One of the petty rewards of choosing a journalism career is that you usually get a free obituary. Those don’t come easily these days with newspapers scraping for every penny they can make. But newspaper and magazine writers, even undistinguished ones, usually have friends who take the trouble to note their passing, often exaggerating their contributions to the profession. We recall reading about a fellow we worked with at a small paper in Pennsylvania more than 50 years ago, who died while working for an even smaller paper. It took a few weeks, but eventually a flattering obit appeared in one of the major Philadelphia papers.
Thus it is that we belatedly announce with sadness that the author of our recent article on a young girl spending summers at Mar-a-Lago, as a family member when Marjorie Merriweather Post owned it, may never have seen her story in print. It ran in the August issue of our Palm Beach County magazines. We did not know at the time that Jennifer Rahel Conover, whose story was autobiographical, had died of a heart attack just as the magazine came out. She was 76.
Strangely, we did not learn of her death until the beginning of October, and only then because a relative cancelled the subscription in her name. There had been considerable communication between Jennifer and our editors in preparing the story. She submitted it late last year, but there were delays getting the pieces together. It took some editing (most of her stuff did), and she needed to find old pictures. When they were lost in the email system, she had to find them again and resend. But it finally ran, with an attractive presentation. The subject matter, including knowing President Trump, went beyond her childhood memories to include the story of that great estate’s seriously over budget architectural design. The piece will likely be submitted in one of the regional magazine contests, in one of the historical categories.
In view of all the work that went into it, it seemed odd that we did not hear from her after it appeared, especially after it ran again in September in our Gold Coast magazine in Fort Lauderdale. Writers usually want additional copies of their work. We were out of town for a while, but nobody contacted us and apparently there was nothing in the paper in Fort Lauderdale, where she lived. We knew her for at least 30 years and she contributed to our magazines every so often, but everyone we can think of who knew her and might have called was already gone. It’s one of the problems that come with age, although today 76 is not that old.
Her death did not go totally unnoticed, however. There was a detailed obit in the Washington Post, but we found that only after checking the internet to confirm her death. The reason it ran in Washington was Jennifer’s unusual political family history. Her father, with whom she was not close (he liked women he wasn’t married to) was a general on the staff of Gen. John J. Pershing in World War I, and later served under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
The connection to Mar-a-Lago was through her grandfather, Joseph E. Davies, of whom she was very fond. He has been described as Marjorie Merriweather Post’s “favorite husband” of the four credit worthy men in that contest. He was an important man—ambassador to Russia during World War II and close to President Franklin Roosevelt. But she also had an uncle, Sen. Millard Tydings, and a cousin, Sen. Joseph D. Tydings, both from Maryland.
Locally, she was active in the yachting community and considered an able sailor. Writing was not her first calling. As a young woman she was a model, and later worked for the Fort Lauderdale interior design firm Rablen Shelton. The Post reported that she decorated the Nixon San Clemente and D.C. residences.
Her first two marriages ended in divorce, but she was married to Ted Conover for the last 36 years. They traveled widely, and she published travel pieces in newspapers and magazines. She also wrote a book, “Toasts for Every Occasion.” All in all, it was quite a life and deserving of at least a modest sendoff. And Jennifer, please accept our apologies for the delay.
Photo courtesy Jennifer Rahel Conover
It was in a restaurant with several TVs showing sports. There was no sound, but we knew instantly when we saw Chicago Bears uniforms and a shot of actor James Caan that this was a piece about Pic, and the old film “Brian’s Song.” It is a story that comes around every football season, and loses little of its poignancy with the years. The film, made for TV, has proved one of the most enduring works in that category.
Pic was the nickname of Brian Piccolo, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, starred for what is now St. Thomas Aquinas High and Wake Forest and died at age 26 when playing for the Bears. The film is about his close interracial friendship with his roommate Gale Sayers, the Bears’ legendary halfback who had suffered a knee injury that would cut short a brilliant career. The central theme, of course, was the early death of Piccolo from a rare form of cancer in 1970.
