Jacob “Jake” Gercak, firefighter and paramedic with the Winter Park Fire-Rescue Department.

JUST (HEROICALLY) DOING HIS JOB

Jacob “Jake” Gercak, firefighter and paramedic with the Winter Park Fire-Rescue Department.

Is there anyone who doesn’t admire firefighters? When the bell rings, these highly trained men and women suit up and head into danger zones with no questions asked. Jacob “Jake” Gercak, a firefighter and paramedic with the Winter Park Fire-Rescue Department, insists that he’s unexceptional in that regard.

Probably so, considering the heroism that has become synonymous with firefighting and firefighters. But when Fire Chief Dan Hagedorn recently announced the local department’s Firefighter of the Year, it was Gercak who stepped forward to accept.

The 23-year-old Gercak also earned the local department’s Award of Valor and was named Firefighter of the Year by the Florida State Firefighters Association in Tallahassee, where he met Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Petronis and Governor Ron DeSantis.

“Sure, I know I did the right thing and all that,” says Gercak, who’s in his second year in Winter Park after three years with the Daytona Beach Fire Department. “But I also, without a doubt, did exactly what anybody else here would have done.”

Here, for the record, is what Gercak did. 

He and Dudley Brearly, a fellow local firefighter, were driving home from a day of mountain biking in Mount Dora. Along a rural stretch of State Road 44 in Lake County, they noticed skid marks and spied a partially submerged vehicle that had apparently veered into a telephone poll and rolled into a swampy retention pond, landing with only the driver’s side above the water’s surface.

The pair stopped and rushed to where the vehicle had come to rest. With power lines dangling precariously overhead, Gercak kicked in the passenger-side window and pulled three dazed young children to safety from the back seat, handing them off to Brearly and a pair of elderly bystanders as he extricated them from the wreckage.

“Then we started looking for a parent,” Gercak says. “It was hard to see because it was getting dark. We found the mom, unconscious, in the front seat under the water. We brought her out and started performing CPR.”

Then a doctor happened by and began performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the woman, who expelled a considerable volume of water from her lungs. The Lake County Fire Rescue Department arrived shortly thereafter — and the two friends went along their way. 

Unfortunately, the woman later died — probably of drowning — but the three children were saved. “I was just in the right place,” says Gercak, a friendly and unpretentious young man who lives with his parents in DeLand and loves navigating rugged terrain on his Specialized Stumpjumper trail bike.

Any department would be lucky to have him — but fortunately for Winter Parkers, he’s not going anywhere. “I’m going to stay in Winter Park for the entirety of my career,” he says. “And, at my age, that’s going to be a long, long time. It’s just great here.”

My chat with Gercak was cut short when he and a crew rushed to respond to an emergency call — but I didn’t need to hear any more. I think I’m safe in reporting that taxpayers in 32789 get their money’s worth, and then some, from the everyday heroes just doing their jobs at the Winter Park Fire-Rescue Department.


WHO MAKES A DIFFERENCE?

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

The selectees are presented in the summer issue and celebrated at a big event at the Alfond Inn, slated this year for July 16. As always, we’re reaching out to our readers for nominees. Here are the people who have already been Influentials:

The Class of 2019: Roy Alan and Heather Alexander, Anna Bond, Charles Clayton III, Deborah Crown, Jere F. Daniels Jr., Robynn Demar, Eric and Diane Holm, Charlene Hotaling, Susan Johnson, John and Rita Lowndes, Paula Madsen, Elizabeth Tiedtke Mukherjee, Stephanie Murphy, Tony and Sonja Nicholson, John Rivers, Bronce Stephenson, Matthew Swope, Dykes Everett and Bill Walker and Todd Weaver. 

The Classes of 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018: Richard O. “Rick” Baldwin, Jim Barnes, Dan Bellows, Rita Bornstein, Jill Hamilton Buss, Jeffrey Blydenburgh, Daniel Butts, Sid Cash, Billy Collins, Grant Cornwell and Peg Cornwell, Linda Costa, Julian Chambliss, Patrick Chapin, Carolyn Cooper, Mary Daniels, Mary Demetree, Betsy Gardner Eckbert, Jeff Eisenbarth and Andrea Massey-Farrell.

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

Also: Gary I. Jones and Isis Jones, Phil Kean, Allan Keen, Linda Keen, Tom Klusman, Randy Knight, Debbie Komanski, Linda Kulmann, Cindy Bowman LaFronz, Jack C. Lane, Steve Leary, Fairolyn Livingston, Lawrence Lyman, Lambrine Macejewski, Jesse Martinez, Brandon McGlammery, Genean Hawkins McKinnon, Joanne McMahon, Micki Meyer, Johnny Miller, Anne Mooney and Ronnie Moore.

