September 22, 2014

Frisky, Fun and Cherished

Looking to become the life of the party? Take a tip from these Southwest Floridians--seven men and women who are noted for their social savoir faire, and for giving a little more sizzle and sparkle to every event they attend.

Hugh and Judy Starnes: Always ready to cut a rug

Hugh and Judy Starnes first danced together more than 40 years ago, at a bar called the Calypso on Fort Myers Beach. It did not go well. Despite Hugh being "a very young, handsome attorney," Judy says, he was no twinkletoes and managed to step on her foot. But when he caught up with her to apologize, "his voice just melted me," Judy recalls.

Since then, Hugh’s footwork has improved considerably. Judy began taking dance lessons 10 years ago, and her husband soon followed: "He decided he better get with the program," Judy says. Now, the couple is skilled enough to take part in dance competitions with their instructors, events that sometimes last as long as five days and include as many as 120 dances.

And when they attend parties together, prepare to be impressed: "They’re like 20 steps ahead of everyone else," says friend Sandy Stilwell. "They’re like fine-tuned machinery, work well together and dance well together."

Or alone. Judy notes how her husband, once an awkward toe-stepper, is now a world-class toe-tapper, regardless of who is watching. In the nine-to-five world, Hugh is the Honorable Hugh E. Starnes, a Lee County judge, but he’s always ready to cut a rug, a habit that has created some unexpected moments.

"[In the courthouse] he was waiting at the elevator, and he was practicing the cha-cha," Judy says. "And he forgot he was on the security camera, and so everyone at the courthouse was watching him practice the cha-cha. His assistant said, ‘Nice dancing, Judge.’ "

Away from the bench, it’s the same song and dance. The Starnes own a ranch, and out in the pasture, "the cows watch him tango past them," Judy says.

The proof of all this practice has been in the partying. Once, the Starnes always danced together at parties, but now Hugh’s hand is much in demand, Judy says, with ladies lining up to dance with him.

"Sometimes I have to go, ‘No, no, he’s going to dance with me this time, gosh darn it,’ " she says.

After so many years of twirls and turns, the Starnes have learned what they prefer in a social event. It isn’t the flashiest bash with the biggest band and the hottest dance floor. It’s a get-together that’s much more easygoing, with good dance music played at a reasonable volume.

"Usually, at the big galas the dance floor is so packed that there is no longer room to dance, so we have even more fun going to a less congested setting," Judy says.

Perhaps in the pasture, the cows are nodding knowingly.

Tom and Pam Cronin: "Everything we do is a party"

So here’s the thing about talking to Pam Cronin. You will laugh. You will laugh because she will laugh, and she has an infectious laugh.

"I’ve heard that before," she says. With a laugh.

Pam laughs often and easily and occasionally at inappropriate times, like when she’s pulled over by the police for a traffic ticket. She laughs at appropriate times, too, such as when her husband Tom’s pants fell down in front of Lee County Commissioner Tammy Hall during a recent Groundhog Day party the couple held at the Shell Factory and Nature Park, which they own. Tom had donned what Pam calls a "Southern-style tuxedo" of jacket, tie and shorts for the event, which included an appearance by a live groundhog. But he skipped the suspenders, and a laughter-worthy event ensued.

Tom wasn’t embarrassed, even though the local media recorded the posterior-revealing event for, well, posterity. "Oh, he loved it," she says. "Fortunately, he had black underwear on that day. It wasn’t too noticeable."

It’s possible that not much embarrasses or inconveniences the Cronins. Tom, a real estate developer and bank chairman, is a born ham, Pam says, and social events only serve to stimulate his inner entertainer. At home, he records gag answering machine messages; at parties, he plays the harmonica.

"If you walk into a room and there’s a cluster of people and everyone’s laughing, he’s the center of the group," she says.

Pam is equal parts co-conspirator and straight man: She recently volunteered her husband to play the part of Julius Caesar in a Florida Repertory Theatre fundraiser, only to later learn she had unwittingly committed herself for the role of Cleopatra, too.

Originally, the Cronins bought the Shell Factory as a business and land investment; instead, they’ve invested the past decade of their lives revitalizing it. In October 2007, to celebrate the attraction’s 70-year anniversary, they held a breathtaking 70 events in 70 days there. They also hold events for the community at the Shell Factory, such as honoring Black History Month or the North Fort Myers Relay for Life, which Pam co-chairs.

