provided this fascinating look at her background and career, which we are pleased to present in Winter Park Magazine.

Rita Bornstein notes that she came to the presidency of Rollins College facing special challenges in gaining respect and legitimacy from the faculty, the trustees and the community. By the end of her 14-year tenure, Bornstein writes, “I had faced some difficult moments — but overall, I loved the job and achieved my goals.” Bornstein is shown here in her official college portrait, painted in 1993 by Everett Raymond Kinstler.

My inauguration as president of Rollins College, in April 1991, was rich with pomp, history, symbolism and ritual. Such events are important because they build a sense of continuity, belonging and pride at a time of uncertainly. 

I was fortunate to have on the stage with me three living past presidents — Hugh F. McKean, Jack Critchfield and Thaddeus Seymour — who together placed the college’s medallion around my neck. In addition, Tad Foote, president of the University of Miami — my longtime mentor and previous employer — had made the trip to be with me.

When the celebration of the college’s history and the investiture of the new president concluded, my mother asked me privately, “How did such a shy little girl grow up to be a college president?”

I was astonished myself. I didn’t come to the Rollins presidency with the preferred bona fides. I hadn’t been an academic vice president, dean or tenured faculty member. I had been the vice president for development at the University of Miami, and came with a complicated series of life and career experiences. 

As a nontraditional president — Jewish, a woman and a fundraiser — I faced special challenges in gaining respect and legitimacy from the faculty, the trustees and the community. Without such acceptance, my efforts would be fruitless. Interestingly, many of the presidents who preceded me also had nontraditional backgrounds, including a minister, a newspaperman, an artist, a corporate executive and a student affairs officer. 

Fourteen years later, when I retired, I was satisfied that, building on the work of our predecessors and through the efforts of colleagues and supporters, Rollins was far stronger in quality, prestige and financial health. I had faced some difficult moments — but overall, I loved the job and achieved my goals. 

This brief history is an attempt to disentangle the major threads of my life and identify the experiences, values and qualities that contributed to any success I had. My mother and I were asking the same question: How did I become the person I was now?

MAKING MY WAY

My parents were from immigrant families. My mother, at 10 years of age, fled with her parents from the oppressive and anti-Semitic regime in Russia. The family spent three years in Harbin, China, a haven for disaffected Russians. 

My maternal grandfather had been the only Jewish Singer sewing machine salesman in Moscow and a tradesman in China. But when his family arrived at their long-awaited home in New York, he had to depend on relatives for employment. 

One of the most enjoyable things that my grandmother, mother and I did was to sit together in the kitchen, me often perched on the table, and sing Russian folk songs. I still remember several of those songs and, if persuaded, can sing them to this day.  

My grandparents spoke only Russian and Yiddish but my mother, determined to fit in, learned to speak perfect, unaccented English. This was quite an accomplishment at a time when immigrants didn’t have easy access to special language programs. 

My mother completed high school in New York, but girls at that time weren’t encouraged to prepare for a profession. She was resentful and unhappy about this all her life. 

My father’s parents, immigrants from Austria, owned a grocery store on the east side of Manhattan within walking distance of their apartment. They took my father out of high school to work in the store and help earn the money needed to put his three younger brothers through college. 

This he did without complaint. But after he was married, his work hours kept him away from our family most of the time. I remember him leaving before sunrise and usually not returning until after dark. Years later, my father earned his GED and went on to secure a college degree. He never boasted about these accomplishments.

Despite the limits placed on her by her parents and society, my mother had extraordinary drive and ambition. She read widely, wrote poetry, watched only educational television and aspired to high culture. She always believed that the more expensive something was, the better its quality must be. 

I learned from cousins that my mother was greatly admired in the family for her style and her sophisticated clothes. My brother and I were always dressed well for school. And, not surprisingly, our pediatrician was the famous Dr. Benjamin Spock. 

With both parents stymied in their potential and ambition, the atmosphere at home was bleak and sad. My father was a model of sacrifice, stoicism and hard work. Although he was well-liked and generous, he was not expressive or affectionate. My mother, on the other hand, was hungry for affection. They were not well matched. 

On reflection, our home life seems very fragile. I’m not certain what fragility meant to me in that context, but I was often on guard. Once, in the early evening, my mother was resting in her bedroom with the lights off due to one of her headaches. No one else was home, and although I was doing homework, I kept an eye on the bedroom. 

When she got up and went to the window, I ran in to help because I was certain that she intended to throw herself out. She assured me that she wasn’t about to commit suicide but simply needed more air. I felt silly and she laughed it off. We never again spoke of it.

Bornstein and her younger brother Arnold near their home in Queens. Writes Bornstein: “[My brother and I] both craved affection from our father and pleasure or joy from our mother. Because their pain created tension in the apartment, as a young girl I became something of a surrogate mother to Arnie.”

My younger brother Arnold and I both craved affection from our father and pleasure or joy from our mother. Because their pain created tension in the apartment, as a young girl I became something of a surrogate mother to Arnie. 

We talked, sang songs, made up stories and played school. I was the stereotypical bossy teacher. These activities made us both feel better and provided distraction. My capacity for empathy evolved as I saw the challenges faced by each of the people I loved.

Once, when I was about 12 and Arnie about 8, he came upstairs from the street crying, with blood streaming down his face. He told me that a boy had thrown a broken bottle at him. Mother wasn’t home, so I took him into the bathroom and cleaned him up. Then I walked him the 10 blocks or so to the doctor’s office, where he got two stitches in his cheek. 

I felt like a superhero — but that glow was extinguished when we got home. Mother was there, and Arnie covered his face, afraid of what she might say. Fortunately, she hadn’t yet gone into the bathroom, which was scattered with bloody towels.

I was shocked a few years ago when Arnie gave me a box of letters that I had written him over the years. My desire to be a teacher was evident. In every letter, whether it went to his university or later to Vietnam, I offered advice — that he had not asked for — about how to live, what to read and what to think. 

To her credit, my mother found the funds to ensure that I broadened my perspective by studying piano and dance. As with everything, she sought the best to provide my training. 

As a nontraditional president — Jewish, a woman
and a fundraiser — I faced special challenges in
gaining respect and legitimacy from the faculty,
trustees and community. Without such
acceptance, my efforts would be fruitless.

I had the privilege of studying modern dance with legends Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham. I remember the excitement of doing floor exercises while sitting across from Ms. Graham as she repeatedly instructed us to start the movement from the pelvis: “All emotion begins in the pelvis!”

My mother also found Buck’s Rock Camp, where we would spend our summers. This camp had a profound effect on my emotional and intellectual development. 

Campers were expected to make their own decisions about daily activities, and we worked in the gardens to harvest vegetables and fruits for meals. We also washed and fed farm animals — although we didn’t eat them — and campers were encouraged to express themselves through arts activities. 

We made bowls out of blocks of wood and sang folk songs. I choreographed and danced in a challenging play — T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men — and danced to the words of “Poets to Come” from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Most important, I interacted with young people and adults who were more diverse, creative and progressive than my family and friends.

My mother’s parents were modestly involved in Jewish life, but my parents weren’t involved at all. However, in her usual way, my mother identified two extraordinary nontraditional institutions to offer us religious and intellectual education: One was the socially conscious Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and the other was the New York Society of Ethical Culture, which promoted secular humanism. 

I was about 14 years old when one of my father’s brothers helped him start a fluorescent lighting business. The additional income generated by the store allowed us to move from Manhattan to Queens and attend better schools — a move my mother thought would be good for us. It was not. 

ACTS OF REBELLION

As a student in the city, I had been promoted one grade ahead for my age and so was out of sync with my new classmates. I found them cliquish and snobbish, and I just didn’t fit in. 

My act of rebellion was to befriend another disaffected student, with whom I made weekly visits to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. There we made friends with other disaffected souls who enjoyed singing folk songs and strumming guitars and banjos.  

The next few years were tumultuous for me. The University of Chicago accepted me as a student, but I had no idea of the extraordinary reputation and prestige of the institution. I didn’t know anyone at the school or in the city, and my boyfriend had just dumped me. 

I was unhappy, and after just three months left school and returned to New York. Like many teenagers, I didn’t consider the consequences of this impulsive decision. Years passed before I went back to college and came to realize what I had given up in Chicago. 

When I returned to New York, my mother agreed to let me stay with her. She had her own troubles, however, having finally left her difficult marriage. After a short time, I realized that neither she nor I was comfortable with this arrangement. 

Acting again on impulse, I packed a suitcase, took my guitar and boarded a bus for Los Angeles. I knew no one there but had the phone number of a friend of a friend. And so, a new chapter in my life began as the result of a trip that was really brave or really stupid — or perhaps some of each. 

My rebellious high school years, my abandonment of a unique opportunity in Chicago and my spontaneous journey to the West Coast seem to belie my characterization of myself as being shy and lacking in confidence. 

But the willingness to take risks helped me gain confidence as I matured — and I may have saved myself by disconnecting from my dysfunctional family.

