“There were two things that we really wanted-a school and a newspaper.”
As Dr. Jean Matthews related this statement, the importance early islanders attributed to having a reliable source of local news moved me. Right after a school! If a newspaper ranked anywhere near a school in terms of community priority, there must have been a compelling reason, because certainly the education of children has always been a paramount consideration. Furthermore, the fact that it was a newspaper made it even more personal.
Pondering, it became apparent that the isolation felt by the 900 full-time residents attributed to the importance that was attached to having a community sounding board. For this reason there was a thirst for the printed word. People needed a forum-a place that would anchor the community spirit. When a compelling need arises, someone usually surfaces quickly to meet it. This article presents the memories of a few who worked to bring the news to Ft. Myers Beach.
After asking a few questions, it became apparent that Rolfe “Buny” Schell figured prominently in the minds of local historians. A search revealed that Schell had moved away from the Beach, but as luck would have it, attorney Bill Shenko came up with a phone number. When contacted, Schell, now living in Dade City with his wife Lois, was more than happy to talk about his early years as the publisher of what Schell says is now the Beach Observer.
“The Shopper was started by myself and Kay Purinton who had just returned from the Pacific after a stint as a photographer for the government. She was looking for a job, so there was now a photographer on the Beach. I suggested that we do a weekly-illustrated Shopper. I called it something crazy like the Mad Shopper. Kay would take photos of all clients’ goods to sell and I’d cover the editorial part as well as set the typography. I was doing nonfiction writing at the time and had started a small publishing outfit that I called the Island Press. I shipped out what I had put in camera-ready copy set up on an ancient machine called Varityper. (The Historical Society should have the original Varityper as I gave it to Lee Melsek, formerly of the News Press) By typing the line twice, you got right justified columns, which I used in my future books. The first one was called ‘1000 Years on Mound Key’, and was published in 1962.”
Lack of funds characterizes many start-up ventures and Schell’s Shopper was no exception. Working with antiquated equipment and always under the gun, he and Purinton gave it the good fight.
“We started with no capital and split profit after paying for the small press printing done on a 10 inch by 15 inch copy machine in Bonita Springs. You wouldn’t believe the comical snags we had in the beginning”, said Schell.
What kind of snags we asked? “Well”, answered “Buny”, ”let me tell you a good one. Sometimes when it would rain we couldn’t get the paper out because our folding machine was so big and our garage-office so small the end of the machine sat out in the yard, so we just waited until the rain stopped and then we’d get the paper on the streets.”
Despite working with old equipment and a lack of cash the venture continued to grow. After a while, the Shopper was able to afford a little more equipment. More importantly, they acquired a press, which enabled Schell to print his own papers. The larger equipment and increased business also necessitated moving into larger offices on San Carlos Island by the Beach Bowl.
Schell recalled the hectic pace of these early years. “The idea grew and soon we were splitting a couple hundred dollars for our 3-day work. I heard of a used Davidson press in Miami and Ken Lewis and I drove over in my VW bus to look at it. It was quite ancient, but hardly used, so I paid the money and we took it home, putting it in a garage which later became a real printing room, with a second Davidson and a 14”X20” press”.
Just when the business started running fairly well, Puriton suddenly quit. “The winter of our first year publishing the Mad Shopper ended with Kay deciding to go north for the summer. She had her fill of commercial photography so she quit. I decided that I could do it by myself, so I took on the writing, photography and developing, plus making negatives to burn on the litho plates, printing and distributing. It was now a five day job, but I received all of the profits which was about five times what we started out with, said Schell”.
Now working full-time on the paper, Schell turned to developing more editorial and article content for the Shopper. This eventually led him to consider selling the weekly so he could devote more time to book publishing. “I had several people wanting to buy it, and eventually an outfit from Orlando bought it, but I was fairly well through with newspapers and worked on magazines. I remained in book publishing until about 1995. Then Jean Matthews bought my ‘Island Press’, but I really enjoyed the times I had running the Mad Shopper”, Schell fondly remembered.
What stands out in Rolfe Schell’s tale is the fact that his early publishing ventures still exist in some form today. The Mad Shopper became the Observer and Island Press, Schell’s later passion, still publishes books on the island. Dr. Jean Matthews, who bought it from Schell in 1994, renamed it “Shoeless Publishing”. Several of her publications have sold remarkably well, particularly the remarkable book on early Beach history-”We Never Wore Shoes”.
