Friday, January 30, 2015

Meeting "The Ladies of Punta Gorda"

I first met Libby Schaefer last fall when Dorrit, Bruce and I took one of her free walking tours around Punta Gorda.  Her enthusiasm for Punta Gorda's history (and life in general) was infectious.

Wrobbel (second from L), Schaefer (fourth from L) & friends

Libby mentioned she was interviewing women for a book about Punta Gorda.  She told me it was Helen Wrobbel who pushed her to write the book.  I knew Helen in passing from various symphony events.  Despite her advanced age (95+) and reliance on a walker, she was one of the CSO's most ardent fans.  Libby shared that Helen had wanted to be buried wearing a red bustier, but that a family member vetoed her wishes. What???!!!  This was just one of the many things I didn't know about Helen when she was alive.  She was a businesswoman who quietly fought segregation. She was an active volunteer firefighter for whom a local fire station is named. I regret not taking the chance to get to know her.

Libby's book was published in January, and it is a gem.  The transcribed interviews draw a picture of what life in Punta Gorda was like in years past and the many ways in which these women shaped our community.  It is a reminder that we can all make a difference.  (If you want to get a feel for the stories in "The Ladies of Punta Gorda," the article I wrote about the book for Florida Weekly is set out below.)

Libby is working on a new book entitled "Memories of War."  Thoughts of "The Ladies of Punta Gorda, Volume II" also occupy her.  And she's lobbying for a new mural in town honoring the contributions of the women she's helped us get to know.  I have high hopes that all of these endeavors will come to fruition.

Introducing “The Ladies of Punta Gorda”
By Nanette Crist, Florida Weekly Correspondent

Author Libby Schaefer
With a twinkle in her eye, Libby Schaefer calls herself a “streetwalker.” Not in the traditional sense, of course. The streets she’s been walking are frequented by the memories of the women who made Punta Gorda the community it is today. Ms. Schaefer tells their stories in “The Ladies of Punta Gorda: A Memory Book.”

Real history

It was Punta Gorda “Grand Dame” Helen Wrobbel who pushed Ms. Schaefer to write her book. Over the course of more than 50 years, Ms. Wrobbel wore many hats in our community, including volunteer fire fighter, businesswoman, clown and president of the Punta Gorda Women’s Club. 

In Ms. Wrobbel’s view, “Real history is the memories people have of the lives they’ve lived.” And she firmly believed the women of Punta Gorda had stories that needed to be told and preserved. 

Backbone of our community

Ms. Schaefer originally intended to satisfy Ms. Wrobbel by interviewing a few women and chronicling their stories. But as she began talking with the ladies, Ms. Schaefer became captivated by the lives they led. “These women were the backbone of our community,” she said. As her enthusiasm mushroomed, so did the project. 

With her tape recorder at the ready, Ms. Schaefer sat down with women who contributed to Punta Gorda’s history in ways large and small. Each chapter recounts the words of the women themselves rather than Ms. Schaefer’s spin on their lives.

Faye Whitehurst Mobley Austin
And so readers learn from Faye Whitehurst Mobley Austin what it was like to be the first nurse in Punta Gorda. Edna Earl Smith Poppell shares her memories of growing up as the daughter of the “Smiling Iceman of Punta Gorda.” And June Tang relates her journey from Bangkok to Punta Gorda, where she owns and operates the Royal Thai restaurant with her daughter Christina.

Generations of women

In many instances, Ms. Schaefer gathered stories about women no longer living. She talked with daughters and granddaughters and nieces. 

Frances Joyce Cleveland Lenz recalls both her life and that of her grandmother, Jean Paul Whiteaker Cleveland. Ms. Lenz was raised by Ms. Cleveland and has lived in the same house on Gill Street since she was a child. 

