Meanwhile, at the Cornell Museum of Fine Art at Rollins College, check out the eclectic array of artifacts that were donated to the college in the early 1900s after fire destroyed a previous museum.

FOUND, LOST, THEN FOUND AGAIN

Hugh McKean looks out over the ruins of Laurelton Hall, where he and his wife, Jeannette, salvaged truckloads of Tiffany creations before they could be scrapped.

In a year like this, it’s easy to forget that there’s such a thing as a nice surprise. Yet here I am, telling you about two of them. 

The first one materialized over the summer at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, which had temporarily closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Shuttered away were the museum’s core galleries that celebrate decorative impresario Louis Comfort Tiffany’s personal Xanadu: Laurelton Hall. The early 20th-century Long Island country estate was designed by Tiffany and filled with some of his most dazzling creations — from a Byzantine-inspired chapel to his luminous, oversized stained-glass windows. 

Those now-priceless windows, plus numerous other architectural and decorative treasures from the elaborate home, had been rescued by the museum’s Winter Park founders, Hugh McKean and his wife, Jeannette Genius McKean, after Laurelton Hall had fallen into disrepair and was partially destroyed by fire in 1957. 

It seemed unlikely that any museum-worthy creation the McKeans might have missed would resurface after all these years. But one did. 

It’s a fireplace hood that had been suspended over the hearth in Laurelton Hall’s study to keep embers from escaping into the room — a functional object that would have been an ugly-duckling afterthought in any other home of the period. 

Tiffany, obsessive about turning everything within his line of sight into a thing of beauty, couldn’t leave it at that. He had the cast-iron hood forged in thin layers, as though from interlaced sheets of leather, then decorated it with long rows of translucent mica cutouts and the circular silhouettes of Japanese sword guard symbols collected on his travels. 

It must have been mesmerizing, sitting by a fire on a winter’s night, watching the play of light in that room. In the Art Nouveau extravaganza that was Laurelton Hall, even the shadows on the walls had their role to play. 

Louis Comfort Tiffany applied his aesthetic to even such mundane objects as a fireplace hood. You can see this one at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art.

The fireplace hood, which had been in the hands of a private collector, was acquired by the museum earlier this year and will be installed in the hallway leading to the Laurelton Hall galleries by mid-October. 

As of this writing, the Morse has reopened — although you need to call ahead to reserve a time slot for your party, in keeping with the museum’s social-distancing measures.

Now to pleasant surprise No. 2, and yet another treasure lost and found. 

This one goes back to 1909, when a fire likely caused by faulty wiring destroyed the original Knowles Hall on the Rollins College campus. The building was home to a natural science museum filled with hundreds of specimens and artifacts assembled by science professor Thomas R. Baker. 

In the aftermath of the disaster, the college sent out a plea to collectors and institutions around the country, requesting donations of “museum quality” specimens for a new repository. 

The turn of the last century was an era when amateur archeologists embarked on freewheeling and often unprincipled expeditions. Several of them responded to the college’s plea, sending thousands of antiquities, fossils and other culturally significant objects. All eventually were incorporated into a new museum, named after Baker. 

When that museum fell into disuse and closed in the 1970s, what was left of the collection, which had dwindled to several hundred objects, wound up mothballed in the vaults of the college’s Cornell Fine Arts Museum. 

There it languished, forgotten until four years ago, when Zachary Gilmore, a newly hired assistant professor of archeology, found a reference to it as he was leafing through departmental files.

Meanwhile, at the Cornell Museum of Fine Art at Rollins College, check out the eclectic array of artifacts that were donated to the college in the early 1900s after fire destroyed a previous museum.

Now, roughly 70 of the long-hidden objects will be featured in an exhibition at the Cornell called Storied Objects: Relics and Tales from the Thomas R. Baker Museum. The exhibit is a collaborative effort between Gilmore, fellow archeology professor Robert Vander Poppen and their students.

The objects themselves are interesting enough, ranging from a Mesoamerican statuette of a soccer-type athlete to a Mesopotamian peace treaty that was etched on a cylinder and driven into a temple wall 5,000 years ago. But the emphasis of the exhibit is on those adventurous collectors of another time and place.

One of them was Edgar Banks, often cited as one of the inspirations for whip-wielding celluloid archeologist Indiana Jones.

Banks joined the U.S. Foreign Service in the early 1900s to get access to ancient ruins in what was then the Ottoman Empire. He collected hundreds of small Sumerian cuneiform tablets, one of the earliest examples of a writing system, and sold them to museums.

