A poet in Florida

I learned that Shakespeare really lived

so scholars have decided.

Though quite a few have studied me

they’re not as sure that I did.

Peter Meinke

This is a piece I wrote for FORUM, a publication of Florida Humanities. It appears in the summer 2020 issue.

Memo to scholars: Peter Meinke lives, thank you very much. And there is an impressive body of work to back up the essential heartbeat of his literary existence.

Start with 18 volumes of poems and short stories produced over the span of half a century. Throw in frequent submissions published in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Poetry…and not to forget Creative Loafing, the St. Petersburg leisure magazine for which Meinke writes a column about…well, life, the university and pretty much whatever else pops into his head.

All this followed up by then-Gov. Rick Scott appointing Meinke Florida’s Poet Laurette.

For which appointment, Meink has written, he did not receive the traditional “barrel of sherry the way the English poets did.” But it was quite an honor nonetheless.

Oh, and did we mention that, to top it all off, the Florida Council for The Humanities has selected Meinke as the latest recipient of its Lifetime Literary Award For Writing?

“One of my childish first thoughts was, how happy my mother would have been!,” said Meinke about receiving the news. “She was crazily proud of my being a writer.”

Not bad for a late starter who set out early in life to be a poet but would have settled for a career in baseball.

Poetry won out, as it happens, but his was far from an smooth career trajectory.

In 1950, when he graduated from Mountain Lakes High School, in New Jersey, his school yearbook predicted: “Peter Meinke: Wants to be: Writer. Probably Will be: Censored.”

“That sounded good to me,” he recalls.

Still, 15 years and a decade’s accumulation of rejection slips would grind by before a Meinke poem “In Gentler Times,” would garner first prize in the Olivet Sonnet Competition, which happened to be judged by W. D. Snodgrass.

‘This was inspiring for two reasons,” he recalls. “I loved Snodgrass’s book “April Inventory,” and”I remember feeling that however I’d be judged from then on, I was a writer.”

In 1966, Meinke moved to St. Petersburg to start a creative writing program at Florida Presbyterian College, later to rebrand as Eckerd College. He would remain on faculty for 27 years until his retirement.

And now, 70 years beyond high school, the 87-year-old poet reflects, “there’s something so final about receiving the Florida Humanities Lifetime Literary Award for Writing. I don’t exactly feel finished, but more like having completed a marathon. It’s very satisfying.”

Previous honorees have included such Florida literary luminaries as Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan, Patrick Smith, Randy White, Mike Gannon, Enid Shomer and Jeff Klinkenberg. “The dignity and reputation of the Council and the quality of the writers chosen over the years, give the award a gravitas that surprised me,” he said.

Steven M. Seibert, executive director of the Humanities Council said that when this year’s selection committee’s discussion “turned to Peter, it grasped how influential his work has been. This influence isn’t just felt on St. Petersburg, where he’s been a longtime resident and an invaluable teacher to innumerable writers, but across and beyond our state.

“Bestowing the Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing is another way to once again remind thousands of Floridians about Peter Meinke’s incredible body of work.”

Meaning (call it M3) is the increasingly invisible

odorless, tasteless element in our universe long ago

slipped by someone’s god into our water…..

Peter Meinke, “M3”

Like most Americans in these perilous times, Meinke greeted the spring by hunkering down in his home, waiting out the coronavirus, with his wife, Jeanne, an artist and frequent collaborator.

“As an older person who happens to be a poet, I am very moved by the number of friends and neighbors who have called to check on how Jeanne and I are doing, asking can they help in any way,” he says. “They think, correctly, that poets and artists aren’t very practical, and haven’t stocked up on anything useful.

Ah, but what a house of refuge his is! Although they have traveled the world, the Meinkes always return to their beloved if aging cottage (“the plumbing system just collapsed”) situated on two-thirds of an acre in the heart of St. Petersburg close to downtown.

“It’s very lush, with five or six live oak trees and a couple of fruit trees, totally shaded,” he said. “We both love this house and the kids (two sons and two daughters, all grown now) would never let us sell it. And we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

The house provides “a sense of place that is very real. It has roots like a good poem.”

Speaking of which, although Meinke writes frequently about faith, politics, everyday life and so on he has refrained so far from writing about the virus that has been sweeping the world.

Rather, he has spent much of his time reading “The Mirror and the Light,” the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. And he highly recommends it: “The trilogy may carry you all the way through this pandemic.”

He also has been reflecting on the lessons from Daniel Defoe’s “Journal Of The Plague Year.”

“There were some similarities,” he said. “It came over to London from Holland as coronavirus came from China. It was played down by authorities as it swept through one neighborhood after another, and its most awful effects hit the poor, as the rich ran to their country houses, taking their doctors with them.

“Those are some thoughts I’m having,” he continues. “I haven’t written anything about coronavirus really. That will come later, if I’m lucky.”

The apple I see and the apple

I think I see and the apple

I say I see

are at least three

different apples…

Meinke “Apples.”

To be sure these are strange times in which to be a poet. In an era when leaders and celebrities communicate to the world in 280-character tweets, is there still a place for the poet, long-form or short-form?

“Some writers think that Americans no longer can read long books,” he muses. “And because of the tweeting there are poets who sometimes think Americans can’t read long poems.

“I do think that one of the problems with poetry is that even though they are shorter than novels you can’t speed read poems. You’ve got to linger over poems, and people aren’t used to doing that. You have to take a poem bit by bit.”