Dr. Matthews still lives on Estero Blvd. in the house her father built in 1952. She says “growing up I always wanted to be a news reporter”. She’s fulfilled that dream in several ways, but most recently she was writing articles for the Fort Myers Beach Observer. “I used to write for the Observer on the comings and doings around town. It was entitled ‘What’s doing on Main Street.’ I’d often include historical information”
Dr. Matthews is a gold mine of information on the history of Fort Myers Beach. She remembers well the early sources of news on the Beach. “They started the Bulletin when I was in the first grade at the elementary school, sometime in the 50’s. At that time the Bulletin was ran by Ginny and Duff Brown.
The Browns were good friends of my parents, who had lived here since 1941. When asked if she remembered what the Bulletin was like at that time she replied that she certainly did.
“The Beach Bulletin was well received. Even though Duff and Ginny started on a shoestring, people supported them in spite of the fact that they weren’t a big corporation. At that time it was a full-service newspaper, like the Observer is now. The Browns would occasionally do features on historical events or in-depth stories. The residents on the island liked that and I suspect they would still like to see more stories like those. Duff and Ginny would give both sides of the story. They were the type of people who cared about Ft. Myers Beach and wanted to give people a chance to speak on the issues of the day. They were also extremely supportive of community projects. I recall they were an essential part of fundraising for our first library.”
Like ”Buny” Schell earlier, Matthews remembers several amusing stories about island life.
“I remember an early issue of The Bulletin when a public service announcement from Mildred Basset, then the principle of Beach Elementary, gave notice to the parents to be sure and have their kids wear shoes for the next several weeks because the cafeteria was being worked on”.
Matthews also remembers that the Browns took on the paper, not because they could make money but, rather, to do something that the island needed.
“We had a desperate need for a paper. After getting a school, it as one of the most exciting events to happen around here. We needed a way to get community news out. Before the paper if you found out something it was probably because Jeff Brame told you. He and his wife Ruth opened Gulf View Shops, which is now part of the Red Coconut. They had a phone and a telegram. When something happened, Jeff would jump in his red jeep and roar around the island and spread the news. If you lived on a boat, which many did, Jeff would jump in the water and swim the message out in his mouth-he was quite a character”.
According to Matthews, before there was a paper on the Beach, “we were considered the playground for Fort Myers proper”.
“Islanders wanted an identity, but the only way to get info around here was to talk”, Matthews elaborated.
Matthews also remembers ‘Buny’ Schell well. “He was a great mind - a tremendous talent. It seemed like he could do just about anything he set his mind to and not only just do it, but do it well. In 1960, when Hurricane Donna came, Buny and I wrote a book about it entitled ”The Last Big One.”
Matthews remembers the devastation of Donna well. “This hurricane was bad! In many places houses were picked up off their pilings and slammed onto the Beach”
In Dr. Matthews opinion hurricane Donna had a lot to do with the current state of Beach development.
“In the year after Donna, property started to sell like mad. The boom was on. Condo’s on the south end-people building houses left and right-I just couldn’t believe the growth coincided with the devastation of Donna.”
This sudden growth was not well received by many of the residents on the island. Many felt it contributed to the decline in social ambiance that existed in the first 60 years of the 20th century.
“When we used to get out of school and come by the Surf Club or the Mermaid, we knew whose daddy was there because we recognized every car”, said Matthews. “Entertainment used to be at people’s homes, there was a strong sense of community”, she continued.
Does this sense of community exist now? Her answer reveal her insights on current island social life. “Some people feel a sense of community, but a lot of people feel it’s gone. There are many sub-communities on this island that are viable and exist without the need to contact the other sub-communities. During the 60’s we had tremendous pressures that alienated one generation from the other. Prior to this we never locked anything up. The trust of older residents in people who moved in began to evaporate. We have far more transients today than we had then. They come for different reasons, if they come for any reason at all. It would be nice if we had some way of connecting, romance and all, but there’s just no trust”.
When asked why, Matthews was ready with an answer. “The problem is too many people in too small a space. The need to control space and possessions creates a gap between islanders. I’m afraid this is going to be an ongoing dilemma. It used to be that the dribble of folks who came to winter were our friends-we couldn’t wait to see them. We didn’t look at them as a separate group. They pitched in and helped the island work and were just generally part of the island social structure. I remember they spent hours and hours planting coconut palms. “
Matthews also feels that things get blown out of proportion today. She talked a little about this.
“When I was a kid, Lee Melsek (formerly a reporter for the News Press) and I used to swim in the back bay all the time. We didn’t have anything but raw sewage going into the bay. Heck, we only had septic tanks and leach lines. If a tourist saw some sewage today, they’d probably go crazy....