I write this memoir on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation. My intent is to share my memories of our founder, Thomas (Tom) Walter Taylor with all the Florida lighthouse community and any other interested lighthouse organizations, of which there are many. Due to Tom’s pioneering and tireless efforts, the FKRLF and its parent body the Florida Lighthouse Association (FLA) were founded and have become strong preservation organizations. Today, “lighthouse trekkers” are better able to enjoy their passion for exploration in Florida.
Tom Taylor was born in Dublin, Ohio on March 12, 1949 to Thomas William Taylor, a minister and his wife Jeanne Harriet Taylor. The Taylors were fortunate to also have two other sons named Todd and Trent as well as a daughter named Kay. Tom and his siblings grew up in Dublin which, at the time was small Amish community where all 12 primary school grades occupied one building and the town water pump was in front of the local doctor’s home. The Taylor children all graduated from the new high school. Tom’ commencement was in 1967. That one small school has burgeoned into an entire district system of four high schools and six elementary.
While Tom’s father passed away in 1994, he would have been very proud of Tom’s accomplishments. His mother Jeanne, sister Kay, and his brothers will soon be traveling to Dublin to visit their alma mater. Tom has been selected for induction into the Dublin City Schools Hall of Fame. Tom and eleven other graduates were chosen to receive this grand honor. All twelve have gone on to distinguish themselves both in the local and world communities. The Taylor family was present to witness the induction ceremony on March 12, 2011, which coincidentally is Tom’s birthday.
As an adult he was unassuming and unpretentious, with a ready smile. While small in stature he was a giant in spirit and personality. His enthusiasm was infectious. Tom’s list of accomplishments was long. He was a historical reenactor during the American Bicentennial celebration and served for nine years as an Historical Interpretive Specialist for the National Park Service. He was an accomplished sailor, boat builder, SCUBA diver, mountain climber, and musician. Tom produced two TV documentaries that were broadcast nationally and served as a historical consultant on three major motion pictures. Also an artist, Tom did many pen and ink pictures of tall ships and railroad scenes.
Tom was a prolific writer. He edited and compiled the works of several authors into what became Florida’s Lighthouse Trail. Several of Tom’s own books are: The Key West Lighthouse: A Light in Paradise; Florida’s Territorial Lighthouses: 1821 – 1845; Monhegan Island and its Lighthouse and Lore of the Reef Lights: Life in the Florida Keys, which was compiled and edited posthumously for Tom by Gail Swanson. In my eyes, he was a brilliant man armed with a vision and a singular purpose to see any project through to reality.
Tom earned a Masters Degree in Education at Ohio State University. From there he went on to the University of North Carolina, graduating with a Masters Degree in History and Museum Administration. While at UNC, Tom focused on the American Civil War era with particular interest. One of his favorite figures of that conflict was General George Gordon Meade. While studying the exploits of the general’s war years, Tom discovered “Lieutenant George Meade,” a young civil engineer and designer of lighthouses who was at the beginning of his military career.
Through that discovery, Tom learned that lighthouses were not always built of brick and mortar. In his early years in the Army, Lieutenant Meade was given a task to design off-shore lighthouses where traditional structures could not be built. Lieutenant Meade, being a structural engineer specializing in iron, came up with a innovative screw-pile design. This design would allow the supporting legs of the structure to be secured directly into the submerged coral reef. The skeletal structure is an open framework, much like an oil derrick, making the lighthouses impervious to the violent action of the wind and tide during the frequent hurricanes experienced in Florida.
Once completed, these lighthouses were to serve as an early warning system extending south along the Straits of Florida from Key Biscayne to Key West. They were intended to fill the gap between the Cape Florida Light, a brick structure on the tip of Key Biscayne, and the light at the southernmost tip of Key West.
Lieutenant Meade’s majestic light-houses would turn out to be a vital defensive link when Civil War broke out between the forces of the northern states and those of the south that seceded into a confederacy. When war was declared, the Union Army occupied Fort Taylor and two supporting fortifications at Key West. The Confederate Army had them effectively cut off from their supply lines. The Florida Keys were a patchwork of mangrove covered islands and shallow connecting marshes. It was never possible for horse drawn wagons to transit from island to island.
