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Bailey takes a look back on Sanibel with new book

By Staff | Dec 10, 2008

Sam Bailey loves to talk to people. He’ll have plenty of opportunity to do what he does best this Saturday, Dec. 13 at the Sanibel Community House, where he will sign copies of his newly-released book, “A Sanibel Son Looks Back,” starting at 6 p.m.

“I want everyone to come by,” said Bailey in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I want people to come and listen and come and talk to me and other folks, and just have a good time.”

Bailey, who will celebrate his 85th birthday on Jan. 29, said he wrote the book after being prompted to do so by friends, relatives and acquaintances.

“They always used to say, after listening to me tell my stories about what it was like here when I was growing up, ‘Sam, why don’t you write a book?’ So I did it.”

There are few places in the United States — and even the world — that are like Sanibel, noted Bailey, who explained that he wants to pass on the importance of keeping that uniqueness to the next generation.

“We’ve got laws and rules and regulations here,” said Bailey. “It all about the fundamentals — what we are, what we like, how we do things.”

The last thing Sanibel needs is high-rise condominium complexes and hotels, said Bailey, adding that the city’s government is — for the most part — doing a good job of preserving Sanibel’s unique island charm.

“But very few of them have my experience,” he said.

Bailey can actually say that he was born on Sanibel Island, a claim that very few people here can share. Although his older brothers John and Francis were both born in hospitals, he said that his father insisted on a home birth after his mother complained about hospital care.

“I was the biggest… and I turned out the best!” exclaimed Bailey, adding that perhaps his brothers would disagree.

Bailey’s parents met right here on Sanibel Island in 1894, when his mother, at the age of 9, stepped on to the ferry dock where his father was working.

“My father was 21 at the time, so it would be a few years before they got married,” he explained. “But my father was working toward buying that dock at the time, and then came the store, and, well, we’ve been around here for 115 years now.”

Although Bailey remembers a happy childhood spent in Sanibel in the midst of the Great Depression, he confesses to feeling a bit constricted.

“When I was a kid, I used to say that when I finally got off this damned island, I was never coming back,” he recalled.

While other places had big schools with playgrounds and cafeterias and other such amenities, Sanibel’s one-room schoolhouse had none — other than the 15 miles of virtually untouched beaches, mangrove swamps and sea air that tourists now spend a lot of money to partake of.

Bailey recalls having to make do when it came to a lot of things that today’s youth may take for granted.

“We had to build our own baseball field, and then we had to come up with something for a basketball court,” he said, “because it’s really hard to dribble a ball on sand!”

Although Bailey spent about 40 years away from the island, going “away” to high school in Fort Myers, and then college, and then pursuing a professional career as a college football coach which spanned 36 years, he said he never really left Sanibel. Despite his feelings as a child, Bailey said he looks back on his childhood and life as a young man on Sanibel — “When the mosquitoes were about nine million per square inch,” he recalls — with great fondness.

“My father was into free living… if that’s the right expression to use,” he said. “You have to do some work, but you need to have a good time, too. It was right in the middle of the Great Depression and there were no frills, but it was a real good life here. We farmed, grew citrus and vegetables, raised chickens — we always ate real well!”

Bailey said he is very much looking forward to his book-signing event on Saturday, where he can share his views on Sanibel and island history with the next generation.

“I’m old and I’m old-fashioned,” declared Bailey with pride. “I want people to know the background of Sanibel — why we should try to keep it unique. And I want everyone to come on over to the Community Center and have a good time.”