PROFILE: Cathy Ballman

May 4, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY T MICHELE WALKER – Zoom meetings are as ubiquitous as love bugs in spring. After months of coffee interviews and visits to lovely homes and marinas, the Boca Beacon finally had our first profile Zoom interview with Cathy Ballman from St. Paul, Minnesota.
“Zoom fatigue is all too real,” Cathy said, as she sat in her lovely living room, lined with bookshelves. “We’ve been through hell and back in the last year, but the Twin Cities are really wonderful towns. We’re actually getting some snow tomorrow. It’s not real snow, you know, it’s mostly light. Typical spring is where some days are just gorgeous and some days are, ‘Why aren’t we down in Boca?’”
The Ballmans made the difficult decision to skip Boca Grande this season and weathered the Minnesota winter.
“It was so difficult to ascertain what was the right thing to do. We just thought that we would minimize all risk and stayed in one place. We missed a lot. Thank heavens for Susan O’Brien and the Beacon though, because I felt they really kept us part of things as I was asked to write these articles (for the Boca Grande Garden Club). It kept us in the loop and let us know what’s going on. I understand that we weren’t the only people who didn’t come down this year.”
Cathy isn’t the only member of the family who misses Boca Grande. Her husband, Gary, is a member of BIPS and stays informed through Zoom meetings.
“That allows him to feel he’s participating in the life of the island,” Cathy said. “It’s one of the great joys of his life, being involved with the Barrier Island Parks Society. It’s something that’s very important, the conservation and protection of the barrier islands.”
Zoom allows Gary to stay informed with BIPS and Cathy enjoys keeping up with the Garden Club online.
“One of the big surprises to me as I became more entrenched in life in Boca Grande, is the very serious interest given to science and environmental issues. I love the Garden Club and their interest in floral life, as they call it the ‘Florida lifestyle.’ There’s an equal interest in the world in which we’re planting and collecting these flowers and an environmental emphasis which I find so positive.”
A native of Indianapolis, Indiana, Cathy’s father was a student at Notre Dame.
“We moved all the way to Indianapolis, and I spent my life there growing up. Then my husband Gary and I met at Purdue. We were college students. He had a motorcycle and I like to ride,” Cathy said with a laugh.
Recently retired, Gary spent his career in business and also earned his Ph. D in forestry at the University of Minnesota. Cathy and Gary made the decision to raise their two children in St. Paul.
“We thought we’d be in Minnesota for two years but it’s such a wonderful place to live,” Cathy said. “There was no good reason to move. It’s such a family centered place and a pleasant, interesting and engrossing kind of community. We were very happy that we stumbled on to it. Boca Grande is that way, as well, and one of the reasons that we like it and have come back year after year.”
The Ballmans stumbled onto Boca Grande because of a rainy day.
“We were staying in some terrible place, probably Fort Myers in some resort, and it started raining. I’ve never seen so much rain in my life and it was clear that it was not going to stop. I read about this place in the New York Times called Boca Grande and asked Gary,  ‘Why don’t we drive over?’  You know, just for something to do. So we drove out to the island, and the rain stopped and I thought, ‘Oh, I like it here.’ We started to look at real estate the next day.”
It’s the people of Boca Grande that hold a special place in Cathy’s heart.
“This is sort of corny but everybody is very friendly. People are just at a position or point in their lives where they’re friendly and welcoming. I guess they’re allowed to be thoroughly themselves and there’s an authenticity that’s really special.”
Cathy began her career as a nurse, but writing has always been a part of her life and she is currently a culinary travel writer.
“It’s really a chance to look at the world, excuse me, through somebody’s plate,” she laughed. “I get to ask, ‘Why are they eating this and eating that?’  All of those questions you couldn’t ask when you were a kid because it wasn’t polite. I get to do that now.”
Cathy explained further.
“I’m like many women in my career. I’ve zigged and zagged, but writing has always been the core of what I’ve done and I’ve been lucky enough to do many different things. Certainly living in a city like the Twin Cities is large enough to give me many different opportunities. I was a nurse for a while at University of Minnesota and I would love to write the chart. I was invited to write for the American Journal of Nursing. At that time, they had a very creative and dynamic editor. The magazine was nominated for the National Magazine awards. That was such a wonderful opportunity and allowed me to launch a writing career.  I did evolve from healthcare to thinking more broadly about women’s lives.  Food was part of that and how food is used. I actually had the Twin Cities very first culinary magazine newspaper called Gusto. That was great fun, a lot of work. It was just at the edge to the explosion of restaurants.”
With a passion for Italy, Cathy is a fount of knowledge regarding the history of food.
“What’s interesting to me about that is the culinary exchange. This is real geeky stuff, but Italians didn’t have tomatoes before Columbus. What were they eating? Tomatoes came from the Americas, and I believe it was Columbus who brought back seeds, peppers and melons and lots of foods from the new world to the old world. Nobody’s really clear exactly what they were eating. I find that whole thing just fascinating, the way food is moved all around the world for good and bad. There was a coffee mania, and people would have coffee day and night and subsequently wouldn’t sleep. They didn’t quite make that connection. Then there was a gin mania in London, England. Everybody was drunk all the time in the early parts of the 18th century, even children.”
Cuisine-hunting is also a part of Ballman family trips back and forth from St. Paul to Boca Grande.
“We went on a tour of civil rights cities and landmarks. As we were driving back to Florida a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago. We went to Montgomery, Selma and Memphis. It was so much fun, but each of these cities had amazing food available.”
Even though Zoom has kept us all in touch, Cathy and Gary are excited to return to Boca Grande this next season.
“Well, we already made our plane reservations for December because the Garden Club has a wonderful Christmas luncheon and Gary has a BIPS meeting. These organizations matter so much to both of us. The Garden Club is just great, and Susan O’Brian has done a great job this year. I admire anybody who’s been able to keep an organization alive during this plague year. We can’t wait to be back in Boca Grande.”