Also: Patty Maddox, David Odahowski, Betsy Rogers Owens, James Petrakis and Julie Petrakis, Jana Ricci, John Rife, Randall B. Robertson, Laurence J. “Larry” Ruggiero, Greg Seidel, Peter Schreyer, Polly Seymour, Thaddeus Seymour, Shawn Shaffer, Sarah Sprinkel, Susan Skolfield, Sam Stark, Chuck Steinmetz and Margery Pabst Steinmetz, Dori Stone, John Sinclair and Gail Sinclair, Fr. Richard Walsh, Jennifer Wandersleben, Harold A. Ward III, Debbie Watson, Bill Weir, Chip Weston, Pete Weldon, Cynthia Wood and Becky Wilson.

To nominate someone for the Class of 2020, please email Randy Noles, publisher, suggestions at randyn@winterparkmag.com. It helps to include a brief explanation of why you’re making the nomination. Thanks, as always, for your help in making Most Influential People one of Winter Park’s most-anticipated events.

— Randy Noles

Kristen Arnett

MOSTLY DEAD AND MOSTLY WEIRD

Rollins College graduate Kristen Arnett (right) has emerged as a major figure in the genre of oddball fiction with a Florida setting. Her novel Mostly Dead Things — with a bizarre backdrop of madness and taxidermy — became a New York Times bestseller and launched Arnett’s literary career.

Florida, as your Northern friends and neighbors have likely pointed out to you, is weird, in rep if not reality. I blame Florida Man. That’s the snickering news-hour meme about Sunshine State reprobates who drive a date to a sports bar on a stolen Walmart mobility scooter or parade through the aisles of a convenience store with a four-foot alligator.

But before you judge, consider: These colorful, carefree, frequently incarcerated mullet-haired individualists play a part in the arts, inspiring a type of indigenous fiction that I‘ll call Floridiana Weird.

One of the genre’s pioneers is Carl Hiassen, a Miami Herald reporter who authored a series of South Florida mystery novels, including a yarn featuring a villain named Chemo who replaces one of his hands, bitten off by a shark, with a weed-whacker. Hiassen also teamed up with a school of collaborators to write a tome with one of the best Florida-novel titles I’ve ever seen: Naked Came the Manatee. 

Then there’s Jeff VanderMeer, dubbed by The New Yorker magazine as “the weird Thoreau.” Inspired by the wildlife sanctuary near his Tallahassee home, VanderMeer wrote the Southern Reach trilogy, which was adapted two years ago into a science fiction film called Annihilation. It’s about a swampy coastal landscape whose flora and fauna are being grotesquely shape-shifted by an alien presence. 

Another hotshot out-of-town developer, another neighborhood ruined.

Well, we wouldn’t want the City of Culture and Heritage to be left out of such a noteworthy literary trend. Now it’s not. For this we have two Rollins College grads to thank.

First there was Laura van den Berg, class of 2005 and author of Find Me, about a post-apocalyptic world plagued by a virus that robs people of their memories, and The Third Hotel, charting a woman’s spectral encounters with a husband who died in a car accident. 

Kristen Arnett

More recently there was the breakout success of Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, a 2012 Rollins grad. Arnett’s Sunshine State bona fides include being a third-generation native, growing up across a rural Central Florida highway from a sewage treatment plant and a strip club, and once generating nearly 400,000 likes on her Twitter feed when she posted:

This morning at 7-11 i saw a lizard next to the coffee maker and the cashier said: ‘no worries that’s just marvin he likes the smell.

Arnett’s first novel, set in Central Florida, is told through the eyes of a young woman, Jessa-Lynn Morton, whose family owns a small-town taxidermy business. When her father commits suicide, the surviving family members must process their grief in different ways.

Jessa takes to taxidermy to settle her nerves, processing matters of the heart and family dynamics — both of which are already complicated by the fact that she’s gay — while trying to keep the business afloat. 

Those efforts are occasionally undermined by her mother, Libby, who copes by slipping into the shop at night to costume the stuffed raccoons, goats, panthers, boars and bears in filmy negligees and pose them in compromising positions in the display window. It may not be good for business, but it certainly attracts a crowd.

However strangely it plays out, Arnett says it was only natural, given her upbringing and her fixation with Florida as an earthy, fertile setting, to seize on taxidermy as a plot device. “Growing up, I was always around it. You’d walk into a house and there’d be a deer head in one room, a shellacked bass in another.” 

She concedes, though, that “If somebody had come up behind me when I was at my computer researching for the book, looking up things like the best way to dissect tissue and dissolve flesh, I’m sure I wound up on a couple of government watch lists.”

Arnett is definitely on a short list with the literary establishment. She was invited back to Rollins as one of the headliners of its annual “Winter With the Writers.” Her novel was celebrated by reviewers and earned Arnett a five-month Shearing Fellowship from the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas, where she’s working on two new novels.

But she’ll be back. When I asked how ideas come to her, she said: “It starts with a little scene in my head. Just a tiny little scene. Like a snow globe.” 