In Los Angeles, where once again I was alone in an unknown city, I worked at a series of low-level jobs that didn’t challenge my interests or abilities: waitress, receptionist, dental assistant and on an automobile assembly line. 

I wrote a few lines expressing the way I felt about the factory: “A streak of gold for a moment, Radiant glance of the sun. Here where it is dirty and cold and mechanized. Beauty in dark places.” 

I also found my way to one of the premier dance studios in the country: the Lester Horton Dance Theater in Los Angeles, one of the first permanent theaters dedicated to modern dance in the U.S.

Horton, who died in 1953 and whose former students included Alvin Ailey, had developed his own style of modern dance; I found it comfortable since it was similar to Graham’s approach to movement. On occasion, we had the opportunity to choreograph and perform before audiences. 

Amazingly, I still have a letter that I received more than 40 years ago following one of those performances. It’s from a woman named Donna Cilurzo, whom I don’t remember. It reads: 

“You were just magnificent and, especially in The Gypsy Nun, which in my mind was the high point of the evening. Not only was your work technically beautiful, but even more important, your inner fire and depth of characterization really came across.” 

Despite accolades such as this, I knew I was merely a good dancer but not a great one. However, many years of dancing and choreographing had helped me become disciplined, strong and confident.

Acting again on impulse, I packed a suitcase, took my
guitar and boarded a bus for Los Angeles. I knew no one
there but had the phone number of a friend of a friend.
And so, a new chapter in my life began as the result
of a trip that was really brave or really stupid —
or perhaps some of each.

I found myself married, far too young, and became a mother when I was just 20. I think it’s fair to say that Rachel, my daughter from that marriage, and I grew up together — and it wasn’t always easy. 

After several years in Los Angeles, I realized that this wasn’t the life I wanted. I was frustrated in ways that I couldn’t have articulated at the time. I realize now that I was yearning for more. I wanted more education. I wanted to make an impact. I wanted to find my voice.

I divorced and moved with Rachel to Miami, where my mother now lived. Although my relationship with her was tense, she served as an anchor of sorts. I continued to work in a series of low-level jobs as Rachel and I settled in. 

I was determined to navigate back to school, although, as a single parent, the path wasn’t an easy one. Eventually I remarried, and soon after my son, Mark, was born. I started taking college classes at Florida Atlantic University. I would continue my education for 15 years — until 1975, when I earned a Ph.D. in educational leadership from the University of Miami. 

While my children grew up somewhat resentful of my commitment to school and later to work, they were proud of me. I must admit that it was a real challenge to find a balance between my school and home life. In 2016, I was gratified when Rachel wrote in a letter to me that “you had more determination and grit than anyone.”

I was a highly motivated student, excited by my classes. I was elected president of an organization called Women’s Organization for the March on Education Now! (WOMEN!), which was founded to press college authorities to be more responsive to the needs of older women returning to school. This was my first foray into gender politics.

I juggled the demands of school with the challenges of raising children, and often felt guilty about the choices I made. However, I’ve always been grateful that I was able to develop my capacity for intellectual growth and professional success. 

Having loved language and literature all my life, I majored in English literature and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from FAU. My master’s thesis was titled Revolutionary Black Poetry 1960-1970 and my doctoral dissertation was about an innovative attempt to radically improve public education. 

It was a topic in which I would soon have real-world experience. 

Throughout her life, Bornstein loved dance of all kinds — especially modern dance — and even trained for a time at a prestigious Los Angeles studio. Her skills proved useful when she took the helm at Rollins. “Faculty complained that the college lacked a collegial and intellectual climate,” Bornstein writes. “I believe that these are worthy goals, but that they are the responsibility of the faculty. However, I felt that I should do my part and launched an annual square dance.” Her partner in the bottom photo is her husband, Harland G. Bloland.

REFORMING EDUCATION

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many books were published extremely critical of the “factory model” of public schools that engendered “obedience, passivity, and alienation” among students. As a result of this widespread critique, many educators began rethinking education with a goal of encouraging creativity, flexibility and responsibility.  

Dr. Kenneth Jenkins was the principal of North Miami Beach Senior High School, a brand-new school set to open in 1971. He invited me to join a new committee charged with the design of an innovative model for secondary school education. 

I was thrilled, but apprehensive. I was still working on my master’s degree, and my only classroom experience was as a student teacher under the supervision of an experienced professional. Still, I couldn’t say no. 

Later, Dr. Jenkins invited me to serve as team leader of one of four planned “little schools” within the larger school, which had 3,600 students. I would be chief of “Little School C,” with 950 students, 25 interdisciplinary teachers, the football coach and three counselors. 

Our goal was to upend the traditional education system by enhancing personalization and encouraging self-directed learning with no traditional letter grades. The school was dubbed “experimental” in the media.

Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson points out that many women, when they secure positions for which they don’t feel adequately prepared, suffer from “impostor syndrome” — fear of being exposed as a fraud. That was me. 

Although the project was widely heralded when it began, problems emerged within a few months. Most students adapted to the new atmosphere and learned to accept increased responsibility for their own education. 

However, a substantial number abused their new-found freedom by spending their time at a nearby shopping center and the beaches, or by sitting around the school grounds playing guitars.  

To complicate the situation further, the planning committee had been so preoccupied trying to fulfill our charge that we didn’t prepare for — or even discuss — the impact of Black students being bused to the school for the first time. 

Our young, liberal teachers wanted Black students to feel welcome. As a result, they were lax regarding academics. But low expectations usually lead to poor performance. That’s what’s meant by the phrase “the bigotry of low expectations.” It was a painful lesson to learn.

By the end of the first year, the flexible schedule had been replaced by traditional 50-minute periods, and letter grades were instituted. By June 1974, Dr. Jenkins had resigned under pressure, the original staff had dispersed and most of the innovations had been curtailed or eliminated.

Most similar change initiatives around the country also failed as a “back to basics” mindset emerged in public education. I was named chair of Little School C’s English department and supervised a return to traditional systemwide rules and expectations. 

This experience was instrumental in my leaving public schools. When the innovative program was dismantled without input from, or discussion with, the new program’s designers and participants, I lost confidence in the system’s ability and willingness to change.  

I had been working on a Ph.D. in educational leadership at the University of Miami, and in 1975 analyzed the colossal failure of our program in a 450-page dissertation titled An Historical Analysis of the Dynamics of Innovation in an Urban High School. 

I examined the strengths and weaknesses of our approach and the obstacles to, and tools for, promoting and leading change. I investigated the tendency of change agents to expect their innovative new designs to be applied uniformly. 

One of the recommendations I made was summed up this way: “Missionary zeal must give way to a realistic appraisal of the differing needs and attitudes of students, teachers and parents, and these must be accommodated. Failure to provide options may foredoom an innovative project.” 

Writing that dissertation helped me overcome my disappointment and grief, but the potential of innovation and change continued to influence my career choices.      

Reviewing my job history, I realize how much support I received from a series of mentors who, like Dr. Jenkins, took an interest in my career, opened doors for me and encouraged me to accept responsibilities for which I felt unprepared. They saw leadership qualities in me that I did not recognize myself. 

Bornstein’s early family life was at times troubled — but she became increasingly close to her mother, Florence. In fact, her mother posed a question following the inaugural ceremonies at Rollins that prompted the newly installed president to examine the forces that had shaped her life and career. Writes Bornstein: “When the celebration of the college’s history and the investiture of the new president concluded, my mother asked me privately, ‘How did such a shy little girl grow up to be a college president?’”

EQUALITY AND FUNDRAISING

My next professional experience, through the University of Miami, was no less daunting. For four years, 1975 to 1979, I was field director for the School Desegregation Consulting Center, funded by the U.S. Office of Education, with responsibility for Florida and Georgia. 

This was important work, but I had been particularly interested in Title IX, the 1972 federal law that prohibited schools from discriminating on the basis of sex. In 1975, I had submitted a proposal through the university to get federal funding for a regional assistance center to aid schools in Title IX implementation. My proposal was denied, and I was devastated. 

I later wrote a much stronger proposal, which was funded, and in 1979 became director of the Southeast Sex Desegregation Assistance Center. I also wrote a proposal for a second federal grant that would enable me to designate a specific school and position it as a model of sex equity. This project, which involved a grade school in Broward County, was also funded.

As part of my work as director, I traveled frequently to schools and colleges throughout my region. Wherever I went, I explained the new federally mandated regulations regarding Title IX. 

Audiences were generally hostile to my message. Facing groups of angry parents, administrators and coaches upset me at first — but I learned to listen and to be sensitive to the discomfort being expressed. All leaders must learn to do this.

In the years since, Title IX has made an incalculable positive change in schools and society. Sports programs have been transformed, and many girls and women have been attracted into professions formerly considered off-limits. 

It’s worth noting that the first school transformation with which I was involved — North Miami Beach Senior High School — collapsed under the weight of a large traditional system. In contrast, the effort to equalize opportunities for women and men was nationwide and had the force of law behind it.  

