It’s hard to believe it’s been 29 years since the first issues of Folio Weekly Magazine appeared on newsstands, restaurant counters and in libraries across Northeast Florida. We’ve been occupying this space since Aquanet was a thing, since before The Simpsons was on the air, before the Morning Glory Funeral Home scandal, before the last time local children got to sled on real snow, even before all of Wayne Wood’s hair was white.
Over these nearly three decades — and counting — we’ve grown together, laughed together, cried together, shaken our fists at the world together, and generally had an amazing time covering the news, arts and eccentricities that make this amalgamated region the coolest, weirdest, awesome-est place we’re thrilled to call our stomping grounds. And, as you well know, stomp is something that we do on the regular, and we do it very, very well (and with pleasure).
So, for our 29th birthday, we’ve decided to honor influential locals who stomp around, kicking ass and taking names, saving lives through advancements in medicine, opening their hearts and homes to strangers, and generally crusading for the environment, social justice, truth and the American way, Northeast Florida-style. (That’s in flip-flops and business casual, BTW.) In the interest of keeping things crisp, we’ve endeavored to honor some off-the-beaten-path individuals whose names don’t pop up in a Google search for prominent locals – but should. Each of these incredible beings dedicates themselves on the daily to making this marvelous place a little bit better than they found it. They are inspiring and inspired and we are honored to feature them in these pages.
Twenty-five years ago, Ricardo Hanel began his medical school studies at Universidade Federal do Paraná in Brazil. Since then, he has risen to the top of his field in endovascular neurosurgery. Dr. Hanel holds both an MD and a PhD and currently works in the Baptist Health network. There, Hanel has begun adapting cutting-edge approaches to help stroke victims. Hanel says “clinical research and advanced education in neuroscience,” is the basis of his future work. “Service to the community is my goal,” he said. Without Dr. Hanel, many residents here wouldn’t have the joy of health.
Florida Coastal School of Law professor Ericka Curran has dedicated her career to helping immigrants and preserving human rights. She would like to see more attorneys lending their skills to the fight. “New attorneys who are required to do pro bono and clinic work develop a sensitivity to the social justice and human rights struggles of the indigent and I am hopeful that will have a lasting impact on our legal system,” said Curran, who also heads the school’s Immigrant & Human Rights Clinic. Curran says the efforts and sacrifices immigrants make just to get to America are the fuel that keeps her going. “Just knowing that is what other people are willing to risk to have just a chance at what I have keeps me humble.”
She now plans to push even harder for immigration reform and believes it is within her reach.
Rhonda Peoples-Waters always knew she was meant to work in the justice system. “As lawyers, we have great power to bring about unity, agreement and peace in our community,” Peoples-Waters said. “My goals include further serving our community in a judicial role which will promote public confidence in our legal system.”
She’s also been involved with a seriously impressive list of civic organizations, including the NAACP, Legal Aid, the Ethics Commission, and many more.
For 17 years, Dan Merkan has been dedicated to serving others through the Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network (JASMYN). As director of evaluation at JASMYN, he’s involved in an in-house testing center to identify HIV in youths. And recently Merkan, through his work with the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality, has been a tireless champion of modifying Jacksonville’s HRO to include protections for the LGBTQ community. Merkan’s selflessness continues to help Northeast Florida become a more respectful and respectable region.
If you’re a police officer or public official in this area, chances are you’ve heard of Jeff Gray. Gray has been arrested, sued and publicly ridiculed for his aggressive efforts seeking public records and holding officials accountable for constitutional violations. In March, police accused Gray of trespassing when he stood outside a high school with a poster declaring that “Photography is Not a Crime.” Who knows what’s next for Gray, but his stance is that the more citizen oversight there is of our government, the better off Northeast Florida will be.
As executive director of the North Florida chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, Sarah Boren is a tireless advocate for building and living sustainably. The pragmatic, cooperative, no-nonsense approach Boren brings to her work spreads the nonprofit’s message far and wide without alienating skeptics. An accomplished, knowledgeable and dedicated professional with an impressive résumé that includes a master’s degree from Duke University and more than 20 years of experience serving in the field of environmental sustainability, she is nevertheless refreshingly accessible and down-to-earth.
The best bartenders are more than drink-slingers; they’re counselors, confidantes, comedians, essentially a best friend who’ll never ask you to help them move. In Fernandina Beach, Palace Saloon bartender Johnny Miller is also the mayor. Though the term is short — only a year — Miller hasn’t wasted a second, immediately jumping into the fight to ban seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean, which experts believe will wreak havoc on the ability of long-suffering sea life to communicate and navigate, earning himself national recognition in the process.
DELORES BARR WEAVER
Since Delores Barr Weaver and her husband J. Wayne Weaver sold the local NFL team the Jaguars in 2011, the dynamo hasn’t been in the limelight as much as she was in the past, but that hasn’t slowed her generous roll a bit. As one of the Southeast’s most dedicated and effective philanthropists, she continues adding to an already amazing legacy through her namesake organization, the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, which promotes equal treatment for women and girls and provides resources for women and girls in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.