Then she thought it over for a beat, and added: “It would have to have a palm tree in it. With Mickey Mouse underneath.”


Michael McLeod, mmcleod@rollins.edu, is a contributing writer for Winter Park Magazine and an adjunct instructor in the English department at Rollins College. 

A STRUM AND A SPLASH FROM EMILY

When former Winter Park City Commissioner Jerome Donnelly (below left) lived next door to Emily Polasek (below right), he asked the widow of sculptor Albin Polasek what she’d think about having a reproduction of her namesake statue placed in Central Park. “I think she enjoyed the idea,” he recalls.

Jerome Donnelly recalls sharing coffee and conversation with his elderly next-door neighbor, Emily Muska Kubat Polasek, widow of sculptor Albin Polasek. Emily had established a foundation in her husband’s name and opened their Mediterranean-style home as museum in 1965 despite still living on the premises. 

There was certainly plenty for visitors to see. Albin had been a world-renowned sculptor whose works dotted the lush grounds along Lake Osceola. “Emily was a very kind, delightful woman,” says Donnelly, a professor of English at the University of Central Florida (then Florida Technological University) who had come to Winter Park from Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. 

Donnelly quickly found himself entranced with one of Albin’s less-imposing works: “Emily,” a bronze figure of a kneeling nude woman playing a harp on which delicate streams of flowing water formed the illusion of strings. 

It reminded him of “Sunday Morning in Deep Waters,” a Carl Milles sculpture depicting Father Triton and his sons on a holiday excursion. The Swedish sculptor’s work was a landmark on the campus in Ann Arbor. “I loved the stillness of the sculpture and the movement of the water,” he says.

Then Donnelly had an idea. North Central Park had a fountain — sort of. But it was a small bricked oval pool from which water spurted upward through an unsightly lead pipe. “I thought a replica of the sculpture would be perfect for Central Park,” says Donnelly, who served on the Winter Park City Commission from 1972 to 1980.

Donnelly says he doesn’t recall realizing that the youthful-looking harpist was modeled on the real-life Emily. In fact, the 1961 work was the Czech-born sculptor’s wedding gift to his second wife and features her face on the woman’s body. “She was interested,” says Donnelly of Emily’s reaction to having a replica in the city’s signature park. “I think she enjoyed the idea.”

At Donnelly’s behest, the city accepted the gift and offered up the forlorn fountain as a location. “I’m more or less overwhelmed,” said Mayor Hope Strong Jr. The foundation covered the $12,000 cost of sending a plaster model to New York to be bronzed — a process that was completed in 1982. The city decided, however, to dedicate the statue to the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival in honor of the popular annual event’s 25th anniversary, which was coming up in 1984.

In anticipation of the milestone, the all-volunteer Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival Commission raised more than $3,000 for a brick base and a commemorative plaque. The Aquarium and Fountain Shop in Casselberry was paid about $7,000 for plumbing  and lighting but donated an additional $2,000 in services

The statue was installed in 1983 and a formal unveiling — accompanied by appropriate hoopla, including speeches by dignitaries and a performance by the Seminole Community College Orchestra — was held the following year to kick off the art festival. Unfortunately, the flesh-and-blood Emily was hospitalized and unable to attend the festivities. She died in 1988, at age 91.

Today you can still see the first “Emily” at the courtyard of the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. And you can see what has come to be known as the “Emily Fountain” in north Central Park. There is one key difference, however: The water flows much more delicately on the original; the downtown version is perennially soaked by errant blasts, which is much harder on the bronze surface.

“It’s still wonderful,” says Donnelly, who is also remembered as the driving force behind founding the Winter Park Farmer’s Market and remains outspoken in civic affairs. “It lights up that whole end of the park.”


Editor’s Note: This is the first in a periodic series of stores about monuments in the city. If you’re curious about any of them, email randyn@winterparkmag.com and we’ll give you the full story.

MISTER ROGERS: BACK IN BRONZE

The initiative to commission British sculptor Paul Day — whose works include The Meeting Place, a sculpture in London’s St. Pancras International (left) — to create a life-sized bronze statue of Fred Rogers (center) began with Allan Keen (right), owner of Keewin Real Property Company and twice chairman of Rollins College’s board of trustees.

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

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

British sculptor Paul Day — whose works include The Meeting Place, a 30-foot-tall sculpture in London’s St. Pancras International, a major railway station — has been commissioned to create a life-sized bronze statue of Rogers. The work, slated for completion in the spring of next year, will be placed on campus at a location yet to be determined. 

Of course, the world never entirely lost interest in Rogers, who died in 2003. But during the past several years — perhaps because the values for which he stood seem under daily assault — the soft-spoken native of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, has made a posthumous resurgence.