We heard a lot about Brian Piccolo when we arrived in town in 1971. He had been dead just a year. We hung out in Nick’s Lounge on Sunrise Boulevard a few years later, and a number of guys from the Piccolo era were patrons. Among them Bill Thies, Ed Trombetta and Bill Bondurant—all former athletes at Central Catholic before it changed its name to St. Thomas Aquinas. Over the years, we realized there was a back story to Brian Piccolo’s life in Fort Lauderdale: the unusual teammates he had in high school.
In the mid-1980s, we came to know that story better when we wrote a piece for Sunshine, the Sun-Sentinel’s Sunday magazine at the time. It was a story that wrote itself. By phone we interviewed Ed McCaskey, whose family owned the Chicago Bears. He opened our conversation by asking “What part of Philadelphia are you from, Mac?” He recognized the accent, having lived there. He got us in touch with Gale Sayers, who modestly said Brian Piccolo had kept the name Gale Sayers alive.
We spoke to Piccolo’s widow, Joy, a high school sweetheart by whom he had three daughters, and his high school coach, Jim Kurth who said Piccolo "wanted to be the richest guy on the block." We even got input from the cancer specialist who treated Piccolo, and who said his highly publicized death led to renewed research that had made a deadly form of cancer almost totally curable just 15 years later.
That story also benefitted from the recollections of Piccolo’s high school teammates who live in the area, and who turned out to be a most distinguished group. We got to know Dr. Dan Arnold, a leading children’s dentist, who loved to talk about his friend and how they competed to see who could make the most money. All who knew Piccolo confirmed his burning ambition to be successful and wealthy. He had not had a happy home environment, which friends thought motivated him to be a strong family man, with financial success.
The only teammate whose name we recognized was William Zloch, a former Notre Dame quarterback who had gotten national press as one of three brothers playing for the Irish. He shortly would be named a federal judge. Over the last 35 years he has risen to become a highly respected U.S. District Senior Judge.
Central Catholic in the early 1960s was a lot smaller than the present St. Thomas Aquinas, which has become a national powerhouse, attracting top athletes from a broad area of South Florida and transfers from other schools who value the football program’s visibility with college scouts. Piccolo’s senior year the team was a so-so 4-4. And Piccolo was not Broward County’s brightest star. That would be South Broward’s Tucker Frederickson who went on to star at Auburn and played six years for the New York Giants. But the team always had a great spirit, and in a few years it would have other measures of pride besides Brian Piccolo’s legend.
Dr. Dr. Arnold, a halfback, and Judge Zloch, quarterback, were joined in the backfield with fullback John Graham. At 160 pounds, he blocked more than ran the ball. He wound up with a long and highly successful career with Nabisco, much of the time in Palm Beach County. He is now retired in Haines City where he and his wife still operate a food brokerage business.
Piccolo, although a star, was not considered the best college prospect on the team. That was a big lineman, Bill Salter, who went to Wake Forest with Piccolo, but had a mediocre career there. Afterward, however, he became the third highest-ranking officer in the Sears organization, back when it was a formidable retail power.
The list goes on. Prominent builder/banker Jack Abdo was also on the team (“I didn’t play at all”) but was a close and deeply affectionate Piccolo friend through both grade and high school.
“Brian was a very funny guy,” Abdo says, “and there was a lot to him. He was more than a football player.”
Attorney Frank Walker did play a lot. “We all played both ways,” he recalls. “We only had 33 people on the team, and that may have included water boys. We played Lauderdale High who had 80 players.” Walker became president of the Broward County Bar Association and still gives speeches about Piccolo.
Brian Piccolo did not live long enough to see his teammates have such remarkably successful careers. But Pic, who wanted to be the richest guy on the block, was also a great friend. He would surely welcome the competition.
Last month we cited a Sunday New York Times special section detailing the decline of the newspaper business from major city dailies to small weekly papers that have served rural and suburban communities for decades. The papers that survive usually have cut staff so sharply that important stories often receive little or no coverage.
Fortunately, some independent groups, usually formed by former newspaper writers, have tried to fill the void. Some of their work has been dramatic. Unfortunately, major news outlets rarely pick up that work. A current illustration is Dan Christensen’s Florida Bulldog. The online report was started in 2009 when Christensen became one of the early casualties of newspaper cutbacks, in his case the respected Miami Herald where he was an investigative reporter.
