Lake and Sumter Style Magazine
4:34 pm EDT
Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Extraordinary People

From Hungary to Howey-in-the-Hills

Eva Kovacs has always been a survivor, from her premature birth during World War II to completing the maze of a supermodel and acting career with her integrity intact.

Story: Leigh Neely // Photos: Anthony Rao

Born in Blaltonkenese, Hungary, Eva Kovacs was almost immediately separated from her family when Russians attacked her village. Her family, with the exception of Eva and her grandmother, Lady Isabella de Varga, an aristocrat, escaped to Austria. Eva’s health was so delicate, her family knew she wouldn’t survive the arduous escape. She and her grandmother were trapped behind the Iron Curtain, the military and political barrier that separated the former Soviet bloc and the West.

However, thanks to the strength and determination of her grandmother, Eva thrived in Communist Hungary, which was under the rule of Joseph Stalin. Her skill and beauty were recognized early and she was picked from the 500 best ballet students to train at the renowned Budapest Ballet Opera House.

In 1956, Isabella and Eva finally escaped during the Hungarian revolution and made it to the United States. Her mother, educated and trained to be an engineer, took any job she could find. 

“When we came to America, she cleaned houses. I’ll never forget the lady (homeowner) telling me, ‘It’s never too early to learn the trade,’ and she gave me a buck,” Eva says with a flat voice. “But my mother persevered.” 

One day, as she watched her mother put her hand in the toilet, Eva cried, “‘Mom, don’t do that,’ but my mother said, ‘This has to be done, and I’m doing it.’”

Her mother used the menial jobs to help her learn the language, and she became an aeronautical engineer and created 32 platforms at NASA. She also worked on the space shuttle Columbia.

Eva definitely inherited that spirit and ambition, and it took her places she only dreamed of. She was Miss International World, Miss World Posture Princess, and many other titles. She was one of the first supermodels for haute couture and commercial designers, introducing lines for Also Gucci, Cristobal Balenciaga, Coco Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Gianni Versace, and many others.

“One of the reasons I believe I achieved what I achieved is because I never compromised my soul for fame,” Eva says. “I feel like I’ve lived many lives in one. I’ve just done so much. God gives us the holy spirit, and that’s what we bring out of ourselves.”

She also worked for years in the film industry, starring in “Crime Wave” and “Apache Blood,” as well as doing work in television. Later, she owned the Eva Kovacs Academy & Agency in several Florida cities, and a pilates studio in Los Angeles.

Today, she is happily retired in Howey-in-the-Hills, but she’s still busy. She rides her bicycle through the idyllic roads of Mission Inn and stops to exercise with neighbors by the lake. She has organized a writers’ group at the local library and is working on various writing projects as well as a documentary.

Her advice now is, “You’ve got to move the body, eat the protein to get the muscle back every day, and remember you’re a spiritual being—body, mind, and spirit,” she says. “I love the trees and the greenery here. I don’t need any more than this—nature, the sun going down over the water. I’m grateful for every moment.”



Living a dream

A Sumter County man hopes to achieve stardom in country music.

Story: James Combs 

He never performed for a talent agent, attended a casting call, or appeared on a musical reality show. 

In fact, Bryce Mauldin, 21, never even took singing lessons. 

Yet, the Sumter County native is living in Nashville, chasing his dream of becoming a country music star. On most weekends, he performs in dark dive bars on Music Row as he patiently waits for his big break. 

Bryce has taken an unlikely road to potential country music stardom by capitalizing on the power of social media. In May 2016, he posted a video of himself singing Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man.” One year later, he made a Facebook post singing John Michael Montgomery’s “I Can Love You Like That.” 

The second video went viral. In a matter of days, he garnered nearly 200,000 followers, and to date, the video has accumulated 9 million views and 232,000 shares.  

His hidden talent surprised everyone. 

“I never knew he could sing,” says his mother, Shelly Mauldin, who lives in Webster. “When he was 5, he would sing Linkin Park at the top of his lungs. He sure couldn’t sing then.”

Because of the overwhelming response to both videos, Bryce soon found himself in great demand. He began performing at venues such as the Brass Tap Beer Bar in Dade City and the Florida Cracker Kitchen in Brooksville. 

