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 http://www.countyhealthrankings.org/app/florida/2015/rankings

 

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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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Totally St. Augustine #18 (Jan. 28, 2015)

Peter Pan flying to St. Augustine

George Carlin had a routine where he mentioned phrases no human being had ever uttered. One of his examples was, “hand me that piano.”

I was reminded of Carlin’s banter when I recently turned to my wife and said, “I really can’t wait to see the “Ballet of Peter Pan.” Yep, those words effortlessly flowed from my mouth.

Confession time here: In the last four years I have become a huge fan of ballet. A major impetus undoubtedly streams from my 12-year-old daughter being a student of ballet and dancing in local productions. Some of you may be familiar with the St. Augustine Nutcracker, for which my daughter has been a performer since 2011.

I have also had the opportunity to meet and watch several visiting principal dancers demonstrate a unique combination of grace and athleticism that is ballet.

The St. Augustine Ballet is responsible for putting on our community’s annual production of The Nutcracker. It has also presented spring ballets, which in past years have included Peter and the Wolf and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This spring the St. Augustine Ballet is bringing a brand new adaptation of The Ballet of Peter Pan to our community. With dozens of local young dancers, it may very well evolve into another signature production.

The Ballet is partnering with the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum as well as the St. Augustine Alligator Farm to provide a synergy that will make Peter Pan a must see.

Returning to St. Augustine are principal dancers Margit Peguero Vargas (as Tinkerbell) and Daet Rodriguez (as Peter Pan). This Cuban-born, husband-wife team owns and operates the Cuballet Ecuador in Guayaquil and they were principals in the 2014 St. Augustine Nutcracker. But there’s more.

“Captain William Mayhem” of the Pirate Museum will take on the role of Captain Hook. The lobby of the Lewis Auditorium will be packed with pirates, a mermaid and at least one crocodile. Children attending the ballet will be encouraged to come dressed as pirates.

Luis Abella, the director of Peter Pan, is working with his principal dancers to create a mesmerizing choreography for this production. Robert O’Leary, the set designer, is hoping to provide an atmosphere that will provide a perfect complement to the dance movements on stage. And, yes, some of the dancers will take flight.

The music will be an eclectic mix of Native American, Irish, classical and who knows what else. As with the choreography, there is no set music for Peter Pan. Everything the audience sees will be fresh and new.

There will be two performances of The Ballet of Peter Pan at Lewis Auditorium at Flagler College on Saturday, May 16, 2015 at 2:30 and 7 p.m. You can link to online tickets by visiting http://www.saintaugustineballet.com.

Previously I have written that after you watch our kids dance in these local ballet productions, I can guarantee you will emerge from the theater with a large smile on your face.

So hand me that piano and please join me in watching Peter Pan fly in St. Augustine this May.

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Totally St. Augustine #17 (Jan. 11, 2015)

Loving makes me feel better 

Took an excruciating trip to Orlando during Christmas break and thought I might highlight the lowlights for this column. Seething with anger I planned to headline my ramblings as, “Why I hate Orlando.”

Fact is I don’t really hate Orlando. If anything, I love St. Augustine. I love my town because the things that happened to me in Orlando would never besiege me in St. Augustine.

My family and I decided to meet some good friends at Sea World in Orlando the Monday after Christmas. We expected heavier than normal crowds because school was out and theme park annual passes were about to expire. We hoped because Monday was a workday, the crowds wouldn’t be crazy. We badly misjudged that last assumption.

We began our trip to Orlando about 9 a.m. on that fateful Monday. Traffic was light to moderate. We had little trouble negotiating downtown Orlando on Interstate 4 and reached the Sea World exit about 90 minutes into our trip. We took exit 1 off of 528, which dumped us onto International Drive. At this point we were less than two miles from the Sea World parking lots.

I would later learn that our first mistake was to not take the route suggested for busses and commercial deliveries. This would have saved us an immense amount of time. Instead I meekly followed the signs to Sea World parking.

I will not put readers through what my family and I went through. Suffice to say our less-than-two-mile trip to Sea World parking consumed an additional two hours of bonding in the family car.

We finally made it to the Sea World tollbooths where smiling attendants were happy to collect a $17 parking fee. We were then directed through the Sea World parking lot all the way to a parking lot exit and across the street to a remote, unpaved parking area adjacent to a large hotel. We then had to walk a quarter mile to a pickup area where shuttles took us back across the street and dropped us near the Sea World entrance.

While all this was happening I was thinking of a dear, longtime friend who, just a few weeks before Christmas, was laid off by Sea World. She had worked there for decades and was less than two years from retirement. I wryly calculated Sea World could have kept her on the payroll for two more years simply by utilizing the revenue earned from this day’s overflow parking

We hooked up with our friends who had speedily made it to the parking are via the bus route. We decided to visit the Antarctica exhibit since our time at Sea World would now be limited and we had tickets for the Nutcracker Ice exhibit at the Gaylord Palms Hotel in late afternoon.

