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October Local News

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99-year-old: I slept through Hurricane Irma 

All of us have seen friends posting complaints on social media about not having power for a week after Hurricane Irma stormed through Polk County.  Rose Johnsson, 99, is the type of person who likely never behaves this way.  “This storm was nothing,” Johnsson said. “I slept through it.”  Johnsson, who turns 100 next July, could not remember the worst storm she has ever lived through, but said there have been many. She had enough experience with hurricanes to prepare.

“I filled kettles with water before the storm and bought lots of soup because I can eat it cold,” Johnsson said. “I keep the windows closed because I’d rather be warm than get bit by mosquitoes but I’m not afraid. I know I can’t do anything about it.”

Pair cover the gaps in Texas, Florida

In early September, with catastrophic flood water from Hurricane Harvey wreaking havoc on his home state of Texas, Navy veteran Bud Allen decided to do something to help.

With his Marine veteran friend Robert, the two started doing search and rescue from boats and helping distribute supplies, many of which came from Floridians. As the flood waters in Texas receded, up came Hurricane Irma threatening the state of Florida.  The two packed a pickup truck and drove east.  They made contact with a member of Lake Wales American Legion Post 71. 

“Whenever disasters hit, rural areas are often forgotten,” Allen said. “We came here to fill some of the gaps.”  Bud and Robert, who had limited money to stay in Florida longer than a week, decided that setting up a sustainable means of bringing supplies to rural areas of east Polk County was the best thing they could do to help out. It was decided to try and fly supplies in. Two days after arriving from Texas on Sept. 12, the team of veterans in Lake Wales coordinated three flights of supplies into Lake Wales Airport. The combined shipments are being warehoused at the American Legion building in Lake Wales, the largest American Legion facility in the world.  Commander Anderson said the post does not have the means to distribute items to individuals. Leaders can contact Commander Anderson to arrange for pickup.

Citrus industry to feel storm's impact 

Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio visited Polk County the week of Sept. 11 to survey citrus damage wrought by Hurricane Irma.  The impacts are three or four-fold when it comes to the county’s orange and agricultural business.  In Lake Wales, the senators saw young fruit on the ground and trees split by wind. Growers talked of trees standing in three feet of water, which is a death sentence for a crop already under a decade-long siege by citrus greening disease.  “Citrus is the crop that Florida’s associated with and it’s already facing significant challenges,” said Rubio. “Economically, it’s an enormous priority for the state. We wanted to make sure this didn’t get lost in this broader relief effort.” 

“We’ve had many hurricanes, we’ve had freezes, but this one is widespread,” said Harold Browning with the Citrus Research and Development Foundation. “We’re seeing the kind of damage we haven’t seen, ever.”

Florida’s orange harvest usually begins around Thanksgiving, and about 90 percent of it becomes juice. Projections for the 2016-2017 growing season had called for 68.5 million boxes of oranges and 7.8 million boxes of grapefruit.  “Before Hurricane Irma, there was a good chance we would have more than 75 million boxes of oranges on the trees this season; we now have much less,” said Shannon Stepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus.

Art called more important than life or death 

Tom Freeman, 92, has been painting murals ever since he retired from teaching art and administrating at Lake Wales High School in 1989.

After nearly two decades at the high school, Freeman said his first mural was finished around 1991 at the corner of Stuart Avenue and Scenic Highway in downtown Lake Wales. Freeman has since painted four other outdoor murals in Lake Wales, two in Frostproof and two more in Lake Placid, plus many other indoor murals and hundreds of other paintings.

The longtime artist and his significant other Marcia Pennington recently started painting a new mural inside Lake Wales Medical Center. They are painting a mural depicting Bok Tower on one wall and in the coming weeks when they finish, a second mural depicting Lake Wales Arts Center will be painted on another wall.

Like much of his previous work, Freeman is donating his creativity and is only charging for the cost of supplies.

“Art is not a matter of life or death,” Freeman said. “It’s more important than that.”

