Totally St. Augustine #25 (July 6, 2015)

New virtual dance partners

Residents of St. Johns County have yet another reason to be proud of their local schools. Beginning next month a partnership between two entities will provide students and dancers a unique opportunity to enhance their education and development.

The St. Augustine Virtual Education Center is joining with Abella’s School of Dance to open the Academy for Dancers. It will provide current and future dancers with the opportunity to combine a full school schedule with an ambitious dance schedule.

Already housed in the same facility, the Virtual Education Center and Abella’s will allow students to pursue their dance dreams while eliminating the sometimes challenging logistics of getting from one school to another.

While the concept is not locally unique, this new partnership will be the first in our community offering both a state-certified educator on staff and the services of an American Ballet Theatre (ABT) certified instructor.

Abella’s School of Dance has been a mainstay in St. Augustine for more than five years. The St. Augustine Virtual Education Center opened this past January and shares ample classroom and studio space with Abella’s. The mission of the Virtual Education Center is to provide a safe, nurturing environment where self-schooled students can go to learn, build, and create themselves into role models for the community.

The Center wants to give parents the option of providing their children with a home-schooled environment with the added benefits of socialization and the flexibility to more easily include dance and other extracurricular activities into their schedules.

There are also some cases where the need for parents to return to the workforce would have been a limiting factor for continued home schooling. The Virtual Education Center can, in many instances, eliminate this impediment.

Students enrolled in the Virtual Education Center and the Academy for Dancers will also have the opportunity to enhance their experiences in courses covering art, music, yoga, conditioning and foreign languages. The curriculum is still developing and will be based on demand. Organizers also hope to include a community outreach component.

The fee schedule is flexible, affordable and can be tailored to each individual student’s needs. The Virtual Education Center follows the St. Johns County School District calendar. Dance instruction will commence during the second week of school.

There are two open houses scheduled when potential students can visit the Virtual Education Center and Abella’s Dance Studio to see what this new partnership has to offer.

The open houses are on Tuesday, July 14, and Wednesday, July 15 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day. The facilities are located across from the Cobblestone Plaza at 1711 Lakeside Ave. (keep heading north and follow signs after you pass Rhinos and Hyppo Cafe).

For more information go online to


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Totally St. Augustine #24 (June 18, 2015)

Music for the sisters’ ears

One of the great things about our community is the willingness of many who live here to share their time, talent and love with those who otherwise may not have the chance to experience all they have to offer.

I was reminded of this last week when I attended a private recital and sing-along my wife, Carol, arranged for the residents of Lourdes Hall in downtown St. Augustine. Lourdes Hall is home to about 20 Sisters of St. Joseph who have retired after giving a lifetime of service to the Lord and the Lord’s children.

Carol, a professional liaison with Haven Hospice, knows how much the sisters enjoy music, especially sacred music, and made arrangements to have two of our community’s finest musicians visit with the sisters.

Peter and Helen Morin have been members of our community for only about five years but have made serious impacts since their arrival.

Peter is director of music at St. Anastasia Catholic Church, which also happens to be the parish where my family worships. I have watched Peter take our parish music ministry up a notch during his short tenure.

He graduated with a Master of Sacred Music from Emory University and has a resume that includes study and performances both stateside and in the British Isles. Before coming to St. Augustine, Peter and his family resided in Sturbridge, Mass., where they led music at St. Anne’s Shrine and founded the Rimscha Concert Series.

Helen, currently the music teacher at R.B. Hunt Elementary School, earned a Master of Music in Violin Performance with Lucia Lin at Boston University. She also holds a Bachelor of Music in Violin from Trinity College of Music in London.

I first heard Helen play the violin during Sunday mass at St. Anastasia and even my untrained ears were able to recognize her amazing talent.

Peter and Helen showed up in mid-afternoon at Lourdes Hall while the sisters eagerly anticipated their arrival. The concertgoers were also excited to see the Morin’s two young children, Luciana, 7, and Emanuel, 2, were part of the troupe.

Peter played the piano and Helen worked her violin magic for nearly 90 minutes. Peter also led the sisters in song with renditions of How Great Thou Art and several hymns focusing on the Blessed Mother. Most of the songs the sisters knew by heart.

Helen’s version of Ave Maria showcased her abundant ability and was most appreciated by her grateful audience, including me. Luciana sang a couple of solos for the sisters, including a memorable rendition of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I have heard Peter and Helen perform both at church and in Lewis Auditorium as part of the Emma Concert Series. It would have been challenging for the Lourdes residents to travel to either of those two venues.

Thank you Carol for making the arrangements. Thank you Morin Family for coming to the sisters’ home. And thank you St. Augustine for being such a great place to live.