In 2018, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary about Rogers’ life, became the top-grossing biographical documentary ever produced. And a big-budget theatrical film, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, was released in late 2019 starring Tom Hanks as Rogers.

Rollins has saluted its most famous alumnus before, displaying his sweater and sneakers in the archives and arranging self-guided tours of Rogers-related locations on campus. 

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

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

Like much of what happens in Winter Park, the initiative began with Allan Keen, owner of the Keewin Real Property Company and twice chairman of the college’s board of trustees (from 2006 to 2008 and 2016 to 2019).

Keen and his wife, Linda, were enjoying a barge canal cruise through rural France when they noticed some intriguing sculptures in the vessel’s gathering area. The wife of the barge captain told the Keens that Paul Day, who happened to be a family friend, was the artist, and asked if they would like to visit Day’s studio near Dijon in Burgundy, France. 

Well, of course they would! Then Keen had a thought. Because of Day’s international reputation, wouldn’t a Mister Rogers statue created by him be a meaningful addition to what has already been dubbed the most beautiful college campus in the country? 

Day, it turned out, was unfamiliar with Rogers and his cultural significance in the U.S. So, at Keen’s invitation, the sculptor visited Rollins last September to scout locations and interview administrators and staffers who knew the man — including Daniel Crozier, a professor of music theory and composition who is also Rogers’ nephew.

What Day discovered will come as no surprise: Mister Rogers was the real deal. “[Rogers’] many talents, coupled with stupendous discipline and seemingly unlimited kindness, make him a most remarkable man,” Day said in a statement released by the college.

Ironically, as the Keens discovered during their European trip, Day’s work already has a connection to Rollins. Hung above The Meeting Place in St. Pancras International is a neon work of art called I Want My Time With You by artist Tracey Emin. “I thought it looked familiar,” recalls Keen. 

As well it might. Another distinctive Emin piece, Everything For Love, is part of the Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art at the college’s Alfond Inn and currently hangs behind the check-in desk. 

“This all must have been meant to be,” adds Keen, who along with other private donors is funding the statue’s estimated $150,000 to $200,000 price tag.

The college isn’t yet releasing renderings of the statue and may not, so it’ll be a surprise when it’s unveiled. But whatever form the final work takes, there’s no doubt that it will cause nostalgic smiles, perhaps some wistful tears and at least a neighborhood’s worth of good vibes.

Randy Noles
CEO/Editor/Publisher
randyn@winterparkpublishing.com

DESIGN

The poem opens with a familiar gesture. Few can resist running a finger over a steamy bathroom mirror or the dusty hood of a car. It’s a primitive act as well, given the speculation that human culture began when someone drew something in the sand with a stick. The poem moves quickly line-by-line through a series of associations involving variations on the circle: cycle, wheel, ring, sun and moon. As this circle-game is being played, a melancholy self-portrait emerges. The speaker is emphatically alone with no one to speak to but ghosts, passing birds and a crack in the wall. He is childless, without siblings, and there is only death in the family. And that is why, as we discover in the final line, the poet coats his table with salt, not flour or sugar.

DESIGN

I pour a coating of salt on the table
and make a circle in it with my finger.
This is the cycle of life
I say to no one.
This is the wheel of fortune,
the Arctic Circle.
This is the ring of Kerry
and the white rose of Tralee
I say to the ghosts of my family,
the dead fathers,
the aunt who drowned,
my unborn brothers and sisters,
my unborn children.
This is the sun with its glittering spokes
and the bitter moon.
This is the absolute circle of geometry
I say to the crack in the wall,
to the birds who cross the window.
This is the wheel I just invented
to roll through the rest of my life
I say
touching my finger to my tongue.


Billy Collins is a Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He served as U.S. Poet Laureate (2001–2003) and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. “Design” originally appeared in Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins, © 2001. Reprinted by permission of Random House.

Photo by Suzannah Gilman

Jack Kerouac was still unknown when he came to Orlando from New York City after finally finding a publisher for On the Road, his autobiographical road-trip novel. The bungalow in which he lived with his mother is now a hub for local bibliophiles and a residence for visiting writers. But the Jack Kerouac House is sinking in the back and funds are needed to shore it up.

THE BEAT GOES ON — FOR NOW

Jack Kerouac was still unknown when he came to Orlando from New York City after finally finding a publisher for On the Road, his autobiographical road-trip novel. The bungalow in which he lived with his mother is now a hub for local bibliophiles and a residence for visiting writers. But the Jack Kerouac House is sinking in the back and funds are needed to shore it up.

For years, a friend and I have enjoyed late-evening walks through the older Orlando neighborhoods near our home, grumbling now and then when we pass yet another modern two-story being built over the tear-down ruins of yet another favorite old-Florida bungalow.

Hope there’s at least one we don’t have to worry about.

