The Backbone of Fort Myers Beach
What keeps Fort Myers Beach culturally rich, resource-proud and vibrant? This Town thrives in good part thanks to a core of dedicated, community-minded volunteers who sustain important causes, day to day, year-round, decade by decade.
Many of these long-standing volunteers are women of a can-do, step-up generation. Some wear multiple hats in multiple organizations. Others have found a niche at which they excel, serving as go-to experts on specific topics.
The Island Sand Paper is proud to salute four women in their 80s who continue to keep the wheels of Island culture, history and service turning.
We could fill an entire issue with their fascinating life stories and selfless service. Instead, we focus here on one outstanding citizen, Betty Simpson, and three of her friends and fellow volunteers.
Civic Leader, Betty Simpson
“We have all these gems on our little island, and I just enjoy being part of them,” says Betty Simpson. Within her low-key, congenial demeanor and deadpan sense of humor resides a tireless civic champion who has shown extraordinary dedication to Fort Myers Beach, where she has lived since 1966. Her resumé of local volunteerism is staggering:
- Transition Team from Lee County to Town of Fort Myers Beach after incorporation in 1995
- Local Planning Agency – longest-serving member (1995 – 2005)
- FMB Chamber of Commerce, including one year as President
- FMB Fire Commissioner, 1993
- Chair of Friends of the FMB Public Library
- Member and Past Chair of Cultural and Environmental Learning Center Advisory Board (CELCAB) and Bay Oaks Recreational Campus Advisory Board (BORCAB)
- Member and Past Chair of FMB Pilot Club (now FMB Community Foundation), and Lt. Governor for the Southwest Florida District of Pilot Club; still serves on the Community Foundation Scholarship Committee
- Board member of both Friends of the Matanzas Pass Preserve and Estero Island Historic Society
- Docent and Board member of Friends of the Mound House
Born and raised in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Betty Due became friends and sorority sisters with her future sister-in-law, the late Roxie Davis Smith. Betty married Roxie’s brother Bob Davis, who owned a Firestone Tire dealership in Sioux Falls.
Betty and her husband both got their pilot’s licenses, but it was Betty who became a commercial pilot. “I could fly out to a job site and drop off whatever parts the business needed,” she recalled.
She flew an air taxi and also piloted mercy flights out of Pine Ridge Reservation and into Denver Children’s Hospital – where her own daughter spent some time during her first two years of life.
“In those days [the early ‘60s] in South Dakota, men tended to work and they didn’t want their wives to work. But as long as I was out ‘playing’ at the airport, it was okay.”
Bob and Betty moved to Fort Myers Beach in 1966, where the Davis family bought the Pink Shell Resort when it consisted of a single rental cottage. She worked for local realtor Jim Newton, and opened her own real estate office after her divorce: Betty Simpson and Associates.
She also put her flying skills to use as a Flight Instructor at Page Field (prior to construction of the Southwest Florida Regional Airport). Among other lessons, she taught women non-pilots to take the controls, navigate and land a plane in case their pilot spouse had a medical emergency while in flight.
“I used to fly some guys who were a bit cocky out over the Everglades,” she said. “I’d throw my hands up and say: ‘Gee, I’m lost. Can you get us home?’ Then I’d laugh and reassure them: ‘Just kidding!’ They showed more respect after that, and often they requested me as their instructor.”
Betty had a technique to jolt any pilot trainee whose hands froze on the controls (apparently, a not uncommon problem). “Some of the bigger guys were maybe 300 pounds. I could never wrest the wheel away from them. So I jabbed them with a hatpin I kept just for that purpose. It never failed.”
Still a broker for Lahaina Inn Resort, Betty has lived on the south half of the island for the past 30-plus years.
With all her activities, Betty found time to delve deeply into many intensive volunteer roles, simply because she saw a need and had both the energy and talent to contribute. “We are so fortunate to have amenities such as the Library, Historic Society, Mound House and Bay Oaks,” said Betty. “I wanted to be involved in things that are important to the Town.”
From turbulent times at the FMB Fire Department during the mid-1990s to the tragic death of FMB Library Director, Dr. Leroy Hommerding, on January 20, 2019, Betty and FMB have weathered many challenges. Her steady hand is as great an asset on the Island as it once provided in the skies.
Keepers of History, Fran Santini
As the unofficial Primo Street “neighborhood captain” for several decades, Fran Santini is the rare local who was born on the Island. She still lives in the canal-side home her father built in 1936. Fran grew up on a simpler, quieter FMB, when fishing was the main industry and everyone knew each other.
She has worked with a wide range of local organizations over the years, and consulted with the Historic Preservation Board of FMB Town Council. She has been a mainstay of the Estero Island Historic Society since its inception, and served as Treasurer for years.
Always available to lend a hand to family and neighbors, Fran is the living continuity of Fort Myers Beach history, and one of the key resources for any question about the past of this special place.
Born in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada, A.J. and her twin sister Connie moved to Fort Myers Beach with older brother Francis and their mother Mildred in 1940. The kids attended Beach Elementary School, of which Mildred later became Principal.
After 30 years of teaching, coaching and as Head of Physical Education at Southwest Miami High School, A.J. returned to FMB to care for her ailing mother in the late 1980s. She rekindled her high school friendship with Fran Santini, and they both began speaking about local history at events.
A.J.’s involvement deepened when the Estero Island Historic Society formed in 1992 and the Davison cottage – the Island’s 5th registered dwelling – was donated to the EIHS and moved from the beach to its current Bay Street location. A.J. served as Curator of the EIHS, led historical trolley and boat tours of the Island for several years, and continues as a Board member.
Mound House Champion, Ceel Spuhler
“The first day I walked into the Mound House, there was something about the warmth and the look that just engulfed me,” recalled Ceel Spuhler, long-time Friends of the Mound House Board member and docent.
A native of Boston, Ceel moved with her husband from their home outside Cleveland, Ohio to FMB in late 1995, just as it became an incorporated Town.
Ceel worked on the schooner Island Rover and volunteered at Ostego Bay Marine Science Center. She found her true calling when the Town of FMB acquired the Mound House and began to search for ways to convey its unique importance to residents and visitors.
Bill Grace, great-grandson of William H. Case – who had owned and expanded the Mound House starting in 1906 – provided historic information and photos that Ceel compiled into narratives. She trained 12 docents, led tours, and ever since has championed the Mound House as an FMB treasure to be widely shared.
Ceel was a member of CELCAB for over a decade and shows up at many Island events, always impeccably turned out.
“I’ve never lived anyplace where so many people not only volunteer, but have a burning desire to serve,” Ceel said. “We go to each other’s events and support all these wonderful island endeavors. It’s one of the things that make this such a fantastic place to live.”
So many dedicated volunteers maintain and enhance the unique qualities of Fort Myers Beach. We thank them all. Look for more profiles next season – of long-timers and those of the following generations.
This is the final Sands of Time column for the 2019 season. Have a wonderful summer!
By Janet Sailian