His daughter, who studied at Rollins, donated part of her father’s collection to the college. The exhibit runs through January 3. Tell them Indiana Jones sent you. 


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

HISTORY (SORT OF) REPEATS ITSELF

 

Many of the same safety protocols used to combat the spread of COVID-19 were in effect during the more deadly Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. In Winter Park, however, disruption of business and daily life has been more severe today than a century ago.

People fall ill and some die of an illness at first presumed to be seasonal influenza, but which later proves to be a mysterious new pathogen that’s highly contagious. There’s no vaccine and no effective treatment. The disease kills the elderly, as influenza sometimes does, but it also impacts children and young adults, and causes a bizarre array of unexpected symptoms.

As scientists scramble to identify the malady and quell its spread, the illness multiplies exponentially around the world. In the U.S., the federal government’s response is one of denial and obfuscation. Individual municipalities are left to implement their own policies with varying degrees of rigor. 

In some places, masks and social distancing are required and large gatherings are banned. In other places, thousands attend parades and rallies that ultimately become superspreaders — even as hospitals are overwhelmed and funeral homes are compelled to stack corpses like cordwood in makeshift structures.

The year is 1918, not 2020, and the illness is the Spanish flu (misnamed, since it likely originated in the U.S.), not COVID-19. Over the course of two years, the Spanish flu killed at least 50 million people worldwide. Yet this pandemic — which caused more deaths than any outbreak of disease in human history — was essentially forgotten until recently, when COVID-19 prompted inevitable comparisons.

Given the death toll of the novel coronavirus — which is, at this point, orders of magnitude less than the Spanish flu — it’s difficult to understand why the more lethal scourge from a century ago isn’t seared into our collective consciousness. Part of the reason is because newspapers were, in many cases, complicit in playing it down. 

The U.S. had entered World War I in 1917. President Woodrow Wilson created a Committee on Public Information to flood newspapers with upbeat press releases — which were often published word for word — extolling patriotism and building morale. 

The Sedition Act, adopted just months before the war ended, made it illegal to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the government of the United States.” The government wanted no news disseminated that might damage the war effort — First Amendment be damned.

In fact, no newspaper was ever prosecuted for writing stories about the pandemic — it was impossible to ignore — but coverage was notably subdued. Some newspapers surely self-censored for fear of retribution. After all, reports of an easily transmissible illness that seemed to disproportionally impact young people would hardly have been welcome news to soldiers or their families.

In Winter Park, not much seemed to change. Mayor W.H. Schultz did issue an order prohibiting public meetings and suspending school for 10 days in October 1918. The document also read: “I further request the parents of all children to prohibit promiscuous visiting from house to house and suggest that … each family stay as much as possible in the open air.”

There are few other headlines regarding the pandemic in local newspapers of the era, including the Orlando Morning Sentinel. Only passing mentions of it could be found in The Sandspur, the campus newspaper at Rollins College, or in various Winter Park weeklies. 

However, several ads tout the safety of various businesses, such as drug-store soda fountains, and the efficacy of several patent medicines. There are also admonitions to wash your hands often and refrain from spitting in public.

Even Claire Leavitt Macdowell’s Chronological History of Winter Park, which recounts the city’s history almost day by day from the 1880s through 1950, never mentions the Spanish flu. 

This is truly extraordinary, given the book’s obsessive thoroughness. Macdowell records with equal gravity events that range from a visit by President Chester A. Arthur to a campaign by the Board of Trade to rid the city of flies by offering a bounty to people who turned in the most insect carcasses.

I don’t know how many people who lived in Winter Park died of the Spanish flu. According to Eve Bacon’s history of Orlando, fatalities there amounted to only 10. (It appears that Tampa and Jacksonville fared far more poorly.) Perhaps the dearth of information regarding the impact of the pandemic on Winter Park is because there wasn’t much impact at all.

My guess is — with all due respect to Eve Bacon — far more people in Winter Park died of the Spanish flu than have died (or will die) of COVID-19. But the response in 1918, at least locally, involved no prolonged disruptions. If you didn’t get sick, you likely didn’t alter your life or routine in any appreciable way. Why not? 

Here’s a hypothesis: A century ago, people routinely died of ailments that are easily treatable today. It could be that everyone was simply more nonchalant about the possibility of contracting an illness that had no cure. After all, plenty of illnesses that we no longer worry much about couldn’t be cured — or even effectively treated — back then.

Frankly, I’m glad our expectations of medicine are somewhat higher these days. And I’m looking forward to the day when we can meet for drinks — unmasked — and discuss up close and in person whether the cure was worse than the disease in the case of COVID-19. That day, I’m sure you’ll agree, couldn’t come soon enough. 

