Pioneer, Businessman, Legend: Sanibel mourns the loss of an island icon
Residents of Sanibel are trying to deal with the great loss of one of the last of the founding families of Sanibel, Francis P. Bailey Jr. , who died Saturday at the age of 92.
One thing is certain, though: Although his loss is felt deeply, the impact this man had on the community will benefit and last for future generations who come to live, work and play on Sanibel.
The thread of comments on his passing carry a common theme: Francis Bailey was a visionary, had lifelong dedication to the community and its residents and put the community before his business. He was known for his stories about Sanibel, to educate about the past and future in his guidance to keep Sanibel a special place that is not affected in a negative way by growth and development. He was known as the face of Bailey’s General Store, often greeting people at the door and handing them a cart or talking to them in the aisles as they shopped. His was a visible and active presence in community organizations and fundraising to keep Sanibel the pristine environment it is. His love of the island was unquestionable and his legacy is strong in those who had the fortune to have known or be guided by him.
Chief Danny Duncan, president of the Lions Club and Sanibel fire chief, got to know Francis Bailey through his work with the Lions Club. “When I first took the job 10 years as an assistant fire chief, the Chief took me to Francis’ office above Bailey’s and introduced me to him,” Duncan said. “We talked to him for a while and had a wonderful conversation. The thing that I remember about him is that although he may only see me once every two months, every time I saw him after that, he knew my name and never forgot it after only meeting me once. He knows a lot of people and it impressed me that every time I saw him he remembered me and was that way with everyone; he made people feel better by remembering them.
“He was a charter member of the Lions and he performed every new member induction (including mine) as long as he was able to come to a meeting. The Lions’ motto is ‘We Serve’ and he probably exemplifies that 100 percent in his business, philanthropy and service. He was a great example and leader of the Lions and a true testament to the philosophy and what it is to be a Lion.
“We are really going to miss him in the community and within the Lions Club; the next lions meeting will be a very sad one with his absence but we will celebrate his impact on our club and community,” he added.
Bailey also was instrumental in the formation of the island Chamber.
“Last year, we had the opportunity to honor Francis in person when the Chamber dedicated our Islands Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center to him, now named the Francis P. Bailey, Jr. Visitor Center,” said Ric Base, Chamber president. “We know that his memory will live on and he will be remembered for his leadership, the warmth of his personality and his accessibility to all islanders. Francis Bailey was a true pioneer and philanthropist in the ‘evolution of paradise’ on our islands. We are deeply saddened at the loss of one of our islands visionaries.”
The Chamber’s Bridgit Stone-Budd shared a memory that she said Bailey had shared with her.
She said Bailey recalled that on one afternoon in 1962, on the east end of Sanibel, he, Paul Stahlin, Thomas Billeimer, John Wakefield, Thomas Mason, Dean Mitchell and H.K. Jeremiassen got together “on a pile of logs” on Ferry Road. The event essentially was the inaugural “Chamber Board Meeting” of the Sanibel-Captiva Islands Business Association, said Stone-Budd.
“What prompted Francis and these other ‘young kids’ to form the board was to “take care of the people and our environment,” Stone-Budd said.
On Feb. 20, 1962, the Sanibel-Captiva Islands Business Association changed its name to the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce, a non-profit organization.
Stone-Budd also recalled an assignment five years earlier to write a story of the beginnings of the chamber for a Lee County history book. She approached his brother, Sam Bailey for an interview, which took place in the conference room at “Bailey’s World Headquarters.”
“Towards the end of the interview, Francis walked by and asked what was going on,” said Stone-Budd. “I told him and he threw up his hands in the air and said, ‘If you want funny stories, talk to Sam. If you want the truth, talk to me.'”
Among his community involvement, Francis Bailey served on the first city council following incorporation, from 1974-1996, serving as mayor in 1979. He served again in 1999.
“The words that I would use to describe Francis are generous – he never turns anyone away; compassionate – the island causes closest to his heart are the causes that benefit those less fortunate than he; and inspirational – he has personally encouraged me not to give up on issues important to the island and he has always been ready with support and ideas to keep me on the right path,” said Vice Mayor Mick Denham.
Kevin Ruane, mayor of the City of Sanibel, said the community is feeling the loss of this great man already.
“Francis Bailey was one of our earliest mayors and the community we have today is a result of his hard work. The foresight he had was immeasurable to Sanibel and the way we are today. His contributions were and are endless. I don’t know of any one family who had a greater impact on Sanibel than the Bailey family and Francis,” Ruane said. “The legacy of the Baileys will certainly be remembered for eternity. To be involved to try to help the community in the positive way he has was a commitment that he put before his own business. Without the guidance and foresight of Francis and the Bailey family, Sanibel could have gone the other way and not be the pristine beautiful community that it is today. He was at the infancy stages of planning, development and implementation of the City of Sanibel. His policies that he helped put into effect are what I follow to this day. I knew Francis and Sam very well and enjoyed working with them a great deal. Their vision of how Sanibel should be is a standard that is followed up through our current administration.