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Totally St. Augustine #23 (May 28, 2015)

Peter Pan brings smiles

Because I’m a multimedia type of guy, I wrote a letter to the local newspaper before attending The Ballet of Peter Pan last weekend. In the letter I guaranteed everyone leaving Lewis Auditorium after the ballet would be wearing smiles. Call me a sage because that’s exactly what happened.

Quite simply, The Ballet of Peter Pan exceeded the expectations of persons like me who had eagerly anticipated its debut. I say, “debut” because its success almost guarantees the St. Augustine Ballet will make it part of the Ballet’s schedule for 2016.

I spoke to Director Luis Abella shortly after the curtain came down on the evening performance and suggested he might want to increase the showings from two to three next year. He told me he’s thinking “four.”

Those who know me recognize I am not completely unbiased when it comes to ballet productions in our community. My daughter has danced in the St. Augustine Ballet’s Nutcracker for the past four years and in several spring ballets. I’ve have watched her and many of her dance friends hone their skills while putting a great deal of time and sweat into becoming the best dancers possible. This is reflected in the quality that is unmistakably present when they take to the stage.

The Ballet of Peter Pan, however, was much more than just watching a bunch of great kids showcase their dancing skills. It was an entertaining and energizing exhibition that was extremely fun to watch. In fact, if the dancers were having half as much fun as the audience (and they undoubtedly were), then auditions for the 2016 version will be standing room only.

This wasn’t just ballet, although the performances of the two principal dancers (Daet Rodriguez and Margit Peguero Rodriguez) were quite spectacular. It was comedy, a familiar tale with an eclectic score and a variety of dance that melded perfectly with our St. Augustine community.

Captain William Mayhem of the St. Augustine Pirate Museum seemed to truly enjoy his role as the nefarious Captain Hook. His crew, largely comprised by members of one of Florida’s premier tap ensembles, “Noise Complaint,” was a perfect complement to the Darling family, Tiger Lily’s tribe, the lost children and the underwater fairies who performed so brilliantly en pointe.

Many readers might have already heard that they missed something pretty special by not attending this year’s Ballet of Peter Pan. We live in a relatively small community and news spreads fast. I promise this ballet will be a hot ticket in 2016.

St. Augustine is known primarily for its history, beaches and high quality of life. With several thriving dance schools, a population committed to cultural opportunities and the efforts of groups such as the St. Augustine Ballet, we can probably add “dance” to the list of areas making our community the envy of most others.


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Totally St. Augustine #22 (May 9, 2015)

Mother’s Day, Peter Pan and a great community

This column will have a lot of moving parts but I hope to have it running smoothly by the time I construct its final sentence.

There were several subjects I wanted to write about and rather than picking one I chose to include as many as possible in a single column. I hope when it’s done it’s firing on all cylinders.

Mother’s Day is upon us and although my mom passed away in late 2012, my daughter, Jenny, has a mom who well exemplifies why this day continues to have great meaning for me and for others.

I have been married to Jenny’s mom for nearly 33 years and despite numerous ups and downs, I don’t think I could have picked a better partner. With very little effort Carol could have landed a trophy husband but for some inexplicable reason she said, “yes” when I proposed to her 35 years ago. Not only is she a wonderful wife but also there is no one out there who could ever be a better mother to our daughter. Maybe that’s hyperbole but I’m sticking by my statement.

For almost a year now, Carol has been working as a professional liaison for Haven Hospice. In that time I’ve more than doubled my knowledge of palliative care and truly appreciate the work done by all hospice organizations.

In her job capacity Carol interacts with local health care providers and others who may benefit by knowing all there is to know about palliative care. And this interaction goes well beyond simple business considerations.

During the week before Mother’s Day, Carol arranged for the St. Augustine Ballet to bring two of its best dancers to the common room at BayView Assisted Living and perform a scene from its May 16 production of Peter Pan.

Ballet Director Luis Abella was on hand as well as dancers Kali Lee, 15, and Grace Karger, 13. Abella wants to see the Ballet grow and recognizes the importance of providing these types of mini-events to those in our community who may otherwise miss out. But it doesn’t end there.

The St. Augustine Ballet is offering discounted Peter Pan tickets to BayView residents and BayView management is providing transportation and one-half the cost of these discounted tickets to any of its residents who want to attend.

This mini-event at BayView was yet another reason why I continue to believe our community is so special. Just a little cooperation and effort among three organizational entities brought together young and old in a setting that left wide smiles on the faces of all who participated.

I am confident the BayView residents who attend the Ballet of Peter Pan will have their smiles recharged and all the dancers (including my daughter) who put on the performance will take great pride in helping forge those smiles.