It’s in College Park, two blocks west of Edgewater Drive at the corner of Shady Lane and Clouser Avenue, protected on one side by a 250-year-old live oak with the stoic majesty of a palace guard and on the other by a green, gold-lettered historic marker that reads, in part:

JACK KEROUAC HOUSE

Writer Jack Kerouac (1922–1969) lived and wrote in this ’20s tin-roofed house between 1957 and 1958. It was here that Kerouac received instant fame for publication of his bestselling book, On the Road, which brought him acclaim and controversy as the voice of the Beat Generation.

If you’re looking for a literary shrine with gravitas, curb appeal, a fancy gift shop and tours every hour on the hour, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Orlando’s only famous-author milepost is an unpretentious affair, with sturdy hardwood floors and an old-fashioned, howdy-neighbor front porch.  

The house might have disappeared altogether had it not been for Bob Kealing, who was a WESH-TV journalist in the mid-1990s when he discovered its beat-generation heritage and wrote a magazine article and book about its former resident. 

Those efforts inspired The Kerouac Project, a grassroots effort among historic preservationists who purchased the residence and transformed it into a social hub for local bibliophiles and a revolving residence for authors — four of whom are selected from roughly 300 applicants from the U.S. and around the world to spend three months here focusing on works of their own.

“There’s something empowering in this house. You can feel it,” says Austin, Texas, author Chelsey Clammer, who worked on several autobiographical essays — and saw one of them published — during her recent residency.

Kerouac was still unknown when he came to Orlando from New York City after finally finding a publisher for On the Road, his autobiographical road-trip novel that described a 1940s freight-train-jumping expedition punctuated by jazz, poetry, sex, drug use and spiritual ruminations. 

The bungalow was sectioned off into two units at the time, and the adventuresome yet chronically shy Kerouac holed up in a narrow, $35-a-month apartment in the back with a roommate: his mother. Kealing still marvels at the irony of it: “Here was this hitchhiking avatar of personal discovery, living in the suburbs of Orlando with his mom.”

Bob Kealing (left), Chelsey Clammer (center) and Vanessa Blakeslee (right)

While On the Road was on the road to becoming both celebrated and vilified as a counterculture manifesto, Kerouac lived in relative anonymity while cranking out stream-of-consciousness prose for a sequel, The Dharma Bums. 

A series of black-and-white photos from a mid-1950s magazine article, which shows him hovering over a portable typewriter, now hangs on the wall of the tiny bedroom where he worked, lending an atmosphere of literary industry to the apartment. 

So does a well-worn, padded rocker that Kerouac may have used while ruminating. A hobbit-sized back door opens onto a citrus orchard where he foraged for tangerines and sometimes spent nights sleeping under the stars. 

It’s all very neatly maintained, though over time the bungalow has inevitably settled; there’s a steep enough tilt to the floor to test your sea legs. That’s why some TLC is needed.

“The house is sinking in the back,” says Vanessa Blakeslee, a local fiction writer and Rollins College adjunct instructor who’s a Kerouac Project volunteer. “Our challenge these days is making Central Floridians more aware of its historic import — and finding funds to stabilize the home.” 

Maintenance, utilities and operating expenses of the nonprofit enterprise are covered by application fees for the residency program and rental income from a second house on the property. That’s not enough for larger expenses.

This decade will mark several anniversaries for the Kerouac Project. The residency program has been in operation for 20 years. The bungalow itself will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2025. 

And all you have to do is to take another look at that historic marker to realize that we’re fast approaching an even more significant milestone: the century mark of Jack Kerouac’s birth.

For information about the Kerouac Project and how you can contribute, visit kerouacproject.org. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate these Kerouac-related anniversaries than by helping to shore up the bungalow that served, however briefly, as the author’s refuge.


Michael McLeod, mmcleod@rollins.edu, is a contributing writer for Winter Park Magazine and an adjunct instructor in the English department at Rollins College. 

Michael McLeod

Hamilton Holt was president of Rollins College from 1925 to 1949. The college’s evening program was renamed in his honor in 1987. Photo courtesy of The Rollins College Archives

SOME WORDS OF WISDOM FROM HAMILTON HOLT

Hamilton Holt was president of Rollins College from 1925 to 1949. The college’s evening program was renamed in his honor in 1987. Photo courtesy of The Rollins College Archives

When retiring Rollins College President Hamilton Holt spoke at his final commencement ceremony in June 1949, he shared with faculty, students, trustees and community leaders many nuggets of wisdom that are as applicable today as when he uttered them more than 70 years ago. 

I read many Holt speeches, interviews and articles while researching an upcoming book entitled Rollins After Dark. The book is subtitled The Hamilton Holt School and Continuing Education: A Nontraditional Journey, and it will be available when the Holt School celebrates its 60th anniversary later this year. 

The Holt School, of course, is the college’s venerable evening program, which was renamed for the legendary president in 1987. But adult education at Rollins dates to the winter of 1936, when it could be more accurately described as a high-minded holiday for scholarly snowbirds. 

