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Q & A with Carol Zell of the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village

By Staff | Nov 3, 2010

Carol Zell on a recent trip to Italy.

This week’s Q & A feature is Carol Zell, a Sanibel resident and woman of many tasks and talents at the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village. Read on to find out why she rode an elephant dressed up as Santa Claus — Carol, not the elephant — twice, where she spent her summer vacation and how you can help with her genealogical studies.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in California (4th generation) and grew up in Fullerton, back when Orange County was rural and there were still orange groves. I was the oldest of five children and good-naturedly dubbed the “third parent” by my siblings. When I was 12 years old, my father’s job transferred the family to Memphis, Tenn. You can imagine the culture shock we experienced in 1961. It was a tumultuous time with the Civil Rights movement and segregation was in full force. We spent nine years in Tennessee before moving back to Southern California. I have always felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to live in another part of the country while I was growing up. My horizons definitely were expanded!

What did you do before joining the Museum?

After two years at the University of Tennessee, I finished college at California State University, Fullerton with a degree in Communications. I had always wanted to be a television news correspondent (Nancy Dickerson on NBC was my idol), so I began my career as a news writer with a large cable television station in Los Angeles. In those days, we operated with a Sony portable black and white video cam that weighed 50 pounds. When it worked, I lugged it to press conferences, crime scenes, fires and city council meetings from Malibu and the San Fernando Valley to Beverly Hills and Hollywood. I was promoted to reporter and then to news anchor of the nightly newscast. Later, I took a job as a writer/producer with KCOP News in Los Angeles. Some of the more interesting stories I covered and reported on were Watergate, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the Manson family trials and the resignation of President Nixon. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was popular during that time, and because I was the only woman in the newsroom, I could relate to her character.

I later switched gears and went into public relations and marketing. Before moving to Sanibel, I worked for the City of Yorba Linda in marketing and public relations. I was attached to the public library and Susanna Bixby Bryant Ranch Museum and Botanic Gardens.

Tell us a bit about your family.

My husband, Peter Zell, and I met on a blind date, although our parents did know each other. My aunt and Peter’s mother were best friends. When Peter called to ask me out, my sister had just given me a permanent. As I was talking to him, the rollers began to drop off and onto the ground with my hair attached. Peter said he would have never known it because I never skipped a beat. When we met for our date, my hair was about an inch long all over!

We’ve been married for 33 years and raised two daughters. Our youngest daughter, Kirsten, lives in Orange County and is married with two small boys. Our older daughter, Courtney, lives and works in New York City. We see them twice a year in California and New York, and everyone visits us in Sanibel.

Peter was a trial lawyer in Southern California for over 30 years. When he retired in 2005, we did a brave thing — we moved from one coast to the other! We had discovered Sanibel 15 years earlier on a family vacation to Disney World and loved the beaches, the small-town atmosphere and the island’s commitment to preserving the environment. Peter is an artist now and our move has been great for us. We are both busy with volunteering, and now I am caught up in island history as the Manager of the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village.

How long have you been at the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village?

I have been working at the Museum for a year. In fact, the Museum re-opened this week after being closed for three months. The Museum is both challenging and a lot of fun. Our docents and volunteers are a tremendous group. I enjoy hearing about their past lives and getting to know them. They are the reason for the Museum’s success — they bring history alive as they share island stories. Many of them are former teachers, and all of them love history. Visitors react very favorably to our small museum. People love to “step back in time” and imagine a much slower way of life before the Causeway and tourism. We are always trying to make it a better experience for our visitors. Our new audio/visual enhancements have brought us to a new level.

What do you do at the Museum?

I am mostly involved in marketing, publicity, advertising and membership. I also schedule the docents and volunteers. Since I am the only employee of the Museum (we also have a contract Business Manager), I wear many different hats and juggle a myriad of tasks on a daily basis. But that’s why I like working here. Each day brings new learning experiences.

What do you like to do in your free time?

In my free time, I enjoy traveling, photography, genealogy research and graphic design. Peter and I both like to garden and we visit art galleries, museums, historic properties and gardens. We also like to go to the beach, bike, kayak and hike. We’ve traveled to almost every state in the country, Canada, Mexico and Central America and many countries in Europe. This summer, we were in Switzerland, the Italian Lake District, and then in Florence for a month. We rented the fourth floor apartment of a 15th century building in the San Lorenzo district of the Old City. It was a unique opportunity to blend in with the locals and really become part of the neighborhood. Even without television and regular Internet service, the time just flew by as we explored museums, churches, and art galleries and went on day-long walks all over the city. And, we had the chance to visit other towns in Tuscany by train and bus. Each day was an adventure.

What’s the most interesting place you’ve ever traveled to?

My favorite countries would have to be Scotland and Ireland, just because of the breath-taking physical beauty of their wind-swept, rugged coasts. We also enjoy London and Paris. One of our most unusual travel experiences was going underground in Paris to tour the catacombs. Hundreds of thousands of people are buried underneath the city in old Roman quarries. The catacombs go on for miles and miles, with skulls and femurs stacked 10 feet high and 100 feet deep. If the city didn’t empty out its cemeteries occasionally, there would be no room for future generations. It’s very macabre, but it works. We learned the only way to stay buried in Paris is to be famous!

What’s something people might be surprised to learn about you?

Something people don’t know about me is that I rode an elephant (dressed in a Santa Claus costume) in the Hollywood Christmas Parade two years in a row. I was the Public Relations Director of Lion Country Safari at the time and we brought three elephants and two cheetahs to the parade. The elephant I rode later attacked and killed its trainer!

If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would it be and why?

I would like to have dinner with my great-great grandmother, Harriet Edwards Dant. I actually know little about her, except that she lived in Daviess County, Indiana from 1839 to 1882. Harriet is my “brick wall” when it comes to genealogy. I have been trying for 20 years to find who her parents and siblings were and have traveled to Indiana three times for research. Unfortunately, the Court House burned down in 1890 and most of the records were destroyed. (Does anyone know who her parents were?)

Who inspires you?

My mother, aunt and grandmother have always inspired me. They are gone now, but they were the funniest ladies I have ever meant. They would tell the very best stories, embellishing and exaggerating as they went along. Being with them was like being with Auntie Mame in triplicate. I miss them very much, but being with my two younger sisters, is very similar. When we get together, we laugh and laugh and laugh. It’s good for the soul!

We know you have a passion for history…but what does the future hold for Carol Zell?

I don’t know what the future holds, but I hope to be at the Historical Museum and Village for awhile and continue to enjoy Sanibel and my children and grandchildren. Peter and I talk about buying an R.V. and hitting the open road for a year. Who knows? Maybe we will do it someday.