While now on “War Alert” the Union Army had the psychological stress of knowing they were surrounded by hostile forces, sequestered for the duration of the conflict. Only ships friendly to the north were allowed to enter the Port of Key West. All other ships were repulsed by cannon fire from Fort Taylor and the supporting redoubts along the Atlantic side of the island. Confederate ships and their privateer supporters were forced to continue south around Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas to enter the Gulf of Mexico. Due to superior fire power the Union Army was able to effectively stop nearly all Confederate ships from entering the Gulf to resupply their forces through southern ports.
During his studies Tom developed a love for all lighthouses, those almost forgotten sentinels of security dotting the coastlines of every country touched by water. He loved their beauty and varied architecture, each one unique, like ladies with their own personalities. He was especially intrigued by the men who brought them to life and gave them purpose. The lore surrounding those stall-wart souls charged with their operation, known as “Lighthouse Keepers,” intrigues us even today. These men and in many cases their wives and children, lived an almost monastic life of seclusion in order to keep safe the mariners of the world.
An abiding desire to preserve and protect the few remaining lighthouses in Florida is what brought Tom and me together at the tiny Key Biscayne Community Church in 1989. While having breakfast one day, I chanced to read an article in the Miami Herald newspaper announcing an upcoming meeting to be held the following Saturday in Key Biscayne. The meeting would be open to anyone with a curiosity about lighthouses. Having that curiosity and a brand new Harley Davidson motorcycle I made my way south from Fort Lauderdale that Saturday morning. Little did I know what was to follow?
There were few cars in the parking lot that morning making me wonder if I was in the right place. I entered to find Tom Taylor and Ann Caneer setting up for the meeting. There was one other person there who introduced himself as Hibbard (Hib) Casselberry. Later as the meeting started, Ann Caneer introduced herself as the director of Ponce Inlet Lighthouse. She then introduced Tom as her staff historian. Ann and Tom laid out their vision for an association dedicated to the preservation of the remaining lighthouses in Florida. During the talk, more and more people arrived and we all became charged at the prospect of membership in such a groundbreaking organization. Tom stated that he hoped that it would become the inaugural meeting and proposed an election of officers be held.
Possible names for the organization were discussed but the group settled on “Florida Lighthouse Association.” Tom called for nominations for the office of President. There was initial hesitation by the group so Tom offered Ann’s name. There were no other names offered and the vote was unanimous. Next nominations for Vice President were called for. I felt the need to be involved and asked Hib, seated next to me to offer my name, which he did. Later George Dillar, the man who was known as the “Voice of Cape Canaveral” was elected treasurer. George kept us on financial straight and narrow. Tom knew Hib to be a retired Coast Guard Petty Officer and amateur historian. When asked to take an office Hib declined but did volunteer to be Membership Chairman. We all left the church that morning with a sense of achievement, confident that we were now part of something truly momentous, the birth of the Florida Lighthouse Association.
Tom, Hib, and I became very close over time and did most everything for the association as a team. After 2 years in office Ann Caneer announced that she had developed a serious health issue which required her to step down as President. Tom was nominated to replace Ann and was elected.
The organization grew rapidly as we brought on board the individual lighthouse groups spread about the state. There were those with working lighthouses restored through private donation and those that pursued funding to begin restoration. As the FLA grew, it was decided that we needed to expand the leadership base to encompass the many tasks needing attention in our expanding organization. The office of Executive Vice President was created which then became my title. Several Vice President positions were created to take charge of the various activities that had become too taxing for Tom to handle alone. While Tom was a hands-on president, he soon realized the job was getting too big for one person to handle.
In the fall of 2000 I had retired from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department after 30 years of public service. After the NATO bombing of Serbia, the United Nations took on the mission of rebuilding the Kosovo provincial government and infrastructure. I decided to take a job there as a police trainer for the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Reluctantly I resigned my position as Executive V.P. with the FLA to take my new post.
One and a half years later, near the end of my mission, I learned from Hib that Tom was no longer working at Ponce Inlet Lighthouse. Having sold his home, Tom moved down to Marathon in the middle Keys. Hib told me that on July 22nd of 2001 Tom and a group of nine lighthouse enthusiasts gathered at the Islamorada Library and had started the Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation, Inc. (FKRLF). The founding members and original Board of Directors were Tom Taylor (President), Jerry Wilkinson (Vice-President), Dan Gallagher (Secretary), and Brenda Altmeier (Treasurer). Love Dean-Winslow was appointed Historian with Gail Swanson as Newsletter Editor. The other members of the Board were, Hib Casselberry, Jack Burrie, Joe Pais, and Jim Clupper who hosted the meeting as library manager. My mission ended and I returned home on December 16, 2001 and joined the foundation at the next regular meeting, again at the Islamorada library. In 2002 Jerry Wilkinson realized he had a conflict with his other obligations and stepped down as Vice-President. I was voted in to take Jerry’s place at the next meeting of the Board of Directors.