His credits over the years are impressive. His stories brought down former powerful Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne on corruption charges, and for years he has been following the mystery of a Saudi Arabian family that left behind its possessions in its haste to leave Sarasota just before 9/11. The wealthy family had met with some of the 9/11 hijackers. Christensen has stayed on the story despite FBI stonewalling for years. There was evidence that the FBI had investigated the possible involvement of highly placed Saudis, but had never released its information. Florida Bulldog sued to get complete records seven years ago.
Just this week U.S. District Senior Judge William Zloch, in a 95-page order that reflected considerable thought about a complex and highly sensitve matter, ruled that some of the critical records, but not all, should be released. Expect more from Christensen soon. There’s a reason its called “Bulldog.”
Another current work (and what this piece originally was about) is based on data found in a National Rifle Association report to its convention.
Marion Hammer, a longtime lobbyist for the NRA, has received handsome income from that group—$270,000 last year alone—and more than $500,000 over several years before that. However, she never filed those income reports with the Florida Senate. Lobbyists are required by law to file income reports quarterly. She could have been subjected to some very heavy fines for that failure.
You might wonder how hard Hammer worked to earn such figures. According to the NRA, she averaged five hours per week.
Christensen followed his initial May report by describing the efforts of Florida’s Republican (and pro-NRA) government to avoid going after Hammer. Those efforts include Hammer’s claim to be a “consultant” as opposed to a lobbyist and steering the matter to an obscure office rather than the usual investigative channels. Those tactics worked. As this is being written, the Sun-Sentinel reports that Hammer amended her previous reports and her case has been closed without further action or fines. It was all a misunderstanding. Hammer says she got bad legal advice, etc.
According to Christensen, there was little coverage of the incident in any of the South Florida papers. However, the conclusion of the investigation was important enough for prominent coverage in several Florida papers, including the Sun-Sentinel. What about the four previous months? The lack of coverage freed the Republican administration from public pressure to fully investigate the situation.
This story is breaking at the same time that Hammer is in the news, leading the effort in Tallahassee to derail efforts to let voters decide on a proposed constitutional amendment to prevent the possession and sale of assault weapons. In the light of recent mass murders, this is a big story. Polls show overwhelming support for such laws. About the only people opposed are highly paid lobbyists such as Hammer and the leadership of the NRA. But this one woman has shown great control over legislators. Many of the permissive gun laws that she got passed in Florida have been followed by similar measures in other states.
Those laws have contributed to the abundance of deadly military weapons that have cost so many lives. And Hammer has largely escaped censure for her role in this national crisis. But thanks for Dan Christensen’s Florida Bulldog, not entirely.
Florida Bulldog is partly a labor love. It survives on contributions, led by Michael Connelly, the highly successful crime story writer. Connelly grew up in Fort Lauderdale and attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School. One of his first journalism jobs was with the Sun-Sentinel. Although he now lives on Florida’s west coast, he remains impressively loyal to the old hometown, and serious journalism.
One of the great discoveries in this year of fascinating politics is that while many presidential candidates are ambitious and competent, they must also be likable—the kind of person we’d like to share a beer with.
This we take from articles about the candidates, notably Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who many people find difficult to love. She comes on as school marmish, lecturing us on her plan for just about everything. Other candidates, in their quest to be noticed in the crowd, may appear to some as unseemly aggressive, forgetting in the heat of debate that bad form is what they are all running against.
The inference is that this is something new—that past nominees running for high office didn’t need to be likable, just qualified to do the job. History begs to differ. As far back as we have film to record their personae, the most likable men seem to prevail in presidential elections.
Teddy Roosevelt was immensely popular; his powerful personality overwhelmed opponents until he tried the impossible—running on a third party. A few years later his cousin Franklin Roosevelt could be engagingly charming, despite the burdens of his times, at least in contrast to the three dour men he ran against. Harry Truman had the likable qualities of a common man, upsetting the more serious Thomas Dewey in 1948.
