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

THE ROYAL WAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FLORIDA’S WILDER HEART

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘IN A NETHERWORLD BETWEEN CELEBRATION AND LOSS’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘THE POSTER CHILD OF UNRESTRAINED GROWTH’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Seduction In Key West

Susan Lilley

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

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

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

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

PEOPLE TO WATCH

Photography by Rafael Tongol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sydney Bellows Brownlee

Vice President, Leasing and Property Manager,
Sydgan Corporation

Morgan Bellows

Vice President, Construction Property Manager,
Sydgan Corporation

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

Amy Calandrino

Founding Principal/Broker,
Beyond Commercial

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

Ali DeMaria

Executive Director,
Winter Park Day Nursery

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

Kimberly Devitt

Manager, Business Development,
Corkcicle

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

Jeremy DiGorio

Director of Finance and Treasury,
Rollins College

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

Brad Doster

Founder and CEO, Macro Re

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

Kyle Dudgeon

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

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

William “Will” Grafton IV

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

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

Juan Hollingsworth

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

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

Whitney Melton Laney

Realtor, Fannie Hillman + Associates

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


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

Kesha Thompson

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

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

Laura Walda

Shareholder, Lowndes

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

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

‘A HOME HAS TO HAVE A SOUL’

Photography by Rafael Tongol

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh-oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

A recent SOKO in Shady Park drew a variety of participants. Among them were (standing, left to right): April Brown of April Brown Music, a singer; Joe Hokey and Kesha King-Hokey of KinJo Kolectiv, makers of custom jewelry; Paul Brown of Bomb Bay Customs, a maker of wood rings, necklaces and longboards; and Stephanie Burke of Power of Potential, a writer and motivational speaker. Others included (sitting, left to right): Baba Hector, an educator, spiritual advisor and author of Orishas The Children’s Book; and LaWanda Thompson, president of the Equity Council Corporation and creator of the monthly marketplace.

HERE'S THE BUZZ

Photography by Rafael Tongol

 

 

Reggie Jones has what is likely the only Black-owned business in Hannibal Square. While he reveres the neighborhood’s history, he believes the key to success is bringing people together and serving a diverse clientele.

No one at West & Kennedy is named West or Kennedy, and you won’t find the Winter Park business at the corner of West and Kennedy because there are no streets in the city with those names. The moniker suggests lawyers, accountants or interior designers — pretty much anything but what it is: a barbershop transplanted from Eatonville.

Located at the corner of West New England and Pennsylvania avenues in the historic Hannibal Square business district on the city’s traditionally African-American west side, West & Kennedy sits squarely at the intersection of the city’s storied past and evolving future. 

Reggie Jones’ shop is now, as nearly as can be determined, the only Black-owned business where African-American enterprises — banks, grocers, theaters, nightclubs, ice cream parlors, and candy and soda shops — once thrived before a period of decay and decline in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Then gentrification and boutique culture changed the west side’s commercial district. West New England Avenue is now a cavalcade of storefronts for high-end products and services such as medical spas, title agencies, luxury real estate, proms and weddings, beauty salons, and an EPCOT-worthy array of ethnic restaurants including Mexican, Italian, French and Indian. 

The nearest soul food restaurant is in downtown Orlando. A hair salon next door to West & Kennedy — Royal Salon and African Boutique — closed about five years ago. But at one time, there were more than two dozen Black-owned businesses in Hannibal Square, says Fairolyn Livingston, 74, a local historian who was born at home on the city’s west side. 

The African-American presence today has been reduced to Jones’ establishment, an obelisk across the street in front of Shady Park commemorating the historic neighborhood and the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, where displays and oral histories preserve memories of the neighborhood’s past. “For me it’s like being a stranger in our own land,” Livingston says. 

The irony is not lost on Jones, 51, but it’s just not the point. “It doesn’t mean anything to me,” he says. Jones is too busy cutting hair and running a business to spend time pondering the curiosity of his status as the solitary Black proprietor in Hannibal Square, which was set aside for Black businesses by the city’s founders in the 1880s. 

As a U.S. president once said, it is what it is. But make no mistake: Jones is keenly aware of “it,” runs his business in a way that he believes will allow him to survive and thrive in an area that’s both steeped in history and enlivened by activism over issues of inclusion and representation.