For Bryce, a much bigger door opened when a friend sent his video to Brett and Brad Warren, a Nashville songwriting duo who have written eight No. 1 country hits for popular artists such as Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, and Faith Hill. The brothers encouraged Bryce to move to the Music City. 

As a result, he put the brakes on a professional motocross career to concentrate exclusively on music. 

“I had raced competitively since I was 8 and competed in Michigan, Texas, and everywhere in between,” he says. “I lost my passion for racing because it consumed so much of my life. However, singing grew on me. When I started getting fans on social media, I decided to switch my focus to music.”

Since moving to the Music City, Bryce has showed up at open mics and writer’s rounds, both staples of newly arrived Nashville musicians who perform less for the money than the chance to network. Like others who move to Nashville to pursue musical careers, he is still trying to figure out where he fits in. 

“It’s all about connections,” he says. 

He’s also trying to get his music out there. Bryce was scheduled to release his first EP in October. He co-wrote four of the songs. 

“It’s a learning experience,” he says. “It takes time to figure out your sound. I think mine is a mixture of 1990s country and new country. A lot of people have compared me to Clay Walker and Jason Aldean.”

While dreams are elusive for many musicians, Bryce is not discouraged by the overwhelming odds.

“The large numbers I’ve accumulated on social media are a big help because those people will buy my music and attend my shows,” he says. “As long as people like me and I put on good performances, I’ll be able to sell tickets and create a good name for myself.” 



Global compassion

Clermont’s Diane Speranza is among 21 nurses worldwide honored at the United Nations.

Story: Theresa Campbell // Photo: Nicole Hamel

Nurses from as far as Syria, Palestine, Thailand, and Kenya joined Clermont’s Diane Speranza in receiving distinguished Nurses with Global Impact awards during a ceremony in May at the United Nations in New York City. 

“This is what I love to do. I want to do this for as long as I can,” says Diane, a certified emergency nurse who has been involved in medical missions for more than 40 years with the Red Cross, Florida Disaster Medical Assistance Team, and Project Hope, an international organization that provides worldwide health and humanitarian assistance.

For her decades of service, she was honored by Nurses with Global Impact, a nonprofit global community initiative that highlights the field of nursing.

In recent months, Diane has been in Puerto Rico to provide medical care in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, just as she did following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Diane’s first mission was in 1975 with Operation Baby Lift, where she bathed and fed orphaned babies from Vietnam before they went to their new American homes. 

Diane had her husband Carmine’s support when she answered the call for nurses in Kuwait during Desert Storm in 1990-91, and she’s responded to more than 30 disasters, including providing care during the cholera outbreak after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. 

Her favorite times have been the partnership missions of Project Hope and the U.S. Navy, working aboard the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort medical ships. Diane assisted with surgeries and provided care for the injured on the USNS Mercy during the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. 

“I’ve had the privilege to work in Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor, Philippines, El Salvador, Bangladesh, Panama, Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador, Belize, and other countries,” Diane says.  “Doing these missions has given me the opportunity to travel around the world and do things I have never done before. It has been awesome and a great learning experience.” 

From a medical standpoint, Diane has seen conditions, including patients with huge goiters that needed to be surgically removed, that are rare in the United States. She’s also met people in third-world countries who are elated to be given a month’s supply of vitamins. 

“It gives me satisfaction that people are so grateful,” she says. “And it’s amazing that they don’t mind standing in line in the hot sun hours at a time to be seen.”



Major effort

Jack Perkins works his way from The Villages to pro baseball.

Story: Chris Gerbasi

Since age 10 or so, Jack Perkins has played baseball or trained for baseball almost every day of his life. In basketball terms, he’d be known as a “gym rat,” so in baseball, maybe he’s a “diamond rat.”

Through travel leagues and summer leagues, high school ball in The Villages and college ball at Stetson University, Jack worked to reach one place.

Now he’s there. In June, Jack became the first athlete from The Villages High School to be drafted in any professional sport. The Philadelphia Phillies selected the 6-foot-4, 200-pound, right-handed pitcher in the 11th round of the Major League Baseball draft, the 317th pick overall. He’s proud to score a “first” for his former high school.