“I like Ike” speaks for itself. The smiling war hero, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, was a sharp contrast to the intellectual Adlai Stevenson. And then came John F. Kennedy, whose wit and charm overcame the much better known Richard Nixon, whose stiff presence and shifty eyes could never shake the “Tricky Dick” nickname.
Gerald Ford was famously good-natured, which along with a sympathy vote after Nixon’s downfall, helped him win over Jimmy Carter. Carter edged him in the next election, but the peanut farmer fell victim to Ronald Reagan’s classic good nature.
And so it has been. More recent elections have been closer in the personality department, but the more likable candidate has usually prevailed. They must charm their way to victory like the rest of the winners.
We were thinking of a way to celebrate Gold Coast magazine’s 55th anniversary next year. We can’t make quite the big deal we did for the 50th, with a fancy dinner and a special issue devoted to our history. This time we were considering publishing a hall of fame—people who appeared in our magazine for outstanding contributions to the community over the last 55 years. Most would be deceased, although there would be exceptions for people such as Don Shula.
We got the idea when we mentioned the name Theresa Castro to several people in their 20s. They had no idea who she was, and barely knew the term Castro Convertible, the business she and her husband Bernard built into an American icon. They were one of the first to use TV for advertising, with spots featuring their young daughter Bernadette showing how easily a child could open a sofa into a bed.
Theresa, an extrovert, and Bernard, just the opposite, supported everything in Broward County. Their lavish parties in Broward and at a sprawling ranch in Ocala are fondly recalled today by a dwindling few.
Among other names from the past that came to mind was Bill Maus. No, not the Bill you are thinking of. It is his father, who in 1940 came down from Petoskey, Michigan, and with partner Frank Hoffman opened a high-end men’s clothing store, Maus & Hoffman. Their success marked the beginning of Las Olas Boulevard as a popular shopping street. At one time, there were a dozen stores from Petoskey that followed Maus & Hoffman to Las Olas or other South Florida locations. Maus & Hoffman is the only one that survives.
The original Bill Maus was a champion of Las Olas. At the time, the boulevard had no good restaurants. He backed Louis Flematti in opening Le Café De Paris, which lasted for 50 years. When the elder Maus died in 1980, his oldest son, Bill Jr., took over as family patriarch of the growing Maus family and held that role until this week, when he died at age 88 at a second home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Bill Jr., was one of four siblings to work for Maus & Hoffman. His late mother was active in the business. His brother John runs the Palm Beach store. His late brother Tom worked with him on Las Olas, and a sister Jane Hearne ran the Naples store. There are still a number of family members in the business, including Tom Jr. who heads the Fort Lauderdale store, recently relocated to the Riverside Hotel. Bill Jr. never retired. He worked until the last few months of his life.
Bill Jr. carried on his father’s community spirit. In addition to his work on Las Olas, he was a generous supporter of his alma mater, Notre Dame, and St. Anthony Catholic School, which he and his seven children and numerous grandchildren attended. He was on the boards of Holy Cross Hospital and Ave Maria University. His many activities made the pages of Gold Coast numerous times.
He and his late wife Jane (Bidwill) found time to travel extensively, including frequent football weekends at Notre Dame. He will be buried in a cemetery there.
A number of descendants still work for Maus & Hoffman, but others in the large clan have branched prominently into finance and other fields.
The family asked expressions of sympathy to be made in donations in his name to St. Anthony Catholic School Development Foundation or Catholic Central High School in Burlington, Wisconsin.
A funeral service will be held Saturday at noon at St. Anthony Church. You can expect a large crowd to honor a memorable man and a life well lived.
This is being written during D-Day anniversary week. Media attention has been focused on France and the WWII Normandy invasion, popularly known as D-Day.
A major difference between press coverage in WWII and today’s limited engagements is that casualties in recent combat have been far lighter than in wars past. Accordingly, the death of a single soldier often gets considerable coverage. Recently CBS’s “60 Minutes” repeated a segment originally broadcast several years ago about the deaths of five soldiers in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan. It featured several men on the unlucky team who knew immediately that our own aircraft had killed their comrades.
