Roxie Smith Reflections
Sometimes when someone passes on to the next world, the impact of their loss is felt so strongly that mere words cannot describe it. As the shock waves carry down the island, folks walk around stunned and speechless at the gaping hole left behind and realization slowly dawns that life is now going to be very, very different. Such was the case on April 19th, when Fort Myers Beach lost a beach matriarch – Roxie Smith. In a tribute to her, the Sand Paper wanted to share not just a bit of the staggering list of her accomplishments and contributions to this community, but also snippets from previous articles where Roxie herself tells the story of her life as well as reminiscences from some of the legion of folks who loved her.
A native of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Roxie Smith first came to our emerald shores rather reluctantly in 1950.
"I was born in South Dakota and came down here with my parents on vacation during spring break in 1950,” she told Janet Sailian in 2009, shortly after winning the 2009 Paulette Burton Citizen of the Year Award. "I attended an Episcopal girls’ boarding school – St. Mary’s Hall, in Faribault, Minnesota. I got home for vacation and my parents said: "How would you like to go to Florida?” My thought of Florida then was Miami and Ft. Lauderdale.”
The young Roxie was in for one heck of a shock when, after days on the road, the Davis family drove onto Fort Myers Beach.
"At that point in time, there wasn’t much here on the island – like, nothing,” she said. "When we got here, I thought my parents had brought me to the end of the world."
In an interview last summer with Jo List, Roxie talked about how her visionary dad was able to look into the future and see opportunity where most saw nothing but sand and scrub. Booked into the Biltmore Hotel in Fort Myers, Bob Davis took the family down to Fort Myers Beach everyday.
"We would always go to Time Square and get a shrimp cocktail at the Tip Top Restaurant, where Dairy Queen is now,” she said. "Being from South Dakota, we were bowled over by the idea of being able to walk up to a take-out window and order a shrimp cocktail.”
"Then my mom and I would walk down to about where the Pink Shell resort is now and we would spend the day. But my dad would disappear. He never said where he was going, He'd be gone most of the day, but he'd come back to pick us up, and we'd drive back to the motel in Fort Myers and get ready for dinner.”
It turns out, when Roxie 's dad disappeared on those daily beach trips, he was out buying property on the island. He waited until the end of the vacation to tell his wife what he had been doing.
Roxie remembers that conversation and the look on her mother's face when he told her. "She just looked at him and said, 'Bob Davis!' I think she thought he had lost his mind."
That property became the site of the first cottage at the Pink Shell.
"It started in 1950 with that one cottage, and grew to more than 12 acres,” Roxie said.
"In the mid-‘50s my whole family moved down here. I had gone to Carleton College in Minnesota, and then to the University of South Dakota. I got married in 1954 to Paul Smith, and we moved down here almost right away.”
"I went to work at the Pink Shell immediately after we moved down here. Paul used to say he had two jobs - he’d work in town during the day, then come home and work at the resort on evenings and weekends,” she continued. "I basically did everything here at the resort. We grew from one cottage to 179 units over the years. My volunteering was limited then. I had been Symphony Manager in South Dakota, so I got involved with the Fort Myers Symphony, and I volunteered at St. Hilary’s in Fort Myers.
"Then my father died, and one year later, my husband died. That was in 1979 and 1980. So I ended up running the Pink Shell. My Mom and I said that the two men in our lives had talked about building a condo, so Mom and I built two of them, in ’85 and ’86: the Island Shores, with 42 units. I managed those, too.”
In the years since, Roxie Smith’s service to Fort Myers Beach and Lee County extended far beyond civic and governmental arenas to embrace tourism promotion, preservation of local history, nature, culture, health care, commerce, and religion. Barely an area of community life escaped her refreshingly non-partisan attention, including politics – though Roxie lost her bid for election to Fort Myers Beach Town Council in 2002.
During the interview with Janet Sailian, Roxie reflected on what drove her to do so much community service.