My next job evolved naturally from my work as an advocate for Title IX and champion of opportunities for women. I heard that the male-dominated field of development (or fundraising or advancement) was just opening to women, so I requested a meeting with the vice president for development at the University of Miami.

Within a few weeks, he offered me the position of director of the university’s Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations, which meant a cut in pay and status. 

Why did I consider such a drastic move? For years, I had been working on federally funded grants and contracts at the university. However, the national political scene was changing, and I held out little hope that such federal programs would continue. 

I regularly taught courses in education, but knew that the university had a firm rule about not hiring graduates into tenure-track professorships. Having severed my ties with the public-school system, my options were limited. It was only later that I understood the power of fundraising to improve an institution’s profile and status. 

The job I took was at the bottom of the development career ladder. However, a year later, President Tad Foote, having worked with me on several important fundraising projects, saw to it that I was promoted to associate vice president for development. 

President Foote had persuaded the board of trustees to conduct an ambitious “Campaign for Miami” to raise $400 million. That, and a concurrent $400 million campaign at Columbia University, were at that time the largest fundraising efforts that had ever been conducted in American higher education. 

With presidential leadership and vision — and the hard work of consultants, staff and volunteers — we created an army of advocates for the university. At a black-tie event celebrating the successful conclusion of the campaign, it was announced that we had raised a grand total of $517.5 million over a seven-year period. We were all ecstatic.

Several years into the campaign, the president of Brandeis University offered me the position of vice president. I wasn’t trying to improve my status or salary at UM when I told President Foote about this opportunity. So I was surprised when he quickly consulted with the trustees, reorganized the administration and offered me the vice presidency. 

As vice president, I was fortunate to sit in on trustee meetings and became conversant about higher education issues and politics. I came into the field of development as a novice, and over the years became interested in the traditions of fundraising in America. 

The Campaign for Miami represented an effort to strengthen the image and resource base of an institution known as a “cardboard college” because of its slapdash architecture and construction. It was another early Florida institution of higher education with a weak reputation and scant resources.

The funds generated by the campaign, along with strong presidential leadership, helped thrust the university into national prominence. (Others might attribute this to the success of the football program.) 

FROM A HURRICANE TO A TAR

In 1990, banker Charlie Rice, a Rollins trustee who served on the Presidential Search Committee, invited me to apply for the top job. He knew me well, because he was also a trustee of the University of Miami. Were it not for him, I wouldn’t have surfaced as a likely candidate. In fact, I wouldn’t even have applied. This is another example of how important mentors can be. 

Once my name was in the mix, Charlie advised me that my candidacy was in my own hands. I took that seriously. Developer Allan Keen, a Rollins graduate and board member, chaired the search committee. I was appreciative of the fact that he kept in regular contact with me during the long and arduous process.

As I wrote in a journal, which I continued to keep throughout my presidency, the search involved “activities [that] were strenuous and challenging, called on everything I am and know, have read, have felt, have thought, and I was at my very best and better than I could have imagined….”

I did my research before I met with the committee and various constituents. I knew that since its founding by the Congregational Church in 1885, Rollins had been challenged by extremes of weather and vicissitudes of the economy. It had been in danger of closing its doors several times during its history. 

I had also become aware that Rollins was known around the state as “Jolly Rolly Colly,” noted for “fun in the sun.” This distressed me. I told the trustees and the faculty that I would need them to work alongside me to build a college known for academic excellence. All the while, my confidence grew that I could make a difference.

I also began to feel a real affinity for the Rollins faculty. They were devoted to their students and talked about teaching as an art and a calling. The faculty’s commitment to innovation and internationalism was encouraging to me; both were important legacies of the legendary Hamilton Holt, the college’s eighth president. 

After three visits, the trustees voted to offer me the position, and I returned to Miami with great excitement and anticipation. Imagine my surprise when, in reviewing the college’s charter, I found that the president “shall be a practicing Evangelical Christian.” 

In a panic, I called the college’s attorney and told him that I couldn’t take the position. He advised me to disregard that language because it was obsolete and not binding. I was reassured — but asked him to put it in writing, which he did.

As I prepared for the next phase of my life and work, knowing that much would be expected of me, I was buoyed by a comment made by Ernest Boyer, esteemed president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. 

Boyer said that I had not only administrative skill, but also the “quality of human spirit” that would make me a “great” leader. My brother Arnold was also pleased but found a less classy way to support my new position. He came to visit wearing a T-shirt that read: “My sister is President of Rollins College.” What fun!

My predecessor at Rollins was Thaddeus Seymour, who had retired after 12 years at Rollins and a previous presidency at Wabash College in Indiana. He was well regarded by everyone and welcomed me and my husband, Harland G. Bloland, professor of higher education at the University of Miami, warmly. 

As soon as I was elected, Thad put up a sign saying, “Welcome Rita” and rang the bell at Knowles Memorial Chapel to announce my appointment. Soon after we arrived, he and his wife, Polly, hosted a party for us to meet members of the community. He insisted that I sit beside him and be introduced at commencement. 

Thad was a model for a departing president’s responsibility to ensure a smooth transition. His behavior elicited a reciprocal feeling in me.

I prepared for my formal inauguration as 13th president of the college by writing an address for the occasion that presented my vision for Rollins and defined my presidency.

My goal was to have Rollins recognized as one of America’s best internationally focused and community-involved colleges, with acclaimed liberal arts and business programs. To achieve this status, we would need to significantly improve the college’s quality, reputation and resources.

I also wanted to recognize and build on the unique and innovative history of the college, which included Holt’s Conference Plan, designed to engage students in active discourse rather than the passive acquisition of knowledge delivered by lecture.

That same storied history included a 1931 conference, Curriculum for the College of Liberal Arts, chaired by educational philosopher John Dewey. Attendees explored the possibilities of applying classroom learning to social problems and internationalization of the curriculum, faculty and student body.

In my address, delivered on April 13, 1991, before an audience of about 1,500 people, I proposed an underlying principle (or motto) that would guide us throughout my term: “Excellence, Innovation, and Community.”

Now I was ready to answer my mother’s question. That shy child we both remembered was gradually transformed into a college president through the experiences of her life and the encouragement and support of many people throughout the years.

Three former presidents attended Bornstein’s inauguration, including (left to right) Hugh McKean, Jack Critchfield and Thaddeus Seymour, her immediate predecessor. “Thad was a model for a departing president’s responsibility to ensure a smooth transition,” Bornstein writes. “His behavior elicited a reciprocal feeling in me.”

SKEPTICS ANDS CHALLENGES

I received a great deal of enthusiastic support as president — although I wasn’t immune to the many insults and negative comments that began as soon as I started on the job. 

I was shocked when I learned that a prominent alumnus had cautioned publicly, “This college is not ready for a Jewish woman president.” Another alumnus, whose home I visited in North Florida, told me that he doubted whether I would ever be accepted in Winter Park. 

There was even an anonymous letter to each trustee asserting that my financial vice president and I were destroying the college. I had the pleasure of watching attorney Harold Ward, one of the most prominent trustees, tear the letter to pieces in front of me.

I was pleased to learn that I would work with community leader Betty Duda, the first woman to chair the trustees. She was very welcoming, but asked if I thought that locals would be concerned that two women now oversaw the college. It was a concern that we dismissed.

Overall, though, I was pleased to find that friends of the college shared my goals of building an institution of excellence and securing the resources necessary to assure current and future students a world-class education.

In the meantime, I became aware of two national trends that would unquestionably impede our ambitious plans. I reviewed these trends in my 2003 book, Legitimacy in the Academic Presidency: From Entrance to Exit. 

The book, by the way, received enthusiastic reviews by several well-known presidents and scholars, and has become required reading in a number of higher education graduate programs. 

Frank Rhodes, former president of Cornell University, wrote: “Bornstein’s highly textured book deserves to be widely read by those concerned with the leadership and well-being of American higher education.”

The first trend I discussed was a serious financial recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which prompted predictions of the most challenging era for higher education since the Great Depression. 

The so-called “Age of Scarcity” did indeed see escalating costs, a steep decline in college-age young people, cutbacks in federal and state support, and intense competition for students and philanthropy. The future looked especially dire for underresourced institutions.

The other trend was the vigorous and unrelenting attacks on higher education by academics, journalists and legislators on the basis of some well-publicized abuses and misconduct — including rule violations in big-time athletics, misuse of government-sponsored university research dollars and high levels of student loan defaults. 

Fortunately, by the mid-1990s economic conditions had improved dramatically, creating an extraordinary opportunity for growth and rebuilding. Institutions like Rollins that had focused on strategic and campaign planning were ready to move ahead.

I noted in my journal that “the job takes a huge amount of energy, motivation, and commitment. ...it is just plain hard work and I can see why a president would wear out eventually…No one who hasn’t been in it can truly appreciate the challenge. No vice president is close enough to understand it, or any trustee, or any consultant, or even a spouse.”