"It’s a labor of love," Pam says of the Shell Factory. "It’s a fun property; it’s never a dull moment." A moment later, she adds: "Everything we do is a party."

Friend Sandy Stilwell agrees, describing the Cronin household as a place where there’s "a constant party going on." But there’s more to it: "They have the art of friendship down to a science," Sandy says of Tom and Pam.

Sandy is a frequent guest at Pam’s "Girlee Girlz" cocktail parties, a monthly affair with a guest list of as many as 50 women.

"We just get together and talk and have fun, and nobody’s allowed to bring anything, nobody’s allowed to cook anything. I want it to be very impromptu," says Pam. "It’s just about getting together and spending time together. It reminds us once a month how many friends we have and how lucky we are."

Mana Holtz: The secret is in the asking

Who says conversation is a lost art? Certainly not Mana Holtz—and probably not anyone who knows her, either. A charming and versatile conversationalist, Mana is the sort of party guest for whom small talk isn’t a chore but a pleasure. And that’s not the only attribute that earns Mana so many invitations.

"She’s got a presence," says friend Jacke McCurdy of Mana. "When she goes to a party, you know it."

Mana’s background as a former university administrator could easily provide her with plenty of conversation-starters, but so too could her level of community involvement: She volunteers with the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, the Shelter for Abused Women and Children, the Boys and Girls Club of Collier County and has just been tapped to chair the Women’s Initiative for the Community Foundation of Collier County. She’s also an avid boater and is currently promoting two television series she has produced.

But listing one’s brilliant credentials, marvelous creations or, worst of all, extravagant personal possessions is a serious social gaffe, she notes—although it’s one she admits she has occasionally encountered on her party rounds.

Instead, when it comes to captivating cocktail conversation, Mana reveals the secret isn’t in the telling; it’s in the asking.

"I like to just ask people about themselves, about if they’ve been someplace fascinating or if there’s a new, important book that’s out that’s fun to talk about, or if there are some news items that are hot on the press, unless it’s religion. We don’t want to talk about politics or religion, that’s for sure," she says. "But it’s interesting how many people end up talking about it."

Also, "no organ recitals," Mana gently advises. That’s what Mana and her friends have dubbed a certain kind of conversation-killer when guests bemoan all their aches and ailments for everyone else in attendance. "Those are just topics that are best left in the privacy of your own home," she says.

When it comes to working a room, Mana won’t allow wallflowers to drift into the background. "She’s really good at walking into a room and introducing everybody and herself," says friend Sandra Hesse. "Anybody around a room is going to get pulled in and introduced."

Finally, if it looks as though all good conversation is going to the dogs, it might be an excellent idea to just allow it. One of the most memorable parties Mana has attended was a birthday party thrown for her beloved Yorkie, Thurber, by her friend Barbara DuFrane at DuFrane Jewelers in Bonita Springs.

"We invited all of Thurber’s doggie friends, and we all sat on the floor, trying to keep our dogs apart from each other, and the dogs were served treats in a silver bowl and the adults ate finger sandwiches and a cake with a hydrant on it," Mana recalls. "There was a salesman sitting on a stool, just shaking his head, saying ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’ "

Barbara DuFrane: "A party-giver extraordinaire"

Barbara DuFrane has a soft spot for entertaining. She has a special fondness for even the most delicate little details, the crystal and the china, and loves to cook, curling up on Sunday afternoons with cookbooks, just to read.

"Having people to dinner or cooking for people has always been therapy for me," Barbara says.

Assembling a party takes her away from her everyday cares and creates a chance to try something new, invite and delight different guests and expect the unexpected. Mistakes will happen, but often they’ll turn out to be happy ones. Besides, Barbara knows not to fret, noting that making sure all her guests have a glass of wine goes a long way to solving any ills. Plus, she’s an absolute people person.

"I really enjoy people," she says. "I love [having] a lot of people around."

Still, creating the perfect party is a tricky task.

"When you make things look real easy, people don’t think you work [at it]," she says.

Yet work and parties have paired well together for Barbara. When she first moved to Bonita Springs and her home in Bonita Bay, she was retired from a 26-year career in the jewelry business. She soon found that she was restless, though, and decided to open a small shop in the Bonita Bay Executive Center.

