“It’s Never Too Late to Reconnect and Bond”

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    Ottawa Pirates Enjoy the Beach

    A group of twenty women, all 1974 graduates of Ottawa (Illinois) High School, have reconnected after many years of life events that led them all off to different parts of the country, different lifestyles, different experiences. But last year, and now again this past weekend, they have come together right here on Fort Myers Beach, using The Outrigger Resort as ‘base of operations’, to spend some quality time together catching up, having fun, taking advantage of all the island has to offer and generally making merry.

    ottawa piratesLast Saturday, we caught up with this group of old compadres as they prepared themselves for a ride around town in the Ku-Ku-Ku-Nu-Ku trolley. Sitting on the Outrigger deck next to the tiki bar, all seemed to be ready for a good time, and were happy to talk about their history, their memories, and their reasons for renewing, or in some cases creating new friendships. Islander Mary Jo Bowers, co-owner of Florida Local Real Estate with husband Ron Turrisi, explains how this now-annual gathering came about.

    “I was planning to go visit up there, see my family.” But just before she arrived, Mary Jo learned that her very good friend Laurie had lost her husband. Many former classmates attended the wake, some seeing each other for the first time since their class’s 10th reunion, for others not since graduation, forty years past.

    “After the viewing, a bunch of us went to Berta’s Tavern nearby.” The women found they really enjoyed getting together, and Mary Jo suggested that if any of them ever wanted to “come for a visit…” As Bowers talked about the island and all the great things they could do here, the consensus grew that it sounded like a great idea. “We stayed in touch on Facebook and email.”

    A full year later, fifteen women agreed on a date and made plans to come to Fort Myers Beach for their first group vacation last year. “I am the one here, so I make the arrangements for accommodations. Last year I looked at all the options for where to stay, and costs.” But lodging isn’t all. Mary Jo books tours, makes reservations…and when the women arrive, Mary Jo makes sure each gets a gift bag. She also makes copies of each of their graduation pictures to tape to the windows of their rooms, so that everyone knows where everyone is staying. “They love The Outrigger,” which is no surprise to Mary Jo who, like many locals, is a long time patron of the resort. “I like taking care of the arrangements; I should have been a cruise director!” Bowers says with a laugh.

    While waiting for Patti to arrive with the funky Ku-Ku-Ku-Nu-Ku ride, the Ottawa High School grads share their high school nicknames. Here they are, in no particular order:  “Nickel” (Nancy), “Neppy” (Lynette), “Jo” (Mary Jo), “Rainey” (Lorraine), “Helen K” (Lori), “DeeDee” (Diane), “Flo” (Sheila), “Carlson” (Nancy), “Mrs. Norris” (Anita), “Hogues” (Cathi), “Coach” (Gay), “Fritz” (Diane), “Holl” (Holly), “Laur” (Laurie), “Baiz” (Cindy) and  “Walsh” (Laurie). Sherri claims to have no nickname, but several of her buddies insist it was “Sherman.” Cheryl definitely did not have a nickname and Joan tries to jump on that bandwagon. But the entire group, by consensus, insists Joan’s nickname was “Happy Ass.” And finally, the nickname that drips with innuendo and creates a group giggle – “Pointers” – was the name her friends shouted down the hall when they wanted to get Kim’s attention. All celebrate their 60th birthdays sometime this year.

    This lively group of women – all sizes and shapes and shades – were not all close friends in high school, back when they were rooting for the home team – the Ottawa High School Pirates. They were among the largest graduating class the school had ever had – 500 of them. But they all recall the sit-in at their school, in which they all participated. They were protesting because a guy in school was being told he had to cut his long hair. But as they remembered that day, all agreed that the best result of the effort was that the student council convinced the powers-that-be to relax the dress code and allow the students, boys and girls, to wear jeans to school. “We were not good girls. We partied. It was the 70’s!” several of the group revealed.

    While their recreational choices may have drastically changed over the years, the desire to have fun and enjoy the company of each other has been rekindled. ‘Not good girls’ turns out to be typical high school pranksters, who start rapidly recalling of some of their shenanigans. “There was a drive-thru liquor store,” says one OHS Pirate. “You’d light a smoke, cop a cool attitude…and hope they would sell you some beer.” Another pipes in “Mooning the McDonald’s cashier in the drive-thru!” “We had streakers on our football field,” adds another. Several of the group ended up in detention from time to time, but Nancy “Nickels” holds the record for most detentions served. “I even got kicked out once,” she adds with a bit of mischief sparking in her already-sparkly eyes.

    Laughter and warmth generated by these women ripples around the tables where they sip on cool refreshments. Among them, there are fifteen grandmothers, two widows and four breast cancer survivors. Two – Anita and Kim – were married before high school graduation and are still married to the same husbands. Nancy spent seven weeks in a coma from November until New Years Day a few years ago, a result of a very bad bout with the H1N1 flu. As their conversation drifts to sicknesses and losses, there is a momentary lull. Then Lorraine said, “This is the most beautiful group of women. You can’t believe our bond.” A murmur of agreement travels around this circle of friends.

    Last Friday, because of the hurricane scare, a planned moonlight cruise was canceled, so Mary Jo had to come up with something else for the first night of fun. “We ended up at Skye’s (Restaurant in Santini Plaza).” Jenny, one of the beach’s favorite bartenders, was there to help get the party started. “She was great,” crows Mary Jo. “She made us watermelon shots and chocolate marshmallow shots. We had so much fun.” The women migrated over to Castaways, where they spent the balance of the evening dancing and whooping it up.

    Saturday night, after a day of fun in the sun, the group mounted the Ku-Ku-Ku-Nu-Ku with the intention of doing a town-wide pub-crawl before heading to dinner. But their first stop was the Lani Kai, and they never made it to Nervous Nellie’s, The Cottage or Doc Ford’s before heading to dinner at Parrot Key. Mary Jo says they really enjoyed themselves. “Frank Torino was there, and he made us feel like the whole show was for us. We had a great meal, and danced all night.” On Sunday, they headed down to Fish Tale Marina, and finally got their sunset cruise. Mary Jo says the women loved it.

    Though not ‘besties’ in high school, they now, with as much as four decades of a gap in some of their relationships with one another, are now taking ‘selfies’ and sharing the wisdom of their life lessons with one another. Mary Jo remarks after everyone has left for home, “It’s a really great group. There’s not one bit of tension or animosity among us. We’re already making plans for next year.” This annual event has become an important part of a support system the women truly appreciate. As Kim says, “It’s never too late to reconnect and bond.” Spending time with these women, you come to realize that the important take-away from this gathering isn’t a tan, a gift bag or a catalogue of great memories.

     

    Jo List