A Year to Remember

We tell our stories to share experiences, learn about our history and be inspired through powerful personal narratives. This allows us to connect as a community, which was more important than ever as we found ourselves amidst a devastating public health crisis that has redefined the way we live and work. 

As the editor of Ocala Style, I have a distinct vantage point on not only the stories we tell and our behind-the-scenes adventures, but I also have the pleasure of working with an extremely talented group of storytellers. Each month, I am consistently impressed by how our writers, photographers, illustrators and graphic designers exceed my expectations and come together to help us deliver a magazine that we are proud to share with you.

These individuals regularly surprise me with their creativity, vision and enthusiasm for the story in front of them. We also manage to have lots of laughs along the way.

Looking Back

When it comes to our favorite stories from the past year, I polled the staff—and while it was very difficult to choose just a few to highlight, we present to you some of our top picks.

One of our most gratifying yet controversial stories of the year was called “Separate But Not Equal,” which appeared in our July issue and took a look back on the difficult process of school integration here in Marion County, as told by those who experienced it firsthand. The feature took months to research, develop and refine—myself and contributor Andy Fillmore devoted countless hours to the feature, to ensure we got the story right.

The recollections and insights shared by the white and Black students who experienced integration at a transformational time in our history are powerful testaments to the struggle for racial equality in America.

And the sentiments, such as this one from Cheryl Lonon Walker, now a retired educator living in Tallahassee, about where we’ve been and where we are headed, are particularly poignant as we struggle through another transformational period in race relations:

“We are all ‘of the human race’ before we are any other race. By being part of the human race, we should be compelled to embrace everyone,” she asserts. “There are indeed more similarities than differences between us. And once we see ourselves in other people, we can share in one another’s plight and seek to help one another.”

While working on that story, we had the pleasure of spending time with two extraordinary individuals—99-year-old William James, a true public servant who acted as a mentor to many Black students during the desegregation process, and the irrepressible Sylvia Jones, whose experiences as a student set her on a path to become an educator herself and a civil rights activist. 

I had the pleasure of working with photographer Meagan Gumpert on both photo shoots for their stories and to say these were memorable sessions would be an understatement. The incredible mixture of pure joy, humility, kindness and gratitude they displayed both moved and inspired us. During our time together we spoke about meaningful topics, shared stories and laughed as we photographed each of them in front of the homes in which they were born. I knew the images would be special, but the portraits exceeded all our expectations and are among our most loved of the year.

I’m very proud that we are able to feature incredible original photography in every issue, thanks to the talents of our top-notch contributing photographers.

Other stories this year that paired insightful profiles with compelling portraits included “The Original” in our January issue, which featured beloved local artist Margaret Watts and charted her journey as an artist, lensed once again by Meagan.

In “Sunshine & Cigars,” which appeared in our June issue, John Jernigan presented stunning visuals that transport the viewer to Central Florida’s only Cuban cigar tobacco farm, which bridges back to Ocala’s once thriving and prosperous cigar-making area, dubbed Marti City. Among many other contributions throughout the year, John also created touching portraits of 96-year-old civic leader and recent French Legion of Honor order of merit recipient Doug Oswald for our June issue. 

Lyn Larson of Mahal Imagery, who lends her artful eye to our regular fashion features, “Style File” profiles and many other stories, took us on a sentimental journey with dancer, actress and Bruce Mozert model Peggy Mixon Singer Collins in June’s “Hello My Honey!,” with a story by yours truly. Spending time with Peggy and her husband Julius at their home was a sweet escape from the modern world and left us longing for the simpler times when a young lady could sing and dance her way from Ocala to Hollywood and back again.

Dave Miller’s photos of para-equestrian Lauren Barwick in June’s “Riding High” and Lauren Bandi’s “A Second Chance” in August are powerful and moving in a way that distinguishes Dave as a photographer. They are the perfect complement to the compelling stories about each woman by gifted storyteller JoAnn Guidry. 

Seasoned lensers Alan Youngblood and Bruce Ackerman have given us intimate and epic images of some of our leading equestrian and farming families, including the O’Farrells, de Merics, Baldwins and Lettelier sisters, as well as being up for challenges such as holiday decorating stories and capturing picture-perfect shots of adoptable dogs. 

In addition to her many other contributions this year, Meagan took on two of our most elaborate shoots.