On the other hand “poetry is the kind of reading that, if you like it. you will always read it more than once. You’ll read it over, and then you read something else into it.

“People always say to poets ‘why didn’t you say what you mean?’ Well, you sort of mean a lot of things. I like the idea that poems have more than one level. It makes more interesting when you read it again.”

And that’s certainly true. Consider Meinke’s poem “Elephant Tusks”…“which we grind down into dice and key, earring and toothpick to capture the spirit of the elephant….” At first blush it reads as a condemnation of our crass consumer-obsessed culture. On further consideration one may read in it an almost spiritual reflection on the sheer weight of everyday living: “the huge stomping of elephant shakes the floor until the roof collapses.”

The trick is to live your days

as if each one may be your last…

…but at the same time, plan long range.

Meinke: Advice To My Son

“They know the poem,” says Meinke of his sons. “They’re good kids doing very well, now in their late fifties. One is the CEO of a chemistry conglomerate and the other works for USAID.

That poem, one of his most popular, “was just common sense. I didn’t start out to write any advice. It took me quite a while, with a lot of rewriting. I often let my poems sit for a while and the next week they always change.”

And that’s the thing about being a working poet that readers may not grasp. “If you want to be a poet you have to like rewriting,” he says. “I don’t think ‘this is finished.’ I think I have to work on it again today.

One definition of poetry, he says, is “The best words in the best order.

“And that’s the perfect advice for a writer…the best words in the best order.”

Looking toward his 88th year, Meinke acknowledges that he has “definitely slowed down…I certainly write less.” Still he has been finishing up another yet volume of poems.

“I believe that poets are citizens. They don’t have to write about everyday events, but over the course of life you ought to see what’s going on. You want people to be able to think big thoughts by reading a little poem.”

Because poetry, like life, ought to be constantly evolving and changing and shifting in previously unimaginable ways.

“Every morning I’ll look at the blank page feeling eager and uncertain,” he says. “Maybe I should start with ‘Hi Mom,’ and begin typing.”

Who’s sick of sonnets?  Iamb  Iamb…

Meinke

A ride on the wild side

Listen, if you want to practice your social distancing on two wheels you could do a lot worse than a nice Sunday morning cycle tour of the Ocala Horse Country just south of Micanopy. Even before the lockdown traffic on these beautiful rural roads, most of them lined with Spainish moss draped oaks, is light to practically nonexistent. The scenery is spectacular as you alternatively roll past small cracker shacks, multi-million dollar horse farms…and at one point a wildlife refuge populated by zebras and other exotic animals. This is a favorite 28-mile route in and out of Micanopy that takes you through Evanston, McIntosh and Flemington. It’s an east ride and that you can do in just about two hours and change.

Here’s a link to the Ride With GPS route. https://ridewithgps.com/routes/32397279

Art and the Anthropocene

Ange can’t sleep. 

She tosses and turns and worries.

About her daughter Lily’s grim future. About the dead chicks they encountered

during a Girl Scout creek cleanup. About an Everglades awash in salt water. 

And the rising sea.

“Poor Florida,” Ange frets.”   

“Boca Raton” is a disturbing new short story by Gainesville author Lauren Groff, who chalks the title down to her own bouts with insomnia. 

“In my night-terrors, when I can’t sleep, I look at maps of sea-level models and Boca is always submerged.”

Her story is part of an Amazon e-book collection called “Warmer.” Short fiction by noted authors focusing on the very non-fictional issue of climate change.

Groff’s contribution is a grim read that had its genesis in a particularly grim image. “I couldn’t exorcise the photograph I’d seen of the outline of dead baby birds whose parents had fed them plastic,” Groff said, “and sometimes I try to put images in fiction to get them out of my head.”

By putting it in our heads.

Artists deal with images in creative ways. And perhaps it says something about the times we live in that while many politicians studiously ignore climate change, artists are taking up the cause. 

Currently at the Harn Museum is an exhibit titled “The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene,” the works of 45 international artists keyed on the theory that human-induced alteration of the Earth’s environment is ushering in a new geological epoch.

 “We live in a world of imminent extinctions, runaway climate change and the depletion of biodiversity and resources,” explains the Harn’s web site. “Florida is one of the most environmentally vulnerable locations worldwide, making” the exhibit “especially relevant.”

Artists rush in where politicians fear to tread.

Recently I had a conversation with Xavier Cortada, identified by the New York Times as one of a dozen prominent artists who have taken on climate change.

And for good reason. Cortada lives and works in Miami, the American city most vulnerable to sea rise. 

Cortada came to Gainesville a few years ago with his “Moving Water” exhibit, which called attention to the drastic damage already being done to our very wet state. During a trip to Antarctica, he collected ice samples taken by scientists there and used the melt water to produce a series of paintings about vanishing glaciers.

Back home in Miami, Cortada this week launched his latest climate change awareness project: The Underwater Home Owners Association (HOA).

“We need to stop worrying about the color of our homes or how tall the grass is and instead worry about what’s going to happen once the sea rises,” he said.

Participating residents in the Village of Pinecrest, are displaying watercolor lawn signs painted by Cortada, also using his Antarctic melt water. Every sign depicts precisely how high sea levels must rise before a given yard will be underwater. 

“I wanted the invisible to be visible,” he said. “It’s a way to help us think about and understand our flat topography.