Freeman joined the U.S. Navy in 1943 and served as a radar technician in the south Pacific for three years. Upon his honorable discharge, he got his college degree in art from Florida State University and went to work at GM and later a tobacco company before moving to Lake Wales in 1958. Freeman owned a frame shop and some other businesses before getting hired as an art teacher at the high school in 1970, all while painting at night.

South Central Park: Reimagining the future 

A little rain didn’t hurt anything as a hundred or so people gathered under the eaves of the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce in late August to celebrate the South Central Park Groundbreaking. Anita Strang, Winter Haven Main Street director, said “We knew this park would be the missing piece,” noting the project would “bring a truly vibrant downtown to the next level.” Kyle Cobb of Cobb Construction, the site development company, said they are excited to partner with the city. 

“For those of you who have been working on it for 10 years, I cannot imagine how excited you are,” he said, to the crowd who attended the ceremony. 

“This project is so much more than streetscape,” he said, noting the elements of the design include updated infrastructure and water, with not 35 – but 38 more parking spaces downtown. 

Cobb noted that the design is going to make it much easier for pedestrians to get from one place to another.  Mayor Steven Hunnicutt said “It will become a space our grandchildren will cherish as they gather with other children at community events,” adding that the park and its improvements will become a “conduit” for expanding downtown. 

Green Dots seek to squash personal violence 

Minnie Hassele, president of the Inwood Community Association, is part of a national initiative known as Green Dot, which seeks to intervene in situations that are high risk for others. 

According to literature distributed at a Green Dot meeting held at Wellcare in Winter Haven, “A green dot is any behavior, choice or action that promotes safety for everyone and communicates utter intolerance for sexual violence, domestic violence, child abuse and stalking. A green dot is intervening in a high risk situation - a green dot is looking out for your friends at a party, a bar or other high-risk situation.” Authored by Dorothy J. Edwards, Ph.D., the Green Dot Prevention Strategy connects those who wish to participate with training in how to responsibly deal with violence in society and how to make the community safer.   Hassele, a survivor of sexual abuse, said that Green Dot has given her the opportunity to help others.  “There has to be a culture change,” she said.

Polk schools join lawsuit against state 

The Polk County School District in August joined a lawsuit with a handful of other school districts to sue the state over House Bill 7069, which they claim erodes local control. 

In part of the bill, which became law in June, there is a command for school boards to spend Title I money for charter schools. In the move, for which the board voted 6-0 to join, it has committed $25,000 with other boards that have joined the challenge. Reacting to the challenge, one area legislator said both the state and local school districts are focused on helping the students first, however, at the Aug. 22 regular meeting, local board members don’t agree with that assessment.  Of the seven legislators that represent Polk County, six voted in favor of the bill and one voted no, that being Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Lake Placid. “I have watched the slow erosion of our authority,” Sellers said at the board meeting. “I have seen it affect our students and over the last two years, I have seen it devastating our schools. Education suffers because of their decisions. I look to get it back before we go to court, but if we have to go to court, go to court.”

77 years later original Publix remembered 

If you look really close, you can still see the word “Publix” in green tile under at the front door of the St. Matthew’s Catholic Church Regeneration Resale Shop at 197 W. Central Ave. in Winter Haven.  In 1930, Jenkins opened the first Publix Food Store in Winter Haven. That was the old fashioned store, where the manager would fetch your food for you. Then he opened a second location in town, five years later.  The 1940 Publix Super Market located at 197 W. Central, Winter Haven, would be like none other. Featuring air conditioning, florescent lighting, frozen food cases and various food departments, customers would be greeted by pastel colors, terrazzo tile and was called “a food palace of marble, glass and stucco.” 

The big thing that drew the community was what newspapers at the time called “the electric eye” door — automatic doors. Gregory Fancelli, Jenkins’ grandson, said his grandfather was not able to sleep the whole night before the original ribbon cutting for his 1940 Publix Super Market. 

“He spent the whole night on the steps of the church right across the street, wondering if he had just done the most crazy thing ever — if this was going to work out,” he said.  

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