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Here & Now

I want to tell you about Gene Doyle. I never met him, but I’m absolutely sure I would have loved him. He could have been a child of mine.

Born in Naples in 1976, Gene was an adventurous kid with an insatiable appetite for life. He made model rockets and raised poison dart frogs in his bedroom. He dug and stocked a fishing pond in his backyard. And he was bright. An academic scholar in high school, he still made time to letter in varsity cross country, track and field, swimming and wrestling.

More than anything, Gene craved adventure. The summer he graduated from Naples High School, he struck out for Alaska and got a job as a deck hand on a charter fishing boat. He lived in a tent on the beach. The next summer, he returned to Alaska to work on a salmon fishing boat. His dream was to buy a boat and start his own commercial fishing venture. Meanwhile, he went to the University of South Carolina to pursue a degree in marine science. At USC he participated in rock climbing and field hockey, and he founded a wrestling club. All this time his heart was drawing him to his next quest: a spring 1997 study abroad program in Belize.

Gene never got to Belize. He never had a chance to become a marine biologist or to pursue all the adventures that stirred his joyful soul. On Nov. 17, 1996, he was killed in a car crash.

The Naples community deeply mourned with the Doyles. Jim and Pam Vanas, moved to find a meaningful way to honor Gene’s vibrant spirit, conceived an ambitious plan to send other young people off to experience their wildest dreams. With an outpouring of support from prominent old-line families and community leaders such as Sen. Garrett Richter, former County Manager Neill Dorrill, the Wynn family (Sunshine Ace Hardware), the Remington family (A. Vernon Allen Builder), philanthropist Lavern Gaynor, the Travis family (Trapper Marine) and many others, the Gene Doyle Adventure Scholarship was born.

It’s not about financial need, the Vanases say. It’s about passion for adventure … a curious mind spiked with creativity and daring—and the drive to live fully every day. The program invites high school juniors and seniors to imagine their greatest adventure and present it to the scholarship committee. Each year, three adventures are chosen, funded with up to $3,500 each. Applicants may select from existing programs of National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Outward Bound or the Alaska Mountaineering School.

The committee also loves it when a student submits an adventure of his or her own design. In the 14 years since its inception, 41 high school students and college freshmen have used their Gene Doyle Adventure Scholarships for diverse worldwide adventures, from glacier climbing and canyon exploration to sea kayaking and mountaineering.

As I said, Gene could have been a child of mine. In the third year after its inception, my daughter, Sarah, was granted a Gene Doyle-style adventure. She spent 10 days aboard Stenella, a dolphin research vessel off the coast of Bimini, led by Dr. Denise Herzing, one of the world’s leading authorities on Atlantic spotted dolphins. With the Wild Dolphin Project, she swam with the dolphins, tracked their movements and met mothers and babies. She listened to their songs and photographed their feeding rituals, all in their natural world. She took her turn keeping night watch under millions of stars and sounded the alert for night dives when the pod appeared.

One doesn’t return from an experience like this unchanged, but with a sense of awe and a renewed love of life and adventure. So it is that Gene Doyle, who left us 15 years ago, still makes a difference in so many lives.

The biggest fundraiser for the scholarship fund is the popular Gene Doyle Backcountry Release Fishing Tournament held each April. The primary sponsors are Sunshine Ace Hardware, Yamaha Outboards and Trapper Custom Marine, along with about 20 other generous donors ranging from local fishing guides to leading merchants and individuals.

The weekend includes a kickoff party, two lively days of fishing for redfish, snook and trout, and an awards banquet at the Hilton Naples. Registration is now open for the April 29 to May 1 tournament.

Speaking of fishing, last week I proudly posted on my refrigerator my first-ever saltwater fishing license. I don’t plan to do any actual fishing. I got it because I’ve been spending quite a bit of time down in the Everglades recently (more about that next month!), and I found myself in possession of a vintage crab trap. Also, a huge, even more vintage cookpot. I do plan to do some serious crabbing.

Still, when one lives on the Gulf of Mexico, it’s a bit embarrassing not to know which end of the rod is up. Luckily, the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) hosts a statewide traveling seminar called “Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing!” About $100 covers three days of classes, workshops and optional fishing charters. The 2011 seminar comes to Southwest Florida March 11–13, hosted by the Naples Harbour Yacht Club.

Despite what my fishing guide friend Capt. Charles Wright down here in the Everglades says, March in Paradise isn’t totally about fishing. It’s about art shows and charity galas and social gatherings. And music. Like our beaches, you needn’t look far to find excellent live performances in March. Besides the traditional stages, you’ll find musicians in restaurants, hotel lobbies, upscale shopping malls and any charming place fit for strolling.

The Sanibel Music Festival celebrates its 25th year with concerts at Sanibel Congregational Church, and the fifth annual Bonita Blues Festival takes place March 11–12 at Riverside Park. In Old Naples, it’s Thursdays on Third and Evenings on Fifth, and the Fort Myers River District has its new Music Walk on the third Saturday of each month. They mix it up with everything from steel drums to piano, rockabilly to jazz. Upcoming dates are March 19 and April 16.

Whether you, in the spirit of Gene Doyle, dance to the tune of a lively drummer or prefer a more leisurely stroll, Paradise is truly at her best in March. Come on out and play! Learn to bait a hook—or not. Feel the music. Most of all, savor the adventure of being here, now.




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