"I love people and I love to work with people,” she said. "One thing just led to another. A good example is the CRA. Part of its mandate was to look at the history of our island and the nature in our community. We are in danger of losing history; we lose pieces of it all the time. Then there was the issue of the Matanzas Pass Preserve, which was being managed by the Nature Conservancy. The question was do we want to preserve this piece of land? How do we manage it as part of our community? So I got involved in all these things.”
"I was sent on Leadership Lee County, which relates to the resources in the community at large, and Lee Grows, which is about our local governments. The Leadership training starts with a weekend retreat, and then it goes to a day a week for several weeks. You get immersed in all aspects of business and government: we visited the TDC, Mosquito Control, the hospitals, the Sheriff’s Department, the jail, and charitable organizations. You learn how it all works. It led me to a lot of interest in many issues.”
"I really did enjoy Lee Grows. At the end of that, I was very proud to be a citizen of Lee County. Through that experience, I got involved with Southwest Regional Hospital. And through my own health issues, I got involved with the Relay for Life, to raise funds for cancer research. I’ve learned we do have world-class doctors here in southwest Florida, in Fort Myers.”
"Tourism is how I made my living, so volunteering in that area is a natural pull for me. I was appointed by two Governors as State Commissioner of Tourism for 10 years.”
"This community has been very good to me and to my family over the years. It’s good to give back; it’s a great feeling. And if you have the ability to make a difference, I feel it’s your duty to do so. I guess my community work has become my calling. There is a great deal of satisfaction in doing things well and helping the community. If you can look at the big picture and see both sides of an issue, that helps. I truly enjoy it and truly love this island.”
That sentiment is returned by her legion of friends and admirers, which includes virtually everyone who met her.
Long-time islander AJ Bassett said she knew who Roxie was for many years but didn't get to know her personally until she retired.
"As kids, we grew up in the 40's and she came in the 50's,” AJ said. "But in those days, everyone was working all the time with their own families – that's how it was here then. When I retired, I started getting involved with the community because I simply had more time to.”
Bassett told us that her first connection with the person who would become one of her dearest friends was the day she had just lost her twin sister.
"She came into the church with her daughter, Gini, and asked if she could please sit with me,” she said. "I looked at her and that's when I first realized how compassionate she is with people – how patient and caring. I always knew her, but I think that was the first time I really knew who she was.”
Over the years, Roxie and AJ would serve together on countless committees. They connected over their shared passions for Fort Myers Beach, nature, dogs and even sports.
"The thing I admired most about her – she was a sounding board,” AJ told us. "Everyone could say what they thought – she was a great listener – and she would understand where everyone was in the project and then very subtly give her opinion. I can't think of any committee or group I served on with her that she wasn't chairman or president – she was so patient with people.”
The fact that Roxie served on so many committees all over not only Lee County but also the state of Florida gave her a perspective that few others had.
"She could see the whole picture and she knew what was coming – most people don't have that kind of perspective – and she could also bring it down and condense it,” AJ said. "You really get to know someone when you work with them all the time and that's how we became close.”
"There were so many things we enjoyed together – some of them just plain silly – that there still isn't an hour that goes by when I don't think, 'Hey, I need to call Roxie about that',” she said. "But now I can't - I so miss her.”
It was Roxie's unique ability to see things from both the ground level and from a mountaintop perspective that prompted Pat McIntosh to say this about her oldest friend, "She is the only person I know who could take an atomic bomb and diffuse it single-handedly.”
Of all the things that Roxie is known for, however, the most mentioned and revered is her love of her family. Generations of them packed the aisles of the church for her memorial service last Thursday, all wearing pink in her honor.
Perhaps her grandson, Anthony Smith, put it best when he said simply, "Family was everything to her.”
May Roxie's legacy live on in the lives of all those she touched.
Keri Hendry Weeg
Jo List and Janet Sailian
contributed to this article