After waiting several minutes on line at Antarctica, Sea World officials announced there were technical difficulties with the exhibit and we could either stay on line (and pray) or roll the dice at another attraction. We opted for the former and managed to gain admittance to the wonderful world of penguins about 90 minutes later. While on line, we spent $24 for three beers that my wife correctly assumed were needed to (at least in my case) keep heads from exploding.

After exiting Antarctica we had just enough time to purchase $15 worth of dipping dots for the kids before making our way to the park exit.

My wife, daughter and I squeezed into our friend’s vehicle (there were nine of us) and we were driven across the street to our car. We then began our trip from Sea World to the Gaylord Palms. I’m happy and somewhat surprised to report this journey was pretty much void of incidents.

The online Florida resident tickets we purchased for Nutcracker Ice were reasonable (a little more than $50 total for the three of us). Because the temperature in the exhibit is nine degrees, it’s hard to spend more than about one-half hour enjoying the exquisite ice carvings. We parked in the Gaylord Palms lot and were charged nearly $20 for about an hour’s worth of parking. Is gouging too strong of a word? I think not.

I’m glad I waited a few days to write this column because my wife, daughter, my daughter’s friend from the Orlando trip and I spent several hours on New Year’s Eve in downtown St. Augustine.

Maybe the traffic at the beach was heavy but the traffic downtown was light and we managed to secure a free parking space.

The atmosphere was festive and the four of us ate dinner at a St. George Street establishment for about $40 (including four frothy adult beverages).

For less than $30, the four of us rode on a Night of Lights trolley tour and spent about 45 minutes singing Christmas Carols, enjoying the lights, waving to people on our route and wishing them all a Happy New Year.

And although we were all asleep before 2015 arrived, my wife called it the best New Year’s Eve she can remember ever celebrating.

So that’s why I decided there’s no need to hate Orlando. Why waste time doing so when I can simply love St. Augustine instead.

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Totally St. Augustine #16 (Dec. 12, 2014)

Nutcrackers, flowers, ornaments and free smiles

I rode in this year’s St. Augustine Christmas Parade and I was struck most by the wide smiles pasted to the faces of nearly all the participants and those watching. After hours of practice I employed a modified “Queen of England” wave to friends and perfect strangers alike. The overwhelming majority smiled and waved back. But more about smiling later.

I was privileged to ride in the St. Augustine Ballet float with Tommy Bledsoe, a friend much braver than I, who was dressed in drag as the Mother Ginger figure from the Nutcracker Ballet. He did a wonderful job but, if the truth be known, I think he will be far happier reprising his role as Clara’s father in this year’s Nutcracker production. Tommy and I were joined on the float by Tommy’s wife, Joy, and about a dozen of the younger dancers from the ballet.

In addition to having a daughter who will be part of the Nutcracker cast for the fourth consecutive year, I spend considerable effort helping my wife, Carol, run the Nutcracker Boutique before, during and after the four performances of the ballet. All of the net proceeds from boutique sales go to support the St. Augustine Ballet and dance education in our community.

The scope of the boutique has grown each year since 2011, when Carol first took on the task of shopkeeper and fundraiser. The first year it was mostly flowers and some ornaments and music boxes.

“We didn’t sell a lot of nutcracker figures because another mother and teacher was running that concession,” recalled Carol. “This year we’ll have nutcrackers aplenty, from small to very large.”

One of the more popular parts of the boutique is the combined raffle and silent auction section. In addition to other duties, it is my responsibility to run this area.

Once again we will have one large (32”) nutcracker (four total) signed by the ballet principals (Orlando Molina, Arionel Vargas, Margit Peguero and Daet Rodriquez) at silent auction during each of the ballet performances. Luis Abella, the director, and Harlow Hatin, the dancer in the role of Clara, will also sign the nutcracker bases.

This year’s raffle will have young children begging their parents and grandparents to buy “just a few more tickets.”

We will have two full-sized American Girl dolls with extra outfits. There will be an American Girl doll case awarded, as well as a fourth American Girl themed package containing two mini-dolls.

The raffle item that will likely draw the most ticket deposits is the one donated by Sea World. In addition to a generous selection of logo items, Sea World has provided us with four tickets to both Sea World Park and Aquatica. The entire Sea World package is valued at more than $700.

We will be selling tickets for $5, with 3 for $10, 7 for $20 and 20 for $50. Buyers can deposit raffle tickets in any or all of the five separate raffles.

“I started working on stocking the boutique last January,” said Carol. “My association with the ballet lets me act as a buyer from merchants such as Burton and Burton, Mark Roberts and Kurt Adler.

“Savvy shopping allows me to get quality items that I can sell at prices lower than are generally available elsewhere. I also comb eBay and the rest of the Internet looking for bargains,” Carol added.