“Miami is a perfect canvas on which to have that conversation,” he said. “Even when the conversation is hard to have.”

Who knows, maybe Miami resident and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio will be sufficiently moved by Underwater HOA (we’re talking real estate values here, after all) to actually have a conversation about climate change. Maybe Rubio will discuss it with Florida’s new junior U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who wouldn’t talk about it during 8 years in the governor’s mansion. Perhaps they’ll even include Florida’s new governor, Rick DeSantis, in the conversation.

Hope springs eternal, as the artists say. And Florida can’t afford many more years of climate change denial in Tallahassee or D.C. 

The arts speak to us. Can they speak to the deniers?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

Searching for Florida

In April I was all set to give this presentation at a Bike Florida conference on bicycle tourism. But of course it got canceled due to COVID-19.

Still, I’m not one to waste a good speech so……

Could we just take a moment to talk about the real Florida please?

Because Florida is very much a state of mind.

Case in point: In 1980 I was covering the U.S. Senate race in Florida for the New York Times Florida Newspapers.

That year the campaign trail took me from Pensacola to Key West, and in the course of things I got a call from the Great Gray Lady Mother Ship in New York: AKA The New York Times.

They were sending down one of their national political reporters to do a story about the Florida race and asked me to show her around.

So I picked her up in Orlando. I don’t remember her name but right off she assured me that she knew all there was to know about Florida….having spent many a winter in Miami.

We were following Democratic hopeful Bill Gunter and our first stop was in Plant City, strawberry capital of the South.

We stopped at a diner where the produce haulers ate so Bill could press some flesh, and my guest from NY looked around in astonishment.

She said….and I am not making this up.

They’re eating grits!”

Apparently you didn’t get grits with your bagels on South Beach at that time.

Later we were on our way to Tallahassee by way of Perry, and while approaching the Osceola National Forest she was moved to remark

“Look at all those trees!”

I could have told her that developers had cut down all the trees in Miami years ago, but what was the point?

I bring that story up to relate to you Florida’s dilemma, especially but not exclusively when it comes to generating interest in bicycle tourism.

“Everybody” you meet knows all about Florida.

We are the home of Florida man, after all.

The problem is that “Everybody’s” idea of Florida starts with South Beach and ends with Disney.

What we need to do is figure out how to introduce these people to the other Florida.

You know, the real Florida.

Listen, some years ago my wife and I rode the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal trails from Pittsburgh to Georgetown in D.C.

Arriving in Pittsburgh we proceeded to get lost looking for the GAP trailhead. So I stopped a guy on a bicycle and asked directions.

We had a lovely chat and in the course of it I asked him if he had ever done any riding in Florida.

“I’d never ride in Florida,” he scowled. “It’s too damned hot.”

A few months later we had our spring tour in Lake and Polk Counties. And to this day the thing I most remember about our Orange Blossom Express tour is that temperatures were dipping down into the 30s most nights.

And this in March.

One night we ran movies in a middle school auditorium in Clermont all night long because nobody wanted to go back to their tents.

Welcome to too-hot-to-ride Florida pal!

Oh and then there was the time I put up a Bike Florida display tent during the annual Bike Virginia tour, this one in the Shenandoah Mountains.

The most common remark I got was “I won’t ride in Florida….it’s too flat.”

“Listen,” I’d tell them. “We have mountains in Florida….it’s called the wind.”

And here’s the difference between cycling on the Blue Ridge Parkway and heading south on A1A battling a ferocious Atlantic headwind.

Every now and then you get to go downhill on the Parkway,, which is a nice little break. A cruel Atlantic headwind cuts you no such slack.

So here’s the thing I found most frustrating, and most challenging, during my tenure as executive director of Bike Florida.

If you want to convince people that Florida is really a great biking state you better bring your lunch.

I have ridden the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia, the southern highlands of Scotland, Ireland’s Cliffs of More and Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands.

I’ve cycled the Rockies and ridden the south rim of the Grand Canyon, toured New York’s Finger Lakes and the Erie Canal Trail.

And I’ve found all of those experiences to be remarkable in their own way.

But I’ve done some of my best and most memorable riright here in the Sunshine State.

We may not have mountains. But as Clyde Butcher will tell you, Florida’s beauty is every bit as exquisite if infinitely more subtle.

We used to have a small group tour we called the Horse Country to the Springs Tour. Through the heart of Florida’s Eden.

We took riders down lovely no-traffic country roads that wound past cracker shacks interspersed with multi-million dollar horse farms – where you’d see a for-sale sign and know that yet another tort lawyer lost his case on appeal.

We passed zebras on our way to Micanopy.

We visited Marjorie Kinnon Rawling’s cracker citrus grove in Cross Creek, where enthusiastic docents filled us in on the nitty gritty of her Bohemian life style.

We stopped outside Gainesville to walk out onto Alachua Sink to get up close and personal with Gators who were well and truly on steroids.

Listen, nothing gets that big on its own.

Arriving in High Springs we pressed on to Oleno State Park – named after a once popular gambling game because this is Florida, after all – got off our bikes, and proceeded to throw ourselves into the gently-flowing, tea-colored water of the Santa Fe River.

And as we floated there a woman from Baltimore asked me, rather nervously,

“Are there any gators in this river?”

Since I cannot tell a lie, I told her, truthfully.

“Why yes there are.”

Then I pointed to the roped line of floatation devices that sectioned off the park’s swimming area and I said.

