Sitting down this week to write my article, many thoughts are swirling around inside my mind. There is definitely no shortage of topics to write about here in Wilton Manors, such as the upcoming local elections for our Mayor and two City Commissioner seats, the narrowing of Wilton Drive, the adoption of the new city budget for fiscal year 2016/2017 which begins on October 1, much local chatter about Police Department practices toward LGBT officers highlighted in the New Times article and also the department’s fine handling of the Jungwirth affair. On top of all that, now that September is almost over, it is time for my annual warning of the fast approaching holiday season. Time to get moving on all the items not yet checked off your ‘2016 To-Do list’ because 2017 is just around the corner my friends.
With all those topics in mind, I still keep thinking about two very special people who have recently passed on, and I choose to write about them instead. Why do I keep thinking about them? These two people were very different, but yet shared the similar trait of being very comfortable with who they were, which gave them an unbelievable ability to make a difference in so many others’ lives. Nancy Sawallis, known as “Aunt Nellie” to many of us, was a pioneer here on the Westside, having settled in the area before Wilton Manors existed. The other reigned in Savannah, a true Southern Belle, known by all as the Lady Chablis. How do a 96-year old woman and a transgender showgirl come to dominate my thoughts during the past two weeks? As we ponder our lives, we can all learn much from these two wonderful ladies. Both wasted no time feeling sorry for themselves. They marched on, comfortable with who they were, looking to make a difference in the lives of their families, their friends, their neighbors, and their communities with an equal sense of excitement, commitment, and determination.
Many years ago while working in north Florida, we spent our weekends enjoying the splendors of Savannah. For me, it was a time of youthful exuberance, of infinite possibilities, of grasping the unknown at every corner, and of having fun. The Lady Chablis demonstrated the "accept me for who I am or fuck off" attitude of many young LGBT people of the 1990s. Given a national stage after the book ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ made her famous, the Lady Chablis went on entertaining, writing her own book and never stopped putting herself out there to make people accept who she was on her own terms. Born a gay black man in the south, performing as a drag queen, then as a transgender woman, she always demanded respect, not hatred, as a fellow human being. Her fearless persona inspired many to overcome similar hurdles on their journey for self-acceptance.
Shortly after WWII, a young soldier and his vibrant and beautiful bride headed to Florida in 1946 to settle and start a new life. They found a spot of sand pines, petticoat palms, and palmettoes, and built a small cottage named "Skunk Hollow" that still stands today on the Westside. Through the years Nancy Sawallis did not seek fame or attention for her community involvement and achievements. Instead, she looked to make the community she called home for 70 years a better place for all. Nancy helped pave the way for our local independent library here in Wilton Manors. She helped create and served as a board member of the Friends of the Wilton Manors Library, which is still going strong today with its mission to support and serve our local library. Her activism as a single mother, back in the 1970s, was an inspiration to many. She welcomed all to the neighborhood. I was a bit surprised that more city officials did not attend her memorial service last week, since she was such an active member of this community for so many years. I guess that is the way Nancy would have wanted it – doing much, but never seeking credit or fame. Year after year, she politely refused to be honored as a Pioneer by the Wilton Manors Historical Society.
And there lies the lesson for us all. Believe in yourself, do good, help your neighbors, and move forward with positive energy and a commitment to leave this place better for all to enjoy!! Thank you both for making me ponder such wonderful thoughts over the past week, thank you for making a difference in my life, and thank you for making the communities you called home a better place.
And that is what makes life just better here in Wilton Manors.