The entire story of the college’s various evening programs — which is filled with twists and turns and populated by interesting characters – is in Rollins After Dark, about which details are forthcoming. I promise it will be an interesting read.

In the meantime, I thought it would be interesting to share some excerpts from Holt’s farewell address to the small college he loved:

–––

To the trustees: Make the chief aim of your stewardship the maintenance of greater and ever greater security and freedom of the faculty, staff and student body. After all, those are the chief reasons for your existence.

Keep the college small but make it a great small college. Material growth for its own sake is only a confusion of greatness with bigness. Do not curtail the powers you have wisely delegated in bylaws to the faculty. Continue to grant them complete supervision over the curriculum and the students. Never dismiss a faculty member because his views differ from yours, unless you would be willing in turn for a majority of faculty to dismiss one of you for your opinions.”

Fill vacancies on the board with young, vital and liberal men and women of both achievement and promise. Otherwise your board will grow conservative with the passing years and reactionary. Businessmen are essential to any well-balanced board of trustees but keep them in the minority. Rollins is an educational institution, not a bank or a department store. Imagine a successful business concern filling its board with educators.

When the president and the faculty break new paths, do not become frightened just because some powerful institutions like Harvard or the Rockefeller Foundation or the American Council on Education raise their eyebrows. Welcome advice but think and act for yourselves.

To the faculty: Seek truth wherever truth is found; follow truth wherever truth may lead; teach truth and nothing but the truth. Achieve and hold your mastery of your chosen art or science. Break paths bravely where you may. Follow humbly where you must. You promised all these things when you were installed in the faculty, but you may have forgotten them.”

Teach students rather than subjects. Give students the same courtesy, respect and affection that you crave of them. Minimize marks, grades, recitations, lectures, examinations, certificates, diplomas and degrees. Maximize personal contacts within and without the classroom. Imitate Socrates. You may get a Plato.

Cut our cliques, gripes, gossip, pedantry and highbrowism — the chief of faculty sins. Jesus preached to the multitude, taught his disciples and cast out devils. Follow His example: lecture to the many; teach the few; wrestle with the individual. The three paramount functions of a faculty are teaching, research and public service. But the greatest of these is teaching.”

To the students: I have learned more from you than you have learned from me. Youth is idealistic; age is cynical. You think success is beckoning you; that you will be happily married; that you will be healthy, wealthy and wise. Keep on thinking these things, for faith moves mountains and faith will make them come true.

You have not yet gained the wisdom we have, for wisdom comes from experience. So, I do not blame you for not having much wisdom. But I do blame myself and people my age for losing their idealism. You have helped me keep my idealism.

For those of you who are graduating into the world, where realities pervade, I wish you all happiness and success. But do not expect to be treated as grownups by older people until you are about 30 years of age. And do not expect results without sustained effort. Nothing in life worthwhile has come easily.

No college can educate you. All college is self-education. The college can stimulate, advise and point the way. But the path must be trod by you. Major in courses that you like and therefore come most easily. Minor in the courses you dislike and therefore come the hardest. Choose the professor rather than the course. The professor may be alive!

I shall miss you, my sons and daughters, in the coming days. I shall miss your happy laughter coming through the open windows of my office. I shall miss the waving of your hands as we pass on the campus. I shall miss the quiet talks I have had in my home with you, whether singly or in groups. Write me sometimes and tell me of your trials and triumphs. May the latter far exceed the former.

–––

Holt, a fascinating character in his own right, died two years after stepping down. But his spirit still infuses the Rollins ethos. I hope Rollins After Dark will reintroduce the most consequential educator in the college’s history long to students and the community. Perhaps, like me, you’ll wish you could have spent some one-on-one time with him solving the world’s problems. 

Randy Noles
CEO/Editor/Publisher
randyn@winterparkpublishing.com

Photo by Suzannah Gilman

GOLD

One way to think about form and content — the yoked oxen of literary study — is to see content as the poem’s interest in the world, and form as the poem’s interest in itself. In “Gold,” the content is the sunrise, and the form is the poem’s search for the best simile to convey its special brilliance. The poem sits in a tradition of “dawn poems” called aubades, and the spin here on this tradition is the speaker’s anxiety about being too over-the-top with his hyperboles. We should notice that his fear of losing the reader’s trust does not delay him from tossing off his final (and most ridiculous) exaggeration, in which one of the greatest achievements in Western literature is used to convey what this fellow’s bedroom looks like early in the morning. 

GOLD

I don’t want to make too much of this,
but because our bedroom faces east
across a lake here in Florida,

when the sun begins to rise
and reflect off the water,
the whole room is suffused with the kind

of golden light that could travel
at dawn on a summer solstice
the length of a passageway in a megalithic tomb.

Again, I don’t want to exaggerate,
but it reminds me of the light
that might illuminate the walls
of a secret chamber full of treasure,
pearls and gold coins overflowing the silver platters.

