Can you believe it’s taken me six years as a full-time Sarasota resident to calm down enough to sit on the dock and actually watch the fish, dolphins, pelicans and dozens of other birds on the waterfront? I’m out there every day now, even when it rains. And I pick the gardenias and roses in my front yard one at a time as they open, instead of forgetting even to look at them. All fall I counted the days until my migrating birds would return in February.
Pauline and Albert Joerger, who also spent many years in New York City, moved to Sarasota four and a half years ago with their two small children. They hit the ground running, determined to save us from our delusion that there is so much nature here that we don’t need to think about managing it. Albert immediately founded the Sarasota Conservation Foundation (SCF) “to protect and preserve the beauty and natural integrity of bays, beaches, barrier islands and natural habitats along the Gulf Coast.” People left and right jumped aboard.
In February the first annual Palm Ball was held at the nearly century-old Burrows-Matson property, which SCF purchased from Cornelia and Richard Matson with a state grant last year. It has been turned into a park and historic district.
The fabled Matson house, built by the Burrows family in 1931 less than 30 feet from Little Sarasota Bay and complete with columns and a folly, was the perfect setting for a conservation ball. It’s just south of Spanish Point, down a long and winding unpaved road, past old-style Florida cottages. You could get lost forever on that road. Luckily, I traveled it with Rick and Ann Cameron, who’d spent many evenings there with the Matsons and knew the way.
Who can put on a first annual gala to rival the best of them and raise more than $340,000 to boot? Unheard of! Many worthy, decades-old local nonprofits only dream of raising a hundred grand at their annual dinners. How did the Sarasota Conservation Foundation do it? Everybody kept telling me in hushed tones that Pauline Joerger was a Palmer, one of the founding families of Sarasota; her mother is Honore Wamsler and those stellar family connections helped with oh-so-important introductions to city movers and shakers. That may be true, but Albert told me they don’t like to call attention to their family heritage. Plus, Albert has lots of degrees and really knows what he’s talking about. In the last few years he has helped Sarasota County purchase sensitive lands and was just appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to sit on the governing board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as SWIFTMUD.
At the ball, when Albert spoke about making an emerald necklace of nature preserves all around us, Denis Evans, who was sitting next to me, remarked, “That man is going to create an empire.”
In any case, we arrived at the ball without getting lost, and except for Pauline Joerger, who is way too polite, all the chairwomen in the receiving line, from Cornelia Matson to Nora Johnson to Amie Swan to Margarete Van Antwerpen to Margaret Wise, looked at me and asked, “Didn’t you get the memo?”
The invitation said wear blue or green. I was wearing lavender, so sue me. I have a long explanation, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear it here. The place was a sea of blue and green gowns, except for Pam Daniel, who was wearing black, and Sharon Floyd, who was wearing white. What can you do? Tammy Taaffe looked fantastic in a correct color. When she spelled her name for me, it sounded like a candy bar. She asked me not to say that; I promised I wouldn’t. Elisabeth Waters wore a huge emerald necklace that covered her entire bodice. Alas, the emeralds weren’t real.
Margaret Wise was so excited. She pointed out all the gowns that came from Designing Women. “Three!” she said proudly, “including Cornelia’s.”
I didn’t believe her, but Cornelia, who usually buys all her clothes in Paris, didn’t deny it. Other important facts from the evening: Bill Wise, who has been going out with Margaret every single night this season, is finally getting used to it. He even ate some of his dinner. Margaret Pennington introduced her husband as her fifth, when he and I knew he was really her fourth. They started talking about fertilizer rites, or maybe it was rights. Something to do with boarding horses and getting to shovel you-know-what. It was very environmental.
Art and Peg Nadel were still remembering their winning answer at Bird Key Yacht Club Trivia the week before. And everybody enjoyed seeing the young crowd. Dr. Harold Johnson, who is on the board, and his wife, Dr. Krista Toomre, were among the dozens of beautiful young trendsetters who are flocking to support the organization. Krista is Cornelia Matson’s personal physician. She told me she’s the only one who knows Cornelia’s true birthday. If you pulled out her fingernails, she wouldn’t tell.
A lot of important people were there—former U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, State Sen. Lisa Carlton, State Rep. Doug Holder, Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, Northern Trust president Phil Delaney.
It was heady, all right. The tent was really cool, too, made of some clear material so you could look out and see the stars. I didn’t see any stars, but it was nice to know you could if there were any to see. The linens were green, and every chair had a plastic palm paddle for bidding on items like $5,000 dinners for eight at the house (catered by Phil Mancini), nature walks with famed nature photographer Clyde Butcher and other nature-related items. The auction, which did not have an auctioneer yelling into a too-loud mic, took about two and a half minutes and people were so grateful they raised their paddles to the tune of $92,000. That sum was matched by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice, so every gift was doubled. Northern Trust underwrote the entire dinner, so all the funds will be devoted to conservation initiatives. It was an example of the perfect cause and true community partnering.
At breakfast a few days later, Albert told me the success of the event was inspiring to him. “There was a great showing from the young professional community. And everybody on the committee worked really, really hard. They didn’t have to do that.” Maybe not, but in Sarasota all gala committees work really, really hard.
Leslie Glass is a playwright and the author of 14 novels, including the best-selling crime series featuring the NYPD’s April Woo.