Grande Dames Keeping PACE!


Usually when you pay tribute to an outstanding group of honorees it is appropriate to say “Hat’s Off.” At the 8th annual PACE Center for Girls, Lee County Grande Dame Tea at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theater on Tuesday, March 22, however, it was most definitely “Hat’s On” – with elegant tea hats, that is!

A sold-out crowd of almost 400 people, mostly women in their finest attire, attended “The Wisdom of Age – Honoring the Female Spirit” event for the 2016 Grande Dames class of Betty Anderson, Rusty Brown and Dr. Geraldine Burchard Nobles. Lee County Deputies in dress uniform escorted ladies to their seats, literally with white glove treatment. Guests savored tea sandwiches, scrumptious salads, and decadent chocolates and desserts during welcoming remarks and inspirational vocal performances before the introductions of the three recipients by family members or long-time friends.

Here the program excelled: rather than a traditional Thank You speech, PACE placed the honorees on-stage in comfortable chairs surrounded by a half-dozen students who asked questions about their lives, achievements, and experiences. This format made their contributions vibrant and more relevant to the impressionable teens around them.

At first blush the three seemed to have little in common. Mrs. Anderson, 86 and from Fort Myers, was a missionary with her late husband, Dr. Robert Anderson, in Africa for 15 years, emphasizing dental care. Mrs. Rusty Brown, also 86 and from Fort Myers, is a noted journalist, playwright, and musical comedy performer known for portraying Mina Edison and Clara Barton among others, as well as authoring “Women As We See Ourselves” about the United States Feminist Movement. Dr. Nobles, 78 of LaBelle, went from bussing tables at her parent’s renowned restaurant, Flora & Ella’s, to becoming a successful mental health advocate and the 1st certified abuse counselor in Florida history.

It was soon apparent, however, they had many shared influences. They all grew up in households that society would consider underprivileged today, but none of them knew it then. Mrs. Brown even quipped that “I was born in 1929, the very day the Depression began. My parents would say I had ‘bad timing’ and even occasionally and of course jokingly, blamed me for it!” Mrs. Anderson and Dr. Nobles were from families deep with hunters and fishermen, so even though money was tight, there was always plenty of food on their tables.

Religion was a common thread, with Mrs. Anderson saying that no matter how homesick, she and her husband never considered abandoning their mission because it was their Calling. Dr. Nobles suggested praying for those who mistreat or wrong you because it will help you heal, as “it is hard to hate someone for whom you pray.” Mrs. Anderson ran the clinic for those so destitute they never before saw a dentist; Mrs. Brown described her volunteerism at a medical facility for lepers and the abject poor in India as the most rewarding experience of her life.

Each encouraged the girls to persevere; that bad times come to everyone but they can overcome all obstacles. Mrs. Brown advised to “always prepare yourself for your next creation, because life is long and constantly requires adjustment.” When asked about advice for an abusive relationship, Dr. Nobles said, “Run as fast as you can in the opposite direction! Abuse is about power and control, so do not let anyone isolate you from your positive support systems. Remember, you can pray for him but don’t stay with him.”

The Grande Dames Tea concluded with five students performing “A Lot Can Happen in a Year,” a spoken-word theatrical production authored by a sister institution, and it was stunning. The work describes the trials & tribulations PACE girls endure and overcome over a 12-month span, but it was the young amateur troupe that took everyone by storm. “A Lot Can Happen in a Year” is a fast series of short clips, many times just a single word, exchanged in rapid cadence without an apparent speaking order, jumping quickly back & forth from one to the next. Amazingly, the girls accomplished this without a single misstep, almost effortlessly, every word clear and with full emotion. It was a searing performance, and one that brought the audience to its feet at the conclusion, with nary a dry eye in the house.

Grande Dames Keeping PACE!
PACE Center for Girls, Lee Students wearing Fascinators that they made in support of their school.

PACE Center for Girls, Lee County provides at-risk girls ages 12 to 18 an opportunity for a better future through education, counseling, training, and advocacy. PACE helps girls reduce recidivism along with teen pregnancy, substance abuse, rates of detention, and incarceration while increasing academic success, post-secondary education, and employment to ensure long-term economic independence. It complies with all State standardized testing and academic criteria.

The 2016 Grand Dames Tea raised $40,395 in support of the PACE mission and programs. As an aside, PACE students with the creative help of Judy Cutler made individually unique fascinators, or formal headwear worn as an alternative to a hat, and sold them at the event, often right off the top of their heads! They set a goal of $800 and shattered that with $1,150.


For additional information contact the school at 239-425-2366 or see The PACE Center for Girls, Lee County Grande Dames Tea showcased how women of all ages and backgrounds in our community inspire and shine, for yesterday, today, and tomorrow.


Gary Mooney




  1. 2016 Grand Dames for the PACE Center for Girls, Lee County: Mrs. Betty Anderson, Mrs. Rusty Brown, and Dr. Geraldine Burchard Nobles.
  2. PACE Center for Girls, Lee Students wearing Fascinators that they made in support of their school.