October 31, 2014
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Eva Sugden Gomez Has Got the Beat

The charmer has dazzled the community with her generous philanthropy and championship dancing.

Eva Sugden Gomez

Eva Sugden Gomez

Nancy DeNike

 

If you live in the greater Naples orbit, her name is instantly recognizable. It is, after all, on everything from theaters to parks to college campuses. But for the past two years, one of this area’s most prominent doyennes has stepped away from the limelight due to some health issues.

But she’s keeping positive, she says, with retail therapy.

“Jewelry is my guilty pleasure,” says Eva Sugden Gomez, her eyes twinkling. “I was just a bad girl and bought myself a beautiful ring a couple days ago. I deserve it.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint the best feature of Gomez. She’s certainly lovely and charming. She has wonderful taste in jewelry and real estate. She’s quick to laugh, generous beyond measure and is light on her feet. But the most amazing thing about this 75-year-old dancer extraordinaire is that she is so well-rounded she can find common ground with virtually everyone she meets.

“She is the most refined lady, and she dances with such elegance and grace,” says her friend and fellow dancer Shelia Davis. “Her movement was flawless, effortless, and as a new dancer I wanted to dance just like her. She has a style about her that is very captivating on the dance floor.”

Born in the village of Potsdam, New York, she grew up in the nearby hamlet of Morristown, along the St. Lawrence River. Because of her father’s affiliation with Ralston Purina, the family moved to St. Louis before ultimately settling in Minneapolis. It’s there she went to college at St. Catherine University in St. Paul for a business degree. But not before she married at 18.

“In my generation you kind of got married early,” Gomez says, as we chat in her picture-perfect condo off Gulf Shore Boulevard North, a wall of glass displaying the shimmering green expanse of the Gulf of Mexico, 12 stories below. She sits comfortably in black dancewear, as though she’s about to head out to rehearse, as she’s done so many times before.

Speaking of the young man she married, one senses a hint of melancholy.  “He is a great human being,” she says. “He and his family were wonderful. We were married 30 years and had five children (Roman, Margaret, Maria, David and Theresa) by the time I was 25.”

The couple owned retail gift shops in nearby shopping malls throughout the Minneapolis area.

“It’s a funny thing. We had a huge life,” she says, twisting the silver bangles on her wrist. “We were go-getters and did everything.” But a health scare in her mid-40s changed things. “I went off the deep end. I wanted to go into a little box all by myself. And that’s what happened. If it wasn’t for that we’d probably still be married. I couldn’t cope. But we had the parties, and we were the entertainers. We were busy people. I enjoyed that lifestyle.”

Though she didn’t move to Naples until 1996, in many ways, the seeds of her arrival were planted in 1972, when her parents, Herb and Peg Sugden, moved from their 30-acre ocean side property in St. Croix to the more sedate and secure Naples area. They quickly became great benefactors of the area, donating large sums of money and tracts of land to a number of organizations we now take for granted: Sugden Park in Naples, the Sugden Welcome Center and Herbert J. Sugden Hall at Florida Gulf Coast University, The Sugden Community Theatre, just to name a few.

In 1996, after spending 10 years working in real estate, Gomez decided she was ready to take life a little easier and followed her folks to Naples.

“I loved moving here,” Gomez says, clapping her hands together. “It’s just the right size, and it has the arts. I can go to the theater. I like a town that has enough things to do.” She had no sooner unpacked her bags when a coupon came in the mail from the local Arthur Murray dance studio.

“I thought, ‘Well, OK, you’re new (in town) and this might be something,’” Gomez says. “And I gravitated to it.” She had never danced before, but dreamed of it as a little girl. “We were in such a remote area they didn’t have anything. There were like probably 80 people in Morristown in those days,” Gomez says. “It was remote.”

Her mother had studied dance, and her parents always danced (“I think people of that generation always danced,” Gomez says), but the family was always in the wrong place at the wrong time. When they finally moved to St. Louis, all the other girls had been studying since they were little and she was not about to be the oldest girl in the beginner class. “I was like, ‘No, this is not happening.’ You know?” But that desire never went away. In fact, she started her daughters as soon as they were old enough.

So when that coupon came in the mail, it seemed like kismet. A “nice social thing to do,” Gomez says.