We later voted to affiliate with FLA as our parent organization. Jack Burrie became the Secretary/Treasurer with Hib volunteering as Membership Chairman. We bounced around from place to place holding our board and general meetings in different locations each time. We kept looking for a permanent home, one suitable for a place to meet as well as provide space for a museum. Because real estate is so expensive in the Keys we have yet to find such a home, nor a member/benefactor to help make it happen.
Jack, Hib and I went through many of Tom’s tribulations, the largest of which was transitioning from a stable home situation in Port Orange to what amounted to living in a shoebox 5th wheel trailer in the Key RV Park. The boom in Keys real estate prices had begun, Tom’s trailer park was no exception. The park owner announced he was converting the lots into condominium properties. All the renters would have to buy their lots or be evicted by a date certain. This was a great source of worry for Tom because the price demanded for his tiny plot of ground was $65,000.00, far beyond anything he could afford. I have no doubt that the stress contributed greatly to Tom’s death.
Tom passed away while in the prime of his life on the 19th of May, 2004. He was fulfilling his dream and writing historical books such as “The Lighthouse Trail.” He was actively networking with all the historical entities in the Keys and on a national level, attempting to establish the FKRLF as a viable historic preservation foundation. We all knew the tremendous stress he was under, but he never let it show or affect his work, always keeping a positive outlook. He always kept in touch with Hib, Jack, and I, letting us know what progress he had made. It came as a total shock for all of us to learn that Tom had passed away so suddenly. He was the driving force behind the organization, the coxswain of our ship.
After his passing it was left to me to assume the Presidency, for which I was totally unprepared. Properly running an organization, even a small one, is a full time task, especially one like ours. It should be done by someone with a local grasp on the problems to be overcome and the contacts to make things happen. Unfortunately I was an absentee President living two counties north. Working full time, I was only able to be a caretaker president, sad to say. Jack Burrie continued to assist me, becoming the new Vice-President. Thanks to Jack being retired and having good computer skills, we were able to stay in contact with the FLA and maintain our website. Progress was slow but we kept the Foundation together when it would have been very easy to say “ENOUGH” and fold our tent.
We were most fortunate to have Clarence Feagan, a local resident and member, step up to take the reins of the treasure’s position which Jack had held in double-duty. Clarence kept track of our modest finances and made certain we stayed solvent. Even though we had little money in our coffer, our membership grew steadily. With that infusion of new blood and ideas we were able to get back on the road to recovery. Jack and I discussed the future and what was best for the Foundation, given my obligations. We decided that it would be best for the FKRLF if I did not seek reelection and turn the reigns over to someone better able to dedicate the time necessary to help the organization flourish.
One man, Eric S. Martin, Executive Vice President of the FLA, expressed an interest in helping the foundation in some way. Jack Burrie then asked Eric if he would consider accepting the nomination for President. Although a bit reluctant, Eric accepted and at our next meeting of the Board of Directors he was elected. While Eric is a working man like me, he has the ability and the willing assistance of his wife Susan (FKRLF Secretary) who keeps him focused and shares many of the logistical duties. Since Eric took over the helm, the FKRLF has flourished and grown. Due to his stewardship we are on the road toward becoming the true preservation foundation that was envisioned by our founder Tom Taylor.
Tom Taylor’s books can be found for sale at various places on the Internet and at some of the gift shops at Florida’s Lighthouses. Three of Taylors books; Monhegan Island and Its Lighthouse, The Key West Lighthouse: A Light in Paradise, and Lore of the Reef Lights: Life in the Florida Keys, are available from www.InfinityPublishiing.com or from Buy the Book at 1-877-BUY-BOOK.
The book, Florida Lighthouse Trail is available from
Florida’s Territorial Lighthouses is available for $15.00 plus $5.00 shipping from Kay Taylor at
5123 Orange Ave.,
Port Orange, FL 32127.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2011 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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