How does a girl born in Southern California who spent most of her adult life in the Midwest eventually become the Citizen of Distinction Award Winner of an island beach community in Southwest Florida?
“My brother married a girl from Iowa and I went to the wedding and met her brother Stan and that was it,” recalls Gretchen Johnson, the 2016 Town of Fort Myers Beach Citizen of Distinction Award Recipient with a twinkle in her eye. “That was 1950 and we married soon after that, and I moved to the Midwest where we lived in many locations due to Stan’s job with Standard Oil. We had four children and our son Chris relocated to Fort Myers Beach for his career and took our grandson away! We visited a few times, then my husband informed me in 1990 that we were making the move ourselves; at first I was upset because we just renovated our house three months earlier and I finally had the kitchen of my dreams, but of course now I am glad we came.”
Soon after arriving, Chris bought her a Fort Myers Beach Art Association membership, “as I did a lot of oil painting in Minnesota so it was already a passion of mine. I took a watercolor class with Lee Ackert, who was a fantastic person and legendary artist, one of many who were Association members. We all started to get together on Wednesdays to work on our watercolors; now it is 26 years later and we still meet on Wednesday!”
Sitting in the Art Association and describing her own artwork, Gretchen says “I dabble! Mostly watercolor and acrylics now – a little bit of everything, really, and I still love it. Stan, who passed away in 2001, used to say I should move my bed over here!”
In addition to art, “Stan and I did a lot of fishing. We were socially incompatible for fifty years as he didn’t dance and I hated to play cards but we fished often in Minnesota or Kansas or wherever we lived at the time. Fishing was so good here that we had a pontoon boat for visitors and a fishing boat for ourselves and we really enjoyed it.”
Crammed between art and fishing came volunteerism with Lee Memorial Hospital as well as at the Iona Hope Episcopal Church next to Lakes Regional Library. “I was a Partner at the hospital, assisting the nurses… at the church I helped in the soup kitchen and thrift shop. We did some habitat work as well, and used to go to the Martin Luther King food bank twice a week, but now that we have God’s Table at Chapel By The Sea on the beach I volunteer there. It is so easy to get involved in all that.”
Neighbor Against Neighbor
While those are all feel-good activities, there was one that brought Gretchen a lot of headaches – her support for the incorporation of Fort Myers Beach in 1995. “This was contentious,” she recalls, “pitting neighbor against neighbor.” Her involvement began innocently: “I went to a meeting at the office of former congressman Porter Goss and my photograph ended up in the newspaper. I had an awful time over that and it got me going. People were soon painting vulgar words on our campaign signs, and I would walk into community meetings and people would suddenly stop talking because I was the opposition! You had to withstand a lot of funny – and some not so funny – things.” Gretchen believes most island residents “remain happy we took charge of our own regulations, though she hasn’t been political for years.
To those who are still politically active, it is no secret to anyone that the current Council rarely agrees on anything, but their choice of Gretchen for the 2016 Citizen of Distinction Award was unanimous-on-steroids! “She is such an accomplished artist,” said council member Tracey Gore, “and a leader who made a difficult stand to support the incorporation of Fort Myers Beach, so it is ironic that she receives the 2016 Citizen of Distinction Award because without her help, there would be no Town! It’s hard to think of Fort Myers Beach without thinking of Gretchen.”
“She exemplifies the vibrancy, energy, and hospitality of our small island community,” emphasized council member Joanne Shamp. “Gretchen at 90 years’ young remains vital to the Fort Myers Beach Art Association and the fabric of our community, whether it is all the way back to incorporation to as recent as serving cupcakes last New Year’s Eve. Her hand is in on every event that benefits the arts, and her Christmas Boat Parade parties, peanut brittle, and holidays cards are all island legends! Gretchen is a force to be reckoned with, while earning the love and respect of all who have the pleasure to know her.”
“Gretchen – my goodness! Her love for Fort Myers Beach is evident in her painting, as in her art the beach just comes alive,” comments Ceel Spuhler, herself a community treasure. “She is a deserving selection, and one with which I highly agree – Gretchen is a winner!”
Embarrassing & Humbling
As for Gretchen, however, “the award is kind of embarrassing! I think of people like Betty Simpson, who is the head of everything like the Friends of the Fort Myers Beach Public Library and the Mound House and so much more – there are certainly many more who deserve this than I, and that is what makes the honor so humbling.”
Today this mother of four, grandmother to four more, and great-grandmother to six still believes that “Fort Myers Beach is a lovely place to live. I am right on the bay so I see beautiful birds and boats and wildlife all day. I hope we keep our small-town character because it is sad to see the loss of so many beach cottages. One thing I am not crazy about is our summer weather, as I am not one who likes it that hot. I used to walk every day but I broke my leg a while back, and blah-blah-blah, so I had to slow down a little bit and that is disgusting! What I most admire about our Town is the brains and intelligence of our neighbors, who work so hard to accomplish the things that better our lives, society and community.”
To recognize Gretchen Johnson, who betters our lives, society and community, the Town of Fort Myers Beach Council will present her its 2016 Town’s Citizen of Distinction Award at its February 6 meeting in Town Hall at 2 p.m.