But while dancing came easy to her children—two of them went on to make it their profession and one of her granddaughters even studied under Mikhail Baryshnikov (coincidentally, her son Roman now owns the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Naples)—Gomez showed up for lessons with two left feet.

“I thought, ‘What right foot are you talking about?’” Gomez says, with a laugh. “And that made me really determined. ‘I will do it.’ I bought books. I bought music.”

A quick glimpse around her spacious living room shows the persistence paid off. There are trophies everywhere. For the next 15 years she spent two hours a day five days a week taking lessons and was soon unbeatable.

“I think I won every competition I was in in the silver category,” Gomez says. “Foxtrot, waltz, quick step, Viennese, west coast, east coast, swing, tango. … I won because I worked hard. I’d hire coaches because you’re never perfect. There are articulations and such minute ways to improve that it’s totally unbelievable. The shoulder might just do this (she lowers it and rotates it forward) or you’re not doing certain things. They’ll correct you.

“I just loved it. It was so much fun traveling (she even competed in Argentina and Costa Rica),” Gomez adds. “We’d go places where you could get clothes made the same day and have them delivered to your hotel. Or we’d end up in Manhattan on the Fourth of July. We just had a fabulous time. We’d always have fun everyplace we’d go.”

Gomez’s face lights up as she talks about dancing, the competitions, the dresses. In between lessons and competitions, she found time to be one of this area’s top philanthropists. She funds scholarships at FGCU, gave a major gift to the construction of the Golisano Children’s Museum, donates annually to the Guadalupe Center, Artis—Naples, Opera Naples, The Naples Players and a host of other organizations. In addition, she recently donated $2 million to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida toward its brand-new Eva Sugden Gomez Environmental Planning Center.

It’s something Gomez is passionate about.

“My core values align with (the Conservancy’s) core values,” she says. “We need to save our planet for our future generations. That’s a big piece of who I am. I like the wildlife, I like the land, I loved the Adirondacks (in New York State). I loved to swim in the (St. Lawrence River). I’m not a pool person. I’m a combination of both a city girl and a country girl.”

She was invited to tour the Conservancy when its capital campaign was in its infancy. She was stunned by what its scientists were working out of: broken-down buildings and trailers. When she attended the Conservancy’s fundraiser, she realized she didn’t need to bid on another wine basket. “(The donation) just happened,” she says. “I think things that are meant to be just kind of start happening.”

Everything certainly seemed to be going right for Gomez. She was dancing as if everyone was watching. And she loved it. She says the dance floor is her happiest place. She was even approached to do a solo performance on a television show that was scheduled to shoot in Naples. It had Debbie Reynolds attached. Gomez had the design house Doré in Fort Myers make her a dress.

“It’s this big,” says Gomez, pinching her fingers together. “I was prepared and then it went nowhere. They even sold tickets. It just fell apart.” Then, two years ago, at a dance competition, she felt faint.

“She said, ‘You know, I’m not really feeling well,’” says Davis, who was also competing. “And I looked at her. … I thought we were going to lose her. They cleared the ballroom.”

“That kind of grounded me so I haven’t been out as much as I’d like,” Gomez says. Instead of traveling and traversing the dance floor, she’s home, taking calls from organizations in need and politicians with projects.

“It’s been tough. People still call and want to meet. If it isn’t one person, it’s another. And now they’re doing the Naples Park. The Soreys (Mayor John and wife Delores) are friends. We were supposed to meet yesterday, but I said, ‘I just can’t.’”

What’s equally troubling for Gomez is that her beloved Tesla sports car isn’t getting use.

“It’s plugged in downstairs and I love it! I love it!” Gomez says. “Clean energy! I had heard about it and so I looked it up. It’s a gorgeous little car.”

Little being the operative word. It’s not much bigger than a bracelet and darts along the roadways with the agility of one of her dance partners. “The only problem is that big electric bill,” she says sarcastically. “It’s $9 (a month) and that was when I was driving it every day.”

She hopes that soon her driving shoes will return to dancing shoes and she’s forced to make room on her shelves for more trophies. In the meantime, Gomez keeps giving and looks at life as a waltz. Only right now, every one of us is her partner.

 

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