More than 100 islanders gathered last Thursday evening to pay tribute to one of the most respected and dedicated citizens of Sanibel, as Francis Bailey was honored with the dedication of the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center in his name.
Bailey, who will turn 90 next month, was surprised by the announcement, which was kept a secret prior to the March 10 dedication ceremony.
But before the event got underway, a couple of raindrops began to fall.
"We tried to keep this real quiet, but apparently Sam found out about this," quipped Chamber President Ric Base, referring to the late Sam Bailey. Sanibelians used to call Sam "The Rainmaker" because many events that he had planned — including the annual Islands Night gathering at Hammond Stadium — were marked by inclement weather.
However, by the time the guest of honor arrived at the Causeway Road site, clouds gave way to clearer skies.
Bridgit Stone-Budd, director of marketing at the chamber, served as emcee for the affair. After welcoming the crowd and inviting Bailey to have a seat, she revealed the purpose of the event following the presentation of a "gag" gift: a "Bloomin' Onion" from Outback Steakhouse, presented by Billy Kirkland.
"Francis, the reason that we are really here is to present you with something else," said Stone-Budd. "And I know you're not a big fan of pomp and circumstance, so we'll try to keep this brief... under five minutes."
Stone-Budd recalled an assignment five years earlier to write a story of the beginnings of the chamber for a Lee County history book. She approached Sam 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.'"
According to Stone-Budd, Bailey recalled that on one afternoon in 1962, on the east end of Sanibel, he and 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.
What prompted Francis and these other "young kids" to form the board was to "take care of the people and our environment," Stone-Budd added.
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.
In the words of Vice Mayor Mick Denham: "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."
"It is symbolic of our generous island hospitality, the compassion shown by our community who work on behalf of others, and the inspiration provided by Francis, whose vision of nature and man in harmony has become the reality of the Sanibel that we see today," said Stone-Budd, choking up with emotion. "From today forward, our Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center shall be known as The Francis P. Bailey, Jr. Visitor Center."
A loud standing ovation ensued, as Bailey rose and was escorted to the front entrance of the building by Stone-Budd. Aided by Base, the trio unveiled the plaque above the doorway to the center.
"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."
Deejay Robert McDonald played "Rat Pack" music throughout the event, which was catered by Bailey's General Store.
Woodring offered a few kind words of praise for his longtime friend, adding a few humorous anecdotes to his speech.
"Congratulations Francis," he concluded. "And if the building doesn't fall down, than it's all good."
City Manager Judie Zimomra offered, "Francis' name is synonymous with Sanibel Island from every aspect, from service to the environment to protecting and preserving nature."
After circulating throughout the crowd and posing for dozens of pictures, Francis reflected on receiving the honor.
"It's great... but undeserving," he said, 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."