Most Nutcracker patrons appreciate the convenience to purchase reasonably priced flowers in the lobby at the performances. Each bouquet is individually re-assembled from flowers acquired locally. “Publix has been very generous in donating pails and other supplies to help us with our efforts,” noted Carol.

Most bouquets sell for $10 but Carol will put together fancier and pricier ones upon request. Best of all, a substantial portion of each flower purchase goes to support the ballet.

Parents of the dancers and other ballet supporters help Carol run the boutique and she is always looking for volunteers to help set up, sell and put together the flower bouquets.

Last year all four performances were virtual sellouts and that may happen again this year. The good news is that you don’t need to attend the ballet to shop at the Nutcracker Boutique.

Located in the lobby of the Lewis Auditorium at Flagler College, the boutique opens when the doors open for each ballet performance.

The Nutcracker will be performed at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 20 and Sunday, Dec. 21. Tickets are available online at http://www.saintaugustineballet.com/#!tickets/c23gy.

Oh yeah, I promised more about smiles. Those same smiles generated by the Christmas parade will be rekindled when you watch our local youngsters dance their hearts out in this year’s St. Augustine Nutcracker.

I guarantee it.

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Totally St. Augustine #15 (Dec. 2, 2014)

Morning on St. Augustine Beach

Virginia Pledger will become an octogenarian in 2015 and, in her case, it really wouldn’t be trite to say, “80 is the new 50.”

My wife, Carol, told me about this dynamic and talented young lady whom she met while volunteering some hours at the Haven Hospice Attic resale store.

Virginia is a photographer. She’s been shooting photos for business and pleasure since she was 16 years old. Born in California, Virginia began by photographing dramatic landscapes in the Yosemite Valley.

During her 25 years working for the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., Virginia used to photograph the beginning, middle and end of projects she worked on. And if you ever visited the Smithsonian, specifically the Air and Space Museum, you probably have seen some of Virginia’s work.

Spacesuits worn by the likes of Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins are displayed at the museum. Virginia was responsible for shaping the inner support of these suits so they would look the same as when the astronauts were wearing them. “My small stature allowed me to get into the space capsules and work on the suits,” Virginia revealed. “A larger person wouldn’t fit.”

Virginia’s contributions weren’t limited to the space program. “I made mannequins to display dresses worn by Ginger Rogers and Carol Channing,” Virginia said. “I also sewed replicas of shirts worn by George Washington for display at Mt. Vernon.”

Virginia lived in West Virginia and commuted to work in D. C. When that gig ended about eight years ago, she moved to Louisville to be with family but decided to spend two months each winter at the Beacher’s Lodge in Crescent Beach.

Besides having a lifelong talent for photography, Virginia is an artist. She creates watercolors, acrylic paintings and fiber art. Often she would photograph objects or scenes before she painted them.

Four years ago, Virginia moved to St. Augustine, taking up residence on Anastasia Island not too far from the 312 bridge.

Earlier this year, in July, she decided to take some sunrise photographs with the goal of ultimately turning them into paintings. As she told me, “I liked the photos so much, I never made it to the painting stage.”

Virginia would rise at 5:30 a.m. and drive down to the beach. “About 30 minutes before sunrise, you get about a minute of intense red and you have to be ready for it,” she revealed. “Then there’s the sunrise itself and the 30 or so minutes following the sunrise showing the sun interacting with cloud cover.”

Several weeks ago Virginia walked into the Attic store looking for frames for her photos. She brought some of her photos and Attic Manager Pam Strickland struck up a conversation with her.

And to make what could be a longer column short, that conversation resulted in “Morning on St. Augustine Beach,” a stunning array of Virginia’s local photography on display through the end of the year at the Attic store.”

Virginia’s production technique is simple. Using a tripod, she composes photos in her camera and then takes the memory cards to a local pharmacy where photo processing is available. Minimal, if any, enhancement is performed on her photos.

She purchases various sized prints (on sale, of course) and does all the matting and framing herself. And the end products are fabulous.

Best of all her photography is comparatively inexpensive. The 20 or so framed prints on display at the Attic store are priced between $20 and $100, with most in the $30 range. And a portion of the sales goes to support unfunded services provided by Haven Hospice.

Virginia, a graduate in Home Economics from Iowa State University, is one of my new role models. When she switched from film to digital photography a few years back she thought ahead by buying a camera (Nikon 5100) that would be compatible with lenses she used on her older SLR Nikon.

I’m glad I listened when my wife told me about Virginia. We bought one of her framed photos and several of her note cards also featuring her sunrise photography.

Don’t delay any further. You do the same.

(Morning on St. Augustine Beach will be on display with framed prints for sale through the end of December at the Haven Hospice Attic resale store, 2497 U.S. 1 South in St. Augustine. Virginia will be there most days between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and will be happy to personalize the back of your purchase.)

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