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Scene & Heard: Jessica Lynch in Naples

BY May 8, 2018


U.S. Army POW Jessica Lynch went to hell and back, and she is living to tell about it. Her ambush in 2003 and eventual rescue by U.S. Special Forces made international headlines. Now 34 years old, she’s gone from the war-torn sands of Iraq to the sugar sands of Naples, where she headlined a February fundraiser for the Avow Foundation. Lynch was honored at the 1940s-themed Butterfly Ball, which organizers held at a hangar at Naples Airport. She told me, “Perseverance has been a huge factor in my surviving in captivity, recovery and life after.” Indeed, Lynch hasn’t let her past stop her from living a full life. She reached her goal of becoming a teacher and is raising her daughter, Dakota, in her beloved home state of West Virginia.

It seems like it’s been a season of transitions along the Lee County end of the Gulfshore—it’s almost hard to keep up with all the news, but I try to keep my finger on the social pulse of Fort Myers even with a champagne glass in hand as I gather news at various parties and gatherings.

For instance, can you believe that the ladies of the Fort Myers Women’s Community Club managed to transform the former Saks Fifth Avenue at the Bell Tower Shops into the mythical realm of Edisonia? When organizers learned that the event’s usual venue, Harborside Event Center, would be closed for renovations during the time of the two black-tie balls (the Kings & Queens Ball and the Coronation Ball) held on two weekends in February, they brainstormed for an alternative. Rumor has it that a popular chain restaurant (could it be Dave & Busters?) is eventually taking over the old Saks. (For the past two years, a mega-Halloween store has been in there, but only for a few months prior to Halloween.) So, when the ladies of the Edison Pageant of Light found out that the shell of the store was empty and available, they sprang into action to turn the old department store into a posh, sparkling ballroom. For the 80th anniversary of Edisonia, they chose to combine the two balls into one spectacular affair—and looking around at the cream and gold décor and the gorgeous floral centerpieces, it truly felt like you were transported to another, very resplendent world. All of the ladies pitched in, but the amazing Erleene Sanders was the décor maven behind the elegant look. According to Gina Sabison, first vice president of the pageant, “It was certainly Erleene’s vision, and she and the president of the community club, Susie Bell, helped organize nearly 100 volunteers to scrub the floors and get the place ready. It was a beautiful mix of traditional and modern—the transformation was challenging yet ultimately breathtaking. We heard guests say, ‘Wow!’ when they walked in.” So many residents and royalty of the realm were there to enjoy the glittering evening, including HRH Queen Dewey Sanders (1990), philanthropist Marc Collins, State Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, HRH King Nick Thompson (1997), Mayor Randy Henderson, HRH King Thomas Smoot (1957), and so many more in tuxedos and ball gowns. Congratulations to the newly appointed monarchs of 2018: HRH King TJ Mann and HRH Queen Andrea Globetti. One thing Fort Myers has that Naples doesn’t have is royalty (even if it’s for only one weekend out of the year).

Our most famous winter resident certainly left his mark; while the Pageant of Light celebrates his birthday, the Edison & Ford Winter Estates remains one of the most popular attractions in the area. So when estates president and CEO Chris Pendleton announced her resignation after 16 years, there was no doubt that it would be difficult to fill her very capable shoes. Thankfully, the transition has been flawless—enter Mike Flanders, architect and soon-to-be-former Fort Myers City Council member, who has taken over the operations of the estates. Mike’s wife, Karen Flanders, who sits on the board for the estates, will transition off.

Another transition comes as Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto became the wife of Craig Hansen of Tallahassee. They married in a lovely, low-key ceremony over the Christmas holiday break when all of their grown children could be there (Craig has three; Lizbeth has two). Congrats to the happy family.

And finally, some transitions leave us saddened. Fort Myers will miss one of its most popular residents: Entrepreneur, philanthropist and fabulous harmonica player Tommy Cronin of The Shell Factory passed away in February. And just a day or two before we got news on Tommy, we heard that acclaimed dance instructor Jeanne Brochette, and mother of Olympian Liston Brochette, had left us.  Longtime nbc2 meteorologist Robert Van Winkle is not permanently retired. He gave his final “see you later” in sign language at the end of March. Now, he’s enjoying time that he fears may be in short supply. Doctors diagnosed his mother, Jean, with Stage 4 lung cancer last May. Robert is moving west to Scottsdale, Arizona, to help his siblings care for her. He’s keeping his home in Fort Myers, though, and plans to come back to visit. Just don’t call him a snowbird. “I will be going east and west, not north and south. So I guess that makes me a ‘sunbird.’” Before leaving, Robert insisted he’d be open for any opportunities. “I absolutely hope to be back in Southwest Florida someday,” he said. “Coming back to NBC2 would certainly be an option.”

My gut feeling is that he’ll explore options in and out of the TV news biz. Robert has spent the last 31 years forecasting weather in Fort Myers and Charlottesville, Virginia. He’s been blown away by the kind messages from viewers and friends. For so many, Robert was that familiar face they trusted when skies turned gray. His last line in an email to me is an old blessing I send right back: “May the wind be always at your back.” 

Chef Brian Roland hit it big while on a January cruise with his wife, Nicole Roland. In a matter of seconds, the owner of Crave Culinaire made $5,000 on a $5 bet. I heard the story firsthand from Brian a week later at Bets & Broadway, the casino night fundraiser for the Naples Performing Arts Center. Shoulder-to-shoulder with Nicole at a blackjack table, Brian bet on a special circle that cashed out 1,000 to 1 if the first two cards dealt were the queen of hearts paired with dealer blackjack. Amazingly, that is exactly what he saw in front of him. That simple $5 bet for one game of blackjack paid for their trip and then some. Talk about a lucky pair. 

Naples comedian Dan Klein unexpectedly got to show off his dance moves on national television. Dan and his wife traveled to New York to celebrate his birthday. After scoring tickets to Live with Kelly and Ryan, they stood in line at 6:30 in the morning on a cold, rainy, January day. Little did he know, he’d be on his feet a lot more. Producers picked him for the show’s dance competition, which he would go on to win. “It’s all about covering all available space,” Dan explained. He’s no stranger to performing: Dan’s Square One Improv group performs to packed crowds in Naples, Marco Island and Fort Myers. Usually he has to think quickly on his feet. This time, his feet did all the talking.


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