Assigning blame was tricky. CBS even brought in a general to comment. There was no doubt that it was a tragic case of friendly fire. Nobody could cover that up. It struck me as a startling contrast to a WWII likely friendly fire death in the skies above Iwo Jima. My cousin, Lt. J.G. Thomas McCormick died when something struck his small spotter plane flying off the Battleship Tennessee on the morning the Marines landed to begin one of the bloodiest fights of the war.
For years, that’s all the family knew. A great looking guy was missing, then pronounced dead. There was much more to the story, but that took 60 years to learn. We had contacted Paul Dawson who runs the USS Tennessee Museum in Huntsville, Tennessee. We were amazed to learn he knew of my cousin. His father had been the ship’s photographer and had photos of the handful of pilots who flew its small floatplane, the OSU-2 Kingfisher. He had photos of Tommy we never saw.
He also discovered, a year later, a document we never knew existed. It was an “after battle” report, marked confidential, and not likely seen by human eyes for long after the 1945 battle. It included this shock: “It is possible that the loss of the TENNESSEE spotting plane, on D-Day, may have been caused by a ship firing from Fire Support Sector 6 at extremely long range.”
The report went on to recommend our aircraft be careful to stay above the trajectory of the big shells. It suggests the Navy knew right away that a large shell had knocked Tommy’s plane apart without exploding.
There was much publicity about the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Celebrities, such as Tom Brokaw, have been inspired to return (after writing a best seller, “The Greatest Generation” based on our soldiers’ heroics in that historic event). Over and over we heard that the sacrifices of the invasion forces, including French resistance fighters, must never be forgotten.
One wonders about that. At the same time as all the D-Day anniversary pomp and pageantry, stories appeared about the drastic decline of visitors to hallowed Civil War sites. The Wall Street Journal reported that five major Civil War battlefields drew 3.1 million visitors last year—down from 10.2 million in 1970.
That is a disturbing sign, especially for places such as Adams County, Pennsylvania, whose economy benefits from tourism associated with the Gettysburg campaign. They used to joke that there were more re-enactors roaming around Gettysburg on weekends than there were men in the actual battle. No more.
One explanation for the decline in Civil War interest is the recent trend toward revising that history. It used to be settled history that the South seceded to form a new country, and the overwhelming numbers of their populations considered their first loyalty to their states, not a loosely constructed federal government. But recently, perversions of that history have depicted them all as racists and traitors. Thus the movement to take down Confederate monuments and portray admirable men, such as Robert E. Lee, as evil. As The Federalist put it: “If history is just another tool in the pursuit of political power, there’s not much of an impetus to get it right.”
If something as monumental as the Civil War can be forgotten, what chance does Normandy have 100 years from now?
The death of Jackie Gleason’s widow, Marilyn, two weeks ago produced accounts of her long, sporadic relationship with “The Great One,” as well as praise for her unassuming behavior when married to one of the country’s most celebrated entertainers. For Gold Coast magazine, she was something else—a cover girl under unusual circumstances.
We met Gleason just before the first Inverrary Classic in 1972. Jack Drury, who handled PR for that opening tournament, may have set it up. Gleason was still living at a country club in Miami, waiting for his big new place at Inverrary to be completed. The interview was to promote his first tournament and he could not have been easier to chat with. We met at 10 a.m. in his pool room. He offered a drink. We graciously accepted.
We asked the usual questions about the upcoming tournament and then ranged to other subjects. We asked if the stories were true about his New York nightclub owner/friend Toots Shor setting him up to play pool with Willie Mosconi, the world’s best. This was back in the days when Gleason still hustled pool for extra money. Mosconi, whose face wasn’t well known, did not look formidable—a slight, pleasant guy.
“He introduced him as a friend, Mr. Shoeman, a shoe salesman from Philadelphia who liked to play pool,” Gleason said. “ He said he was good but that I could take him. I should have known something was up when 30 sports writers followed us out of the bar to the poolroom. He let me win a game or two and then opened up. I said, ‘Pal, I don’t know what your real name is, but it sure ain’t Shoeman and you ain’t no shoe salesmen from Philadelphia.”