“But they aren’t allowed to go past that line.”

I dunno, she didn’t seem all that reassured.

I have been telling this remarkable state’s unique stories – some of them near to unbelievable for those of you who may have heard of the Wakulla volcano – for my entire journalistic career.

And when I got the opportunity to be executive director of Bike Florida I thought “This is great. Now I can show cyclists from all over the world my Florida.

That secret Florida.

The Florida that isn’t defined by South Beach and Disney.

I wanted to take my cyclists to Two Egg.

And tell them about that time our Confederate governor fled there to his plantation -lto fatally shoot himself upon hearing that the South had surrendered.

I couldn’t wait to lead tours to Wewahitchka – Tupalo Honey capital of the south – by way of the primeval Dead Lakes.

I wanted to show them Ormond Beach’s Loop, past wetlands that seemed almost primeval in their graceful beauty, and then on through a massive oak-canopied road that abruptly gave way to urban river life Florida style.

I’ve taken them the Old Sugar Mill ruins in New Smyrna Beach, where folks still argue over whether the sugar plantation’s owner was murdered by his slaves or by Indians.

And you know what impressed them most about these historic ruins?

That’s right….the cement dinosaurs that are still there from back when it was called Bongoland.

Yes, another Florida roadside attraction.

We’ve taken cyclists to Bok Tower. And ridden the Canaveral National Seashore.

We’ve cycled the Talbot Islands past great undisturbed stretches of Atlantic coast that still look something like they must have looked when Jean Ribault made landfall there in 1560.

And we’ve taken cyclists to St. Marks, and told them about that time Spanish conquistadors got trapped there by Apalachee Indians

Who were not at all impressed with their muskets and horses.

BTW: That’s one of my all-time favorite Florida stories.

Those conquistadors originally landed in Tampa Bay looking for gold. So they cornered the local indigenous people and demanded “Where’s the gold?”

Whereupon said indigenous people said “We haven’t got the gold. The Apalachee do.”

Which sent the conquistadors scurrying north in the direction of Tallahassee looking for fame and fortune.

Of course the Apalachee didn’t have the gold.

What they had was a reputation for being the nastiest, meanest and most warlike tribe in the entire region.

Thereby proving my longtime contention that Florida has always been a land of confidence men. But that’s another Florida story.

Heck, the Spanish ended up having to eat their horses and cut their hides into leather strips to make rafts and then launch themselves into the Gulf of Mexico…ultimately to end up washed ashore on Galveston Island, where most were either killed or enslaved by other Indians.

Listen, we have ridden through the rabbit warren of million dollar seaside mansions on Casey Key – just to see how the other half live – and then on to Boca Grande….where they told us that we couldn’t use their “private” bike/golf cart trail because they didn’t want “our kind of bikers” in their town.

Like we were the Hell’s Angles or something.

And speaking of which we once took several hundred cyclists to Soloman’s Castle, a big house apparently made of tin foil out in the middle of nowhere Hardee County…and had the great good fortune to arrive at the same time as the Tampa Bay chapter of Dykes On Bikes.

Is this a great state or what?

Listen, I could go on and on about the Florida stories we could tell….and show…to our cyclists.

Watching the sun rise on the St. John’s River in Welaka before heading out to Mud Springs…which isn’t really all that muddy. Some say it’s called that to discourage people from going there.

Like visiting Fernandina Beach so we could sit on a bench with David Yulee the railroad barron and talk to him about that time he had to get out of town real fast in one of his trains just before union troops could nab him.

Or riding to Mexico Beach…at least before it was reduced to rubble…so we could show them what a Florida beach town looked like before the condo kings got ahold of it.

I was brimming over with stories….and places..and I was absolutely certain that cyclists would beat a path to our door for the privilege of seeing My Florida.

And I am sorry to say that, by and large, I was wrong.

I will tell you that to this day I consider my biggest failure as a professional communicator was my inability to figure out how to market the Real Florid to cyclists from up north or from out west or oversees.

I hope that the people in this room will put their heads together and figure out how to do that.

Because Florida isn’t too hot.

And Florida isn’t too flat.

And our best places to ride aren’t South Beach or Disney.

BTW: Have you noticed that Disney packages cruise ship tours with resort visits…all the better to capture a target audience and keep them spending money on Disney enterprises.

Nobody from Disney has asked me, but if they did I’d suggest that they do another kind of packaging to attract people from Germany, Italy, France and other places where cycling is a thing.

Say, five or six days in the resorts followed by a five day guided bicycle tour.

And the beauty of that is – thanks to the commitment Florida is making to connecting greenways – Disney or anybody else will soon be able to offer exclusively on-trail tours of several days length for people who would love to ride a bicycle here but are scared off by Florida’s deplorable record for killing more cyclists and pedestrians than almost any other state.

Which brings me to the other really important message I have to deliver to you who came here today to figure out how to grow bicycle tourism in Florida.

Sorry, but I need to say this because I have been writing about these basic pubic safety issues for far longer than I’ve been interested in bicycle tourism.

Florida has for too many years led the nation in the number of pedestrians and cyclists it kills.

We are killing far too many people who prefer not to drive in order to get from here to there.

On one of my very first Bike Florida tours we lost a very nice man from Arizona after a teenager near Newberry dropped his cell phone, reached down to get it, and veered into the bike lane.

So let me be clear.