“I think it speaks to my work ethic and my drive and willingness to keep playing, and the want to be a professional baseball player,” says Jack, 21, who grew up in Ocala.

During the draft, the Stetson Hatters traveled to North Carolina to play in the NCAA tournament. As their plane touched down, Jack got a call from a Phillies representative who asked him point-blank, “Do you want to play baseball?” Jack replied, “Yes, I do.”

“It was pretty exciting to get that phone call and know that I was going to play this game after college,” he says.

Jack was happy to join the Phillies because he believes they’re an organization on the rise with a talent for developing young players, plus his mother’s family is from the Philadelphia area.

For his parents, Randy and Karen, the draft was all about waiting and more waiting. They expected Jack to be selected on day one but had to sweat it out until day two.

“Jack’s been working toward this since 10 or 11 years old, so everybody was on edge a little bit, but excited and a little bit relieved at the same time,” Randy says. “It’s very gratifying for him to see the culmination.”

Randy, who pitched at the University of Florida, coached Jack in travel ball and summer leagues. At The Villages High School, Jack pitched on the varsity team all four years.

At Stetson, Steve Trimper took over as head coach in Jack’s sophomore year and “brought new life” to the team, Jack says. This year, the Hatters had an amazing 48-13 record and advanced to the super regional for the first time in school history.

More importantly, pitching coach Dave Therneau took Jack’s game to the “next level.” He had an 11-3 record this season, and overall in his three-year career, he went 19-10 with a 3.64 earned run average and 253 strikeouts in 240 innings pitched.

“He knew how to win and how to develop pitchers,” Jack says. “Coming in, I was a good, raw pitcher. I had a feel for all my pitches. But once he got there and I was under his wing, he taught me how to pitch rather than just throw.”

After being drafted, Jack immediately played for the Phillies’ rookie-league team at Clearwater and the Class A short-season team at Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Appearing primarily in relief, he struck out 20 batters in 20 innings.

Jack’s not shy on ambition. Next spring, he hopes to be assigned to the Phillies’ Class A team at Lakewood, New Jersey, then move up to advanced-A ball back at Clearwater by the end of the season, and possibly Double A within two years.

Of course, the ultimate level is the major leagues. No doubt he’ll be working toward it every day.



Mentor to troubled youths

Nancy Hunter: ‘There have been hundreds of Tony’s throughout my career, I just didn’t take custody of all of them.’ 

Story: Theresa Campbell // Photo: Volkan Ulgan

A retired Leesburg teacher has been a mentor, friend, and mom to a man who was ordered at 14 to spend his life in prison. Nancy Hunter never lost her faith or belief that God would bring a miracle for the boy she has seen become a man behind bars.

Tony Conyers was at the scene in January 1999 when an elderly man was killed. Tony said he went with older friends to burglarize the retiree’s home, but didn’t know the man would wind up dead, according to news accounts. 

Nancy first met Tony more than 20 years ago, when he was a shy foster child in her class at Oak Park Middle School. The two bonded. 

“My passion has always been the kids who have trouble finding success,” Nancy says. “No matter what the issues were, my passion was always to help the ones who didn’t have help from anyone else.” 

After Tony was arrested, she wanted him to know she was someone who was concerned. She wrote letters and made weekly visits to see him before his trial. Nancy also was granted legal custody of Tony from his biological mother, who was in prison. 

“When we ran out of things to talk about, I would read to him,” Nancy says. “One of the times we talked he said, ‘I can still remember you doing the voices for “The Indian in the Cupboard.” You took me out of the prison cell just by reading me the books.’”

At the trial, Tony said he never participated in the violence, and prosecutors didn’t dispute it. However, Tony was sentenced to life in prison on a murder charge because the victim was killed during the commission of felonies, burglary and robbery, according to news reports.

Tony received a second trial in September 2016 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional to sentence kids under the age of 16 to life in prison. Tony was resentenced in Lake County Circuit Court to 27 years in prison, with credit for time served, according to Nancy and media reports. He possibly could be released when he’s 38. 

“God performs miracles,” Nancy says. “There are tough times to get through in life, but if you have that peace with God, you can get through it.”