The News-Press

Presidents & Southwest Florida

By CHRIS WADSWORTH, Published by on February 16, 2004

Southwest Florida doesn’t have much luck when it comes to luring U.S. presidents for visits.

On this Presidents’ Day local historians and longtime residents could only remember a handful of occasions where a chief executive came to the area — with at least two of them coming before or after their term in office.

PrivateSky CEO Vincent Wolanin talks with President George W. Bush after he arrived at Southwest Florida International. Bush is one of four Presidents that visited Southwest Florida

Among the possible reasons for this executive snubbing is that until recently, Southwest Florida was too out of the way and its population too small to warrant presidential attention. Add in the region’s reputation for having a conservative bent — a lost cause for Democrats, a sure thing for Republicans — and Lee County usually came up short on presidential itineraries.

Still, the few times a chief executive has come to town, he has made for some memorable moments.


• Local historians credit President Roosevelt as being one of Captiva’s first tourists. He came to the then-remote barrier island in 1913.

Margaret Mickle, then 10, made a bit of presidential history when she heard the commander-in-chief was on a boat fishing with Dr. Russell Coles. Little Margaret grabbed a camera, hopped in her friend’s boat, and the two youngsters headed out.

Unfortunately, the boat sank. While her friend swam back, Margaret paddled the rest of the distance, holding the camera above her head.
“I got near the boat and started yelling ‘Teddy,’ ” said Mickle in a 1992 News-Press interview. “I heard Roosevelt say that anybody who called him Teddy could come aboard his boat.”

She got her picture and dinner with T.R.

Mickle, who went on to be the first female reporter at The News-Press, recounted the story many times until her death in 1994.


• In February 1929, President-elect Herbert Hoover came to Fort Myers to help celebrate the 82nd birthday of his old friend Thomas Edison. Reports from the time say he sailed to Southwest Florida from his Miami vacation home.

“He parked his yacht out behind the Edison estate,” said Matt Johnson, a historian with the Southwest Florida Museum of History in Fort Myers.

A parade was held for Edison and Hoover rode in it, much to the delight of some 20,000 spectators.

“It was exciting,” said Sara Nell Hendry Gran, who was 10 at the time. “I just remember being able to see him when he drove by, and he waved to everybody.”

Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone also joined in the presidential welcome.

How big a deal was this for tiny, out-of-the-way Fort Myers?

“It would have been huge,” Johnson said.


• Despite the region’s long history, it wasn’t until Valentine’s Day 1976 that a sitting president first visited Lee County. That’s when Gerald Ford flew into Page Field.

Cyndi Hendry performed with the Fort Myers High School band as Ford stepped off Air Force One.

“I was a majorette,” said Hendry. “We played ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ for him.”

Just months after an assassination attempt on Ford, security was tight and Secret Service agents took up positions along his motorcade route.

Locked in a heated battle with Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination, Ford wowed crowds at the Exhibition Hall in downtown Fort Myers when he promised to push for the completion of Interstate 75 in Southwest Florida.

The day made a lasting memory for Hendry. “I was thrilled,” she said. “The president didn’t come here a lot.”

(Reagan would visit Fort Myers a few weeks later, but lose the nomination to Ford. Ford, in turn, was defeated by Jimmy Carter.)


• The Bush family has a long history in Southwest Florida, ever since former President George Bush started making regular fishing trips to Boca Grande in far northwest Lee County. His sons would come with him and before long, George W. Bush was president.

The current President Bush has also paid several visits to the estate of WCI tycoon Al Hoffman, who has put on some lavish Republican fund-raisers. The most recent trip was in November — only the second time anyone remembers a sitting president setting foot in Lee County.

“It was really exciting,” said Susan Sublette, who attended the event. “People yelled and cheered like he was a rock star.”

Perhaps the most poignant Southwest Florida visit came on Sept. 11, 2001, when President Bush got news of the terrorist attacks in New York City while visiting a Sarasota elementary school.

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