The presidency is characterized by continuing demands of all sorts, including unexpected events and occurrences that require quick but judicious decisions. All hell can break loose in a totally unexpected way in a totally unexpected moment. 

A good example of the array of surprises that I experienced was a letter that arrived from Okinawa, Japan, requesting that the college return a statue given to President Holt by a graduate following World War II. This request came at a time when there were many disputes between nations, universities and museums over ownership of art and artifacts. 

Despite considerable pressure from the Orlando Sentinel and the New York Times, the college’s trustees declined to return the statue. However, I continued to explore the issue and discuss it with student, faculty, community and higher education leaders. 

It was a graduate of Rollins, who was then serving as an ambassador to Japan, who persuaded me that returning the statue was the right thing to do and would enhance relations between our countries.  

We received an almost exact replica in return. In addition, Harland and I were invited to Japan, where we established a relationship with the school that housed the artifact. As a result, Rollins faculty continue to teach and learn in Japan. I published an article on the experience in The Chronicle of Higher Education — and Rollins set an example of ethical decision-making.

Not everything about the presidency was so serious. On a lighter note, there never came a time when the way I dressed, wore my hair and selected jewelry wasn’t a topic of discussion. Indeed, fascination with the appearance and attire of female executives continues today. 

After I retired, a woman from the community commented that I was very “starchy” during my presidency. My friend, former Orange County Mayor Linda Chapin, says that I was always “the president” and not the relaxed, funny person that I turned out to be after I stepped down.

Some faculty members felt that I was too “corporate” for Rollins, where women professors, according to my husband, were 1960s manqué in their “dirndl skirts and sandals.” 

That some saw me as corporate was the result of my being a captive of the then-popular “dress for success” look for women — a man-tailored blue (white stripe optional) business suit with a white blouse and a blue or red tie at the neck. 

While I was experienced and outwardly confident, I didn’t entirely avoid imposter syndrome. Could I really do the job? Could an infusion of resources and clarity of vision assure the college’s growth in prestige and influence? Could a president successfully install a commitment to excellence throughout an institution?

I felt empowered when Joanne Rogers began calling me “Prexy.” Joanne and her husband, Fred, were both Rollins graduates and remained close to the college. Fred became internationally famous as Mister Rogers and creator of the PBS children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I enjoyed being called “Prexy” because that was the affectionate title students had given to Hamilton Holt. Being compared with Holt was a great honor, since he brought national attention to the college as an educational innovator and champion of world peace. 

It was a treat to go out to dinner with Fred and Joanne during their annual sojourn in Florida. Fred tried to be inconspicuous, but was such an icon that everybody recognized him and approached him as they would have a close friend. He was always genial about the attention. 

TAKING COMMAND

It’s hard for presidents to get honest feedback about their performance from administrative colleagues. So once a year during my first few years, I assembled the professors who had served on the search committee that hired me to ask them how I was doing and what suggestions they had about how I might improve.

Some of these professors were interviewed for the Summer 2004 issue of the Rollins Alumni Record and were quoted in a series of articles on my retirement. I could barely believe their kind comments. 

Larry Eng-Wilmot, professor of chemistry, said “her Rollins legacy …is a marvelous set of visionary and indelible fingerprints that will always lead and encourage us to be better learners, teachers, scholars, citizens and people.” Jim Small, a biology professor, added that bringing me to Rollins “is one of the most important highlights of my career here.” 

In 1994, I received my first and only evaluation by the trustees. The chairman, banker Mike Strickland, praised my vision and complimented my ability to “take command of any situation.” He said that he appreciated the strategic planning process I led, and praised the expanded composition of the board and my relationship with it. He was pleased with our fundraising, especially for endowed chairs. 

I enjoyed being called “Prexy” because that was the
affectionate title students had given Hamilton Holt.
Being compared with Holt was a great honor, since
he brought national attention to the college as an
educational innovator and champion of world peace.

From the earliest days of the search process through the initial planning years of my presidency, I constantly considered how to generate enthusiasm for a fundraising campaign at Rollins that would be unprecedented in size and scope. 

My focus was to start by building a culture of excellence. I wanted every area to participate in this effort — operations, facilities, teaching, research, student life, administration, philanthropy, governance and even landscaping. 

Yes, landscaping. I had learned that attractive landscaping produces curb appeal and communicates a commitment to excellence in all other aspects of an institution. 

Architecture plays a similar role in defining a campus. So I spent time with architects and carefully reviewed their plans and drawings. I also sought advice from Jack Lane, a professor of history and the college’s historian, who advised us on traditional styles and the original purpose of facilities. 

I enjoyed the process and, as a result, was able to redirect projects that had been poorly designed for the needs of the college.

We also scoured the budget for places where we could save money. Rollins had a pair of night programs: The Hamilton Holt School, which was highly esteemed by our community, and a campus on the Space Coast in Brevard County. 

Professors were immensely proud of the Hamilton Holt School — which offered evening degrees to nontraditional students — and many taught there. I was especially drawn to Holt students because they, as I had, usually juggled the demands of college with raising children and working. 

However, the Brevard campus was more difficult to justify. Its distance made it hard to manage and the revenue wasn’t commensurate with the costs. Consequently, I had the sad responsibility of closing that program.

The college also had a variety of graduate degree programs, the most highly acclaimed of which was the Roy E. Crummer Graduate School of Business. I found the professors hardworking, highly intelligent and loyal to Rollins. I had many friends among the Crummer faculty, and was honored that many of them dedicated their books to me.

My attachment to the overall faculty grew as I got to know the professors as individuals. Yes, some were quirky, and some were hostile to those whom they viewed as bureaucrats. 

But from the time I started, even usually uninvolved faculty agreed to participate in strategic planning. After all, they’d been asking the same questions as I had. How do we improve Rollins’ reputation? How do we generate more resources? 

I relied especially on three people I had brought into my administration. First there was Lorrie Kyle, a Rollins graduate who held a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt, who was my brilliant and accomplished executive assistant.

There was also George Herbst, one of the few financial vice presidents able to build good relationships with faculty; and Charlie Edmondson, a longtime history professor who made an excellent provost and academic vice president. Driven by a commitment to high standards, Charlie went on to become president of Alfred University in New York.

To improve the college’s academic standing, we focused first on attracting a stronger group of students. This allowed us to be more selective in admissions. We also recognized that institutional prestige was, in part, based on the quality of the professors and emphasized the importance of endowed chairs to our supporters. 

Every year, I proudly exhibited the publications of faculty members in my office. I thought it was important as well to personally and informally encourage excellence among professors, students and staff. I believe the effort was appreciated.

When Jonathan Miller, the college’s director of libraries, left to take a similar position at Williams College, he wrote me a note saying: “I have been at Rollins for almost 11 years now and have really appreciated your support, advice and friendship. [You] … showed more interest in the progress I was making on my dissertation than anyone else and you were always very generous with your advice and counsel to me.” 

A president can also contribute to an institution’s reputation and visibility by serving as a “public intellectual.” During my presidency, I wrote and published 46 articles and four books with a focus on leadership, governance and fundraising. 

I was also frequently quoted in national magazines and newspapers, and served on the boards of many higher education associations. During my presidency, I received three honorary doctorates and 26 awards. 

The high point for Rollins in our quest for quality and recognition was when U.S. News & World Report raised our ranking among Master’s Colleges in the South from sixth to first. I’ll never forget the excitement of a group of alumni, back on campus for a reunion, who came flooding into my office to celebrate. 

Faculty complained that the college lacked a collegial and intellectual climate. I believe that these are worthy goals, but that they are the responsibility of the faculty. However, I felt that I should do my part and launched an annual square dance. To provide opportunities for intellectual engagement, I convened lunchtime discussions on serious topics and faculty research.

An intellectual high point for me and for the college was the 1997 conference that I planned and hosted together with the College Board, a not-for-profit organization formed in 1899 with the goal of expanding access to higher education.

The conference, which was titled Toward a Pragmatic Liberal Education: The Curriculum of the Twenty-First Century, was based on the previously mentioned colloquy hosted by President Holt in 1931. Our conference attracted 200 presidents and scholars from 50 colleges and universities. 

One participant called the experience “a feast for the mind.” Later that year, the College Board produced a book with chapters by conference presenters: Education and Democracy: Re-imagining Liberal Learning in America. 

Bornstein became close to Fred and Joanne Rogers, both Rollins graduates who frequently visited Winter Park. Fred (above), known to the world as “Mister Rogers,” tried to be inconspicuous “but was such an icon that everybody recognized him and approached him as they would have a close friend,” writes Bornstein. “He was always genial about the attention.” In 2012, President Barack Obama (below) became the fourth U.S. President to visit the campus, following in the footsteps of Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Bornstein, who had stepped down in 2004, attended and met Obama, who spoke at the Harold & Ted Alfond Sports Center.

$100,000,000? IMPOSSIBLE!