“There were so many special interactions I had with Francis, it would be hard to pick one,” he added. “To be able to get the insight from him on how to guide a community is probably the most important gift Francis gave me. Many of the interactions were in the store itself, and especially Francis’ office upstairs. He would tell stories about Sanibel in a way to get his point across instead of just preaching. I will miss him dearly and can’t imagine walking into Bailey’s in the future and not feeling his absence. The Baileys took a chance in their commitment to the city. If the residents didn’t listen, the city may have gone a totally different way and look very different from how it looks now and that could have affected their business but they felt so strongly about Sanibel they took that chance. When you have an institution like Francis, the Baileys and the Bailey Store that touches so many lives in such a positive way, it is hard to think that the loss won’t be felt into the future.”
Blanaid Colley and Jeremy Kane, owners of Hillgate Communications and Zebra yogurt and tenants of the Bailey shopping plaza, commented on his business leadership, saying it was an example to others.
“One of the most important contributions that Francis made is one that is often overlooked. He maintained and strengthened the tradition laid down by his father that the store would be open for the convenience of residents and guests every day of the year (except Christmas Day) and for 14 hours a day. This was not just a good business decision. Francis felt that he and his store had a duty of care. If you needed something, he would make sure that Bailey’s stocked it. The same principle underlined the decision to keep the store open throughout the year, including national holidays, because of the extra difficulty of running out of essential supplies if you live on an Island. He wanted Bailey’s always to be there and ready to serve: even the day after Charlie, Bailey’s was open,” the two agreed.
“Francis was the last of a great generation,” they added. “We are very proud of his achievements and his contribution to the vision that became the City of Sanibel.”
He will be remembered for his philanthropic endeavors as well.
“A quintessential leader of our island’s community, Francis Bailey was, among his many leadership roles and commitments, a past board member and strong supporter of the Shell Museum,” said Dr. Jose Leal, director of Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. “The Shell Museum as we know it could only exist thanks to Francis Bailey’s generosity: with his late brothers John and Sam, he donated the land on which the Shell Museum was built. Our deepest sympathy goes out to Francis Bailey’s wife June and his family.
“Personally, I interacted with him a lot throughout the many years I have been here, in particular when Francis was a board member for two terms,” he added. “He was always very supportive of museum endeavors and we always had a great interaction. I loved to visit him at his office at Bailey’s whenever we had things to discuss. I was always delighted to walk into the store and see him walking the aisles and see his hands on participation of the store. It seems like an era that is ending with his passing of the three brothers. I was fortunate to know all three brothers, John, Sam and Francis – all three brothers were here for our first fundraiser in the late ’90s and it was wonderful to see the support and power of this family coming through to help the museum.”
Alex Werner is among those who worked in the setting up of the Sanibel Museum and Historical Village.
“Francis was instrumental in getting the first Rutland home at the historical museum site through his work with Elinore Dormer and the Historical Preservation Committee,” he said. “The Rutland Home was moved in 1982 to the grounds where it opened in 1984 as the island’s first history museum which then expanded under his brother’s guidance to bring other buildings to form the village.”
Emilie Alfino, manager of the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village and author of Francis Bailey’s upcoming book “My 92 Years on Sanibel,” said he was wonderful to work with.
“Francis loved the community and served it faithfully the whole time he was here,” she said. “The community will never be the same. A lot will change on the island now that he is gone.
“It was a joy and privilege to work with him. I enjoyed him thoroughly. He was the quintessential Southern gentleman with a wonderful sense of humor and always had a positive outlook. He was kind, he was fair and I just cherish every moment that I spent with him. I am going to miss him very much.”
The book will be released in the near future.
“I really wished that he could have been around for the book launch party so he could see the impact and love that the community has for him – it would have meant a great deal to him. I am saddened that he will not be able to see the positive feedback, love and joy that his book brings to residents,” Alfino said.
Francis’ quote at the end of the naming of the Francis P. Bailey Welcome Center at the Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce is a quiet summation of his character.
“It’s great… but undeserving,” he said then, looking up at the plaque. “I’m glad to have the Bailey name on the building, because it’s the first thing that people see when they arrive on the island. I’d just wish they’d take the ‘Francis’ off of it. The work done by other generations before us, like my father and Ralph Woodring’s dad, have done so much for this island, so much more than I did,” Francis humbly told the crowd. “Thank you so much… and let’s have a good time.”
He is survived by his wife June and five children: Anne, Mary Mead, Susan, Patrick, Jane and grandchildren. His son-in-law, Richard Johnson, is the general manager of Bailey’s General Store and is working with the family to continue the legacy of Francis and his brothers.
The Bailey family is planning a community celebration of the life of Francis Bailey.
It is set for 11 a.m., Sunday, June 16, at the Bailey Homestead, 1300 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel.