Betsy Joiner, one of the original Boca Grande island girls, gave a charming, humorous talk about life growing up on the island for the Boca Grande Historical Society's History Bytes series March 2. Her father, the great fisherman Delmar Ormsby Fugate, was born on the island in 1912, which gives Joiner a 99-year association with Boca Grande.
Her mother, Margaret Fugate, attended the talk along with 50 others. Joiner has done it all and seen it all on Boca Grande from fishing and romance to the creation of the Pink Elephant, through hurricanes and recessions to working the elevator at the Gasparilla Inn & Club. Here's an excerpt of her talk, which will also be later detailed in the Gasparilla Gazette's Boca Memories special section in July.
Question: How has life been on Boca Grande?
Self-professed “island girl” Betsy Joiner addresses the crowd at the Fust Library May 2 on growing up in Boca Grande. Her talk was the latest installment of the Boca Grande Historical Society's History Bytes series.
Answer: It's a big family. It still is. I was fortunate to be raised on Boca Grande by just about every person here. My mother and father knew things I did almost before I did them.
Q: What's your island motto?
A: Laugh often, live well and love much. Dance often - I did that, too - enjoy sunsets, moonlight and of course, fish.
Betsy Joiner at a glance
Birth date: Feb. 4, 1949
Occupation: general manager of PJ's Seagrille
Hometown: Boca Grande
Education: "Hard knocks."
Family: two sons and four grandchildren
Q: How did your mother come to Boca Grande?
A: Mother's parents moved from Washington, D.C., to St. Petersburg when she was about in fourth grade. My mother has been here since the 1920s. She moved to Boca Grande in late 1939 after she graduated from Florida State Women's College. Now it's known as Florida State University in Tallahassee.
Q: Your father was born here. What drew your mother to Boca Grande?
A: She wanted to go teach on an island. Think what it was like here. There was no bridge. You could only come by train or boat. The mosquitos were absolutely horrible. But she chose to come here to teach. Mom loved it here.
Q: What was your connection to the Pink Elepahnt, which was romance central in Boca Grande?
A: The Patio Dress Shop used to be the Patio Bar. Many people met the love of their life there during World War II and married. Some started families on the island. I was too close to the churches so the bar had to be closed down. They moved the bar down to 36th Street where the ferry landing used to be and they had a package store there after the war. Then the Patio Bar moved to where it is today and became the Pink Elephant.
Q: Was the Pink Elephant - designed by your father- ever really pink?
A: The main structure really was pink then. My father designed the building. It was made almost entirely by hand. This was 1947 when they started building it so everything was barged over. He painted it pink because he loved the islands and the Bahamas and painted it Bermuda pink. Another story that's been told is that was the only color in the store he could buy.
Q: Was it an instant success?
A: It became one of the most famous spots on the southern coast of Florida. It was known for its fine, fresh seafood, the daiquiris - everything was made by hand. We had key lime trees at my mother and father's house on Royal Palm that were ever plentiful. The daiquiris were from fresh-squeezed lime juice. You didn't get this powdered mix.
Q: With all these island romances, why did you create a stir with your island marriage?
A: I decided to get married and I was 16. That caused a little bit of friction around, not just my home, but the whole town. But I was very stubborn and said I'm in love and this is what I'm going to do. And I did. And I'm glad I did. I was married 11 years and I became a Joiner. A Fugate-Joiner. It's the nicest family you could ever be invited into. I learned so many things.
Q: How many jobs have you had on this island?
A: I work hard. I think that came from all the generations I've been involved with. We all seem to be in the people-pleasing business. I tried my best not to get into the restaurant business but I came back to it. I'm thankful now I'm running PJ's Seagrille.
I learned to do everything at the Fugate's store from the time I was 9 years old. When I was older I got to dress the windows and I thought that was the greatest thing. I've been a bus girl, a salad maker, a baker and raised children for 10 years. I was a volunteer for the clinic, a private secretary for a secretary when I was 15. When I was 16, I was a manager's assistant at the Gasparilla Inn. I ran the elevator sometimes on Saturday. Soda jerk, bartending at the Pink Elephant before it was sold. I went to work for Dee Wheeler and the Community Center and I hadn't graduated from high school so I had to go back and get my GED. So I tell everyone I graduated in 1977, not 1967. I'm very proud Dee encouraged me to do that.
My plan was I was going to go to college to learn the retail business and be a buyer. Next to being a dancer, I wanted to be a buyer. I was former director for five years of the World Famous Tarpon Tournament (1993-2004) on Boca Grande.
I'm just very happy and proud to be a Boca Grande girl. I've enjoyed life to the fullest.