The little shop was bound for success. First, Barbara invited her friends from water aerobics to come by for a visit, and "that was the party that launched the business." Later, the shop became the place where "you could come in and buy something, buy nothing, chat, have a glass of wine, whatever," she says. It was a local hangout as much as a store, with catered parties, music and special vendor events. Plus, it had Barbara, an asset to any business or social venture, friends say. Her demeanor and generosity create a joyous atmosphere that endures after the last champagne has been sipped.

"Barbara’s the kind of person who would make everyone feel right at home. She makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the world," says friend Mana Holtz.

Much of the entertaining Barbara does now is in her home, and is often held for the benefit of local charities or organizations, including Florida Gulf Coast University and the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts. It was for one of the Phil’s "Parties of Note" that she hosted a rock ’n’ roll-themed party that has proved a favorite. Ladies wore poodle skirts, while the gentlemen slipped into leather jackets and slicked back their hair. A ’50s-style band played all the oldies-but-goodies.

"The costumes were just phenomenal. And the spirit [and] the music was great. I had ’50s-type food, macaroni and cheese, little burgers," she recalls. "There was no lack of dancing that night."

As for the silver bowls-and-champagne birthday party she threw for Mana’s Yorkie, Thurber? Mana calls Barbara "a party-giver extraordinaire," but Barbara doesn’t miss a beat: Like all excellent hosts, she gives all the credit for the event’s success to her guest of honor.

"Thurber was an unusual dog," she says with a smile.

Matt Mathias: "Food Boy"

There can be no question that Matt Mathias is committed to his career. Even on his day off, Matt, a market executive for the Private Client Group at National City fills his morning with business appointments. And there’s no doubt he’s deeply involved with his nonprofit work, too. He’s a mentor for Take Stock in Children and serves on various boards, committees and task forces.

But he has another passion, too, and it’s one that dinner guests, partygoers and even George Bernard Shaw would certainly applaud. After all, it was Shaw who said, "There is no love more sincere than the love of food."

Matt is a foodie. Wine doesn’t escape his affection, either.

"I’m definitely not a connoisseur," he says. "I’m a budding hobbyist."

Maybe so, but this hobby already includes some 1,200 bottles of wine, many of which have made their way into Southwest Florida charity auction lots. For the past three years, his contributions have been part of wine auction lots at the area’s grandest party, the Naples Winter Wine Festival; this year, he donated wines that were part of "Celebrate Speed," an auction lot that totaled 24 bottles, each rated 100 points by Wine Spectator or wine critic Robert Parker.

Matt provided the wine, too, for a fundraiser held at popular French eatery Bleu Provence in Naples. The event benefited a student Matt mentored in the Take Stock in Children program—a student who aspired to be a chef and who, for the fundraiser, had a chance to cook alongside the professional chefs in the Bleu Provence kitchens.

It’s proof of something that Matt himself has noticed: Unwittingly or accidentally, food and wine play a part in how he lives, gives and entertains—always. "It’s hard to turn down an invitation to Matt’s house for a party," says friend Desmond Hussey. "He’s a very generous person. That goes a long way to making everyone have a good time." And while some people will save a magnum of wine for a special occasion, Matt, by contrast, will bring a magnum to any occasion. "He wants everyone to have fun, not just himself," Desmond says.

And Matt’s not afraid to don an apron whether cooking for friends, family or strangers as part of a party or fundraiser he’s hosting in his home.

"I love to put smiles on people’s faces by preparing foods they may not have had before," he says. "I’m not a chef, but I do some fairly simple things well."

For his 30th birthday party, Matt made a meal that still lingers on his taste buds, in part because of the unique list of ingredients. The pheasant was from South Dakota; he had shot it on a hunting trip with clients. The lobsters were from the Florida Keys, snapped up during mini-lobster season with a friend. The Maryland blue crabs were caught in crab pots near the Chesapeake Bay with his father and uncle. The vegetables—jalapenos, broccolini and potatoes—were picked in his father’s garden in West Virginia. And the venison he hauled home from a hunt on his family’s farm.

"Somehow, I either caught or harvested or had something to do with getting all these," Matt says. "And I cooked everything myself, which was kind of fun. One of my friends got me a chef’s jacket, and he put on there ‘Food Boy.’ "

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