In September, she photographed a group of local musicians for “Heart & Soul,” which was shot on location in the pioneer settlement on the Silver River Museum side of Silver Springs State Park—on one of the hottest days of the year. Meagan kept spirits high and delivered a portfolio that we’d been dreaming about for more than a year.   

Perhaps her most challenging assignment was when she courageously stepped in front of the camera herself to pose for our May cover as she shared her tips for creating healthier habits amid a pandemic. Did I mention that she was posing atop a stand-up paddleboard while floating around Lake Weir in a golden ensemble that was stitched onto her moments before on the beach at Carney Island Recreation & Conservation Area, all while being pursued by fellow photographer Dave Miller?

The shot we chose for the cover is one that Dave captured of Meagan looking thoughtfully off at the horizon. In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, we chose that image because it made us feel at ease and hopeful. Inside, we treated you to some outtakes and a peek behind the scenes from the day, including Meagan’s two unexpected dips in the lake.

Dave also photographed local academic and athletic prodigy Vincent B. Vaughns in “From Sparr to Times Square,” an inspiring tale chronicled by Susan Smiley-Height for our July issue. Vincent, now working on Wall Street as a sales and trading analyst, offered the following advice to local young people: “Find out what your dream is and then go after it with absolutely everything you have. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.”

In recent issues we’ve continued our profiles of extraordinary individuals, from 18-year-old Riley Rowe, Marion County’s first-ever president of the Florida FFA Association, to 95-year-old esteemed educator Juanita Cunningham, both photographed by Bruce.

In a recent Facebook comment about the Cunningham story, one reader shared, “Such a beautiful and inspiring story of courage, passion and perseverance.” 

Inside Voices

Speaking of inspirational tales, our own deeply talented and much-loved Senior Editor Susan shared her personal story of graduating from mermaid camp at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in a piece called “An Inspiring Tail” in our March issue. This unique first-person perspective about an adventure few will ever experience is a vivid piece of storytelling that gives the reader insight into the rich history of the attraction, founded in 1947 by Ocalan Newton “Newt” Perry, which is still flourishing today. 

She describes the magical experience of swimming through the spring in her newly fitted tail in this way: “I did the “mermaid crawl” (a modified breaststroke) swim to the far side. I began to float, with the warm sun on my face, the cold springs on my back, and only the sound of my heartbeat coming through my water-filled ears. I was, for the first time in my entire 60 years of living, at complete peace. This, I thought, is what ‘zen’ is. I never wanted to leave that moment.”

Susan is a versatile and gifted writer, but just one of the talents who gives Ocala Style its unique voice and look. Our writers are among the best in the business. Contributing Editor Lisa McGinnes is one of those journalists who can take an epic tale and distill it down to a poignant and compelling narrative, full of heart and soul. She says she is especially connected to the “In the Kitchen With…” profiles she writes each month.

“I have the privilege of being invited into someone’s home to share one of their favorite meals and get a glimpse into their family life, so I can share their personal story with our readers,” she explains. “At first glance, you’ll see a recipe and some amazing food photos, but if you read the whole story, it allows you the opportunity to meet fascinating local people in a new way and find out how they help make our community such a great place to live.” 

This year, we also welcomed Dave Schlenker and his signature column to the magazine, continuing the engaging dialogue he first established at the Ocala Star-Banner. Dave delights us with his ability to find the ridiculous in his everyday life and touches us with his insights, as in his August missive “Lost and Found,” in which he details how his family discovered something special as they binged the decades-old TV phenomenon Lost.

“We were together every night during dark times. We laughed, gasped and carefully dissected theories,” he explains. “Our dinner conversations were about fun and fantasy instead of pandemics and politics.”

Illustrating those humorous dispatches for us each month is the deeply talented artist David Vallejo, who offers us his deliciously wicked spin on each column.

Jill Paglia, another of our regular columnists, graciously opens her home to us each month, allows us to crowd around her kitchen table and entices us with delicious meals and genuine conversation. Whether she’s dishing up a plate of homemade pasta or reflecting on the importance of the family meal, we’re all in!

I couldn’t recap this year without acknowledging the contributions of graphic designers Brooke Pace and Simon Mendoza, who took our work to the next level by finding imaginative and vibrant ways of uniting the elements of each story. Good design is thoughtful and engaging. Good designers can elevate a story by incorporating inventive elements, like Brooke did with our profile of artist Jordan Shapot in February’s “Evolving Canvas,” or by creating creative photo illustrations, as Simon did for our “Female Trailblazers” feature in May. But good design also is often achieved through powerful restraint and though less noticed by the casual observer, it is an enviable talent.