Ms. Lenz recounts tales from her grandmother’s work in City Hall as deputy clerk and, later, town clerk. (A woman serving as town clerk in the 1950s was a rarity.) She recalls being at work with her grandmother when a resident came in who didn’t have the money to pay his water bill. He did have vegetables, though, and offered to sell some to Ms. Cleveland. She carefully made her selections, purchasing enough to enable the gentleman to pay his bill. Ms. Lenz says there was always fresh produce in their home.

Cornelia Ponder with her daughter and granddaughter
Alfreda Weathersbee Mobley similarly shares her own story and remembrances of her great aunt Cornelia Ponder. Ms. Ponder was a nurse and midwife whose patients spanned the color divide. Ms. Mobley remembers “Auntie” working with the local doctor to nurse Ms. Mobley’s mother back to health. The doctor said, “Cornelia, me and you got her better.” Ms. Ponder responded, “You, me and God.” 

A time of segregation

Segregation was a reality of life for many women whose stories are told in “The Ladies of Punta Gorda.” Women like Martha Bireda remember well attending Baker Academy, Punta Gorda’s African-American school. The school taught students from kindergarten through grade six to nine, depending upon the era. Once the students graduated, they were bused to Fort Myers to continue their education.   

Segregation permeated our community in a multitude of ways. The Punta Gorda train station had a separate waiting room and water fountain for African-American travelers. The hospital had a two bed ward for African-American patients. If the beds were filled, the patient was sent home unless a nearby hospital had a vacancy in its colored ward. Even tasks as seemingly simple as shopping for a new dress were difficult because African-American shoppers were not permitted to use the stores’ dressing rooms. 

Martha Bireda with Helen Wrobbel
Taking a stance

Ms. Bireda tells of one way in which her mother, Bernice Andrews Russell, rebelled against the mores of segregation. Then, as now, Punta Gorda had many intersections with four way stops signs. It was the custom for African-Americans drivers at these intersections to allow white drivers to pass through, regardless of who had arrived first. Ms. Russell would just “turn her head…and drive right through.”  

Ms. Bireda is proud her mother’s story is included in the book. “My mother was an extraordinary woman,” she says. “She was born a second class citizen, but she became a first class citizen by taking advantage of opportunities when they opened up.”

In her later life, Ms. Russell established the Blanchard House Museum to celebrate the contributions of African-Americans to our community. Somewhat to her surprise, Ms. Bireda now continues her mother’s work as Executive Director of Blanchard House. 

What’s cooking?

Paging through “The Ladies of Punta Gorda” is like perusing a friend’s old scrapbook. Wonderful pictures with cracks and creases attesting to their age accompany each story. 

Ms. Schaefer has also included some family recipes in the book. “The ladies cooked all the time,” she said, “And it came up again and again as I talked with them. Many had special recipes they encouraged me to include.”  

 A serious baker herself, Ms. Schaefer has added specialties like guava cobbler and kumquat cake to her repertoire. 

Bringing her book to life

Like all authors, Ms. Schaefer loves to talk about her book. But there’s no sense of self-promotion in her conversation. Instead, it’s clear she has come to regard the women—even the ones long departed—as friends she really wants you to get to know. Ms. Schaefer will be on hand to introduce her ladies at two upcoming events.

On Thursday, Jan. 29, Copperfish Books will host Ms. Schaefer at a book talk and signing. Reservations are suggested.  

For people who want more in-depth information, Ms. Schaefer will lead a walking tour on Friday, Jan. 30. The tour will feature locations mentioned in the book such as the Ice House and the Blanchard House Museum. Ms. Schaefer will share excerpts from relevant stories at each stop. The tour will be followed by classroom time for questions and trivia. The event is being offered through FGCU’s Renaissance Academy.

Volume 2?

Ms. Schaefer readily acknowledges there are many more women out there whose stories deserve to be told.  And it’s a project she’s contemplating. But for now, she’s content to let people get acquainted with the amazing women featured in “The Ladies of Punta Gorda.” 

1 comment:

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