Florida desperately needs to take aggressive, corrective action to save the lives of people who don’t care to encase themselves inside multi-ton steel cocoons for the singular privilege of getting from one place to another.

Call it Vision Zero. Call it traffic calming. Call it Complete Streets.

Whatever you want to call the strategy, the only thing we can call the status quo is unacceptable.

If we do not do something about that then we can kiss our bicycle tourism ambitions goodbye.

My bottom line message to all of you is simply this.

We need a strategy, a vision, a plan to get out the message that Florida is open for safe and enjoyable cycling.

We should refuse to take a back seat to corn field-rich Iowa, or lumpy North Carolina or woody Oregon or any other state when it comes to being cycle friendly.

Seriously, folks, it’s time for Florida to grow up and cycle right.

It’s time for all of us to ride our age.

Red and our right to know

J. Emory “Red” Cross was a maverick in the Florida Legislature who believed that his constituents ought to know what their government was doing in their names.

(I wrote this article for the current edition of FORUM, a publication of Florida Humanities)

What’s in a name?

If you had asked J. Emory Cross that question in 1948, he would have said that name recognition counts for a lot.

Cross, Georgia native turned Marianna car salesman turned Gainesville lawyer was running for state prosecutor against two rivals from well-known local families. At campaign functions they liked to brag about just how familiar their names were.

“That was sort of getting to me so finally I began to say,’now you are talking about familiarity of names?’ I believe mine was more familiar than either one of theirs,” he recalled in a 1978 interview with the University of Florida’s Oral History Program.

“My name is Red Cross.

“That might have won me the election.”

Whether it did or not, Red Cross stuck. He of the crimson hair, “ice cream” tropical suits and a penchant for tough causes.

And Red wasn’t even his first nickname. When he ran for student body president at the University of Florida in 1945 – winning by just 15 votes – they jokingly called him “Landslide.”

But the most enduring moniker Cross acquired during a stellar political career was no joke:

Father of Florida’s Sunshine Law.

It took him a decade to do it, beginning in 1957 when he was in the state house. But in his dogged determination to mandate public meetings, Cross more than anyone insured that, in Florida, the people’s business would be done in sight of and with participation from the people.

And getting that done was a lonely business. “I never had a co-introducer on it in all the times that I introduced it,” Pepper would later say of the legislation that finally passed in 1967, when he was a state senate.

In terms of having a lasting impact on everyday lives, J. Emory “Red” Cross may be the most consequential politician that many Floridians have never heard of. If you ever attended a city zoning board hearing to protect your property rights, or weighed in on your neighborhood school’s redistricting, you can thank Red Cross for that right.

Half a century after its passage the Sunshine Law still obliges school board members, city and county commissioners and state officials to hold open meetings and listen to public comments before making decisions.

And it should surprise no one that it is newspeople – who regularly attend public meetings and report on their outcomes – who are most likely to remember and appreciate Red Cross’ legacy.

“There should be a statue of the man in Tallahassee, and his face should be emblazoned on the wall of every county courthouse and city hall in the state,” Craig Pittman, reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and author of “Oh, Florida!” has written.

“Think of how very different our lives would be without the Sunshine Law, and not just here but also others states that have copied us,” Pittman says. “He saw what was happening outside the public view and came up with this thing that we all take for granted today.”

And therein hangs a tale worth telling.

Red Cross, who died in 2004 at the age of 90, was a fixture in north Florida politics through the 1950s and ’60s. First as prosecutor then state representative and senator and, finally, Alachua County judge. And it’s fair to say that he made an impression on folks.

“He always wore white. White suit, white tie, white shoes, white socks,” recalled Gainesville attorney Jonathan Wershow, whose father lost a legislative race to Cross. “I thought he was an excellent politician but from a political standpoint he was a lot more liberal than the area around him.”

Which is to say that Cross was one of those rarest of political animals – the Southern Progressive. Cut from quite the same mold as Florida’s other “Red,” Claude Pepper, and Lawton Chiles, who served with Cross in the legislature and went on to champion the federal version Florida’s Sunshine Law in the U.S. Senate.

“Red was a very colorful, classic Southern good old boy,” recalls Jean Chance, who began teaching journalism at UF in 1956 and often invited Cross to speak to her students. “It was the day of the Pork Choppers but he was smart enough as a lawyer to know how to compromise. He knew how to count the votes and he knew he was in a college town.”

Indeed, Cross himself would admit that key to his political longevity was his liberal college town constituency, which often put him at odds with the rural lawmakers who ran the state well into second half of the 20th century.

“I had a lot of enemies in the legislature,” he said during that 1978 UF interview “but I represented a county that they did not have any strength with. Alachua County was peculiar in that regard.”

How peculiar? Well, consider that Gainesville was the only Florida city that George McGovern carried in 1972.

And it would be short-changing the man’s legacy to imagine that open government was his sole contribution.

Cross himself said his proudest achievement was bringing a medical school to the University of Florida, in 1955. Working with then-Rep. Ralph Turlington and state Sen. William Shands, Cross drove the length of the state to secure legislative votes for the initiative.

“I had broken my arm and had a cast up to my shoulder,” he recalled. “I drove with my left hand from Pensacola to Key West.”

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee Cross helped funnel millions of dollars to Florida’s fledgling community college system. He introduced the bill that created Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville (after heated fight with Sen. Charlie Johns, who wanted it in Starke). He also championed better mental health screening and treatment.