I feel like comparing it to the fire
that Aphrodite lit in the human eye
so as to allow us to perceive
the other three elements,

but the last thing I want to do
is risk losing your confidence
by appearing to lay it on too thick.

Let’s just say that the morning light here
would bring to anyone’s mind
the rings of light that Dante

deploys in the final cantos of the Paradiso
to convey the presence of God,
while bringing the Divine Comedy
to a stunning climax, and leave it at that.


Billy Collins is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College. He served as U.S. Poet Laureate (2001–03) and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, “Gold” originally appeared in Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Random House.

Photo by Suzannah Gilman

During a 1954 interview on his 92nd birthday, John Martin noted that Winter Park had changed, “but not for the better!” The unconventional John Martin, a socialist lecturer, and his wife, Prestonia Mann Martin, a utopian reformer, were unlikely civic leaders in the 1920s and beyond. Photo courtesy of The Rollins College Archives.

THE FABIAN AND THE HAMMER BOY

During a 1954 interview on his 92nd birthday, John Martin noted that Winter Park had changed, “but not for the better!” The unconventional John Martin, a socialist lecturer, and his wife, Prestonia Mann Martin, a utopian reformer, were unlikely civic leaders in the 1920s and beyond. Photo courtesy of The Rollins College Archives.

Is Winter Park more open-minded today than it was 90 years ago? Consider the case of John and Prestonia Mann Martin. The British-born socialist and his unconventional wife were among the city’s most unlikely power couples from the 1920s through several decades thereafter.

Naturally, the Martins were brought to town by Hamilton Holt, the ninth president of Rollins College, who delighted in collecting out-of-the-ordinary characters and testing the tolerance of conservative locals for exotic freethinkers.

John, whom Holt listed as a conference leader or a visiting lecturer and consultant on foreign affairs, had been active in the London branch of the Fabian Society, an organization whose purpose was to advance the principles of socialism. He offered a lecture series on foreign affairs that became wildly popular in Winter Park.

Prestonia, a writer and social reformer, operated Summer Brook, which was modeled on Brook Farm — a short-lived experiment in communal living started in 1841 by a ragtag band of transcendentalists. 

She had made national headlines with a pamphlet entitled “Prohibiting Poverty,” in which she advocated conscription of everyone between ages 18 and 26 to produce the necessities of life — including food and clothing — which would then be distributed free. 

Eleanor Roosevelt favorably referenced the program in a speech and even passed it along to her husband, who dismissed its premise as simplistic and impractical. 

In 1932, John was the victim of a brutal assault that left him in critical condition. Oliver Johnson Keyes, 23, a former protégé, hitchhiked from Manhattan to Winter Park, where he purchased a hammer and walked through a driving rainstorm to the Martin home. 

Keyes was recognized and welcomed by the Martins. Later, when the couple retired to separate rooms, he followed John upstairs and began beating him with the hammer until Prestonia, hearing the melee, rushed to her husband’s room and screamed.

When the young man momentarily relented, Prestonia called the police, who upon their arrival arrested Keyes on charges of assault with intent to commit premeditated murder. John, barely clinging to life, was transported to the Florida Sanitarium, where he gradually recovered. 

Keyes, meanwhile, calmly admitted to his crime, giving no reason other than that the Martins had “lost interest” in him. “Hammer Boy,” as journalists called him, was adjudicated insane and committed to Bellevue Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Manhattan. 

By the mid-1930s, the John Martin Lecture Series encompassed 10 talks on consecutive Thursday mornings in late January and early March. As audiences grew, the on-campus theater gave way to the larger First Congregational Church of Winter Park. 

In 1944, John decided to retire — more or less. He delivered his final scheduled lecture before a full house at the church sanctuary and received a tearful standing ovation from prominent locals, likely none of whom were socialists or Fabians.

Interviewed on his 90th birthday in 1954, he complained to the Orlando Morning Sentinel that “Winter Park has changed almost beyond recognition — and not for the better!” (Perhaps he was more mainstream than anyone realized.)

Prestonia remained active in civic organizations, but fell ill and died at age 83 on Easter Sunday in 1945. She was eulogized in Winter Park Topics, a seasonal weekly, as “one of Winter Park’s best known and most beloved women.” 

This column makes no overarching point except this: There are thousands of stories in the City of Culture and Heritage, and its history is replete with fascinating characters. We’re here to tell as many stories and profile as many characters as we can. Thanks for reading and for letting us know that you enjoy what we do. 

Randy Noles
CEO/Editor/Publisher
randyn@winterparkpublishing.com

 


Correction
Due to an editor’s error, the professional football league in which Don Jonas, the first coach of the UCF Knights, played was misidentified in last issue’s story “First and Goal.” Jonas played for the Orlando Panthers in the Continental Football League.