Ron Davis endured the unthinkable tragedy of his son’s senseless murder in a dispute over loud music with dignity, grace and fortitude that few could muster under such circumstances. In the three years since, he has done Northeast Florida proud by invoking Jordan Davis’ legacy to promote peace and diminish incidence of violence, both generally and against African Americans, a virulent, deeply misunderstood societal problem that needs far more advocates like him. He’s visible without being ubiquitous or pushy, stating his vision for the region with clarity and insight.
Love him or hate him — and there’s plenty on both sides — Duval County Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is a force to be reckoned with. Under his leadership, the county has seen historic improvements in the high school graduation rate, employed innovative solutions to teaching kids with learning disabilities and continuously worked to provide our offspring with the best education possible. Equally impressive is that, in spite of a relationship with the board that is, shall we say, a bit tense, he still really wants the job.
As one of the most recognizable radio personalities in Northeast Florida, Melissa Ross has been an advocate of public media since before becoming the host and producer of “First Coast Connect” at WJCT in 2009. “It’s extremely gratifying to see that public radio’s mission of educating, enlightening and entertaining all segments of a community is seen as influential,” Ross told Folio Weekly Magazine. “Every time I tune in to 89.9, no matter what time of day or night, I hear something valuable and informative.”
As president and CEO of the Sulzbacher Center, Northeast Florida’s largest provider of services for the homeless, Cindy Funkhouser says it’s both humbling and fulfilling to help someone turn their life around. “There are people who have literally been on the streets for decades that we’ve been able to stabilize and house,” Funkhouser explained. “Helping someone regain their dignity and sense of worth is the most amazing blessing for them and for all of us working with them.”
Over the years, community activist Denise Hunt has continuously put herself on the frontlines of inequality in Northeast Florida. “The passion just comes from living,” Hunt said. “From being exposed to so much discrimination and being an RN and seeing all of the hurt and pain that people go through.” Take Eureka Garden, for example. Last summer, Hunt was applauded for convincing Mayor Lenny Curry to visit the 400-unit complex laden with crime and health issues. “I gave the owner a plan to fix the community, but he didn’t take it,” Hunt said. “He didn’t use it.” And so the struggle continues. Keep up the good fight, Denise!
As Jacksonville University’s Marine Science Research Institute (MSRI) executive director and a founding board member of the St. Johns Riverkeeper, A. Quinton White Jr., PhD, is among the foremost experts on the St. Johns River. “Many years ago, I heard someone say that we don’t own our Earth. We borrow it from our children,” said Dr. White. “That old saying made me think that being a good steward of our natural resources was simply the right thing to do.”
As Chief Administrative Officer to Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, Sam Mousa is the highest-ranking member of the administration. Many also believe he is the power behind the throne. But underneath all that brass, he’s a shy guy. “Thank you very much for your interest in recognizing Sam Mousa as one of Folio Weekly Magazine’s anniversary honorees,” Jacksonville Director of Public Affairs, Marsha Oliver, wrote in an email. “While Mr. Mousa is indeed grateful for the honor, he has chosen to decline participation.”
A Jacksonville native who’s held nearly every political office in the area, Democrat Tommy Hazouri currently serves as an at-large member of the City Council. “All I have ever wanted to do or have done as a state legislator, mayor, school board member and now, at-large city councilperson, is try to make a difference in the lives and quality of life for every citizen,” Hazouri told Folio Weekly Magazine. Lately, Hazouri has gained attention for his work to expand the Human Rights Ordinance (HRO) in Jacksonville.
Chevara Orrin, founder and co-creator of local LGBTQ rights advocacy organization We Are Straight Allies, is a modern-day Renaissance woman. Named for Argentine revolutionary hero Che Guevara, Orrin says her life experiences have inspired her work as a leader and nonprofit executive. Among those experiences are “extreme poverty, the welfare system and prison industrial complex, fatherlessness, racism, single parenthood, abortion, incest and domestic violence,” she explained. “It is because of, not in spite of, my personal journey of tragedy and triumph that I am inspired to build community and serve as a catalyst for change.”
ROBERT E. & MONICA JACOBY
Longtime philanthropists Robert E. & Monica Jacoby moved to Northeast Florida for retirement and relaxation. Little did the rest of us know that the Jacobys would improve the lives of thousands of locals, including a $2.5 million gift for Jacoby Symphony Hall and $5 million for the Robert & Monica Jacoby Center for Breast Health at Mayo Clinic. This open-hearted and open-minded husband-and-wife team sure do make the rest of us look like a bunch of scrooges.
