Lake and Sumter Style Magazine
8:06 pm EDT
Thursday, August 13, 2020

Home Sweet Home

Longtime locals are proud to be native Central Floridians. 

Warmer weather, sunshine, quieter lifestyle, slower pace, Southern hospitality, sweet tea, and, of course, no snow all draw Northerners to Lake and Sumter counties.For natives, however, this is simply home sweet home. They don’t want to live anywhere else. For seven longtime locals who were born and raised here, along with generations before and after them, they’ve found newcomers and visitors often are stunned to learn they are natives—which spurs questions. “Really? They still have natives around here? You never wanted to live anywhere else?” And the biggest question of all: “Have you ever seen snow?”

Tavares – Kirby Smith

Photo: Nicole Hamel

I’ve seen snow,” says Kirby Smith, 50, of Tavares, an engineer manager for CenturyLink and a member of the Tavares City Council since 2009. “A couple things I have learned about snow. You don’t walk in snow in tennis shoes because your socks get wet. You have to wear gloves, and snowball fights seem like a lot of fun, but it’s cold. Too cold.”

He’s more of a warm-weather person, and so is his wife, April, their son, Wade, and extended family members, including Kirby’s parents, four siblings, and several nieces, nephews, and cousins, who all call Lake County home.

“When I was growing up, there were no streetlights. Dirt roads were half of the city,” Kirby says. “The smell of orange blossoms was intoxicating because there were all the orange trees around us. I miss the smell.”

Back-to-back freezes in the late 1980s and early 1990s killed a majority of the orange trees, yet Tavares still has the small hometown feel that Kirby appreciates. He’s pleased his favorite city has grown to become “a robust destination” with a downtown entertainment district, a seaplane base, restaurants, hotels, a wedding venue, special events, and a premier sand volleyball court that is ranked second in the nation.

“The entertainment district was my first vote, by the way,” Kirby says, recalling the 3-2 decision. “I was the deciding vote. The entertainment district and seaplane base has made the most economic impact for the city of Tavares, and the seaplane idea came from a series of workshops done by the citizens saying, ‘We have all this beautiful waterfront. Let’s do something about it.’ 

“There is something special watching the seaplanes land and take off,” Kirby adds. “You can sit right at Puddle Jumpers (restaurant) on the second floor, have a burger, and watch the planes come in and land. I never get tired of watching the seaplanes.”

Mount Dora – Tim & Carolyn Green

Photo: Anthony Rao

Throughout their 35-year marriage, seventh-generation Floridian Tim Green, 60, and his wife, Carolyn, 62, of Mount Dora, have a long-standing tradition of eating at Mount Dora Pizza nearly every Friday night. They often run into regulars and friends from their high school days. 

“We seldom go to an event where we don’t know many of the people there,” says Tim, an architect and land planner.

“There are so many people we both know from high school,” Carolyn adds. “We have those relationships that you just can’t get everywhere. The nature of Lake County is so many people really do stay. A lot of people realize what a special place it is.” 

The second born in her family, Carolyn was raised in Eustis by her single mom, who became a widow when Carolyn and her three siblings were ages 3, 4, 5, and 6.

“We had orange groves and mom was in her early 30s trying to run a business,” she says. “It was our livelihood. Mom was very frugal and ran a tight ship.” 

Carolyn graduated in Eustis; Tim in Umatilla. Both are University of Florida alums, and they met when Tim and Carolyn’s brothers were in the same UF program. Carolyn went on to teach kindergarten for 34 years in Umatilla and found it special to teach in the classroom where her husband had been a first-grader. 

“As a child, I used to play in an orange grove that was here,” Tim says of the land in Mount Dora that houses his business, Green Consulting Group Inc., and his wife’s photography studio, Green Images. 

In their spare time, the Greens enjoy driving around Lake County to savor nature, as well as take time to dine at 17 restaurants in downtown Mount Dora.

“We like to try them all,” Carolyn says, adding her husband has been on the board of the Mount Dora Chamber of Commerce for 20 years. He was chairman of the restoration committee for the historic 103-year-old train depot that houses the chamber. 

The Greens also are thrilled that their enthusiasm for Lake County is shared by their son, Matthew, a training officer with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. 

“I don’t know why we would move,” Tim says.

“There is no inkling of ever going anywhere else in my body,” Carolyn adds. 

Leesburg – David Knowles

Photo: Fred Lopez

David Knowles, 69, of Leesburg, was born in Dr. Howard G. Holland’s little clinic on Main Street before Leesburg Regional Medical Center was built. His two siblings, Steve and Mary, live in Leesburg, too.

“My grandfather left North Dakota during the Depression and reportedly said, ‘We may starve to death in Florida, but we are not going to freeze to death in North Dakota,’ so they came to Florida,” says David, a Leesburg High School graduate who went on to earn an agriculture degree from the University of Florida in 1973.

He was an adult when he experienced seeing snow on a trip to Seattle. “My first impression was it’s slippery, and if you’re not careful, you’ll hurt yourself,” he says.

David realized his granddad had the right idea moving to the Sunshine State.

“The best part of living in Leesburg and Florida is the sunsets are amazing. The good Lord is a Florida Gator because when you see the sunset, it is orange and blue,” David says, grinning.

After college, he worked for a mining company, followed by working in the citrus fields for eight years. He made a career change 31 years ago, following the citrus freezes, and got into the insurance business as an Allstate agent. 

