BY LIZA STROUT – If you’ve been to an island fundraiser, you’ve probably seen her. You may not know her name, but she’s there. Decorating, planning, cleaning up; not the most glamorous jobs, but ones that have to be done. She’s not one for the spotlight, but the work she has done on Gasparilla Island has had an impact that is impossible to miss.
Nancy Lingeman was born and raised in the Midwest. Her father was an electrical engineer with Westinghouse, her mother stayed at home taking care of the family - a job that Nancy asserts is among the most challenging and least heralded. An only child, she prayed for a brother or sister.
Much to her parents’ surprise, when she was 11 years old her prayer became reality.
As a child, Nancy wanted to be a nurse. It was only when she was raising three children on her own that she went back to school to follow that dream. She remembers her children running up and down the hall, yelling at one another to, “Shut up, mom’s studying!”
When asked how she managed nursing school and three children, she simply says, “You do what you have to do to get through, give your children as much love and attention as you can, and hope that it’s enough.”
After graduation, she found herself working for a surgeon. As her children grew up, she and the doctor became the best of friends, and eventually husband and wife. She recalls that it took “someone special to handle my independence. He was kind, and patient, and loving, and it was the best arrangement ever, being married to my best friend.”
Nancy originally came to Boca Grande as a visitor in the 70s and 80s. She and her husband had visited other islands looking for a place to vacation, but never found one that felt right. A friend suggested that they visit his vacation home on Gasparilla Island. As they drove across the bridge for the first time, Nancy says that she knew that she was home. They bought property in 1994, and every visit was a bit longer than the last, with her husband claiming that he had to take her kicking and screaming off the island.
After 42 years of nursing, Nancy retired. After her husband passed away, she started a business that centered around one of her hobbies, gardening. She founded Innerscapes, a company that installs, maintains, and replaces indoor plantings. One of her clients decided that they wanted all of their locations to be serviced by the same company, and she got the contract. When she worked 68 hours in one week, Nancy realized that what had started as a small business that she enjoyed had snowballed into something much larger. So she retired for the second time.
In 2000 she returned to Boca Grande, this time for good. She had continued visiting after her husband’s death and found that she felt at home, contented and happy. But as anyone who has met her knows, she isn’t very good at sitting back and watching the world pass by. She has to do.
Giving back was part of her family’s ethos while she was growing up. You give back, whether in time or money. If you see something that you can do to help, you do it. Not for a pat on the back, not for prestige, but simply because it needs to be done and you can. So it’s no surprise that when she found that she had time on her hands, she started looking for a way to give back to the island community that had become an extended family.
She found her first volunteer job on the island through an article in the paper. Dee Wheeler had started a Reading is Fundamental children’s literacy program at the Community Center, and needed volunteers to help with what was at the time a shoestring operation. There were bake sales and car washes, whatever brought in a little money to keep the program going.
These days, Reading is Fundamental gives free books to children at least three times a year. There is a “Winter Wonderland” fundraiser for the program on December 7.
Before long, she had branched out. One morning while walking her section of the beach for the island’s Turtle Patrol, she found an entangled pelican. She managed to free its wings, and when she asked around to find out where to take the injured bird, she was sent to the Venice Wildlife Center. Founded by Linda Schrader and Kevin Burton, the center takes in injured animals of all stripes. Birds, raccoons, tortoises, foxes, if you can find it in Florida, they’ve probably cared for it. These days if an injured animal is found on the island, there’s a pretty good chance that it will spend some quality time in the back of Nancy’s car on the way to Venice.
Two of her fellow Wildlife Center supporters, Blanche and Jacques Boudreau, are hosting a fundraiser for the center on Saturday, Nov. 19, from 5 to 9 p.m. at their restaurant, the Loose Caboose. There will be children’s games, wine tasting, Jacques’ wonderful treats, a wine grab, and a silent auction.
Nancy is also the president of the Boca Grande Historical Society. The history of the Charlotte Harbor islands fascinate her, so of course she volunteered. Right now the society is planning their annual trip to Useppa Island.
A sure way to meet Nancy is to show up at the lighthouse when it’s time to decorate it for Christmas. This year it’s planned for the morning of November 30. If you want to help out, call Eva at the lighthouse, 964-0060. She can always use more volunteers.
Over the years, Nancy has had a few adventures. Among the more amusing was a call she got for an injured turtle. She found the turtle, and somehow managed to wrangle the 150-pound critter into the back of her SUV.
As she was making her way off of the island, she got a second call. A fox had been hit by a car. A zoological game of musical chairs ensued. The turtle ended up in her back seat, and the fox took his place in the back cargo section of her (now rather strongly-scented) SUV and the trek began. From the island to the Wildlife Center (fox) to I-75 to Mote Marine (turtle), and finally back to the island. A few hours and a couple of cans of Lysol later, things had returned to normal.
Nancy doesn’t just deliver animals, though. Through her work with the Turtle Patrol, she has rescued her share of stranded hatchlings to release the next night. She jokes that her neighbors never know exactly what she has in her garage.
When asked about her favorite volunteer memories, Nancy’s face lights up. She says, “There is nothing more rewarding than working with children and having one come up to you, wrap their arms around your knees and look up at you, and telling you whatever it is that has them so excited.”
She also tells the story of a juvenile osprey she rescued near the Pass Club. While there wasn’t an obvious injury, the osprey was lethargic and wasn’t trying to fly. She bundled him up and took him to the Wildlife Center of Venice. When they examined him, they couldn’t find anything wrong with him, but there was a red tide bloom in the Gulf. They flushed his system and fattened him up. He stayed there for two weeks, then Nancy got the call that he was ready to be released. She picked him up and brought him back to the island. In a description that brings goose bumps, she tells how she drove to Belcher Road, took the osprey out of his carrier, and held him up towards the sky.
When she released his feet, he took off and soared over the Pass. Then he turned around and headed back toward the island. She watched as he landed on a piling near a nest. Since ospreys are territorial, she was worried that she was about to make another trip to Venice, this time with an injured bird. But he skipped over a barrier between his perch and the nest, and hopped right in. He was home. And so is she.
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