— Randy Noles

WELCOME BACK, WINTER PARK

Welcome Back Winter Park features numerous special reopening offers from local businesses.

Welcome back! After a spring of hunkering down during the worst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many cities — including Winter Park — are gradually resuming commerce. 

Although “the new normal” is a work in progress (and because there’s no cure or vaccine, the coronavirus could still upend recovery plans), we’ve got to get back to work as quickly and safely as possible. Nobody argues with that.

Winter Park, in particular, is renowned for its vibrant retail, dining and cultural offerings. These businesses and institutions give the city its unique ambiance and power its economy. And they’re as eager to see us again as we are to see them.

WELCOME BACK PACK

So, polybagged with this issue of Winter Park Magazine is Welcome Back Winter Park, which I prefer to call the Welcome Back Pack. It’s a 40-page special publication in which the business and arts communities have rolled out their collective red carpet (which has, of course, been deep-cleaned) and invited us to check out what they have to offer.

We’ve taken a hit, too. Advertising is where virtually 100 percent of our revenue is derived. Businesses that are closed obviously don’t need to advertise — so, like our longtime supporters, we’ve struggled to stay afloat during this scary and surreal interlude. 

Still, we offered space in Welcome Back Winter Park free of charge. Printing and mailing 15,000 copies of a 40-page magazine is not inexpensive — but the cost, really, is nothing more than we owe the business owners who make it possible for us to do what we do.

When considering how we could best help our fellow small businesses (and larger ones, too), we identified the one thing we do more effectively than anyone else. That’s getting content into the hands of locals — who trust Winter Park Magazine and appreciate getting it delivered to their mailboxes. (There’s an online version, too, at welcomeback.winterpark.com.)

Thus was born the Welcome Back Winter Park, which offered us an opportunity to support those who have supported us. And it offered participants an opportunity to announce that they’re still here and more than ready to resume being a part of our lives. 

Many Welcome Back Winter Park participants are touting special reopening offers. But whether you take advantage of the deals or not, we hope you’ll take the publication and go through it page by page — then make it a point to visit the stores, restaurants and arts venues between its covers. Better yet, make a purchase whether you need anything or not. (After all this time at home, though, we’re pretty sure you must have a significant shopping list.)

IN THIS TOGETHER

Some of you have heard me tell about the time I was publisher of a different local magazine, which was part of a national chain that also owned other magazines, newspapers and had investments in a variety of businesses unrelated to publishing.

I was in the office on 9/11. The editor had a television set, so we all watched in horror as the jets slammed into the World Trade Center and sent its twin towers tumbling. 

The following day, headquarters scheduled an urgent conference call for the chain’s publishers nationwide — I assumed to brainstorm ways in which we could use our platforms to do something constructive in the aftermath.

Instead, we were ordered to print small American flags on our covers for the remainder of the year. The real purpose of the confab was to roll out a program called Pledge to America, in which we would sell advertising in batches because, well, if you didn’t advertise, then the terrorists would win.

The corporate art department was ready with collateral material drenched in red, white and blue ink and touting special rates for new annual contracts. 

Far from losing business, perhaps we could make money
on this national tragedy. Every publisher got a quota — and we were told to get our salespeople on the streets while the rubble was still smoking.

Tasteless? Disgusting? Of course. But the depth of the scheme’s depravity only sunk in later, after the initial numbness wore off. It was, at least, a learning moment for me. I recalled it vividly recently, when the pandemic (and the response to it) began to wreak havoc.

As businesses went dark, the question we asked ourselves wasn’t, “How can we make money on this?” The question was, “How can we invest to help our community?” If that seems obvious for any decent corporate citizen, then you weren’t working where I was working in 2001.

SOME NEW RULES

But I digress. I’m writing this in early June, and you’re likely reading it in early July. We’ve seen how quickly situations can change. But as of now, many Welcome Back Winter Park participants are open limited hours. Some ask that you wear masks, while others don’t. Restaurants, by in large, are adhering to social distancing by offering fewer tables and more outdoor seating. 

Whatever the rules are later in the summer, we know Winter Parkers will follow them with their usual combination of grace and good humor — recognizing that such rules are meant to ensure safety. 

In some less-enlightened parts of the country, we’ve seen reports of customers berating and even assaulting employees who attempt to communicate these policies to angry dullards who are determined to make political statements by flaunting them. During difficult times, people often behave in inspiring ways — but less often, they behave in appalling ways.