“I talk to people who are new to the area and a lot of my clients these days are moving here from New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and all over the Northeast. They comment how friendly the people are and I always say, ‘Welcome to Leesburg!’”

David was involved in Leesburg city government for 14 years, serving as mayor three times.

“The best I saw Leesburg function was when I was mayor in 2004, when we saw three hurricanes come through,” he says, recalling each department shifted gears to get power restored and debris cleaned up.

Nowadays, the father of two grown sons says he cherishes spending time with Cheryl, his wife of nearly 40 years. He also enjoys boating, being involved in St. James Episcopal Church, and dining in Leesburg at Naples, Bloom’s, and Sip. “It’s all good,” he says. 

Yalaha – Ashley (Bennett) Bryan

Ashley Bryan, left, with Meagan Sullivan. Photo: Nicole Hamel

Ashley (Bennett) Bryan, 34, of Yalaha, was born in Leesburg and recalls enjoyable times as a baton twirler and Leesburg High School cheerleader. Her parents also graduated from LHS, and she’s happy to be raising her three young children in the area, too.

“I love the hometown feeling,” says Ashley, who met her husband, Jared, of Wildwood, through mutual friends. They’ve been married 14 years. “Everywhere you go, you know someone just because you were born and raised here.”

One of her favorite stories revolves around her birth.

“My mom and the mom of one of my best friends shared a delivery room and we were both the maid of honor at each other’s wedding,” Ashley says of the special bond she shares with Jennifer (Buckner) Miller.

Every time Ashley goes to Ramshackle Cafe in Leesburg, the restaurant she loves for chicken wings, she runs into people she knows.

“I also love to go to Two Old Hags for a glass of wine with girlfriends,” she says, including Meagan Sullivan, a friend for more 20 years and her bridesmaid. “Our mothers were friends prior to us becoming friends.”

Ashley works as patient care coordinator for Mesos Plastic Surgery and Laser Center in The Villages.

“People are amazed that I am a native,” she says. “They say ‘Really?’ They want to know what made me stay, and then they always ask if I’ve ever seen snow.”

“The first time I saw snow I was like, I’ve had enough! I like the warm weather better,” she says. “My kids have not seen snow, so we are taking them to Tennessee with hopes to see snow. I think they’ll be excited because they have been asking to see it. And I think they will be over it really quick because it’s cold and I can’t even get them to wear jeans.”

Ashley also keeps busy serving as president of the Parent-Teacher Organization at Carver Middle School. Her two daughters twirl baton competitively and her son plays basketball.

The best part of having hometown ties is “there is always someone I can count on,” Ashley says. “There are so many friends and family that if I’m ever in a bind, I can call someone.” 

Eustis – Barbara McConnell

Photo: Anthony Rao

Barbara McConnell, 74, of Eustis, says one of her earliest childhood memories was when her family’s home in Tavares caught on fire and they moved to Eustis.

“I was at school and got the call that my mom went through flames to save my baby brother,” says Barbara, the second-born of seven children.

She marvels that her late mother was a single parent after Barbara’s father left the family. Her mother worked two jobs to support her children.

“She worked at the hospital and worked at a restaurant, too,” Barbara says. “She worked to take care of us and she really did a great job. Every day, I thank my mom for teaching me how to cook. I used to stand on a crate box and watch her, and that is how we all learned.”

Married for 47 years to her husband, Jesse, Barbara says the cooking skills passed down by her mother helped in raising eight children. Six of their kids still live in Lake County. Barbara also worked for 35 years with Head Start, a federal social services program for low-income children and families, and she was a proud foster parent for 20 years.

“I loved taking care of children,” Barbara says, recalling she and Jesse had more than 150 foster children come through their home. One of the foster children lives in Japan and he continues to keep in touch with her by phone. “They all called me ‘Mom,’” she says.

The great-grandmother of three now works for Lake Community Action Agency and she never tires of promoting Head Start or being involved in projects with young people. Barbara also cherishes being active in church, meeting new people, and being involved in projects to feed the homeless.

“I love working with children and elderly people,” she says. “I still enjoy working and love helping little ones grow up right.”  

Tavares – Sarah Coursey

Photo: Anthony Rao

Sarah Coursey, 37, of Tavares, takes pride in knowing that her daughter, Kaelyn, 5, is the fourth generation to call Tavares home.

“I’m enrolling her at Tavares Elementary because I went there and my parents both went there and I went all through Tavares’ schools,” says Sarah, the daughter of Amanda and Jody Coursey, who have owned a construction company since 1970.

“I actually had teachers that taught my dad and mom when I was going to school. It was good that the teachers liked them,” she says. “If not, I was already in trouble.”

Sarah remembers her father volunteered his time to help build Wooton Park, and she delights over the growth that has taken place the past few years. She’s eager to see what the next 10 years bring.

“The downtown didn’t have much in my high school career, so it’s nice to see Tavares in the forefront now. My daughter loves sushi, so we always go to the sushi restaurant on Main Street, and we like listening to the live bands on Ruby Street and go to Kalua Beach Bar that’s right on the water. The best part of living here is year-round sunshine,” says Sarah, a sergeant who has been with Tavares Police Department since 2009.

She has traveled to Colorado and New Hampshire on winter vacations to go snowboarding, but she found Kaelyn wasn’t overly impressed with snow at age 3. Much like Sarah and other longtime locals, she preferred a different place.

“She liked playing in it, but she was ready to get back home,” Sarah says.