Mother’s Day, a great ballet company, young and old creating a positive synergy, efforts by my wife to make this a better community and a promotion of the May 16 production of Peter Pan could have comprised at least five individual columns. I’ve squeezed them all into one.

If you can make it, I guarantee you will enjoy the Ballet of Peter Pan. There will be two performances on Saturday, May 16 at 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. in Lewis Auditorium at Flagler College. Tickets will be available at the door but you’ll probably get a better seat by going online at

And one last item: If you attend the ballet, plan on purchasing your flowers and other keepsakes at the TinkerBell Boutique in the lobby. All net proceeds will support the Ballet.

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Totally St. Augustine #21 (April 20, 2015)

Will pigs fly for Rubio once again?

I normally do not cover politics in my role as a community columnist. I think I touched on the subject one time so far and that was after an election had concluded. But I was most impressed earlier this week when one of Florida’s U.S. senators announced his candidacy for our nation’s presidency.

There’s even somewhat of a local angle for this column since, while working for another publication, I covered Marco Rubio’s visit to St. Augustine in the spring 2011. There’s also another personal connection, which puts me on a spectrum somewhere between prophetic political pundit and lucky guesser.

First, to the latter. It was early 2010 and I was having lunch with my co-workers at the Florida Farm Bureau cafeteria in Gainesville. As often happens, the subject turned to politics. Florida’s then Gov. Charlie Crist had recently announced that he was giving up his job as governor to pursue a vacant U.S. Senate seat.

Former Florida Speaker Marco Rubio was also seeking the Republican nomination and was trailing badly in the polls to Crist.

One of my colleagues was assessing how Crist would do in the general election when I suggested he might not even get the Republican nomination. This made my colleague gag and say something akin to, “when pigs fly.” About six months later, Porky had taken flight.

Fast forward to April 2011 when newly elected Sen. Marco Rubio was in the midst of a series of town hall meetings, one of which was scheduled for St. Augustine. The meeting was to take place at the Council on Aging’s River House and even I was surprised to see the standing-room-only crowd that had gathered.

The 2012 presidential election was taking shape at the time and Rubio’s name was being thrown around as a potential vice-presidential running mate for whomever the Republicans nominated.

The lead in the story I wrote about his appearance noted that just about the only thing Rubio said that disappointed the crowd was that he wasn’t seeking to be on the presidential ticket in 2012.

If you listened to what Rubio said when he declared for president on April 13, 2015, it wasn’t too different than what he told his St. Augustine audience four years earlier.

Back then Rubio said, “For the last 100 years Americans have been an inspiration to the rest of the world.” He then added, “Exceptionalism comes with a price. There’s nothing wrong with our people but there’s a lot wrong with our government.”

His 2011 remarks also covered some of his thoughts on taxes. He said, “We should be cautious when political leaders believe you have earned enough money. I think the role of government is to make it easier for you to succeed, not get in your way.”

The 2016 presidential election is still a long way off but I think Rubio has as good a chance as any to get the Republican nomination and, at age 44, become the third youngest U.S. president in history.

I’m old enough to remember folks saying that John F. Kennedy was too young to be president and, for that matter, Ronald Reagan was too old. We all know where those thoughts led.

I closed my story about Rubio’s 2011 visit to St. Augustine with a quote relating to the problems America was facing and how it made him feel.

Rubio said, “I would still rather be us than anyone else. I pray and hope that I will be able to be part of the solution.”

Be on the lookout for flying pigs because, four years later, Rubio might just get his chance.

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Totally St. Augustine (#20) March 26, 2015

We are the champions, once again

County health rating tops in state

Local media finally reported some news I heard several weeks ago but delayed writing about. And the news is St. Johns County is once again number one.

We already knew we’re at or near the top when it comes to our schools, beaches, history and fitness as a tourist destination. And now you can add health to the list.

The data is listed in a report published by the Robert Johnson Wood Foundation.

The report measured health outcomes, including length of life and quality of life. It also measured health factors, including health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors and physical environment. St. Johns County ranked number one in the state in both health outcomes and health factors.

Specifically we ranked number one for quality of life and social and economic factors. We nudged in at number two for length of life (Miami-Dade County first), health behaviors (Miami-Dade County first) and clinical care (Alachua County first). We’ve got a little ground to make up with physical environment where we ranked 41 (Desoto County first).

At the risk of losing readers by citing statistics I nonetheless thought it might be interesting to look at some of the measurements that brought us such lofty rankings.

Only 12 percent of our county population self reported themselves as being in fair or poor health while the average across Florida is 16 percent.