Which brings us to the delphic name: West & Kennedy. When Jones opened the shop in 2009, it carried the same name as his successful shop in neighboring Eatonville: Superman Fades to Fros, a bow to his most famous client, former Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard, dubbed “Superman” for his soaring slum dunks. The eight-time All Star now plays for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Jones found that the words fades and fros — hair styles popular among Black men — didn’t resonate in Winter Park as they had in Eatonville. He had encountered the same problem with a short-lived shop in the Dr. Phillips area, prompting him to change the name from Superman Fades to Fros to Superman Pro Barber Shop.

“It was a great location right off Turkey Lake Road,” Jones says. “The name change came when I realized Fades to Fros was like an urban name for the urban community. Most people didn’t know what we were doing.” 

It pained Jones to drop a name that had brought him a star-studded list of friends and clients from the world of sports, music, acting, journalism and haute cuisine. But being a clear-eyed realist, Jones saw the same writing on the wall for the Winter Park shop. In 2010, he changed its name to West & Kennedy, a subtle homage to the shop in Eatonville, which closed in 2016.

When Jones opened his Hannibal Square barbershop in 2009, it carried the same name as his previous location in neighboring Eatonville: Superman Fades to Fros, a bow to his most famous client, former Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard, dubbed “Superman” for his soaring slum dunks. Howard’s signed jersey (above) is featured prominently at the shop, which was renamed West & Kennedy in 2010.

FROM FADES TO FROS 

Reggie Jones was born in Gainesville and grew up an only child in Williston in nearby Levy County. His father died when he was young. After graduating from high school in 1987, Jones moved to Orlando with a culinary career in mind.

He landed a job at EPCOT working as a line cook under legendary chef Shawn Loving, who was summoned by the NBA this summer when players in Disney’s Wide World of Sports “bubble” found the fare most foul. But Jones kept returning to fond memories of childhood, when his mother cut his hair. 

“I always liked the idea of being a barber because my mother was a hair stylist,” he says. “That got me intrigued. I realized that was my true passion. They had this great [barbering] program out in Houston, so I took my chances and moved to Texas. From there things started blossoming.”

The owners of the barber school where Jones learned his trade were so impressed by his enthusiasm and aptitude that they invited him to train as an instructor, he says. He taught barbering until 1998, by which time he was married with two young sons. His wife, from whom he is now divorced, had 10 siblings in Central Florida, so the family returned.

Jones joined an Eatonville shop where he rented a chair — a common practice in the barbering business — and was soon attracting a parade of clients. “The owner had an issue with that,” he says. “I was growing so fast, I got kicked out of the shop.” 

He spent 18 happier months at a shop on Forest City Road. But when the owner closed the business, Jones returned to Eatonville, the oldest Black-incorporated municipality in the U.S., and found a location where he could go out on his own. His former co-workers followed him and became employees of Fades to Fros.

As in many Black communities, the business quickly became as much a community center as a barbershop. Penny Jordan, a Maitland photographer, shot countless rolls of film in Jones’ decidedly old-school operation for a pair of black-and-white photography exhibitions that have been displayed at Orlando City Hall and the Crealdé School of Art.

“Every time I walked into the shop, time stopped,” says Jordan. “There was connection, there was conversation, there was counseling. A moment of pause in a fast-paced world.” Traditional barbershops, she adds, “are one of the last places where people connect; one of the last places where there’s something inimitable — something beneath the surface we don’t pay attention to anymore.”

Fades to Fros benefited from word-of-mouth advertising that money can’t buy. DJs at Black-oriented radio stations gravitated to the shop and would always give the business a shout-out on the air. 

Tampa Bay Bucs players who were training at Disney also found their way to Eatonville, at times causing the shop’s small parking lot to resemble an exotic car emporium. Some of the star power of his clients rubbed off on Jones, who soon found himself being profiled in magazines and included on lists of best barbers.

“Business was growing, and barbers wanted to come work at a well-known shop,” Jones says. Other Magic players, coaches and executives became regulars — including former player and general manager Otis Smith. Often, the Magic players brought along visitors such as superstar Kevin Durant, now a power forward with the Brooklyn Nets. 

