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Wittkopf says shells can spell: Learning the alphabet, Sanibel style

By Staff | Sep 25, 2009

For the last 35 years, Harlan Wittkopf has walked the same one mile stretch of beach between Sandlefoot Condominiums and the lighthouse. His head and shoulders are seen leaning forward as though pulled by the strings of a puppeteer and his eyes have a singular focus, the shape, coloring and markings of Conus spurius – the alphabet cone – known at one time as the Chinese alphabet cone.

“I’m not exactly sure what prompted my fascination with this particular species. In part it was the challenge, because they were difficult to find, but most of all it is the striking appearance that explains the magnetic pull,” reports Wittkopf. “To me they are even more striking than the junonia.”

It was renowned shell author, Peter Dance, who first noticed that if you look closely at the markings on alphabet cones, often a letter of the alphabet or a numeral is depicted by the seemingly random pattern of brown dots.

In his book “Out Of My Shell,” Dance writes, “For him (Harlan) the traditional pot of gold at the end of the rainbow should be replaced by a bucket of alphabet cones! Indubitably, this IS Harlan’s shell, images of it emblazoning his shirts, jackets, hats, ties, and stationery… His single-minded attachment to this cone is such that there is even an engraving of it on his tombstone! Devotion can go no further than this.”

In 2005, Harlan found two alphabet cones, each displaying the pattern of his initials, HEW. Dorothy DeVasure, a Sanibel resident, shell collector extraordinaire and Shell Museum volunteer, discovered an alphabet cone with the letters KOY. This was the beginning of Harlan’s obsession with the letters on alphabet cones, an obsession that led to the publication of a four-page color brochure titled, “Alphabet Cones: Living, Learning Tools.”

The brochure includes all 26 letters of the alphabet and the numerals one through 12. Harlan has generously donated the brochure to The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. Each child visiting the museum with their family or friends, every child coming through the “Adopt-A-Class” program, children attending community events in which the Museum participates and students in classes that receive the Shell Museum School Collection Kit will receive a copy of the brochure.

“Harlan’s field experience on the beaches of Sanibel and his astute observational skill has made it possible for the Museum to provide children with a very powerful learning tool,” reported Dr. Jos H. Leal, director/curator for the Shell Museum. “He has been a supporter and a steady contributor to the museum since its inception.”

Wittkopf, an attorney and former Judicial Magistrate, is a native of Algona, Iowa. While he alternates spending time between Algona and his summer lake home, he has called Sanibel Island his second home since 1975. Since Harlan uses his own photographs in his books, he spends countless hours on Sanibel’s beaches. He and his wife Jeanne have been married for over 40 years. The Wittkopf’s have two children and two grandchildren.

Harlan’s first book, “The Sanibel Kaleidoscope,” published in 1997, has been a best seller for 12 years and is into its fifth edition. He is the author of “Favorite Collectible Sanibel Shells,” and co-author with Anne Joffe of “Seashells of Sanibel and Gulf Coast Beaches.” In 2007, he and Dance co-authored “Beach Treasures of the Gulf Coast,” and in 2008, Wittkopf authored a friendship book, “Gems To Treasure,” which is an analogy between seashells and friendship, with a tribute to Dance.

The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum is a non-profit organization.Its mission is “to provide shell, mollusk and shell-makers education, through exhibits, library services, and publications; to further the awareness of the natural environment; and to promote collection-based shell and mollusk research with an emphasis on Southwest Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.”