Cross began his push for Government In The Sunshine shortly after he was elected to the House, and after meeting with then-UF journalism dean Rae O Weimer and Buddy Davis, Pulitizer Prize winning editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun.

The ability of elected officials to make decisions in secret had long bothered Cross.

When I-75 was in the planning stage, he once told the Gainesville Sun, “I had a very good friend who was on the road board helping his buddies” buy up land along its future path. “It just wasn’t right.”

Cross said in his oral history interview “I always believed the people had a right to know about what the public officials were doing and how their money was spent.”

That notion of a public right to know didn’t go over well with many lawmakers. Cross remembered one Chiefland representative, Edder Usher, who argued that “down in Levy County we are not for open meetings.”

“And his newspapers all over Levy County wrote editorials against him,” Cross said. “He was sorry he said that.”

What ultimately paved the way for passage of the Sunshine Law was a landmark court-ordered reapportionment that ended the reign of the pork choppers and ushered in new state leadership. Claude Kirk, Florida’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, signed the bill into law.

Ironically, it was that same reapportionment that ended Cross’ legislative career. After his district was redrawn to include portions of several rural counties, Cross lost his seat to Gainesville oil-gas distributor Bob Saunders.

“Saunders was a handsome businessman and the right people got behind him and funded his campaign,” Jean Chance said. “Red didn’t keep up with his times.”

Fifty two years after its passage, Cross’s Sunshine Law remains durable but vulnerable to changing times. Barbara Peterson, of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, said “there are far fewer exemptions to our right of access (meetings) than to public records. Of 1,100-plus exemptions, maybe 10 to 15 percent have been to Sunshine Law and the remainder to the Public Records Law.”

Which is not to say that the public’s right to know isn’t threatened by fast-changing technology. Increased used of email, text messaging, social media and other forms of instant communication are challenging the very meaning of what exactly constitutes a public meeting or record.

Sandra F. Chance, retired UF journalism professor and co-author of a history of Florida’s open government laws, said “technology is fast outpacing the law’s ability to keep up. It allows us to do more things more remotely, but a lot of people still don’t have access to computers.”

In the end, she cautions, open government “is dependent on the commitment by citizens to protect their democracy and demand access to information. And if the public isn’t paying attention these laws are going to disappear.”

Florida’s forgotten city

Call it the forgotten city on the Forgotten Coast with a forgotten destiny.

If you have never been to Port St. Joe you really ought to treat yourself. It is a picture postcard Gulf Coast community possessed of a walkable, old Florida-style downtown and blessed with spectacular views of Cape San Blas, just across the shallow waters of an shimmering aquamarine bay. With just over 3,500 residents it exudes small town charm.

Port St. Joe lacks the cache of its “oyster capital” neighbor to the east, Apalachicola. But neither does it suffer the beach-blocking high-rises and sprawl of Panama City to the west.

It is, in short, a small, compact and lovely little Forgotten Coast town that time seems to have forgotten.

All of which constitutes both the charm and the enigma of Port St. Joe.

Because this small resort community has all but risen from the ashes of a much larger city that once harbored grand ambitions.

Before Florida entered the union, in 1845, St. Joseph was an up-and-coming port city that aspired to be the next Savannah or Charleston. Already one of the largest and most prosperous settlements in then-territorial Florida, St. Joseph wanted to be bigger and more prosperous still.

Indeed, it is the town that birthed modern Florida government. The first state constitutional convention was held there in 1838, a precursor to Florida’s admission into the union.

And while playing host to delegates from around the peninsula’s widely scattered settlements, city fathers harbored no less an ambition than to become the very seat of governance for America’s newest state.

“There were some very wealthy and influential people in city of St Joseph, so there was a big push” to position it as the capital when the state was finally admitted into the union. It was such a booming town that it kind of helped in that situation. By some estimates there were as many as 12,000 people living there.”

This from Joanna Lindsey, ranger in charge of the State Constitutional Convention Museum, in Port St. Joe.

Ah, but such is the serendipitous nature of history. Far from becoming a coastal version of Tallahassee, St. Joseph in relatively short order went from boom town to ghost town. Only to be later reborn as a miniature version of itself.

All this due to untimely visitations of fever, fire, wind and financial ruin.

“by 1844 it was just a ghost town, it peaked and just died,” Lindsey said.

Perhaps the best account of the rise and fall of old St. Joseph was written in 1967 by Henry A. Drake, former postmaster at Port St. Joe. In 1838 Florida’s Territorial Council “selected St. Joseph over such older and larger cities in the territory, as Pensacola, St. Augustine, and Tallahassee, as a site for the drafting of a state constitution,” he wrote.

Why? Perhaps because community leaders like newspaper editor Peter W. Gautier, Jr. and businessmen E.J. Wood, William P. Duval and Richard C. Allen were adept at playing “shrewd politics” in their determination to promote St. Joseph.

At the time of the convention, St. Joseph boasted a railroad, at least seven hotels, a newly built convention hall and a race track.

That latter amenity, Drake noted, “attracted the sporting element of distant places, and with the excellent public accommodations, including some gaming houses where liquors were imbibed in some quantities…St. Joseph soon became known as a fast town!”

St. Joseph’s capital city ambitions were nearly foiled at the outset by the skeptical voters of Florida. The constitution that finally emerged from the convention barely survived its 1839 referendum – winning by just 113 votes out of only about 4,000 cast. “I don’t know that (voters) objected so much to the contents of the constitution as to the ultimate goal of joining the union,” Lindsey said.

