Island matriarch Grace Whitehead passes
Grace Rossiter Whitehead, one of Sanibel’s foremothers and the founder, along with her husband, Don Whitehead, of the Island Reporter in 1973, died on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011.
Born on Sept. 19, 1918, she was 92 when she died at the Lodge at Cypress Cove, where she had lived for the past five-plus years.
Whitehead was proclaimed the first City of Sanibel Founders Day Honoree in September 2005 “for her dedication and tireless efforts to the City and its citizens to improve the way of life on Sanibel. Grace Whitehead has contributed her energy and leadership to every aspect of this community,” the proclamation read.
Sanibel founding father, former mayor and councilman Porter Goss and, at that time C.I.A. director, sent her a letter of congratulations.
“What a wonderful tribute to recognize Grace Whitehead with a Founder’s Day award. There are so many ways she has positively impacted our island community over the past three and a half decades,” Goss’s letter read. “She was an intrepid bike path pioneer, often blazing trails on her bike years before the network of bike paths existed. Grace was a member of the group that started the Island Reporter. Readers came to know Grace and her down-to-earth manner through her column.”
Grace is survived by her sisters, Gloria Rossiter, of Patchogue, N.Y. and June Brown of Irvington, N.Y.; a brother, Jack Rossiter of California; nieces Carol Jennings and Kathleen Harmon of Fort Myers, June Boughton also of Patchogue, and Janet Allison of New York; and several grand-nieces. A third sister, Susan Hewing, is deceased.
A memorial service was held at the Sanibel United Congregational Church of Christ on Jan. 17 and attended by many islanders who had known her “since the beginning.” There will be a later service to commemorate the scattering of her ashes.
(NOTE: What follows is a portion of an extensive interview with Grace, written by Barbara Linstrom for the Sanibel-Captiva Islander issues of Sept. 24 and Oct. 1, 1999.)
Grace Whitehead saw a lot of changes during her well-over-30 years on Sanibel, including the formation of a newspaper and the incorporation of a city, but in her pre-Sanibel life, Whitehead saw the world.
When she says she would have been a major in no time if she had stayed in the Army after the war, you take Grace Whitehead seriously. As a First Lieutenant in charge of a psychiatric ward on a hospital ship, she had proved her salt.
But, she also fell in love with an intelligent and charming administrative officer aboard that ship. And one day after they got off that vessel, they were married in New York City.
“We went to see a Supreme Court justice to get a waiver for the New York law that said you had to wait 72 hours to get married. He was in his robes, and he looked at me and said, ‘What’s your rush?’ and I said, ‘I’ve been living with this man on a hospital ship for two years; don’t you think it’s time we got married?’ and he said, ‘Yes, ma’am.'”
When Don Whitehead wed Grace E. Rossiter, the two embarked on quite a path. From working as a nurse in Paris for 10 years while Don was involved with the American Embassy, to helping him start a newspaper on Sanibel after he retired from the C.I.A., to traveling the world after they sold the Island Reporter, Whitehead had more than a of couple stories to tell.
It was May 1969 when Don and Grace Whitehead first crossed the causeway in an overcab camper with Don’s mother, a poodle and a parrot name Juju Don had bought for her in Africa in 1962 riding with them. “Don wanted to go where it was warm and do freelance writing.”
Researcher that he was, Don had solicited information from Chambers of Commerce all along the Southwest Florida coast and, from Sanibel, he received a letter from Priscilla Murphy of PMR Realty. “We had been two days en route from Sarasota to Fort Myers looking for a condo and we didn’t like anywhere we’d seen. Don suggested, ‘Well why don’t we try that island?'”
However, when they met with Priscilla Murphy, she told them there were no condominiums on Sanibel — and there never would be. The couple decided to keep trying their luck down the coast of Florida. “We were sitting in Key West at midnight and we still hadn’t seen anything we liked when Don asked, ‘What do you think of Sanibel Island?’ and I said, ‘Lovely!'”
They left immediately and were on the island by 8 a.m. the next morning. That’s when the Whiteheads bought a lot on Lindgren for $6,100 and went about building a modest one-story block house with a swimming pool.
While their home was being built, the Whiteheads took Don’s mother back to Kansas then [came back and] stayed for about five months in the Muench family’s Periwinkle Trailer Park, where they enjoyed the quiet, laid-back pace of the barely developed island. Their house was one of the eight original homes in the Shell Harbor subdivision. “I thought it was paradise — it was different from anywhere I’d ever been in my life,” said Grace.
About that time, Porter Goss, who had worked for Don in the C.I.A., moved to the island. Goss and the Whiteheads started a boat rental business at the Sanibel Marina. During those first couple of years, the Whiteheads really got into enjoying the friendly island atmosphere as well as the natural beauty of the beaches and the surrounding waters.
They also enjoyed getting to know fellow islanders at the once-a-month potlucks at the Sanibel Community Center. “Everybody knew each other — it was delightful,” she said, with an aside that Bailey’s used to give islanders a card and then bill them once a month.
As the Whiteheads got to know the community and deepened their affinity for the island’s natural endowments, they and others realized that their paradise was in jeopardy. And by the early 1970s, it became increasingly apparent that development would likely take over the island and that high-rises, traffic lights and strip malls were all very real possibilities.
“Sanibel was going to be overrun with cement. Most people here resented the causeway to begin with. Then all these condos started, and Lee County didn’t care what was being built.”
That’s about the time Don, Goss and others started the Island Reporter in response to a “demand from business and civic leaders for a newspaper edited on the islands for islanders,” as an October 1973 promotional brochure stated. At that time, the only island newspaper — the Islander — was being edited on Fort Myers Beach.
Aside from the serious purpose behind the paper to protect island interests and, ultimately generate support so that Sanibel could be incorporated and take control of its destiny, there also was a light-hearted spirit underlying the civic duty. “It was fun — we really had a good time!”
While Don literally wrote the whole paper at first, he did have one columnist whom he bamboozled into writing. In promoting the paper prior to its initial publication, unbeknownst to Grace, Don had promised readers a column from her. “I told him he¹d lost his mind — he could write, but I couldn’t. He told me my problem was I was trying to be too intelligent. ‘Just write like you talk.'” The result was a refreshing column called “Scene on the Beach” that Grace wrote weekly.
Grace believed the Island Reporter played a big role in keeping islanders on top of the incorporation effort.
“Starting a city is not easy, and I think we did a wonderful job — everyone came right to the forefront and really worked,” she said. “I think the paper was vital in letting people know what was going on.”
After the city was incorporated in November 1974, the Whiteheads continued to play a key role in its formation. Grace was even dubbed “Queen” of Sanibel in the city’s first official Fourth of July parade. She wore a cardboard crown and rode in a convertible that was followed by the Island Reporter’s kazoo band.
The Whiteheads remained with the Island Reporter for eight years, over which time it peaked at more than 100 pages a week and earned numerous awards from the Florida Press Association. “By then, the paper was well established and the fun was going out of it. Don decided he wanted to travel.”
After selling the paper in 1981, the Whiteheads stuck to their plan to travel. Reminiscent of their original encounter on a hospital shop in World War II, Grace and Don took as many as four cruises a year. They went all over the world from the Far East to France, immersing themselves in their love of people and their thirst for adventure.
But “It was always lovely to come back home to the island.”