During my first year at Rollins, I surprised the trustees by proposing an ambitious “Campaign for Rollins” with the goal of raising $100 million. Because the college had been financially challenged since its founding, there was plenty of skepticism. As evidence, some trustees cited the prior campaign, which concluded five years earlier having raised just over $40 million. 

However, after much discussion and encouragement, the trustees agreed to the goal. One vivid recollection I have is, halfway through the campaign,  seeing a senior staff member standing in my doorway saying, “The campaign is over. We’re out of prospects.” Well, we didn’t run out of prospects and the campaign wasn’t over.

When we announced to a gathering of campaign contributors that we had exceeded our goal and raised $160.2 million, there was much jubilation, as you can imagine. Better still was the fact that alumni had contributed 52 percent of the total. 

This fact was especially pleasing to me, because early in the campaign I had been told by a staff member that while graduates loved their alma mater, they would never contribute any money.

Forty-nine percent of the funds were designated for the college’s endowment. I had made endowed chairs a high priority, understanding these to be a mark of quality in higher education. We also secured a $10 million gift for an endowed chair for the president — about which I’ll elaborate shortly.

We eclipsed the goal because of our skilled and indefatigable staff. Vice President Anne Kerr went on to became president of Florida Southern College and put her considerable skills to work remaking the school in Lakeland. David Collis, assistant vice president of development, became president of the AdventHealth Foundation and has done an exceptional job of attracting support.

The campaign enabled us to buy and develop some important nearby properties. We built a commercial center and a parking garage in downtown Winter Park designed to generate revenue, which it has. 

And we built the beautiful McKean Gateway, the first formal entrance to the college. A visiting architect later said the Gateway looked as though it had stood for a century or more.

We also built or renovated more than 30 academic, athletic and residential facilities, including a much-needed President’s House, now called the Barker House. To avoid potential controversy, I purposely didn’t occupy the house during my tenure. (Harland and I had bought a modest residence in 1990, when we moved to Winter Park.)

Overall, I was thrilled and relieved that I had done what I promised I would do: build a strong reputation for quality and a healthy financial foundation for future success.

I donated funds to name a waterside gazebo for my husband (Harland’s Haven) and a cascading water fountain for me (Rita’s Fountain). Both these gifts gave me great satisfaction.

An exciting opportunity arose in 1996, about halfway through my presidency, and made me both pleased and nervous. University of Miami President Tad Foote nominated me for the presidency of the American Council on Education (ACE), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for the nation’s colleges and universities.

It was a great honor, so I assented to an interview. The search committee was comprised of distinguished academics and presidents. And although I had an excellent interaction with them, I made it clear that I was in a “golden moment” at Rollins and couldn’t leave at that time. 

Leaving would have been difficult to do in any case. Trustee Charlie Rice sealed my decision when he said that if I left, he would take back his campaign gift, which was at that time more than $1 million. Thus ended my dalliance with the ACE, exciting as it was.

One of the factors in the U.S. News & World Report’s evaluation of colleges and universities is the size of the endowment. At Rollins, endowment funds brought in by the campaign, coupled with a large bequest from alumnus and trustee George Cornell, made a huge difference. 

The college’s endowment, $39 million when I arrived in 1990, grew to more than $200 million by the start of the new century. That was partly the result of our successful campaign, but there was more to it. Here’s the story of George’s gift.

Each year, when George returned from vacation up North, he came to talk to me about the same issue. His advisors were constantly urging him to establish a foundation. What did I think? 

I always responded that the decision was entirely up to him. But I also reminded him that when the original philanthropists, their relatives and advisors were gone, foundations often changed direction to follow the interests of the remaining board members.

George never set up a foundation. And as a result, Rollins received more than $105 million when he died, shortly after the conclusion of the campaign. If he had formed a foundation, its board would have no doubt dispersed the same funds over a wide array of beneficiaries. 

One of the first people I told when I decided to retire was George. A man of few words, he said, “We’ll miss you.” In fact, it was George who had made the gift of an endowed chair for the president. He asked the solicitor two questions: “Will this gift keep Rita here?” And, “Will this gift help recruit her successor?” 

Throughout my presidency, the person who provided me unqualified support was my husband, Harland, who for years had been teaching courses about the operations of higher education, including the president’s role. He loved the idea that now he had an inside view. 

After a year of traveling from Winter Park to teach at the University of Miami, he retired and produced some of his best scholarship. Harland was well liked by everyone. He was funny, smart and a great conversationalist. People coveted the opportunity to sit next to him at dinner. 

Harland joined me in explaining to our families, especially the children, why it was important for our behavior, public and private, to be above reproach. It was he who gently reprimanded me one day for jaywalking across Park Avenue, reminding me that everything I did — even seemingly minor things — reflected on the college.

Harland often accompanied me to help handle emergencies on campus. We had lawsuits, student deaths, alcohol poisonings and car accidents. You name it, and we dealt with it. It was all part of the job.

A $71 million Lakeside Neighborhood for student housing is nearly complete at Rollins. Its dorms will honor three past presidents: Hugh McKean, Thaddeus Seymour and Rita Bornstein. Said current President Grant Cornwell: “Each of these storied leaders laid the groundwork to make Rollins the great college it is today, and set the stage for those of us who have the honor of stewarding its mission to educate our students for global citizenship and responsible leadership, empowering our graduates to pursue meaningful lives and productive careers.”

RITA’S ROLLINS RENAISSANCE

I was surprised and delighted by the tributes and gifts I received when I announced my retirement in 2004. Roy Kerr, senior professor of language, began referring to “Rita’s Rollins Renaissance.” 

At a ceremony in the Knowles Memorial Chapel, Maurice “Socky” O’Sullivan, distinguished professor of English, presented me with a unique book, Teaching in Paradise, that contains articles by Rollins professors about their love for and approach to teaching. The book is dedicated to me, and I treasure it.

John Hitt, then president of the nearby University of Central Florida, sent a message that I appreciated. He wrote: “When presidents do their jobs really well, they not only transform the lives of students, they transform the lives of their institutions, and you have done that for Rollins.”

The expressions of affection and gratitude from faculty, alumni, students, community leaders and friends around the country made my departure both easier and more difficult. 

Soon after my announcement, I received a note from Robert Atwell, longtime president of the American Council on Education. He wrote: “…You have been a model of principled leadership at the campus and nationally. I have often cited you as someone new presidents should emulate.”

In my book Legitimacy, I examined the challenges of a college presidency for those who lack a traditional academic background. I also discussed presidents who’ve been unsuccessful despite looking great on paper. I identified the threats to legitimacy, such as misconduct, inattentiveness, grandiosity, lack of cultural fit, management incompetence and erosion of social capital.

Throughout my presidency, I was vigilant in seeking legitimacy and avoiding the pitfalls I had highlighted. All my experiences, good and bad, had strengthened my capacity for empathy, confidence and resilience. The example of my family — the dogged determination to be and do the best they could — stimulated my development of those values. 

I’ve had a long time to consider my mother’s question about my evolution from shyness to confidence. Her own ambition and that of her family had a lot to do with it, as did the many mentors who, along the way, helped me define myself.

Businessman Frank Barker, chair of the trustees, worked out a designation for my endowed chair that I could use in retirement (Cornell Professor of Leadership and Philanthropy). 

All my experiences, good and bad, had strengthened
my capacity for empathy, confidence and resilience.
The example of my family — the dogged determination
to be and do the best they could — stimulated
my development of those values.

The trustees also established the Bornstein Award for Faculty Scholarship, which is presented each year at commencement. This award, which comes with a $10,000 stipend, is special to me because it recognizes faculty scholarship and its role in extending Rollins’ reputation. It reflects my values and, for me, is always a commencement highlight. 

In addition, the trustees established the Rita Bornstein Leadership Forum. And I was mightily surprised and delighted when I learned that a new student residence hall on Lake Virginia was to be named “Rita Bornstein Hall.” To top it all off, the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce honored me as “Citizen of the Decade.” 

When Harland died in November 2004, I invited Hoyt Edge, professor of philosophy, to preside at the celebration of life that we held on the lawn extending from Harland’s Haven. 

English Professor Barbara Carson read a poem by W.H. Auden, “Stop all the Clocks,” and members of my family and various trustees offered remembrances. We played a prerecorded electronic composition by Per, Harland’s son. 

In my comments, I noted that Harland was the smartest, funniest and sexiest person I had ever known. I missed him and, feeling lonely, wrote these words: “The moon is round and orange, it has an Asian face and…wings. ‘Oh, look at that.’  But you are not here to share my enchantment.”

RETIRED … SORT OF

My decision to retire was largely driven by Harland’s poor health. He died just four months later, and I was glad to have that time with him. I had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but didn’t want people to feel sorry for me and didn’t talk about it. 

When I told my family that I was retiring, Ariel, one of my daughter’s twin girls, said, “But, Grammy, then you won’t be important anymore.” Perhaps not in the same way, but I did plenty of planning to ensure an active post-Rollins life. 

This was important to me. I had never learned to play golf or bridge and had no hobbies but reading and writing. I was concerned about adapting to a nondemanding, low-energy existence.