Our marketing team Kylie Swope and Sabrina Fissell ensure that our brand message and stories reach a wider audience and that the conversation continues online and on social media, as well as heading up our brand partnerships and events—all of which connects us to the community in more robust way. Sabrina even agreed to model for one of our fashion shoots and graced our August cover with joyful exuberance.

Style is in our name, but also in our DNA, so our fashion shoots are big productions. The reason we can bring you such beautiful images is because of the generosity of many members of our community, from real people who give of their time to appear in front of the camera to our wonderful local retailers who allow us borrow their stylish wares to the many businesses and other entities, such as Trilogy at Ocala Preserve, Golden Ocala, Sholom Park and NOMA Gallery, that allowed us to shoot at their locations. We work hard on these shoots but, like all the things we do, we have a lot of fun as well. However, we derive great satisfaction when the images surpass our initial vision…as they often do.

At the forefront of everything we do is our publisher, Jennifer Hunt Murty, whose passion, vision and leadership allows us to chronicle the stories of our community each month, which leads me to the story that was atop our list of favorites this year.

History In The Making

Sometimes, the stories are unknown to us or their details are elusive. One such example set us on a challenging path that stretched across several months. As 2020 was the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing and protecting women’s constitutional right to vote, Jen asked us to find out who was the first woman to cast her vote in Marion County. So, we consulted local experts – to no avail. We reached out to the Florida Department of State, which led us to old newspaper clippings through digitized records online. One of these articles revealed the vital information we were after. We discovered that in 1920, Mrs. Rosa Belle Barco Veal was the first woman to register to vote in Marion County and that the first female from Ocala to vote in that year’s general election was Mrs. C.W. Moreman and the second was Miss Alice Bullock. 

We then had the seemingly impossible task of finding a modern-day link to these women and learning what we could about them. We made calls, reached out to anyone with the same last name on Facebook and, eventually, connected with Shelley Rowland Dunn of Cotton Plant, in northwest Marion County. Veal was Dunn’s great-great-aunt by marriage. Dunn generously shared her knowledge of Veal and images of her to include in the story we titled “Say Her Name” to honor these pioneering women. The thrill in being able to share these details and images with our readers made that story the most popular article among our staff members. 

It is also especially meaningful as this year marks the election of Kamala Harris as the highest-ranking woman in the history of American government. In her first speech as Vice President-elect, Harris paid tribute to the women throughout history who made this milestone possible by breaking gender and racial barriers.

“I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision, to see what can be, unburdened by what has been,” she said. “I stand on their shoulders. While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”

Heroes Among Us

In April, I had the honor of speaking with several first responders and essential workers who had been at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19. They talked about the risk and the responsibility that they dealt with on a daily basis. From doctors and nurses, EMTs to administrators, law enforcement personnel to firefighters, they spoke about their commitment to continue to serve the community in this ongoing time of crisis. They are our better angels and, as I said then—and it is just as true now—we offer them our heartfelt thanks and hold them in our thoughts every day.

“I am profoundly saddened by the devastation of the virus but I am encouraged as I see continued selfless acts of courage and generosity,” Joe Johnson, President and CEO of AdventHealth Ocala offered in speaking about these brave front-line heroes back in the spring. “I invite you to join me in holding them in your thoughts and prayers as well. Together, we will get through this, and find a way to be even better.”

The Year Ahead

In “A Story of Healing” from our April issue, Jessica McCune, a professional storyteller and the director of bereavement at Hospice of Marion County, told us that “Stories connect us one to another and the emotional connection offers support. It ‘feels good.’ Knowing our stories helps us see that we are so much stronger than we ever imagined.”

We agree wholeheartedly and that is why we will humbly keep telling your stories, highlighting the great work being done throughout our community and sharing stories from our past. 

For us there is no greater satisfaction than knowing our articles touched you. We are honored to be able to share so many of our community’s stories and we are gratified by your support.

And we know the year ahead will be another one to remember as we face monumental challenges and a sea of change, but we also know we are stronger together. We will be with you every step of the way, fulfilling our mission to bring you Real People, Real Stories, Real Ocala.

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