Junior philosophers paint a river to be used as an intellectual exercise. They make a choice, then line up on either side of the river and explain how and why they made that choice. They take a position, literally and figuratively, which is, of course, what philosophers do.

A PHILOSOPHY DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Junior philosophers paint a river to be used as an intellectual exercise. They make a choice, then line up on either side of the river and explain how and why they made that choice. They take a position, literally and figuratively, which is, of course, what philosophers do.

Plato (above left) and Aristotle (above right) have plenty to say to children, too. At Hume House, staffers have figured out how to channel those messages and make them meaningful to rambunctious 3- and 4-year-olds.

There’s a small, unassuming, black-and-white photograph of the late Fred Rogers on a hallway wall in Hume House, a preschool and child-development research center on the westernmost edge of the Rollins College campus. 

The 1990 photo was taken during a visit to the center by the beloved Rollins grad, whose revolutionary PBS show for young children, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, represented a one-man crusade to nurture their pilgrim hearts and minds — and to buffer both from the cacophony of the modern world. 

In the photograph, Mr. Rogers sits in a chair encircled by children. He wears one of his trademark cardigans and beams with that front-porch glow of attentive delight the presence of children always inspired in him. 

Something akin to that expression would surely cross his face if he could see what the old neighborhood is up to these days.

Guided by a multidisciplinary research team, Rollins students have been introducing preschoolers to the wisdom of the ancients, using traditional early-education activities to examine concepts that great philosophers sought to bring to early civilization: fairness, bravery, self-control, civility. It’s part of a multitasking enterprise meant to plant thoughtful seeds in both the younger and the older students.

Five years ago, as part of an initiative to incorporate elbow grease into the liberal arts, Rollins philosophy professor Erik Kenyon was asked to add a community outreach component to his classes.

Kenyon, a youngish 38-year-old with striking blue eyes and a preppy haircut, is more likely to be taken for a student rather than a philosophy professor as he rides his bike to and from classes. In truth he is an old soul by association, so thoroughly marinated in ancient and medieval philosophy that a student once described him to me as “Aristotle reincarnated.”

Well, it’s one thing to channel Greek philosophers to a captive classroom audience. It’s another to trot your musty Hellenic homeboys around off campus. The notion seemed idealistic to Kenyon. Or as he put it: “I thought, ‘What am I supposed to do? Save the whales?’” 

Then he remembered the work of colleagues elsewhere who developed the so-called “P4C” educational program. P4C stands for “philosophy for children” and consists of a series of lesson plans that can be used to introduce grade-school students to rudimentary philosophical concepts.  

In 2015, Kenyon began incorporating P4C ideas into classes that called for his students to develop child-oriented philosophy lessons as part of their studies — then take them on the road. Things went smoothly when they worked with students at nearby elementary schools. 

With preschoolers, not so much. Nothing in Augustine’s dialogues or Plato’s pedagogy addresses the existential realities of trying to engage a tribe of rambunctious 3- and 4-year-olds with lesson plans designed for elementary school students. 

Hume House director Diane Terorde-Doyle (left), philosophy professor Eric Kenyon (center) and psychologist Sharon Carnahan (right) devised a program for preschoolers based on P4C (philosophy for children) principles.

“There was a lot of running away and hiding in corners,” says Kenyon, of his team’s first visit to Hume House. “It was a disaster.” He looked to the center’s director, Diane Terorde-Doyle, and Rollins psychology professor and longtime Hume House crusader Sharon Carnahan for help.

“Children at this age think with their bodies,” offered Terorde-Doyle. Yet, added Carnahan, they’re perfectly capable of grasping abstractions: “They’re stone experts on friendship.”

So, hoping to connect with preschoolers on their own turf, the team began developing lesson plans rooted in physical activities; sharpened them to revolve around ethics, the branch of philosophy that addresses relationships and behavior; and focused on questions that addressed daily life from a preschool perspective — such as, “what makes a family?”

An obvious ingredient volunteered by the children in discussions one day was “love.” Then a little girl added a wise-beyond-her-years distinction.  

“I agree that if there is a family, there is love,” she said. “But I disagree that if there is love, it has to be in a family.”

The moment convinced Kenyon the project was on track. “That’s the kind of thing that a college logic course wouldn’t get to around to until week four,” he says. 

Overall, the effort prompted such a shift of perspective at Hume House that, this year, the three researchers published a book about their efforts, Ethics for the Very Young.

The book includes outlines of lesson plans meant to encourage children to “listen, think, and respond” in order to navigate their way through questions such as: What is bravery? What is a friend? What makes something fair or unfair? How do I agree, or disagree, with dignity?

All it takes is a quick visit to a couple of internet chat rooms to see that the culture at large could use a few lesson plans on that last one. 


Michael McLeod is a contributing writer for Winter Park Magazine and an adjunct instructor in the English department at Rollins College.

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