by Bruce Bunch
The Friends of Fakahatchee celebrated its 20th anniversary in a packed dining room at the Everglades Adventure Center in Everglades City the afternoon of December 7. There was ample time to greet old friends and make new ones before the program hosted by FOF Executive Director Francine Stevens.
Among our many honored guests who were able to attend were most of FOF’s past Presidents, along with Greg Toppin, the first Park Manager to work with the Friends. We also welcomed three of our new Permitted Tour Operators who were able to attend.
Stevens started the meeting with a standing ovation for Tom Maish in recognition of his “impressive tenacity” in spearheading the Boardwalk Expansion Project, which had its groundbreaking earlier the day. “We were sensitive about lobbying for it,” Stevens said, “but then former park director Donald Forgione told us we could educate anyone about the project and we were off to the races.” Said Maish as everyone sat down: “It was a real team effort. A lot of volunteers made this happen.”
Stevens said the Friends of Fakahatchee was incorporated in May of 1998 with Roger Dykstra as President, Park Manager Greg Toppin as Vice President, Barbara Lewinski as Secretary, Alan Caldwell as Treasurer, and Brian Donohue and Elsa Caldwell as board members. “A year later, they had $2,540 in donations,” she said. “Last year, we provided more than $70,000 in park support.”
FOF President Patrick Higgins then presented the group’s Mel Finn Award in recognition of Mrs. Jane Park’s outstanding efforts to save the Fakahatchee from real estate development “In the early 1960’s years before our organization existed,” he said, “she was working tirelessly to preserve the Fakahatchee as Chairman of the Junior Women’s Club. She organized an aggressive letter writing campaign and presented a petition to the state in support of preservation on a roll of paper 175 feet long.” Noted Stevens: “Jane does not brag, so we have to brag for her.”
Featured speaker Eric Draper, Director of Florida State Parks, praised the contributions of Mrs. Parks, Franklin Adams and his mentor former Florida Park Director Ney Landrum in saving the Fakahatchee for future generations “The Parks Department deeply appreciates the Friends organizations,” he said. “You are laying down a path for the people behind you.”
FOF Historian Franklin Adams shared his Fakahatchee memories with the group. He read from a 1964 letter from Mel Finn to Jane Parks assuring her that “we will be successful” in the efforts to preserve the Fakahatchee. He recalled how then Park Manager Greg Toppin posted a notice on a church bulletin board in 1998 that lead to the formation of the Friends of Fakahatchee. Several months later FOF volunteers were clearing exotics in the park.