I fulfilled my term on two corporate boards, but remained on three nonprofit boards: the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, the Winter Park Health Foundation and the Parkinson Association for Central Florida. 

Retirement has turned out to be anything but quiet or uneventful. I moved to The Mayflower Retirement Community, close to Rollins, and found many opportunities for physical activity, intellectual challenge, community involvement and family interaction. 

I’ve written an occasional opinion piece for the Orlando Sentinel, and continue to meet with a few young men and women whom I’ve been mentoring for years. I host a monthly discussion group made up of 16 diverse and politically active people from the community. At this writing, we’ve been meeting and talking for about 15 years. 

I’m also involved in a discussion group consisting of three other retired Rollins professors, and started another group called “Forum for Ideas” at the Mayflower, to which I invite professors, poets, businesspeople and others to make presentations. Lately, we’ve been meeting over Zoom.

In October, I donated $100,000 to establish the President Rita Bornstein Archival Records Endowment. Its purpose will be to support the digitation and preservation of archival records housed in the Olin Library’s Department of Archives and Special Collections.

I remain drawn to the possibilities of innovation and change in education. Why, you may ask? 

To assure that our educational institutions and their leaders provide opportunities for every student to find a path to a successful future. So that even a young, insecure girl from a broken family, with nothing to hold on to but the faint idea of a meaningful future, can launch her life.

Skipper Alan Woods points out the sights during a recent trip through the picturesque lakes and canals that comprise the venerable Scenic Boat Tour. In a normal year — which 2020 is decidedly not — the hourlong excursion attracts between 40,000 and 50,000 riders.

CANAL ZONE

Photography by Rafael Tongol

Skipper Alan Woods points out the sights during a recent trip through the picturesque lakes and canals that comprise the venerable Scenic Boat Tour. In a normal year — which 2020 is decidedly not — the hourlong excursion attracts between 40,000 and 50,000 riders.

In high summer, the best time to take the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour is morning, on the first boat out at 10 a.m. Then, the lake is still glassy and the air fresh before the sultry afternoon doldrums descend.

Such was the idyllic tableau the Monday morning in mid-August when I arrived at the venerable tour boathouse on the southwest shore of Lake Osceola, a 10-minute walk from downtown. I’d come to enjoy the excursion in preparation for a story on what is said to be the longest continuously operated tourist attraction in Florida.

“I’m not the original driver,” quips Tom Smith as I board the pontoon boat. Smith, 67, is among the most senior of the boat tour’s nine pilots, more affectionately called “skippers” a la the bumbling, blustery Skipper on TV’s Gilligan’s Island. (Played by Alan Hale Jr., for all you trivia buffs.)

Smith figures that in 10 years, he has conducted close to 13,000 tours of Winter Park’s lakes and canals. That means he’s guided his craft some 156,000 miles — all the while delivering good-natured banter (and more than a few corny jokes). 

He talks about the city’s history and calls upon a storehouse of factoids about the flora and fauna that are at times so close to the boat that passengers can reach out and touch swaying palms, grand cypress trees, lush ferns and riots of flourishing subtropical flowers.

The Scenic Boat Tour, which was closed for most of March through May because of COVID-19, is back, once again wending its way along three of the city’s six canal-connected lakes (Osceola, Virginia and Maitland) and offering peeks into the manicured backyards of opulent homes, the residents of which mostly offer friendly waves.

The driver at the helm of the first “Venice of America” tour on January 1, 1938, was the man who started it, Walt C. Meloon — better known as “W.C.” — a New England transplant and entrepreneur who would later found a boating empire. 

The scenery is amazing, but for many customers the nine skippers are the highlight of the boat tour. The team includes (left to right): Dan Lancaster, Alan Woods, Ron Hightower (the owner, who doesn’t pilot a boat), Drew Smith, Fred Austin, Lee Adler, David Wittman, Peter Rice, Wendell Phillips and Tom Smith. The adventure gets underway every day except Christmas from a modest boathouse (far right) on the shores of Lake Osceola.

A vintage photo of the maiden voyage shows a grinning W.C. wearing what appears to be a yacht captain’s cap. Seated behind him in the long wooden boat are 25 city officials, businessmen and their spouses who have unwittingly (and literally) participated in the launch of what would become arguably the city’s most iconic business.

Eighty-two years and a pandemic later, the scene was starkly different for my tour. The vessel — one of a fleet of six — was now an aluminum pontoon boat with a seating capacity of 18, reduced to nine by social distancing. (The drivers wear masks and the boats are disinfected after each outing.) And on this Monday morning, I was Skipper Tom’s only passenger.

In a normal year B.C. — before COVID — the tour attracted about 120 riders per day, or between 40,000 to 50,000 riders per year. Despite wars and hurricanes, tours had been held almost every day (except Christmas) since the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. There had been no prolonged shutdowns until the virus arrived.

“We’re now doing about 20 percent of our usual business,” says owner Ron Hightower. “This time of year, we depend mostly on international travelers. People come from around the world. One time I put up a map with pins, and after a month or two I couldn’t find anyplace people weren’t from. Obviously, right now no one is flying.”

The federal Paycheck Protection Program helped pay the skippers and keep the business, well, afloat. “It’s been challenging,” Hightower says.

It was indeed challenging — to say nothing of a bit awkward — for Smith to have an audience of only one to hear his entertaining shtick. It wasn’t unlike Steven Colbert or Jimmy Fallon doing jokes for empty theaters with only the band present to offer titters and guffaws. 

I was the band on this trip. I told Smith to pretend there were other passengers and to do his normal routine. “OK,” he said. “If you like the tour, I’m Tom. If not, I’m Robert.” (Cue the rim shot.)

The pontoon chugged away from the dock. Smith immediately busted through the fourth wall, turning and explaining: “By now I’ve usually told everyone how much better-looking I am in a mask.”

FROM TOUR GUIDE TO TYCOON

God created the breathtaking Winter Park lakes, as well as the plant and animal life that these ecosystems support. Man, though, created the enchanting canals. Well, sort of. Swampy connectors apparently already existed but were basically impassable — and therefore useless for transportation or commerce until they were widened and bolstered. 

The City of Winter Park, which was originally envisioned as a New England-themed resort town, began its life as a rarified tourist attraction in the late 1880s. It just took an ambitious visionary like W.C. Meloon to make the elevated enclave more accessible to those who weren’t Northern industrialists occupying its so-called “cottages.”

“W.C. was quite an entrepreneur — building, making, creating,” says his grandson Walt Meloon, one of many Walts in the lineage. “He had an inventor’s mind. He built a boat with a Model T engine and an airplane propeller. It was really an airboat. He did automotive repairs and had one of the first motels — or trail lodges — in New Hampshire.”

Then his New Hampshire garage burned down, and W.C. —  among countless others — heard that exotic Florida was the land of milk and honey. “There was a land boom going on and he decided to move to Florida to become a land baron,” says Walt Meloon, a Belle Isle resident.

W.C., his wife and three sons moved to Orlando in 1924 from their farm on the Maine-New Hampshire border. The boom, however, went bust, ruining many who had journeyed to the Sunshine State to make their fortunes.

But W.C. wasn’t easily deterred. “He looked around and saw a lot of water and all those lakes,” says his grandson. “So, he decided he needed to build boats.” Declaring that he intended to build watercraft “for the glory of God,” W.C. called his new venture in Pine Castle on South Orange Avenue the Florida Variety Boat Company. 

The story goes he changed the name to Correct Craft in 1936 after hearing a radio ad touting shoes with “the correct heel for your feet.” He liked the idea of pitching his boats as “the correct craft for you.” The fledgling company originally built and sold powerboats, race boats and even sailboats.

But W.C. didn’t confine himself to water vessels. The company dredged sand from lakes for beaches. It won a contract to build a dam and waterslides for Sanlando Springs, a recreational area between Orlando and Sanford. It installed cypress-wood walls (subsequently replaced by concrete) to shore up the deteriorating banks of the Winter Park canals. It even built boathouses. 

In addition to becoming a leader in recreational watercraft, Correct Craft was contracted by the government during World War II to build pontoon-like boats that served as bridges to carry troops and armaments across rivers. In 2008, when the Meloons sold the last of their stock in the company, Correct Craft was the oldest family-owned boat maker in America.

For all his wider renown, W.C.’s best-loved legacy remains the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour. This, too, was an idea he brought with him from New England, where his boating fixation was born. Says Walt Meloon: “He and his friends would ride around and find a lake where they could put a boat in and tacked up a sign: ‘Rides 45 cents.’” 

Yet, W.C.’s local venture might well have ended up the Lake Conway Scenic Boat Tour. The family, for a time in the 1930s, offered rides on the Conway Chain of Lakes (25 cents for adults, 10 cents for kids), recalled the late Ralph Meloon, one-time company president, in a 2014 interview. So why did W.C. plant his dream 14 miles away in Winter Park instead of just up the road from Correct Craft on South Orange Avenue?