We recall we somehow got onto the subject of sports figures and Gleason made one of his quirky observations, saying he had never met a dumb basketball player, but he knew a lot of dumb baseball players. We got a cover piece out of that interview.
Three years later Gleason married Marilyn, whom he had known since the 1950s when she was a dancer with her famous sister, June Taylor. Marilyn had moved to Florida after her husband died and became reunited with Gleason. He married her after his second divorce. Just a year later our partner Gaeton Fonzi arranged through Marilyn to interview Gleason about a subject that had long interested him—the occult, things like UFOs.
Recalling our pleasant meeting with Gleason several years earlier, we decided to accompany Fonzi on the interview, interested in seeing how Gleason would react to Gaeton’s balking, mumbling style. We arrived at the big Inverrary home early in the morning, as scheduled. Minutes later Jackie appeared, headed out to play golf.
“Boys,” he said, “I never said I’d do this. And I’m going out to play golf. I’m gonna take these guys for every cent they have.” And with that, he walked out the door. His wife was embarrassed because she had definitely set up the interview.
“That’s what it’s like being married to Jackie Gleason,” she said. Gaeton, thinking fast, said, “How 'bout if we do a story about what’s it’s like to be married to Jackie Gleason?” She thought for a full 10 seconds, then said, “OK.” It turned out to be a great interview.
She explained that although they had been recently married, she knew him years before, and her life really hadn’t changed much. She was content to be just an ordinary person married to a genius. She was insightful and articulate in a modest way. We made a memorable February 1976 cover story out of it. The cover: Marilyn Gleason holding a photo of Jackie. She remained happily married to him for the rest of his life.
Before we archive this season of St. Patrick, let us reflect upon an aspect of the Irish impact on the United States—one that is obvious, yet little commented upon. And that is how Irish names have become so common as first names that people don’t give a thought about it. First, a little history.
One of the gifts from the English to the Irish was the English language and the abandonment of the awkward, often unpronounceable old Gaelic versions of names now common in English. Gallagher, for instance, was originally O’Gallchobhairk, Kennedy was O’Cinneide and Murphy was O’Murchada.
The Irish had streamlined those names in the century before arriving in the U.S. in large numbers in the mid-1800s, driven from home by famine and a life of near slavery under British rule. Note that a mere 75 years before, Irish names were all but absent on the Declaration of Independence. There was a Lynch from South Carolina but only Charles Carroll, a planter from Maryland, is remembered. A rare Irish Catholic, he was even rarer as one the wealthiest men in the colonies.
Irish immigrants for the most part proudly clung to their names—even if some of them could barely spell them—often at a cost. “No Irish Need Apply” signs were notorious. That prejudice gradually evaporated, so much so that today those Irish last names have enjoyed unique popularity—as first names. Today, of the ten most common Irish surnames, six of them have come to enjoy some use as first names. Murphy, Kelly, Brian, Ryan, Connor and Neil all began as last names or variations of some.
Go down the list of Irish last names and those used at least occasionally as first names jump out by the dozens. Riley, Emmett, Smith, Doyle, Murray, Quinn, Carroll, Grady, Brady, Connel, Burke, Nolan, Regan, Donovan, Barry, Ward, Graham, Cullen, King, Scott. In truth, not all are exclusively Irish; a number are shared by the rest of the British Isles, notably Scotland, whose genetics are virtually identical to Ireland.
This phenomenon, which has attracted its own websites, is a fairly recent development. The very popular name Ryan was little used until the 1970s when actor Ryan O’Neal brought attention to it. Some that have gained recent currency are literally reborn. Cormac (the Gaelic equivalent of Charles) traces to a fifth-century king named Cormac. Many Irish took that name during a time when people had only one name, but when the English imposed second names on their subjects, Cormac became McCormick. Now it has gone the other way. The distinguished author Cormac McCarthy, who changed his name from Charles, has led the charge.
Although the internet covers this subject in some detail, nowhere can we find an explanation for why the popularity of Irish names. Therefore let us conjecture. We think people take Irish names for children because they don’t know it. They are simply looking for acceptable American-sounding names. They want to fit in. And Irish names tend to be short—at least compared to other European backgrounds. This is not a trend likely to spread to other ethnic strains. We are not likely to see a lot of people with first names such as Putin, DiMaggio or Brzezinski.