Fighting for affordable health insurance has long been Florida Rep. Mia Jones’ (D-Duval County) most important priority. Despite ultimately losing in the war for Medicaid expansion, Jones said she battled hard to bring affordable insurance to her constituents. Jones has recently accepted a position as interim executive director for the Agape Community Health Network, where she will continue the fight. “I have enjoyed serving our community and thank my constituents for allowing me to be their voice,” Jones said. “I look forward to representing the citizens of Jacksonville in some capacity in the near future.”
If you’re a civil rights attorney, William “Bill” Sheppard says Jacksonville is the frontline. Before turning to law, Sheppard served as a lieutenant in the Korean War. “We’ve come a really long way,” he said. “But we can still be a bit narrow-minded.” Asked his greatest accomplishment, Sheppard responds, “My next case … No matter what is, that is the most important thing to me.” Sheppard separates himself from others because he implements a team style. “I haven’t accomplished anything by myself,” he said.
Throughout much of his career, which includes eight years with the Sierra Club, Tom Larson has beaten the war drum of preserving and conserving environmental resources like the Floridan aquifer, utilizing clever, creative and, sometimes, bullheaded tactics to protect assets such as the headwaters of Julington and Pottsburg creeks. “You might say, ‘Why do I do what I do?’ It’s because of my grandchild … I want my grandchild to enjoy paradise,” Larson said. Without people like him, Northeast Florida might look like *cringe* Daytona Beach.
JIMMY C. ORTH
As executive director of the St. Johns Riverkeeper organization, native Jacksonvillian Jimmy Orth is one of the most quietly influential environmentalists in the region. Unassuming and even casual at first blush, Orth is a passionate and knowledgeable advocate for the longest river that doesn’t cross the border into, ewww, Alabama or Georgia. Together with Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman and the rest of the nonprofit’s team, Orth fights the good fight every day.
JOHN M. PHILLIPS
Over the years, John Phillips has become a champion of equality and justice; he’s even been named Best Righteous Crusader in our annual Best of Jax readers poll issue — and Best Lawyer four years in a row now. With a storied career that includes working for evil insurance giant State Farm, being a sports agent (yes, really) and ambulance-chasing (not really), today the hardworking attorney is busily crusading to right wrongs and provide a much-needed voice for the underdog. As one Yelp reviewer wrote, “Biggest heart and greatly admired.” We couldn’t say it better.
Department of Defense Breakthrough Award grants are not bestowed lightly. Recipient Mayo Clinic researcher Keith Knutson, PhD, will soon begin the Phase II clinical trial for a breast cancer vaccine for survivors of the terrible disease. “What we want to do is prevent the recurrence because that’s when it gets really unmanageable,” Dr. Knutson said. His novel approach to fighting cancer by tricking the body into attacking cancer cells — but not other cells — has the potential to be the breakthrough that eventually leads to a cure.
One of the essential requirements of great art is that it elicits feelings, good or bad; through his Keith Haring’s Ghost street art project, for which he was arrested, Chip Southworth did that and more. He actually inspired changes to the city’s policy regarding street art. Southworth’s talent is easily matched by his passion for politics, art, and artists, in general. Something of a gadfly, his outspoken nature has earned him plenty of supporters and detractors. As it should be, for art is born in fire.
As founder and (now former) administrator of the Elbow Marketing Co-op, Grant Nielsen is an outspoken and effective advocate for the revitalization of Jacksonville’s Downtown, as well as a helluva promoter of local music. Whether he’s filling the sad void left in One Spark’s wake or putting together “Amplified,” a seriously stellar CD featuring all local music, Nielsen gets it done and then some. And he does it all while managing to look slicker than otter snot.
ELAINE CARSON, “MRS. P”
In our increasingly xenophobic-seeming world, Elaine Carson, Mrs. P to the thousands who love her dearly, is a rare bastion of compassion and reason. With her Christian faith to guide her, Mrs. P has helped thousands of refugees fleeing unspeakable horrors and atrocities to start the process of feeling right at home in her home: Jacksonville, Florida, in the United States of America. Now in her 70s, the director of the local World Relief office is a pillar in the community and a sweet example of a standard to which we all should aspire.
Dolf James has probably done more for local artists than any other individual in the history of the region. He was the driving force behind the creation of CoRK Arts District, the sprawling warehouse complex in Riverside that provides studio space to artists. James’ advocacy may well have been inspired by his keen knowledge of exactly how difficult it can be to get one’s start as an artist. His work as a sculptor will be a lasting part of his legacy, as will his immeasurable munificence toward other artists.
Curtis Lee may very well be the biggest pain in the ass that Jacksonville has ever known. Lucky for us simple folk, Lee causes pain only to powerful folks at the mayor’s office, Police & Fire Pension Fund, the State Attorney’s Office, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and City Council. You’ll often find him railing into the microphone during public comment with an unmatchable grasp of facts, perspective and history that often as not inspires that rarest of rares: a genuine, heartfelt reaction from a politician, usually involving muttered profanity.