Talking about Ft. Myers
The West side of the state of Florida experienced development later than on the East side, for a variety of reasons, transportation chief among them.
However, Henry Ford, originator of the Model T, Thomas Edison, the inventor, and Harvey Firestone, the rubber tire magnate had winter homes here as early as 1916. While Florida has experienced rampant development in a number of places over the years (it still continues in some areas), Ft. Myers has seen measured growth. That is about to change, however.
Projections are that the population of this area will double in the next 25 years. Laid back living, which characterizes this spot on the map, will give way to population density, rush hour traffic and an increase in taxes.
For a long period of time Florida was considered a backwater outpost. Even though Henry Flagler had built his railroad to Key West from Miami by 1912, which meant that there was train service from Jacksonville to Key West, Florida’s development came about after World War II with air service, air conditioning and mosquito control. The West coast of Florida, where cattle once supplied meat to both the Confederate and Union armies, remained more primitive.
It is fun to come this way in winter where the fishing is good, where spring baseball brings about an ebullient atmosphere and where abundant golf courses and restaurants abound. On average, there are 67 sunny days in the Ft. Myers section of the Sunshine state in winter.
While I have always been attracted to spring baseball — the Grapefruit League where small, cozy stadiums host shirt sleeve crowds getting introduced to fresh talent bent on making it to the Big Leagues — I have enjoyed a signature fishing experience or two here — owing to a friendship with a genial Georgia football player of the past, Greene Keltner, who played on Georgia’s first bowl team.
Originally, Greene was in the cattle business in Memphis but had a bout with meningitis, which was exacerbated by cold weather. He began spending winters in Lee Country for health reasons. He became a fishing guide, but later developed a couple of marinas which enabled him to enjoy success in business and a lifestyle in which he fished as often as the weather permitted.
On an overcast day, one December, I drove down from Tampa to see him. He said, “there’s no fishing in these conditions.” Then he grinned, “but you want to go don’t you?” That meant that he wanted to go. Soon we were out among the mangroves near his condominium at Ft. Myers Beach.
Using a light reel, I was a clumsy caster, the most inefficient fisherman in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Every cast resulted in entanglement—a constant back-lashing bird’s nest. After one cast, I was trying to untangle my line when it sputtered briefly with a “zzzeeettt” sound. When I suggested there was something on my line, Greene replied: “He’ll be gone by the time you clean out that mess,” he laughed.
Soon my line was free and I reeled in the slack slowly. I was lollygagging along with the notion that I was wasting my time when suddenly my line went taut and a 25-pound Snook was off and running, nearly yanking me out of the boat. My inexperience was ameliorated by Greene’s savvy knowledge as he maneuvered the boat to keep my potential bounty from escaping into the mangroves. I fought doggedly and succeeded against all odds.
Soon the beautiful silver scaled Snook with its brown stripe, which runs the length of its body, was beside the boat. Greene stuck his big thumb into the fish’s mouth and pulled it aboard. “Good fishermen come down here for years and never catch a Snook like that and you, you lucky so and so, you catch one on a backlash.” Coming here makes me reflect on that signature fishing outing.
There was time on my recent trip to visit a man named Paul Herring, who at one hundred years of age, has to be the oldest living Terry College matriculate. Paul’s plane was shot down over Belgium in World War II and he was hidden by the Belgium Resistance until Europe was liberated. He returned home needing one course for graduation, but never got his degree.
Ben Ayers, Dean of the Terry College of Business, honored him with a plaque for his loyalty and support of UGA, however. That plaque hangs proudly on his wall. He smiled generously as he reminisced about his days on campus and had this parting shot as goodbyes were said: “How are our Bulldogs going to do this fall?”
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