It’s what happened subsequently, however, that sealed St. Joseph’s fate. Call it a series of unfortunate events.

In 1839 a storm destroyed several buildings and blew a number of ships ashore.

That was followed by a yellow fever epidemic in 1841 that killed many residents and convinced many more still to leave town. Only an estimated 500 people remained in the wake of “Yellow Jack’s” visit.

Later that year a hurricane came ashore and did great damage. And then wildfires incinerated much of what remained.

All of this occurred simultaneously with a drop in cotton prices that caused the St. Joseph and Iola Railroad to close.

“The city might have overcome and survived the fever epidemic, except for the railway loss which had provided transportation in world commerce through the port of St. Joseph,’ Drake wrote. “But the city could not sustain itself under these adverse circumstances. Its plight was downward until its complete abandonment about 1854.”

As if to add insult to injury, some of the city’s grandest homes were subsequently bought up and shipped by barge to the hated rival city of Apalachicola.

“Many of the brick from the ruins of the old cotton warehouse and other buildings at St. Joseph were used in the paving of Palifox Street in Pensacola,” Drake recorded. “By the end of 1843 there were perhaps not more than 50 inhabitants at St. Joseph.”

It wouldn’t be until after the turn of the century that Port St. Joe began to take root about two miles away from old St. Joseph. For a time, Port St. Joe would also take on the trappings of a boom town, as saw mills and pulp paper companies began to move in. But these days it is mostly tourism that sustains the town. The white beaches of nearby St. Joseph Peninsula St. Park attracts thousands of visitors a year.

And while Port St. Joe largely avoided the major damage that all but destroyed its neighbor, Mexico Beach, when Hurricane Michael came ashore last year, that tempest arrived as a latest reminder of the fragility of life on a narrow, sandy spit of land that juts so precariously out into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ultimately it was a former Chicago newspaperman who wrote St. Joseph’s obituary. In his 1922 essay titled “Old St. Jo.” George Mortimer West eulogized:

“The sun shone brightly over the wrecked ambitious work of man.Death’s Angel, the hurricane, had completed the work begun by its brother, Pestilence (yellow fever), and buried beneath the sands of the sea, or swept to the four winds of Heaven, all that remained of the proud young city of St. Joseph.”

It’s official (Florida)

If you know anything about Florida you know that we shamelessly borrow from elsewhere to sort of fill in our blanks.

Snowbirds, iguanas and Burmese pythons to name just a few of our, um, exotics.

So it should surprise no one that Florida’s official state pie isn’t a product of Florida produce at all.

But can the celebrated Key Lime Pie really be Florida if it comes with “ping-pong ball sized limes from Mexico?”

This conundrum posed by Mark Lane, who has forgotten more about all things Florida than most of us will ever know.

Turns out necessity is the mother of pies as well as invention. Our indigenous key limes having been long blown away by hurricanes.

But never mind that. What’s important is that the Key Lime Pie (aka “the pink flamingos of Florida food”) stomped both pecan and sweet potato to sit atop Florida’s confectionary food pyramid.

I didn’t know all this until I read Lane’s new book. “Roaring Reptiles, Bountiful Citrus And Neon Pies: An unofficial guide to Florida’s official symbols.” (University Press of Florida).

Mark is an old pal. A long time columnist for the Daytona Beach News Journal he looks – and rather writes – like a Mark Twain Florida clone. That’s a complement, people.

But seriously, does the world need a book about our state song (“Old Folks At Home”), bird (mocking), play (“The Cross And The Sword”), tree (Sabal Palm) soil (Myakka fine sand) and whatnot?

And, really, don’t our elected legislators have better things to do than designate Glenn Glitter our official litter control mascot?

Well, maybe yes, maybe no. But state-blessed symbolism isn’t just symbolic of idle political hands doing the marketers’ work. “These totems and mascots are our attempts to pin down who we are, to make visible previously vague feelings of common identity,” Lane posits.

Plus, there are some really quirky stories attached to the branding of all things officially Florida.

After all, who would even remember State Sen. Joseph Johnson, of Brooksville, if his death in 2009 hadn’t reminded us that he was “the father of the Sunshine State license plate”?

And remember when a disgruntled House Democrat tried to replace the alligator with party-switching turncoat Jim Smith as official state reptile?

Oh, and while Destin Republican Charlie Clary failed to make the Eocene Heart Urchin Florida’s official fossil, he did manage to get a state law named after his beloved dog Dixie Cup.

But wait, what was so objectionable about fossilized urchin carcasses anyway? Turns out that to some nervous pols, they evoked an uncomfortable association with climate change, sea level rise,”mass extinction, evolution and worse.”

And there’s this to say about Lane’s book. It’s not all key lime froth and trivia. A hard-bitten newsman, he isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions.

Like: “If the manatee is truly our state spirit-animal, why is everybody okay with letting boats run over them all the time?”

And does Florida need an official play “about a state-sponsored military expedition that brought European religious wars to the New World”?

And “How did this happen?” This in reference to a state song that contains the lyrics “Oh darkies how my heart grows weary.”

And why are Confederate Memorial Day and the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis still official Florida holidays? (Think “white nationalists with bad haircuts.”)

Good questions all, Mark.

Listen, if Florida ever needs an official Mark Twain clone, I’ve got just the guy.

