The Seahorse Society

By staff May 1, 2005

It's the last Wednesday of the month, and some 30 women are huddled around tables at Sam Snead's Tavern talking about life, love-and seahorses. They've been meeting for the last 15 years, and the group-all members of Sarasota High School's class of 1952-calls itself the Seahorse Society.

Gold, silver and sequined, seahorses dangle from their ears, adorn their blouses and encase their necks and wrists. "It's such a tacky little thing," Phyllis Stern cheerfully acknowledges.

Seahorses are their theme because, as teen-age girls, many of them appeared in photographs taken by the late Joseph Steinmetz, who posed them astride the giant seahorse sculptures at the Lido Casino. Some also appeared on the first postcards the Chamber of Commerce used to promote the city. Their only pay for modeling work that hangs in museums today was a bit of local fame. "That's when we were 16, young and beautiful," says Patricia Knapp Hetzler.

Over lunch they reminisce about an era when Longboat Key didn't have a north bridge or a single condo, and the circus set the tone of the city. On Sundays, midgets scrambled out of cars to attend Mass; and in school, Hetzler says, "Maybe the sword swallower was on your right and the giant was on your left."

When The Greatest Show on Earth came to film in Sarasota, "The whole high school signed up for our Social Security numbers so we could all be extras," she says. The result: "The first five numbers of all our Social Security cards are the same."

Their memories of Steinmetz and his family are especially fond. "What you couldn't ask your mother, you could always ask Mrs. Steinmetz," Hetzler recalls. Stern recalls one overnight stay at the Steinmetz home on Siesta Key, when she and her girlfriends floated in a sea of glowing phosphorous in the Gulf of Mexico sans clothing for hours. "It was a different time back then," she recalls. "Everything was so innocent. We had the [spring training] ball players down here chasing after us. And the cadets from the Kentucky military base in Venice. Imagine how great that was!"

Eventually, they forged grown-up careers. Phyllis Stern became a successful realtor. Nina Siler moved to Memphis, where she worked as a disc jockey for the nation's first all-female radio station, WHER. Pat Keefe joined the Navy and served as a tower operator at South Island in San Diego during the Korean War. Lois Steinmetz Arquette, Joseph's daughter, won $1,000 for a story she wrote as a high school sophomore and has since authored more than 30 books. Anne Noe Mason fought for legislation regulating pesticide use and led the charge to protect Sarasota from aerial medfly spraying. And for the last 30 years, Diane Esthus helped her husband, Pete, manage Sarasota Lock and Key, a longtime local landmark.

Now pushing 70, they still shine with the fresh-faced enthusiasm Steinmetz captured in his photos. Over the years, they've shepherded each other through graduations, cancer, the deaths of spouses and the heartbreak of surrendering parents to nursing homes. "We don't have jealousy, we have no agenda. We just have lunch one day a month," says Hetzler.

That, and a lifetime of circus magic, handsome boys-and seahorses.

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