About 14 percent of adults in St. Johns County smoke while 18 percent of adult Floridians do the same. Obesity (BMI of 30 or above) is slightly less a problem for county residents with 23 percent bulky enough to qualify while 26 percent of all Floridians tipping the scales to make the cut.

We also exercise more than the average Floridian with only 17 percent of county adults admitting to a non-exercise regimen while 23 percent of adult Floridians embrace that lifestyle.

Only 15 percent of our population is without health insurance, compared to 23 percent of all Floridians. And our percentages for diabetic monitoring and mammography screening are better than the statewide average.

About 85 percent of county adults have graduated high school (75 percent statewide) and 76 percent of us have attended some college (60 percent statewide).

Our unemployment rate is 5.6 percent (7.2 percent statewide) and 23 percent of our children live in single-parent households (38 percent statewide).

It’s a little less clear why St. Johns County ranked all the way down the list at 41 for physical environment but it looks like it might be cause there are not a lot of differences from county to county.

We had slightly more air pollution and slightly less drinking water violations and severe housing than the statewide average. Apparently we are also less likely to carpool than the average Floridian.

How did our neighboring counties fare? Duval County came in at 43 (out of 67) with its best showing at 14 for clinical care.

Clay County was ranked 11 with highest marks for social and economic factors where it garnered a sixth-place finish.

Putnam County limped in at 65 and had its best marks with a 38 ranking for physical environment.

Flagler County finished in 22nd place with a respectable 10 place showing for clinical care.

Usually you take ratings for places to live with a grain of salt because most are popularity contests with non-scientific measurement methods. But these ratings seem to be more authentic and based on data that is quantifiable.

No matter how you look at it there’s little doubt that we live in a pretty special place. And the good news (and bad news) is that others are finally becoming aware of how nice our hometown really is.

To see where all Florida counties ranked go to


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Totally St. Augustine #19 (Feb. 17, 2015)

Half a lifetime in St. Augustine

While St. Augustine celebrates its 450th birthday this year, I will be marking a lesser-known anniversary. Thirty-two years ago my wife, Carol, and I packed all our belongings into a U-Haul trailer and moved from Tallahassee into a brand new mobile home on a rental lot in Treasure Beach. I have now spent more than half my life in one of the world’s most beautiful places.

So much has changed about St. Augustine in the last three-plus decades. Luckily I’m getting too old to remember it all. But here are some things I do remember.

SR 312 had only one two-lane span to get you from the island to the mainland. When you reached U.S. 1, the road ended. There was very little commerce on SR 312.

Riverside Center (Hobby Lobby, nee Albertson’s) was still a developer’s dream. There was no Applebee’s, Outback, Chili’s or even Sun Bank. I think Pizza Hut (now Cantina Louie) was there, but my memory is a bit sketchy.

Flagler Hospital was located downtown about where the River House is now located. St. Augustine General Hospital occupied the building Health and Human Services is currently moving out of and will soon be replaced by a Lowes.

The Ponce de Leon Mall was fully occupied and thriving. It even boasted a Morrison’s Cafeteria on the left as you walked in the main entrance. The I-95 outlet malls had yet to be built. Same goes for the World Golf Village.

If you drove north from the city on U.S. 1 you weren’t on your way to the County Courthouse Complex as it had not been built yet. However, you could stop off for a round of golf at the Ponce de Leon Golf Course (closed in 1991). If you had courthouse business you had to travel downtown and visit the building now home to the Casa Monica Hotel.

A-1-A from the Alligator Farm to all local points south was a two-lane road. There were very few businesses or housing developments along the way. Anastasia Plaza (Publix) had yet to be built. There was a Winn-Dixie, but it was located in the plaza where the Betty Griffin Thrift Store now resides.

The only Publix in town was situated in the shopping center on U.S. 1 about where you will now find Marshall’s. Our recently closed K-Mart was the only big box store in town. Yep, no Wal-Mart.

A few years after we arrived, Wal-Mart finally made its appearance on the east side of U.S. 1, about where Staples was located before it moved across the highway.

The large home-improvement store in town was not Home Depot but a now-defunct operation that went by the name of Scottie’s. It was located about where Barnes and Noble is now situated.

The Vilano Beach Bridge was a drawbridge. S.R. 16 was a two-lane road as was S.R. 207, all the way to Palatka. The Cobblestone Mall was more than a decade into the future. Pedro Menendez High School didn’t exist. The Columbia Restaurant had yet to open.

St. Augustine was a quieter but beautiful place to live in 1983.

In 1990 we purchased a home on the mainland where we now live. We drove through Treasure Beach a few weeks ago and “our” trailer is (barely) standing at the end of a cul de sac. More than three decades later, we’re still standing too.

And you know what, our town is still a very beautiful place.

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