Any way you slice it, it is what it is, just another feather in the crowded bonnet of a nationality who came to this country in poverty and hunger, anxious to blend with the established Anglo culture, and wound up being the blender itself.
The latest thing in running for office in Florida is to not tell the voters what you stand for. It may be the best way to win an election. As an example, we give you recently elected Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. If you followed the governor’s successful campaign last fall, you would have only a vague idea of what he would do if elected. He seemed to be a strong supporter of President Trump, wall and all, and had nothing negative to say about outgoing Gov. Rick Scott. A rational person would, therefore, assume that he did not believe in climate change, and saw nothing wrong with his predecessor’s steps, which did little to address the problems of Lake Okeechobee pollution and the effects on the estuaries on both coasts—especially in Martin County, as well as the ongoing neglect of the Everglades.
If you thought that, you were happily wrong. The Republican governor’s first months in office find him acting much like a Democrat—at least on those issues most important to those worried about Florida’s deteriorating environment. He has shown a determination to do something about the problems of Lake Okeechobee and South Florida’s threatened water supply. To say that environmental groups, most of whom opposed his election, are surprised, is to put it mildly.
Eric Eikenberg, chief executive of the Everglades Foundation, one of the most influential environmental groups, echoes the common theme: “This is the most optimistic we have been in decades —to have a governor who made cleaning up Everglades his No. 1 priority. We could not ask for anything more. Now we have to make sure that the legislature puts money behind those priorities and we can solve this problem.”
It was not just the new governor’s actions, but the speed of them, that has generated enthusiasm from environmentalists. DeSantis lost no time in asking for the resignations of the entire South Florida Water Management District board of directors. These are the people who make the decisions that affect the water flow from Lake Okeechobee. While theoretically independent, the members are appointed by the governor and therefore reflect his views. And former Gov. Rick Scott’s views were a reversal from those before him.
Under Gov. Charlie Crist there was a plan to buy a huge parcel of land from U.S. Sugar Corporation, the Clewiston-based company that for decades has been growing sugar on land directly south of Lake Okeechobee. That land was once the headwaters of the “River of Grass” and constituted the northern reaches of the Everglades. Back in the day of Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward (1905 to 1909), the land was drained with a network of canals to make it rich soil for agricultural
Because South Florida was lightly populated at the time, turning wetlands into productive farmland had limited effect of the Everglades. But as our area became the most populous part of the state and the demand for water grew steadily, so did the damaging effects of the stunted water supply.
The problem was compounded by the loss of wetlands, which were a natural cleansing agent for fertilizer polluted runoff from all the farms. South Florida found itself in a strange situation. Lake Okeechobee was surrounded by a dike after disastrous flooding in 1928. Water built up in the lake during the rainy summers, but when the lake became dangerously high, water that nature intended to flow south into the Everglades was discharged through canals east and west. Areas that did not need water, such as the Stuart area, got too much polluted water, while the Everglades to the south did not get enough.
The U.S. Sugar land acquisition plan would enhance the natural flow of water, in effect restoring a crucial part of The Everglades. But under Gov. Scott, the plan to purchase land died. A spokesman for U.S. Sugar said it decided not to sell after the state changed its mind about buying the land. But the truth is Gov. Scott nixed the deal by appointing his own people to the Water Management District.
In recent years, the situation became disastrous, at least for Martin County, as polluted water from the lake merged with seawater, producing an algae buildup, which killed sea life in an area where the economy depends on its reputation as a water wonderland. Gov. Scott’s administration worsened the problem by replacing management of the South Florida Water Management District with directors who favored the polluting agricultural interests over environmental concerns. Scott was obsessed with growth and new jobs. He showed little interest in people already living here. Eight years were wasted, and those years finally saw decades of neglect have their effect. In addition to pollution on both coasts opposite the lake, rising sea levels have been creeping inland, under our shallow crust of soil, encroaching on freshwater supplies for millions of people in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties.