From outside the arena of sport came the likes of comedian-actor Chris Tucker, Grammy-winning rapper-producer Rodney Jerkins and sportswriter-broadcaster (and former Orlando Sentinel sports columnist) Jemele Hill. Low-key Eatonville, it seemed, had become home base for a barber to the stars.

Even Jones’ erstwhile employer, Shawn Loving — whose fare is favored by NBA players and who has worked as personal chef to Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace of the Detroit Pistons — patronized Fades to Fros.

It was all good. And likely would have been the final career chapter for Jones if he hadn’t been approached by an anonymous “angel” to continue a legacy at the corner of West New England and Pennsylvania.

“I see ’em all the same,” Jones says of the people, many of them regulars, who frequent his shop. “I’ve been around money and I’ve been around wealth. I’ve been around a lot of things I didn’t come from. My exposure to athletes and entertainers and other business guys — they made me comfortable with that. We try to take care of the entire community.”

REIMAGINING A LEGACY

There had been a Black-owned barbershop on the corner for more than 60 years — but the storefront was now vacant. Would Jones be interested in relocating his business? The angel said she could connect Jones to the owner of the building, Darryl E. Straughter, an African-American property investor and school administrator who lived in Brooklyn but was born in Winter Park. 

Straughter’s father, known as “Speight,” had operated a drug and sundry shop in Hannibal Square in the 1940s, so given that background his son would likely have been eager to encourage Black-owned enterprises in the old neighborhood.

“To this day I don’t know the name of the person who made the connection,” says Jones. “That’s why I call her an angel. But she gave me the opportunity to continue the legacy. All I had to do was continue growing.”

Mission accomplished. West & Kennedy has continued to grow, but into something quite different and more reflective of what the business district has become. It’s a safe bet, for example, that West & Kennedy is the first barbershop in Hannibal Square to have a consultant with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in hospitality management.

Allen English, 31, is a client who became Jones’ advisor two years ago. English, a graduate of UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management and Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business (otherwise known as “The Hotel School”), has become one of Jones’ most vocal boosters and an ideological soulmate.

“We’ve kind of changed the vision of what it means to have a Black-owned barbershop on this corner,” says English, who notes that West & Kennedy attracts a multiracial clientele. Indeed, on any given day, the customers coming and going from Jones’ shop appear as diverse as a carefully curated CNN focus group.

English, who grew up in Lake Mary, says he was looking for an African-American barber when he discovered Fades to Fros as a college student in 2007. “I found a barber shop that made me feel welcome,” he says. “Also, at that point Reggie was Dwight Howard’s barber, so the appeal of his celebrity also attracted me.”

But it was Jones’ skill with a pair of hair clippers that kept him coming back. When he was away at Cornell, English adds, he let his hair grow out. “I wouldn’t get my hair cut for four or five months because I just didn’t trust anyone else,” he says. “I’d wait until I came home to have Reggie do it.”

English, who in 2013 started a consulting firm called Horseshoe Hospitality, says he and Jones are considering ways to engage the community and promote social equity. And they’re seeking guidance from people who share their passion for leaving the world a better place than when they found it.

“Reggie reached out a few years ago,” says John Rivers, philanthropist and owner of The Coop and 4 Rivers restaurants. “When someone isn’t trying to sell me something or asking for a donation, I’m willing to sit down and have a cup of coffee. What I saw in Reggie is that he’s got such a pure heart. He’s trying to be successful but wants to impact lives. He’s a special individual with a special business.”

Haircuts at West & Kennedy are by appointment only. With just three chairs, the stylish interior is cozy and serene — and you won’t find customers waiting four and five hours for a haircut, as an amazed Penny Jordan did in Eatonville when taking photographs at Fades and Fros.

Sometimes, Jones even tackles dire hair emergencies. “My granddaughter called me in tears when she was coming home from college,” says Winter Park Realtor Lief Erickson. “Someone screwed up her dreads, or whatever the kids call it. She said, ‘Grandpa, I need a Black woman to do my hair because a white woman just ruined my head!’ I took her to Reggie’s and she just fell in love with the place.”

