Every year when Palm Beach becomes the ultimate destination for the ominum gatherum socialitum to revel within the seasonal spin of black-tie balls and gilded pleasures, it is easy to overlook the just as many whose social life revolves around the pursuit of civic concerns and local issues. As much as the goings-on at exclusive clubs and glamorous galas may be what Palm Beach is known for by the rest of the world, I am most often fascinated with the town’s proclivity to be anywhere but commonplace when faced with many of the same matters every town confronts. The town offers myriad forums where residents socially interact sharing mutual interests and causes.
While the Four Arts, Palm Beach Round Table, the Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and the Coudert Institute, among numerous groups, showcase compelling programs on foreign policy and world affairs, rest assured when there are matters of local interest, Palm Beach residents put down their tennis racquets and nine irons and head for the microphones at Town Hall to opine on coastline erosion, property rights and parking meters. Although so far no one issue has reached the decibels of the previous season’s kerfuffle over the Royal Poinciana Playhouse or the long-forgotten investigation into the Mystery at Four Winds, I find myself captivated by the town’s ongoing negotiation over retirement benefits for its public employees and the heated debate over the town’s obligation to provide public restrooms to beachgoers.
So before the new uber-luxe 40,000-square-foot Publix opens, the countdown has begun and life in Palm Beach will never be the same, here is a look beginning and ending at The Breakers at just a few of the events and people who this past week give Palm Beach its local color and unique character.
Palm Beach Living Landmark James Ponce honored
At last! After serving as historian for The Breakers for more than 25 years, guiding several thousand visitors on walking tours of Worth Ave for nearly a decade, and having been designated a Living Landmark by the Town of Palm Beach, James Augustine Ponce, 94, was awarded the prestigious Providencia Award at a reception on a Wednesday night where more than 130 well-wishers joined him in the Gold Room at The Breakers. And to think, he almost didn’t make it.
Just a few months ago, Jim tripped and fell while walking his dog; he thought he was only shaken up. The following day a visit to the hospital revealed a serious head injury requiring extensive surgery. And while his full recovery was uncertain for weeks, he has made a miraculous recovery with his indefatigable spirit intact. A direct descendant of one of the oldest European families in the New World, Jim Ponce may have discovered the real fountain of youth.
The upcoming holiday bazaar at the Royal Poinciana Chapel that benefits local charities gives residents and visitors the opportunity to enjoy the recently-completed Olivia Kiebach Memorial Garden and Great Lawn and affords a spectacular view of one of the town’s few remaining more than century-old Ceiba trees. During the early 1900s photographers from New York and Paris would come to Palm Beach and photograph visitors posed next to trees like the one pictured above, considered the ultimate Palm Beach souvenir.
Where better to discover the spirit of the season on Palm Beach than the Royal Poinciana Chapel’s upcoming Christmas boutique where not only can you can help provide college scholarships and aid local charities but also glimpse the chapel’s recently completed spectacular lakeside gardens and visit the re-restored Sea Gull Cottage, known as the island’s oldest house. Held this year from December 1st to December 6th, the one-week only event that began more than twenty years ago in one room of Sea Gull Cottage has evolved into the primary source for funding the church’s local outreach program, having raised more than $2 million for area students and charities, among them the Alzheimer’s Community Care, Center for Creative Education, Grandma’s Place (Kids Sanctuary), Pace Center for Girls, Palm Beach Habilitation Center, Opportunity Inc., St. Ann Place, Voices for Children, and the YWCA Children’s Day Care.
This year’s chairman Merrilyn Bardes credits the efforts of the more than 200 members and friends of the Chapel who contribute donations of time, financial support, and items for sale, including fine wines, estate jewelry, designer fashions, beautiful Christmas trees and centerpieces, antiques, and other collectables. The boutique’s invitational November 30 Opening Night is chaired by Melinda Porter and Kathy Vaughan. The volunteer effort is being coordinated by Connie Geisler and Missy Geisler.
Palm Beach Civic Association focuses on Law & Order
The Palm Beach Civic Association welcomed almost 100 guests to a forum on law and order with guest speakers Kirk Blouin, the Town’s public safety director, Rick Bradshaw, Palm Beach County’s sheriff, and Michael McAuliffe, the area’s state attorney. While I imagined they might address issues that might have directly affected residents, Ponzi schemes, ID theft and credit card fraud, cyber crimes, and the like, instead they focused on the area’s gang problems and pill mills.
“The worse devastation I have seen on Palm Beach in 45 years,” said a Palm Beach resident during a workshop meeting attended by residents, pest control professionals, and town officials at Town Hall last week. Being described as “a plague,” the Town Council has called for an emergency ordinance to be enacted at the December 13 meeting to combat the whitefly infestation that has destroyed rows of the island’s iconic ficus hedges. John Randolph, the town attorney, was directed to draft an ordinance as soon as possible.
It has been more than two years since I first wrote about the whitefly after I noticed it along South County Road. At the time, no one seemed concerned although it had already leveled ficus hedges as far south as Coral Gables. Pest professionals attending the meeting had various approaches, including, soaps, sprays, fertilizers, and the like… “It is like controlling ants; you will never be able to eradicate them …” “It is a real problem but soap and fertilizer does help.” “A noble effort but nothing you will do will ever have a lasting effect.” “Treatment with synthetic nicotine products works but the cost is upwards of $600 per quart. If you drive by The Biltmore, their treatment cost $3,000 but may not be a guarantee to permanently eradicate the problem.” And this was my favorite: “The anti-chemical people will tell you the answer is simply to rip out all the ficus hedges on the island.” Of course, that may be the correct answer since no other community has come up with an elixir. Stay tuned.
Palm Beach Zoo supporters attend reception at The Breakers
Two Thursday nights ago in the Circle Room at The Breakers more than 100 cat enthusiasts attended the Palm Beach Zoo’s 2011 Conservation Leadership Lecture featuring the renowned Dr. Howard Quigley of Panthera, a NYC-based international organization whose mission is to ensure the future of wild cats through conservation action. An internationally-recognized expert on Florida panthers, Dr. Quigley’s work also has included studies of giant pandas, Siberian tigers, cougars in central Idaho, and jaguars in the Brazilian Pantanal. Here are some snaps from the evening and a few images from my recent tour of the Palm Beach Zoo.