Now all this history has been widely publicized. It is hard to live in South Florida without understanding at least the basics of the water problem. But one might think Gov. DeSantis, from far up in Daytona Beach, would not be acutely aware of the situation.
Wrong. So far.
The college traced its roots to 1809 when it began as a small Catholic boarding school for middle-class girls in a remote and peaceful part of Maryland. A Washington newspaper once described it as “the kind of setting Hollywood used to seek out for inspirational movies.” The nearest town was Emmitsburg, and it lay in a valley bordering the Catoctin Mountain range. Except for a dramatic few weeks 50 years later, it has remained remote and peaceful. The summer of 1863 was the exception; when the great Civil War battle of Gettysburg took place just 10 miles to the north, barely inside the Pennsylvania border. Union troops camped on the school grounds en route to the fight, and some Confederate detachments also passed near the campus. The nuns who ran the college cared for both Union and Confederate wounded after the bloody three-day battle.
One hundred and fifty-six years later the school is still there, at least the bucolic grounds, with stately red brick buildings. But it is no longer a college. Saint Joseph’s College closed in 1973 and the grounds are now the National Emergency Training Center. Saint Joseph’s, just down the road from the still going Mount Saint Mary’s, was a victim of its small size (about 600 girls at its peak), the growing unpopularity of one-sex colleges and the declining numbers of free teachers, i.e. the Daughters of Charity (the ones with the sailboat hats).
The college may be gone, but many of the women who attended it are still around. Considering how many of them hated the strict rules (in the late ’50s, girls were expelled for simply attending parties where alcohol was served), the loyalty of the alumnae is extraordinary. The campus reunions are fewer, but they have been so well attended over the decades that they used to say if a classmate did not show up, she had likely gone above.
And thus we traveled last month across the state to Sarasota, where the Saint Joseph’s class of 1961 has been holding informal reunions for close to 10 years. Sarasota is the site because several of the women are retired there, or have winter homes in nearby Gulf Coast cities. Others plan Florida vacations around the event. Although the numbers have declined as some women, and especially the husbands, have died. They still manage to draw a dozen women and assorted relatives and friends.
For those of us still moving, it is an opportunity to check out one of the state’s most distinctive communities, long noted as an arts center, and recently facing the usual problems of growth, i.e. redevelopment vs. overbuilding—resulting in a vibrant downtown compromised by too many people trying to move around in a small area.
Let’s start with the traffic—the root of the problem is what makes Sarasota such a beautiful spot. The large and magnificent bay provides wonderful sites for single homes and high-rise residences. But unlike the east coast, where most communities have access to the Atlantic beaches every few miles, the Gulf of Mexico beaches are reachable by a few causeways that are miles apart. The results are traffic jams both morning and afternoon. We are talking about serious holdups, lines of crawling vehicles sometimes a mile long. And the roads leading to those bottlenecks are equally congested. Aside from I-75, which lies farther out of town than I-95 does from east coast communities, the main road up and down the coast is U.S. 41. Compared to U.S. 1 on our side, it is frustratingly slow. A friend who met us for lunch in downtown checked his route guidance from his home and expected an 18-minute drive. But it took a full half hour due to traffic on U.S. 41.
Sarasota’s downtown is a bustling and attractive place, filled with restaurants and shops. The main shopping street, oddly enough, is called Main Street, and the shoppers and diners, reflecting the heavy retirement community, are conspicuously older than people on Fort Lauderdale’s Las Olas Boulevard. The retail presence is also obviously stronger and more varied with an emphasis on artsy stores. The downtown directory lists a dozen galleries, and not all are on the main drag. The commercial district extends to cross streets, which feature antique stores and a number of thrift stores. The latter is especially appealing to the Saint Joseph’s alumnae who reserve at least a day for touring those outlets.
The number of galleries and art-related stores reflects Sarasota’s long history as an art center. The Ringling, the State Museum of Florida, goes back nearly a century, to when the circus family first brought its love of art and antiques to the city. The Ringling College of Art and Design opened in 1931 and has a national reputation. All this is valued by its residents, both full time and winter, but they all deplore the building boom that has seen too many skyscrapers, too fast, too tall, too close together.