Just another day at the office for Jones. “I see ’em all the same,” he says of his rainbow-coalition clientele. “I’ve been around money and I’ve been around wealth. I’ve been around a lot of things I didn’t come from. My exposure to athletes and entertainers and other business guys — they made me comfortable with that. We try to take care of the entire community.”

And there are Winter Parkers — especially those with a sense of history — who understand the symbolic importance of West & Kennedy. One of them is Mike Winn, partner of Erickson’s in ComReal Orlando, a commercial real estate brokerage on Morse Boulevard. When Straughter died in 2011, Winn immediately bought the building in which Jones now plys his trade.

“The location intrigued me,” says Winn. “I had no prior aspirations for researching Black heritage or business, but I became interested in the history of Hannibal Square. There’s been a Black-owned barbershop on that corner for many years, and I wanted to preserve that. I did all I could as a landlord to make sure Reggie was going to make it.”

Jones says that Winn’s support has been crucial. “If it wasn’t for Mike Winn, there wouldn’t be a West & Kennedy in Hannibal Square,” he notes.

But the question remains: is West & Kennedy an anomaly or can other Black-owned businesses survive in Hannibal Square? Such speculation is not unimportant to Jones, who at once is proud of his stature as a survivor but determined to reach beyond race and become a community institution in which the color of one’s skin is irrelevant.

Perhaps both goals can be achieved. English recalls that he and Jones had dinner together at Chez Vincent, next door to the shop, on June 19, otherwise known as Juneteeth — the day on which the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S. is commemorated. Earlier that day, Black Lives Matter protesters had marched along nearby Park Avenue.

The pair happened to sit next to a white couple who had participated in the march. “We talked about the movement, and also about dessert,” recalls English. “They asked us if we had tried the chocolate soufflé. We said no, and they said, ‘We’re going to buy you dessert.’”

Later, the couple bought dinner for Jones and English. “It was an incredible gesture given the climate that day,” English recalls. “What they did should be seen as a model for how a small gesture can go a long way in changing perspectives and bringing people together.”

‘EMBRACE OUR COMMONALITIES’

Most of the wall space in West & Kennedy is taken up by colorful photos of athletes, game jerseys and other memorabilia. But two black-and-white photographs speak volumes about Jones and how he perceives and engages with the world around him. 

The larger of the prints shows the Rat Pack — Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. — in their Las Vegas heyday. At first blush it seems an outlier, a cultural antique.

“That was Reggie’s idea,” English says, noting that Sinatra broke racial barriers by befriending Davis and refusing to perform in venues with discriminatory practices. “This is the message we want to convey,” he notes. “To embrace our commonalities, to positively lift up and support each other — not tear each other down because of differences.”

The other photo was a gift from Penny Jordan, who admires Jones for continuing the tradition of operating a Black-owned barbershop on that corner in Hannibal Square. But she makes no secret of her disenchantment with its current iteration. “I would never photograph it,” she says. “It’s too modern for me.”

That was a criticism that might sting a lesser man. But not Jones, who recently called Johnson and asked her to stop by the shop when she was in the neighborhood. “I get there, and he pulls out a photograph,” Johnson recalls. “It’s me at the Crealdé show. He says, ‘I want you to sign this.’ I wrote, ‘Thank you for being part of the barbershop documentary.’ 

“It’s on the wall right above a little table with his barber tools. He’s got me front and center! I said, ‘You gotta take me down, Reggie.’ He just smiled and said: ‘No, you mean the world to me.’” 


 

A recent SOKO in Shady Park drew a variety of participants. Among them were (standing, left to right): April Brown of April Brown Music, a singer; Joe Hokey and Kesha King-Hokey of KinJo Kolectiv, makers of custom jewelry; Paul Brown of Bomb Bay Customs, a maker of wood rings, necklaces and longboards; and Stephanie Burke of Power of Potential, a writer and motivational speaker. Others included (sitting, left to right): Baba Hector, an educator, spiritual advisor and author of Orishas The Children’s Book; and LaWanda Thompson, president of the Equity Council Corporation and creator of the monthly marketplace.

‘SOKO’ CULTIVATES ENTREPRENEURS

Moving from Atlanta to Winter Park in 2012 was “cultural whiplash” for LaWanda Thompson. The only store she could find in the community that carried her favorite soap was Royal Salon and African Boutique on West New England Avenue in Hannibal Square. “In Atlanta you can find it anywhere,” she says.