“About that time, there was more development of big homes and more wealth in a concentrated area, which was Winter Park,” says Walt Meloon. “It was much more attractive. And the canals were the clincher — the pure, raw beauty. The Conway lakes didn’t have anything like that.”

The boat tour, which debuted in 1938, may be the longest continuously operated tourist attraction in Florida. This postcard from the early 1950s demonstrates that it has a long history of attracting plenty of customers — although its capacity is currently limited due to COVID-19 restrictions.

DO THE STORIES HOLD WATER?

“Duck your head!” Smith shouts as we pass under a low bridge on the Fern Canal. “This is the point where passengers usually decide to get up and introduce themselves.” Noting imperfections along the way, Smith says: “Lumberjacks did this. Looks like they had some cocktails before digging.” 

Sobriety aside, it seems to be true that lumber companies widened the clogged and narrow waterways in the 19th century to float harvested logs from nearby forests to sawmills. Later, between 1935 and 1938, private and public funds paid for rebuilding the rotting cypress barrier walls to make the canals more boater friendly. From 1976 to 1978, the City of Winter Park and the Florida Boating Improvement Program, a division of the Department of Environmental Protection, undertook another rehabilitation project.

The results, as anyone who has ever taken the boat tour can attest, are stunning. Enveloped by a canopy of ferns, ancient oaks, banana plants, bamboo, cypress and palm trees, we glide past briefly glimpsed homes on either side and into the open water of Lake Virginia. 

Smith points to the Rollins College campus on the northern shore, where the school’s ski and rowing teams practice on the lake. “People ask about the thing that looks like the roof of a sunken house,” Smith says. “It’s the ski jump.”

Especially in his Skipper Tom persona, Smith can be gently mischievous with visitors from distant places, such as Maine. Bobbing in the water near the ski jump are colorful buoys for a slalom course. When a passenger from the Pine Tree State wondered if they were lobster traps, Smith didn’t skip a beat: “Yes, fresh-water lobsters.” 

The geography and vegetation encountered along the canals are a mystery to many passengers. “People from places like Sweden and New York freak out when they see bananas,” says Smith as we meander through the Venetian Canal to Lake Maitland. “They’ve never seen bananas growing.”

Some even point to one of the gaudy mansions in the distance and ask if Donald Trump lives there. No, Smith patiently explains, he lives in Mar-a-Lago, some 200 miles away.

There are the inevitable questions about alligators, but according to Smith, none are ever seen along the route. “We don’t have them anymore,” he says. In fact, about 150 of the frightening reptiles were taken from the Winter Park Chain of Lakes and repatriated to Seminole County’s more primitive Lake Jesup in the late 1980s.

Smith runs through a litany of places and stories familiar to locals. How the historic Capen-Showalter House was cut in two and transported on barges across Lake Osceola to the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. “Fred and Ginger dancing across the lake,” as he describes the project.

Then there’s the Brewer House, a 21-room mansion built in 1889 by industrialist Edward Hill Brewer. At the insistence of Brewer’s homesick wife, Edna, it was designed to be an exact replica of the family’s estate in New York. 

Sometimes, though, the stories should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt. Smith points out a red-brick house that he says was built (and occupied) by the indulgent parents of Fred Rogers (Rollins College, Class of 1951) so that the music composition major could have a proper piano on which to practice. “Well, that’s the story we tell,” Smith says with a grin. 

To be clear, the man who would become known to the world as Mister Rogers through the PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, did retain a lifelong connection to Winter Park. He rented a house near Osceola Avenue for seasonal visits with his wife, Joanne, who also graduated from Rollins. But his parents, James and Nancy Rogers, lived in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

This is, of course, quibbling. Drivers are not allowed to identify current residents — famous or not — of lake homes. But they’re free to name-drop past residents. “There’s the house built by the founder of Walgreens,” Smith points out. “As soon as it was built, CVS put one up next door even bigger.” 

Tom Hanks never lived in the so-called “Tom Hanks House,” Smith notes of a Venetian-style home that can be seen from Lake Osceola. But it was, he says, used in filming Hanks’ HBO series From the Earth to the Moon, getting about 30 seconds of airtime as the home of an astronaut. 

He later points out the sprawling home of former Orlando Magic star Horace Grant, who turned the ballroom into a basketball court. And over there is the historic Alabama Hotel (now condominiums) whose guests included the likes of Margaret Mitchell, H.G. Wells and Sinclair Lewis.

“And that’s my house to the right,” says Smith, ever the joker.

Along the way, across the three lakes and two canals, Smith is hailed by friends in boathouses or kayaks. “Hey, Bobby, come ahead!” he shouts, offering right-of-way to a kayak coming at us through the narrow canal. “You’re good to go, guys!” he signals another, before yet again spying a familiar figure and calling out: “How ya doing, sweetie!”

Smith turns to me and says: “I know way too many people here.”

During the boat tour, you’ll see swaying palms, towering cypress trees, lush ferns and a variety of subtropical flowers as well as breathtaking views of opulent private homes lining the lakes and canals. But you likely won’t see alligators — they were rounded up and transplanted to more rustic Lake Jesup in the 1980s.

‘IT JUST GIVES YOU A SPECIAL FEELING’

The boat tour has changed hands several times over the decades. Wanda Salerno, a legendary Winter Park booster, and her husband, Frank, bought it in 1981 and ran it for 14 years, pumping up its popularity with aggressive advertising on International Drive. 

In 1995, Hightower and his granddad Stanford Smith — a boat tour driver and manager since 1971 — jumped at a ticket to ride. “The Salernos were interested in selling and we were interested in carrying on the tradition,” Hightower says. “I grew up in Winter Park and worked down here in my early teens, gassing up boats and that sort of thing.”

For Smith, who worked into his late 90s and died in 2013 at 100, the boat tour was a second career after retiring from the banking business at 58. His grandson, however, vows that there’ll be no second act for him. “This is my career,” says Hightower, a UCF grad with a degree in business administration.

Winter Park’s “Venice of America” isn’t the only “Venice of America” and maybe not the first — even in Florida. In the 1920s, mangrove swamps around Fort Lauderdale were dredged to create a network of waterways including “finger island” subdivisions. The city adopted the “Venice of America” moniker, but it’s not clear if that happened before W.C. went into the boat tour business. 

Both cities lose out historically to a beachfront theme park/resort with canals near Los Angeles that opened in 1905 with the name “Venice of America.” The area later was absorbed by Los Angeles and became just plain Venice. “I only know we used [the slogan] from the very beginning in 1938,” Hightower says. “I never heard of the other.”

Winter Park’s “Venice of America” was fortuitously well-positioned to hang on at a time when many small businesses succumbed to the pandemic economy. “We’ve worked hard to keep prices affordable for families,” Hightower says. 

Ticket prices are $14 for adults, $7 for children (under age 2 ride free). An undated brochure from the early days shows the price of a ticket at $1.50 for adults and 75 cents for kids. Adjusted for inflation, that $1.50 ticket today would be $27. And parking is free. So the experience remains a notable and refreshingly homespun bargain.

In a city blessed with an embarrassment of tourist-attracting riches, the boat tour is tops, says Camellia Gurley, concierge at the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce. “It’s the No. 1 thing we promote,” she says. “It’s so loved. I don’t think anything compares to it. If someone from out of town comes to see me, I say, ‘Let’s do this!’ It just gives you a special feeling.”

On the still placid waters of Lake Osceola, Skipper Tom concludes his narrative and guides the pontoon back to the dock after the hourlong tour, which, once again, has miraculously averted the fate of Gilligan’s marooned S.S. Minnow.

“The canals are so unique that even if I didn’t say a word it would be a great trip,” he says. But not quite as great. And let the record show that Skipper Tom is actually better looking without a mask. 

 


 

SKIPPER SPOTLIGHTS

Fred Austin, Former drummer and actor

Fred Austin

Former drummer and actor

Fred Austin, 70, was a real character even before he was paid to be one. He grew up in Yonkers, just north of New York City, with dreams of pursuing a career in theater. Instead, he says, “I pursued drumming for 25 years, playing in show bands.” But the acting bug beckoned and in 1992 Austin moved to Central Florida, where he joined Universal Orlando playing a series of real characters — including Merlin, Dudley Do-Right, Harry Henderson and Frankenstein’s monster. His final role was Wandkeeper at Ollivander’s Wand Shop in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Later a friend mentioned the Scenic Boat Tour, and Austin was intrigued. “I felt it was a good fit for me, especially with my mouth,” he says. “I enjoyed comedic acting, but I really wanted to be a stand-up comedian.” And now, that’s pretty much what he is (though standing up is an option). What did a kid from Yonkers know about boating? “I’ve been familiar with boating all my life,” Austin says. “I loved boats so much that I made sure I had friends who had boats.” Of course, during the tour Austin dispenses more than jokes. He’s there to inform as well as entertain. “I try to be spontaneous. If I see something in a boat going by that amuses me, I’ll say something,” he says. “But I try not to make it ‘The Fred Austin Show.’ It’s not about me, it’s about the boat tour.” Austin still draws on all those years portraying theme park characters. “We (drivers) all have funny lines that are kind of our routines,” he adds. “I learned that in the theme park, where you have a new audience for six shows a day. It’s never boring — I never get tired of doing this.”

