July 28, 2014

Passions in Paradise

passions.jpgWhen people think of passion, their minds probably turn to the painted covers of romance novels—with bare chests and flowing hair twirling in a sun-speckled embrace. Others might think of famous movies—of a couple rolling breathlessly in the sand as waves crash about them. But in reality, passion comes in many forms, often with the power to change our lives. Here are three stories of Southwest Florida residents who have found their bliss by letting unexpected passions lead them to some very special places. 

The Kiss That Drew Applause 

It was April 28, 1960, when Gerry Spicer came home from school, pulled out her pink plastic diary and wrote the following passage: “Nothing exceptional happened today. Rhea N. asked me to the prom. I told him I would go, but I really don’t want to go at all. I don’t have any excitement over it.” 

Gerry was a shy junior attending high school in Largo. Her parents had moved her from New York a year earlier, and she was still pining for a boy there. So when Rhea Nichols asked her to prom, she was less than enthusiastic, but she agreed. 

“She was very quiet, and she didn’t eat much,” Rhea recalls. “We went to a nice restaurant that I spent a lot of money on, and she just picked at her food.” 

In her defense, Gerry’s dress was partially to blame. “My strapless undergarments were so tight,” she says. “I could barely breathe, and I couldn’t eat.” 

Despite these inauspicious details, both now agree they had a nice first—and only—date. Rhea meant to ask her out again, but school activities and sports got in the way. “After a while, I was too embarrassed to call her,” he says. “It had been so long.” 

After high school, the one-time couple went their separate ways. Rhea married his senior year sweetheart, went into the U.S. Air Force and eventually became a pilot for Delta Airlines. Gerry studied to be a nurse and moved to Minneapolis, where she met and married her husband, who worked for Northwest Airlines. 

Indeed, that aviation connection proved fateful for Gerry and Rhea, as they bumped into each other twice in the 1970s. Once, it was on a flight from Minneapolis to Honolulu and again a few years later at a coffee shop near Miami International Airport after Gerry and her husband had missed a flight. 

“They asked me for a loan so they could get home,” says Rhea, joking, who claims he was never paid back for the coffee money he leant them during their unplanned layover.

Time quickly passed—and years went by. The quiet, new girl from New York and the brainy baseball player next saw each other at occasional high school reunions. At first tentatively, then more familiarly, the couple would always reconnect at the events. And soon a tradition of sorts developed. 

“At each reunion, we would talk, and then we would have one dance,” Rhea says. “We would catch up on each other’s lives.” 

By now, dear reader, you can imagine where this tale is headed. In 2001, the Largo High School class of 1961 was preparing for its 40th high school reunion. It would be a dinner cruise with cocktails and dancing out on a moonlit Gulf of Mexico. 

“I am sitting at my computer, and I get an e-mail,” Rhea recalls. “She has written to me … asking if I was going to come to the reunion and reminding me to bring my dancing shoes. I was single at the time … and in the back of my head, I said, ‘Hmm. I wonder if she is single too.” 

She was—and a cyberspace spark was lit. An old affection was developing into something new and tender and blissful. At the reunion, Gerry and Rhea quickly found each other. Their one dance led to an all-evening conversation, a piano bar, a walk on the beach. 

“We came back to our cars parked at the marina, and we stood there all night long and talked and talked and talked into the morning,” Gerry recalls. As the first rays of the sun pierced the horizon, they shared a brief kiss. And suddenly, applause broke out. 

Fishermen arriving for early charter trips into the Gulf had been watching the strange couple that didn’t seem to move—and started clapping at the sign of affection. 

Fast-forward to today, and Gerry and Rhea Nichols just celebrated their sixth wedding anniversary. The couple now lives in Naples. Gerry owns the New To You consignment shop and is a professional calligrapher. Rhea is retired and helps his music teacher son, who owns a local company called Curricu-la-la-la. 

“I think it was kind of fate,” says Gerry about their long-hibernating romance. “I married all my prom dates,” laughs Rhea. 

A bit of foreshadowing can be found in Gerry’s diary, dated May 22, 1960—right after the junior prom: “He gave me two white orchids and were they ever beautiful. I had a really wonderful time, and I’m sorry it’s over.” 

Forty years later, it wasn’t over. It was just beginning. 

Tracking Down the Missing 

Troy Dunn is entirely humble when he looks back on his body of work. He basically says he is just honored to help people. 

Help might be considered an understatement. Dunn, who lives in North Fort Myers, has “helped” more than 40,000 people find and reunite with long-lost family and missing friends. Today, he is known to millions as “The Locator,” which is the name of the television show on the WE cable network for which he serves as executive producer and host. The show, in its second season, is the top-rated program on the channel. 

Dunn’s journey started in the late 1980s when he and his wife moved to Southwest Florida and opened a scooter rental business on Fort Myers Beach. The business became so successful that he began doing speaking engagements targeting other young entrepreneurs. 

A chance encounter at one such event proved to be a turning point in Dunn’s life. He met a man who had been adopted as a child and had found his own birth family. This story resonated with Dunn because his own mother had also been adopted and had also long tried to find her own birth mother. A shoebox under his mother’s bed held letters and notes—evidence of her efforts. 

“I met this guy on a Saturday morning and spread (the notes) all out on a kitchen table. Five and a half hours later, we had found her birth mother,” Dunn recalls. “It was a life-changing experience—to call my mother and tell her we had found her birth mother. She began to weep in a way I had never heard before.” 

The two men opened a business, based in a Cape Coral home—two phone lines and a desk bought at a garage sale. Business was slow until Dunn was invited to provide a reunion on The Montel Williams Show and talk about locating lost loved ones. Phones back at the “office” started to ring off the hook—14,000 calls in the first 24 hours. Dunn’s answering service had to temporarily shut down. 

