April 25, 2004 – The 9th annual St. Thomas Bacchanal, held this weekend at Fort Myers Beach on Florida's Gulf Coast, brought home something that's maybe been in the making all along but hadn't manifested itself quite so clearly until now:
This is not a gathering of the "old timers" who left the island in the '80s, if not before.
Oh, the old timers were there — as they have been from the beginning. But so were their children the ones who were going to school on St. Thomas in the '80s and who now had in tow their children, some of whom have actually seen the old haunts of their parents and grands, and some who have only heard the stories.
From 87-year-old reggae fan Charlotte Waller of Bradenton, Fla. (one of at least three Charlottes there), to babes in arms, Bacchanal 2004 was a family affair.
Real estate professional Karen Steers, who lives in nearby Cape Coral was there with her son Brian, his wife, Lori, and their children, LeeAnne and Kyle, from Jacksonville; and her son Michael and his wife, Marie (nee Rivera, of St. Thomas), from Melbourne. Two "grand-dogs," Maggie, a beagle, and Mangia, a huskey mix, made the trip, too, Karen said, although they weren't invited to Saturday night's buffet dinner.
Steers has made it to all but the first two Bacchanals and praised this year's committee "for a fantastic job. It keeps getting better and better and more efficient."
Besides the hundreds who converged on the Pink Shell Resort from elsewhere in Florida, others traveled from New England, Washington, D.C., South Carolina, Georgia and, naturally, St. Thomas.
Another ex-St. Thomas real estate broker, Frank McLaughlin, flew down from Connecticut with his wife, Lynda; son, Brendan, with whom he's in the housing development business now; and Brendan's girlfriend, Lynn Delaney.
Frank has been to all Bacchanals but the first and Lynda's made it to all but the second. Their favorite was the one in Key West in 1999. "It was just so much like St. Thomas," Lynda said.
Among those on hand direct from St. Thomas was another Realtor, Marsha Maynes, who's still in the business on island.
And then there was Charlie Lose the elder (looking exotic in tropical flora face-painting) and Charlie Lose the younger of Chester, S.C. who happen to be mother and daughter. And actually the younger is now Charlie Lose-Frahn. Mom worked in counseling and testing at the then-College of the Virgin Islands in 1970-88 and still has two children on island Andrea Martin and Mike Lose.
Ann Johnson, who co-chaired the 2000 Bacchanal on Siesta Key off Sarasota, missed this year's gathering because she's recuperating from a hip injury at her Bradenton home. But her clan was well represented — son Brian and his wife, Edie, who were up from St. Thomas; Ann's nephew Rick Hoey and another son's ex-wife, Alison Johnson.
Bradenton residents Pat and Mary Rice — he the onetime executive director of the Public Services Commission — came without daughter Mary Charlotte, who also lives in Bradenton, because they were having new carpeting installed and M.C. was tasked with overseeing the operation. The couple has been to every Bacchanal, and the reason, they said, is simple: "People."
To those who've attended past gatherings but didn't make it this year, Mary added, "Wish you were here."
"It's a time to see old friends and new friends," dental technician Steve Zimmerman, who lived on St. Thomas in 1982-93, said. He and his wife, Sarah, came from Pawleys Island, S.C., for the gathering, as they have in years past.
Retired journalist Ron Dillman was there for his first Bacchanal. "But I'll be back," he said.
Another first timer, CPA Barbara Bohner, easily slipped into "talking about old times, old folks, old business." Attending Bacchanal "was something I'd wanted to do for a few years," she said, "and this year I just decided to do it."
About 300 people registered for this year's event, according to Anne Lawrence-Sallee, who organized the first get-together, in a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., park in 1996, and has been in the thick of things ever since. She got married in January to Steve Sallee, who had helped out with a couple of previous Bacchanals but is now "an official honorary St. Thomian," she said.
The 2004 festivities took place at a brand-new semi-high-rise with a contour pool and a circular second-floor lobby with a terrace overlooking the beach. The Pink Shell is so new, in fact, that "we wrote the contract on rooms that didn't exist," Lawrence-Sallee said. "They only opened this part about five weeks ago."
The weekend started with a Friday night poolside cocktail party that was scheduled from 6 to 7 p.m. and was still going strong at 10.
Saturday featured a Bacchanal must, music by Nicky "Mighty Whitey" Russell in the afternoon, along with a couple of new offerings: a scavenger hunt and a silent auction of items including getaways at area hotels, Cruzan Rum and Heineken collectibles and St. Thomas artwork, posters, towels, CDs and jewelry items.
Then came the traditional buffet dinner (including at least three roast pigs), followed by dancing in the hotel ballroom to the music of the Florida island band Impulse — making its fourth Bacchanal appearance in as many years. Those staying at the hotel who made it up in time on Sunday enjoyed one more get-together, for breakfast brunch.
"This is a high school reunion," Russell said. "We're all kids talking about what we used to do." And as a middle-ager, he meant that literally. He graduated from All Saints Cathedral School in 1967, and who should he run into at the Pink Shell but "my old high school sweetheart."
Russell has been to every Bacchanal but the one at St. Pete Beach in 1998 and has performed at all of the others except the one in 2000. "These are my friends, and this is my party," he said. "Some people you don't get to see otherwise, and you know that some of them you do see, you won't see again."
An informal survey of Bacchanalians found nothing but good words for the Pink Shell, which gave every indication of being the kind of place where limin' is more than allowed.
Behind the check-in desk of the hotel, which had about 90 guest rooms and more than 200 people booked for the event, the words Aspice felis quod attraxit! are painted prominently on a mirror. That, explained a hospitality staff member, means "Look what the cat dragged in!" Well, maybe, another interjected, adding, "I think it's just an interpretation."
Impulse started playing at 8 p.m. Saturday, and by 9 there was a conga line going, while in the middle of the room a teen-ager danced with a circle of younger children, all holding hands. Then came the scavenger hunt awards and the hat contest and more music, more dancing, more pahì-ty as the Bacchanalians say.
This wasn't the largest Bacchanal — the 2001 celebration on Singer Island near Palm Beach topped 400 — but it achieved something no other has so far, Lawrence-Sallee said: "Thanks to the silent auction, which was very successful, we've not only covered all expenses but have a little something in the pot for next year."
As to where that will be, the group decided to return to the Florida Keys — with a choice between Islamorada and Marathon to be made later, she said.
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