Thanks, Winter Park, for always being inspiring. Thanks to the business community for hanging in there (and especially the restaurants, which found new ways to feed us). And, most of all, welcome back. 

— Randy Noles

THE POET VERSUS THE PANDEMIC

Billy Collins, a former two-term U.S. poet laureate, reads his work (plus the work of others) and stays connected to his fans worldwide every day at 5:30 p.m. via Facebook.

When classes reconvene at Rollins College in a few weeks, Poetry 101 with Billy Collins won’t be on the schedule. It’s not as though it ever really was, strictly speaking. The relationship between the college and the former two-term U.S. poet laureate was never that cut and dried. 

Dubbed by The New York Times as the most popular poet in the country and inducted four years ago into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters alongside the likes of Joan Didion and Kurt Vonnegut, Collins has probably done more to engage people with poetry than any other American scholar-practitioner in recent memory.  

He’s a 79-year-old native New Yorker with a deadpan delivery, a passion for jazz and a flair for unpacking everyday moments by pairing shrewd humor with habitual wonderment.  

A reviewer once complimented Collins for “putting the fun in profundity,” a turn of phrase that will serve as the blurb on his 13th book of poems, Whale Day, to be published in September.

Collins' new book, Whale Day, is due in September.

Soon after moving to Central Florida 12 years ago, Collins was appointed senior distinguished fellow at the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College, which brought luminaries such as Maya Angelou, Ken Burns, Gloria Steinem, Jane Goodall, Garrison Keillor, Itzhak Perlman and Sir Paul McCartney to campus for lectures. 

Having the likeable Collins in residence to recruit fellow creatives and make regular appearances himself was something of a coup for a small liberal arts college.

Yet, however prestigious its speakers or distinguished its fellow, the Institute was a financial drain, even after it began charging admission in 2016. When belt-tightening became a priority — as it did five years ago, when President Lewis Duncan resigned — Collins was told that his contract wouldn’t be renewed.  

After a quiet community protest, he was rehired by incoming President Grant Cornwell, only to be let go again more recently when the Institute itself was disbanded as part of a college-wide response to the financial hit expected from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The same fate befell Winter with the Writers, an annual event that brought nationally recognized authors to campus to tutor students and present readings.  

Administrators also made a sweeping reduction of salaries and benefits and reduced the college workforce by 8 percent, so the programs and the poet aren’t the only budgetary casualties — just the most visible ones outside campus. 

Though he deserves better treatment, Collins, an international figure whose books are always New York Times bestsellers, will survive the financial blow. The loss is all ours.

It’s sad to witness the disappearance of initiatives so intertwined with the heart and soul of Rollins — past, present and future. The lectures echoed the legendary Animated Magazine, which ran from the 1920s through the 1960s and brought the likes of Edward R. Murrow, James Cagney, Mary McLeod Bethune and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings to Winter Park.  

Apart from that, such programs served the present by showcasing world-changing role models who underscored the college’s mission: to imbue the students of today with a sense of global citizenship for tomorrow.

Prior to pandemic-related cost cutting, Collins was affiliated with the now-discontinued Winter Park Institute at Rollins College, for which he gave an annual reading and helped secure celebrity speakers.

There are glimmers of hope. Gail Sinclair, the Institute’s outgoing executive director, suggests that the community itself might bring back the lecture series. A Rollins writing class based on a downsized version of Winter with the Writers has been approved. 

And six days a week at 5:30 p.m., Collins sits down at a desk in the office of his home in a lakeside Winter Park neighborhood near the campus, with a shifting sheaf of papers and a pile of weather-beaten poetry books in front of him.

For the next 20 minutes or so, via Facebook, he conducts what feels like a late-night talk show with a literary flair. His wife, Suzannah, suggested the idea of a happy-hour poetry reading for his fans.

There’s always a theme — haiku one day, poetry about travel another. More than one broadcast has been devoted to verse related to jazz, complete with mood music from Collins’ own extensive collection. Sometimes he reads his own works, sometimes those of his contemporaries. Meanwhile comments from his growing band of listeners scroll by, attesting to the poet’s global reach — here a hello from Ida Valley, New Zealand, there a quip from West Cork, Ireland, just beneath a question from Kutztown, Pennsylvania.

Collins sees the virtual appearances as a counterpoint to a politicized, hall-of-mirrors modern-world reality — “this massive grid of interconnected voices and tweets and lies.” By contrast, he says, a poem represents something honest, concrete — “a world sovereign unto itself. It’s just you and me here.”

Just you and Billy and Poetry 101. At least that much hasn’t changed.

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

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