Bartram and Palatka

A piece I wrote for the Spring, 2018 edition of FORUM

On a “fine, cool” May morning in 1774, William Bartram navigated his tiny craft up a broad stretch of the St. John’s River and nosed toward the western shore.

“I suddenly saw before me an Indian settlement, or village,” he wrote. “Some of the youth were naked, up to their hips in the water, fishing with rods and lines, whilst others, younger, were diverting themselves in shooting frogs with bows and arrows.”

Four months later, Bartram – artist, explorer, map maker and botanist – would return to the village to partake of the tribe’s watermelon fest.

“We were received and entertained friendlily by the Indians, the chief of the village conducting us to a grand, airy pavilion in the center of the village,” he wrote. “Here being seated or reclining ourselves after smoking tobacco, baskets of the choicest fruits were brought and set before us.”

It was as fine a welcome to Palatka – or what would eventually become Palatka – as a Quaker from far off Philadelphia could hope for.

This gentle stranger who would become known to the Seminoles as Puc-Puggy: Flower Hunter.

Nearly a century and a half later, Sam Carr sits in Palatka’s gleaming new St. John’s River Center and ponders the relationship between America’s first naturalist and Carr’s beloved hometown.

“When you read Bartram’s writings his heart becomes our heart,” said Carr, retired Ford Motor Co. executive, avid fisherman and homespun conservationist. “He was more concerned about how man took care of God’s creations. He was the first to see the relationship between our wetlands, the river, the wildlife, the seasons.

“This guy belongs to Palatka. He’s ours.”

Carr is not so much a Bartram enthusiast as a Bartram evangelist. For the past several years he has lived, breathed and expounded upon Bartram’s writings and explorations – to just about anybody who would listen.

From his home in nearby Satsuma, Carr can see Murphy Island, which Bartram described as “1500 acres more or less of good swamp, and some hammock.” And last year, when Palatka hosted for the first time the national, annual Bartram Trail Conference, Carr took conferees on a journey up river to sulfurous Satsuma Springs to experience that “prodigious large fountain of clear water of loathsome taste.”

“There were people with tears in their eyes to realize it’s really here as Bartram described it,” he said.

His book “Bartram’s Travels” was wildly popular in young America. And partially as a result, “people were coming here to find that this was indeed what he called a creator’s garden. They came to see the springs, the river, the flowering plants and all that creates Palatka.”

The city’s popularity as an early nature tourism destination was such that Palatka once boasted nearly 6,000 hotel rooms. Most of which burned down in a disastrous fire in 1884.

Palatka never fully recovered its luster after that inferno. But it may yet.

Palatka has seen many economic evolutions since then, alternatively fueled by shipping, railroads, citrus, lumber and paper mills. But busts have inevitably followed booms. An article in the Washington Post last year deemed Palatka and its 10,000 residents, a city “desperate for an economy to call its own.”

Which is where William Bartram and his legacy may come in.

Bartram’s travels up and down the American east coast are well recorded. And his Florida explorations took him the length of the St. John’s as well as to points as distant as Alachua County’s Paynes Prairie and the Suwannee River.

But Bartram mapped more sites, 32 of them, in what is now Putnam County than anywhere else on the river. And for the past few years, Carr and other members of Palatka’s ad hoc Bartram Committee – with financial backing from the city, county and the Florida Council on Humanities – have been locating and marking Bartram’s sites with colorful information kiosks. They have also mapped a growing network of greenways (biking) blueways (kayaks) and hiking trails with the intention of once again establishing Palatka as the ecotourism center of Florida. Maps that will lead modern explorers from Palatka to Welaka, Port Royal, Georgetown and points in between.

Where Bartram once set foot, others can now follow.

“Putnam county’s assets are amazing,” Carr says. “We have a huge amount of public lands and the river. We can be the bike trails hub, the river hub.”

Carr and others hope that Bartram’s legacy will become integral to this river city’s very sense of place.

In addition to hosting last year’s Bartram Trail Conference – drawing scholars and enthusiasts from as far away as London – Palatka now sponsors an annual “Bartram River Frolic,” which offers visitors historical reenactments, riverboat tours, food and drink and concerts and art displays. At the River Center visitors and student groups learn not only about Bartram’s travels, but are also schooled on how to exercise environmental stewardship over the land and the water around them.

“This is the headquarters for Bartram recreational trail,” Carr says. “Go through the Bartram exhibit, get the brochure, the maps. Figure out whether to hike, bike boat or drive. It takes about four days to see everything and it’s rather unique.”

Another Bartram Committee member, Linda Crider, recently converted her two-story historic home near the river into the Bartram Inn. “What I really wanted to do was promote adventure tours and wrap it around our Bartram efforts,” she said. “On the second floor I have on the walls all the kiosks panels that explain who he is. Every room has a brochure. I have bicycles available to do Palatka’s historic homes and murals tour.

“The Bartram Inn is probably Palatka’s first tangible business-commercial connection,” she said, “but I think it’s going grow. Who knows where it might lead?”

Puc-Puggy surely knew. He who sailed up this great river to discover a “boundless apartment of the Sovereign Creator…inexpressibly beautiful and pleasing” yet “equally free to the inspection and enjoyment of all his creatures.”

For more information

William Bartram in Putnam County

http://bartram.putnam-fl.com

St. John’s River Center

http://www.palatka-fl.gov/256/St-Johns-River-Center

The Bartram Trail Conference

http://www.bartramtrail.org