Dunn’s business—National Locator—expanded rapidly. Soon, the name was changed to International Locator and changed again in 1999 to bighugs.com. In 2002, Dunn sold the company to ancestry.com, an online genealogical Web site, but he stayed on for three more years as spokesman. In his role, he has appeared on more than 500 daytime television shows including The View, Dr. Phil and Sally Jessie Raphael. 

Carol Nelson of Rome, N.Y., can attest to the power and reach of Troy Dunn. Her son, Warren, was born in 1978 but taken away by his father in 1980—a week before he turned two. Nelson searched for her son for years but had little luck. She went on to remarry and had two daughters. In 2008, Nelson caught an episode of The Locator and told her daughter Holly about it. Holly wrote a letter to Dunn. A series of phone calls and interviews followed, and in October, Troy Dunn paid Carol Nelson a visit. He took Nelson to a park and talked about her longing to find her son. 

“Then he stood up, told me to turn around and that my son was right behind me,” Nelson says, her voice still trembling with emotion months later. “I turned around and saw the most handsome man I have ever seen in my life. It was wonderful.” 

Dunn found Nelson’s son—Warren Stone—in Cape Coral, just a short drive from Dunn’s North Fort Myers home. Since the reunion, Nelson is now also establishing relationships with her daughter-in-law and three young grandsons. 

“Troy Dunn made this possible for me,” Nelson says. “I have a full family now.” 

Besides his hit television show, Dunn also operates several Web sites aimed at helping people find people. He’s also building a new home near the Caloosahatchee River and taking care of his own brood of seven children. Just for good measure, he’s a bishop with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Lehigh Acres. 

Still, when the need arises—when someone is missing a person in his or her life—Dunn knows he will never be able to turn away. “As long as there are families who want to be reunited, I am there,” he says. “It is my life’s work.” 

Bewitched by the Tango 

To watch Helaine Treitman dancing is to watch an artist at work. Her feet float across the dance floor, pivoting and drawing graceful arcs with her toes. Her calf muscles tense with each kick and spin. She grips her dance partner around his shoulders, hand in hand—not leading, but not being led. They are moving as one. 

“It makes me feel vibrantly alive, perhaps like no other moment in my life,” says Treitman. 

Flash back some 20 years and Treitman was sitting in a boardroom as a business systems analyst. It wasn’t what she dreamed of doing. It wasn’t what she had studied in college. She held a degree in fine arts. But one too many waitressing jobs persuaded her that banking was the safe way to go. Yet something kept gnawing at her inside—a need to express herself artistically. 

“In climbing the corporate ladder, I had neglected a big part of my soul,” she says. “There was this emptiness in my heart, and I couldn’t talk about art with anyone there.” 

Eventually, this desire became too strong. Treitman turned down a promotion for a vice presidential position, quit her job and moved to Italy. There, she settled in the picturesque Umbria region and went about setting up a school for aspiring artists. Here, she thought, she would be able to live and breathe the artistic life she so craved. 

But as the years ticked by—and the school became more successful than she ever imagined—Treitman found herself spending most of her time sitting in meetings and attending business conferences. The business of running a school had taken over, dousing the passion in her soul like a cold rain. 

Then one day, Treitman noticed a bill posted on a wall advertising an Argentine tango show taking place in a nearby city. “It had an image of a gorgeous couple, and the woman had her leg wrapped high around the man’s back,” she recalls wistfully. “It was striking.” 

Treitman’s interest was piqued. She attended the show and discovered a dance that would soon dominate her life. To use her word, she was “bewitched” by the tango. She began taking classes—driving hundreds of miles a day to reach schools in neighboring towns. Her skills grew, and so did her love of the dance. 

“In tango, I found a pause, an oasis from stress, an island where I could live in brief, but intense intervals with a man,” Treitman wrote at the time in a personal essay. “It’s a world in itself where time doesn’t stop, but is decidedly different.” 

She traveled around the world studying this captivating dance—to Rome, Amsterdam, Miami and, finally, to Buenos Aires. Eventually, people began to ask Treitman to share her talent and teach them to dance the tango. At first hesitant, then confident, Treitman went on to open UmbriaTango in 2001. In the coming years, more than 700 students, mostly professionals, came to her classes with the same fire that the tango had reignited in Treitman.

“I do love to teach in a way that helps people undergo a wonderful transformation,” she says. After 20 years in Italy and nearly a decade teaching tango, Treitman followed her heart once again—moving back to the States last November and settling in Naples to be close to her mother. 

With her, she brought her passion for art, for dancing, for expressing emotion through movement. Helaine began teaching the tango locally. She found studio space for her classes and began organizing “milongas”—evening events devoted to dance and friendship—at area restaurants. 

The fire that is the tango is spreading. Dianne Yankin is one of these “tango apasionados.” The independent insurance agent in Naples was looking for an expressive outlet and took lessons from Treitman. 

“She really wants to teach women to be the queen and men to be the king,” Yankin says. “It gets you in touch with your own sensuality. She teaches a man how to approach a woman and a woman how to not move too fast—to be coy, to be a coquette. It’s a wonderful experience.” 

Today, Treitman continues to explore ways to share the tango with the local community—through classes, home study programs and milongas. After decades chasing her dreams, the tango finally put her on a new path in life—one that will continue for the rest of her days. 

“As I left Italy, I heard many people say, ‘I’ll always be grateful to Helaine for transmitting to me her passion for tango,’” Treitman recalls. “I think sharing the dance is part of my journey.”

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