Tom Smith, Former restaurateur, social worker and bartender

Tom Smith

Former restaurateur, social worker and bartender

After graduating from the University of Florida in 1974, at age 21, Tom Smith opened a Domino’s franchise. “I lost my ass on that, but fell in love with Winter Park,” he says. “I’ve been in the same house on the west side of Lake Virginia since 1975. I’ve had a boat every day since I bought the house. The boat tour was one of the first things I did when I moved here, and it convinced me what a cool place this is.” It sounds like the gregarious Smith and the Scenic Boat Tour were made for one another — and perhaps they were. But first there were several landlubber careers: social worker, owner and manager of bars and restaurants, and a 21-year stint tending bar at Apopka’s legendary Townsend’s Fish House and Tavern, which closed in 2000. “I felt I did 10 times more social work tending bar,” says Smith, 67, laughing. It was, however, good basic training for his future gig as boat tour guide, where people skills are paramount. So were the chatty and informative walking excursions that he conducted for Winter Park City Tours. “It was short lived but made me learn as much as I could about the history of Winter Park,” he says. With 10 years and more than 10,000 trips under his belt, Smith is today one of the tour’s senior skippers. “I know an awful lot of people in Winter Park,” he says. “I probably have 1,000 regulars.” His presentation of “fun, facts and humor” obviously has worn well. “My whole goal,” he says, “is to give people a one-hour vacation.”

David Wittman, Former TV news anchor

David Wittman

Former TV news anchor

In a five-decade career highlighted by professional pinnacles, David Wittman, 70, was the lead anchor for major-market TV stations in Detroit, Boston, Cleveland and Orlando, where he manned the news desk at WKMG-Channel 6 for a decade and fell in love with Winter Park. But, as it happened, Wittman didn’t pursue his true calling until recently. Now, however, the erstwhile broadcaster — who’s still recognized by longtime locals — proudly describes his profession on LinkedIn as simply: “Tour guide at the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour.” Notes Wittman: “I think I always had it mind. I threatened Ron [Hightower, owner] that when I got out of the TV game, I was going to work for him or buy him out.” After leaving his final anchor gig in Cleveland, Wittman returned to Winter Park in 2018 and landed a job in the tour boat ticket office, “selling Cokes, cleaning toilets and emptying the trash. Eventually Ron said, ‘You want to drive?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I want to do that.’” Even before leaving Cleveland, Wittman and his wife had bought a condo on the Fern Canal, a leg of the tour. Ever the newsgatherer, he prepared for his stint as a driver by reading every book available about Winter Park history and spending countless hours combing through the archives and special collections area at Rollins College, where he uncovered fascinating tidbits to share with ticket buyers. The theme of Wittman’s tour narration: “The Secrets of Winter Park.” A typical nugget: “After Hurricane Donna in 1960, there was a push to widen the canals to a 100 feet because there was flooding. Thankfully, that did not survive a vote in local government. Just imagine how that would have changed things.”

The Baby Grand’s first talkie was 1929’s The Rainbow Man, a pre-code musical starring Eddie Dowling and marking the film debut of George “Gabby” Hayes.

A (BABY) GRAND EXPANSION PLAN

Scott Hillman pays homage to the Baby Grand Theater, which originally occupied his South Park Avenue location. The building later housed the Winter Park Land Company, making it the address for both the city’s first movie house and its first real estate office.

I thought we were going to make a statement when we opened a location on Park Avenue,” says Scott Hillman, president of Fannie Hillman + Associates, one of the city’s largest real estate companies. “You could say this move has surpassed my expectations.” 

Hillman, a Winter Park native, was familiar with much of the history surrounding the building in which his nearly 40-year-old agency opened an office in 2019. But the more he found out, the more intriguing it all became. It’s a little complex, with some twists and turns, but please bear with us as we try to sort it out and connect the dots. 

In 1917, industrialist Charles Hosmer Morse — who since 1904 had owned most of the undeveloped property in Winter Park — erected a brick building that today encompasses the addresses 122, 128 and 132 South Park Avenue for a cost of $15,000. 

The Winter Park Land Company, incorporated that year by Morse as the city’s first real estate firm, occupied 132; a reading room for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), whose mission was supported by Morse, occupied 128; and the Baby Grand Theater, the city’s first movie-house, occupied 122. Residential apartments were upstairs.

The Baby Grand, which seated 336 people, began showing silent films accompanied by piano in a large open space at the building’s rear. The debut film was a melodrama called Stolen Paradise featuring Ethel Clayton and Edward Langford. Tickets cost a dime. The venue also hosted vaudeville shows and community meetings.

The theater was originally operated by Rollins College and University of Virginia School of Law graduate Braxton “Bonnie” Beacham Jr., manager of Grand Amusement Company (GAC). The family enterprise appears to have been founded around 1913 by the younger Beacham’s parents, Braxton Sr., who was mayor of Orlando from 1904 to 1905, and Roberta, a socially active patron of the arts.

GAC managed several other movie houses in Central Florida, such as the Grand, the Lucerne and the Phillips Theater (owned by Dr. Phillip Phillips, for whom today’s Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is named). 

But the iconic Beacham Theater, which operates today as a nightclub, wasn’t opened until 1921. Although the Baby Grand is often said to have been the Beacham’s “little sister,” the Park Avenue theater, in fact, predated the familiar Orange Avenue landmark by several years.

The Baby Grand, now under the management of E.J. Sparks of Orlando Enterprises, was remodeled in 1928 with a $10,000 pipe organ and Vitaphone and Movietone equipment to accommodate sound pictures. Its first talkie was 1929’s The Rainbow Man, a pre-code musical starring Eddie Dowling and marking the film debut of George “Gabby” Hayes.

By then, the Baby Grand was owned by Paramount Pictures. (In fact, many movie theaters were owned by motion picture companies until 1948, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the practice was a violation of antitrust laws.)

The Baby Grand’s first talkie was 1929’s "The Rainbow Man," a pre-code musical starring Eddie Dowling and marking the film debut of George “Gabby” Hayes.

Winter Park’s first theater closed in 1940, when the 850-seat Colony Theater, also managed by GAC (and today a Pottery Barn retail outlet) opened across the street. 

The Baby Grand’s last feature — for the time being — was I Take This Woman starring Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lemarr. In 1947, however, it mounted a short-lived comeback showing primarily westerns and second-run films before closing for good the following year. 

It must also be said that the Baby Grand was restricted to whites only. The west side of Winter Park had its own movie theater, The Famous and later The Star, which operated at least through the early 1960s. The theater showed films with all-Black casts as well as second-run mainstream features.

In 1950, the Baby Grand space was remodeled for the Winter Park Land Company, which relocated from two doors down. The theater area, however, remained a large open space with a few desks scattered about. It was in this location where the company celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017.

In the meantime, business was booming for Hillman, whose main offices are nearby at 205 West Fairbanks Avenue. The company was founded in 1981 by Scott Hillman’s mother, Fannie, previously the top producer at Don Saunders Realty in Winter Park. 

Fannie Hillman’s son, a graduate of Florida State University,  joined the following year and was named president in 1994. The company’s namesake, now a spry 86 and a resident of the Mayflower at Winter Park, “still checks in to see how we’re doing,” says her hard-charging offspring, whose lengthy civic resumé includes a stint as junior varsity football coach at Winter Park High School.

Today, Hillman oversees an operation that employs 85 agents and racked up more than $300 million in gross sales in 2019. “For years, though, I had a vision of being on Park Avenue,” says Hillman, who adds that he redoubled his expansion effort as his company’s 40th anniversary approached.

Hillman bought the assets of the Winter Park Land Company — perhaps the oldest continually operating real estate company in Florida — from the owner of both the business and the building, the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation.

Genius was the only daughter of the legendary Morse (1833–1921) and the grandmother of Jeannette Genius McKean (1909–1989), whose husband was former Rollins College President Hugh F. McKean (1908–1995). 

An artist and a businesswoman, Jeannette Genius McKean began the foundation — which today supports the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art and other good causes — in 1959. She was also president of the Winter Park Land Company and operated the Center Street Gallery at 132 South Park Avenue, which was the original location of the Winter Park Land Company. 

The foundation still owns the building that Charles Hosmer Morse built. But Hillman says he hopes to find ways to highlight its significance as home to both the city’s first theater and its first real estate office. A visitor can see that he’s still in awe of his surroundings, pointing out the quirky architectural features — such as a pressed tin ceiling — in the theater area. 

Says Hillman: “I want to get a historic marker for this building.” Such a marker would celebrate the past, but Hillman is certain that there’s more history to be made at 122 South Park Avenue South. 

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