Royal Salon shut down five years ago, leaving Reggie Jones’ West & Kennedy barbershop next door as the only Black-owned business in a commercial district that once had many such enterprises.

“Now if I want to get an African-American type product, I have to leave my community,” Thompson says. “I have to go downtown [Parramore] or even Ocoee, Sanford or Longwood. Nobody is paying attention to all this, and it’s wrong.”

Correction: LaWanda Thompson is paying attention — and the record shows that attention must be paid to the 42-year-old activist and mother of three who has emerged as a forceful advocate in the local African-American community.

In 2018, Thompson — working with other mothers of color — created The Equity Council Corporation, a multifaceted nonprofit that promotes economic and political justice while advocating for enhanced educational offerings in local public schools. Its first major project was The 1619 Fest, held in Shady Park in February during Black History Month.

A mix of fun and facts and music, the event took its name from the Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times series exploring the history of slavery in America dating from the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia. Activities included a market for vendors and small businesses to sell products.

The 1619 Fest’s success encouraged Thompson and Barbara Chandler, manager of the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, to approach the city with the idea for a SOKO — “market” in Swahili. It’s an event in Shady Park that provides a venue for entrepreneurs of color. 

Jason Seeley, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, loved the idea and arranged for the city to cover set-up and overhead costs. The first SOKO was held July 5, the first Sunday of the month, and is now held the first Sunday of every month from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Given the fact that it was a new event and happening during a pandemic, Thompson says she was “very happy” with the initial turnout of 20 or so vendors offering an array of goods and services including jewelry, wood crafts, candles and incense, custom shirts, children’s books, personal success coaching and all sorts of food offerings. DJs and musical performers are likewise welcomed.

“The Equity Council has also been a great resource for our kids,” adds Seeley. He says the organization has been instrumental in improving tutoring and other supplementary educational offerings at the west side’s Winter Park Community Center.

A more controversial effort that Thompson has helped to spearhead is the effort to switch from at-large to single-member district voting in Winter Park, giving Black residents clustered on the west side a better chance of gaining a seat on the city commission. (In August, commissioners voted 3-2 to draft an ordinance that would add the single-member districts question to the March 2021 ballot.)

Thompson and her husband, Asante, have three children, now 8, 10 and 20. They are proud west side residents, and their home is the 53rd built by Habitat for Humanity of Winter Park-Maitland. 

Above the front door is a small plaque dedicating the home to Thaddeus Seymour and his wife, Polly. Seymour, who died in 2019, was co-founder and chairman of the local Habitat operation and past president of Rollins College.

The SOKO Market, Thompson says, will hopefully outgrow Shady Park and even spawn some brick-and-mortar stores if participants are well supported. “Our community has always supported local businesses,” she observes. “Now we hope to get some of that love in return.”

— Greg Dawson

 

LET'S JUST ASK JACK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


THE 2020 PEACOCK BALL

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

WHEN: Saturday, November 14

WHERE: The Rice Family Pavilion at Rollins College

TIME: TBA

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

PAST PEACOCK BALL HONOREES

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

2018
Randy Noles
Editor and Publisher, Winter Park Magazine

2017
Rita Bornstein
President Emerita, Rollins College

2016
Saluting Life in Winter Park During World War II

2015
Debbie Komanski
Executive Director, Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens

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

2013
Alfond Inn Opening

2012
125th Anniversary of Winter Park

2011
Winter Park Community Center Opening

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

2009
Kenneth Murrah and Harold Ward
Attorneys and Civic Leaders

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

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

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

Illustrations by John Nadeau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

I wasn’t entirely sure myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I took a deep breath.

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

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

Learning the ropes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“THE FANS’LL KILL YOU”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

MAYHEM AND MELODRAMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROAR OF THE CROWD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And more importantly, my cue.

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And it did.

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

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

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

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

“What about?”

“How far you want to go with this?”

“The story?”

“Wrestling!”

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

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

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

 

AN EVIL GENIUS

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

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

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

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

I was having a blast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there you have it.

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

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


ABOUT THE ARTIST

JOHN NADEAU, COMIC CREATOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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