BY T MICHELE WALKER – When you think of famous detective duos, thoughts wander to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mulder and Scully from the X Files, or perhaps Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man series. Boca Grande has its own history detective duo in Jim and Rose Marie Blaha.
Behind every lead detective, there is an enterprising sidekick that puts it all together. Sherlock would be locked in his mind palace without Watson. Who would Nick be without Nora or Mulder without Scully reigning him in?
“We’re merged at the hip,” said Rose Marie with a laugh.
The Boca Grande Historical Society is a hopping place, with two visitors dropping in from Clearwater. Jim is a welcoming host as he speaks to the guests about the history of Boca Grande.
“They were traveling around the state of Florida visiting every state park. It’s nice to have visitors pop in who are curious about the history of the island,” said Rose Marie.
While Jim speaks to the visitors, Rose Marie works with volunteers in the center.
“Nancy’s doing another popup exhibit that she’s been working on, and Henry and I have been working on slides. He’s at a point now where he’s ready to archive them,” explained Rose Marie as Henry meticulously poured through hundreds of slides.
Like most detective duos, Jim and Rose Marie had a “cute meet.”
“We met in our second week of college in 1955. On Sundays, you had to go out to eat, so I was with a group of girls and we were going out. A group of guys was going the other way on the sidewalk and one of the girls recognized Jim from high school, so she introduced everybody. We soon discovered that he’s Czech and I am Czech, so we had that in common.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
“That’s how we got acquainted and started to date. We both liked to polka. It was great that he loved to dance. We would go to all the dances.”
Along with being good “Czech mates” and polka partners, Jim has been a lifelong inspiration to Rose Marie. However, she’s quick to note that her insatiable curiosity came from her own family.
“I think I have always been interested in getting the answer to something. I’m an only child and back in Chicago, my family would sit around the table and we’d have discussions. Even in the middle of the meal, we would go off to find the answer. There was no google back then, just a dictionary. It is just part of me. I remember as a child walking to the library which was quite a distance in Chicago.”
With a passion for education and history, Rose Marie just happened to marry a man who inspired her to dig deep.
“He’s a double history major and taught history. I’ve always loved doing research. That’s the part I like about it. I think he influenced me to enjoy history even more. And travel is important, of course. I think we’re a good team and we each take turns in where we want to go and what we want to see.”
There are two different kinds of people; plaque readers and non-plaque readers.
“We’re both the kind who’ll stand in front of a plaque and will read the entire thing. At least I’m married to someone who wants to take the time to read the plaques,” Rose Marie said with a laugh.
With a master’s degree, plus 35 hours in education and library science, Rose Marie has led an accomplished life. After Jim’s retirement in 1993 and Rose Marie’s retirement in 1998, Rose Marie and Jim started to volunteer at the Historical Society six years ago.
“We started coming in to volunteer and to help out with the website. When we came in we saw what needed to be done, we jumped right in. It was far more than the website.”
Parents of two children, Rose Marie and Jim lost their beloved son, Jimmy.
“Our son passed away about eight years ago so we made the decision to live here full time,” she said. “He required 24-hour care, seven days a week. He had complex medical issues. Something about the situation changed me. My purpose in life changed, and what I feel is important. My priorities are different. Jimmy taught a lot of people a lot of good lessons. So in some ways, working here is my tribute to Jimmy, my legacy to the community in his memory. I don’t advertise it, but it’s within me. These are the hours I would have been caring for him. Instead, I care for the community.”
“Jimmy blessed our lives and taught us that the little things don’t matter. He taught what was really important in life. Of course, we are so fortunate to have a wonderful daughter who lives in Naperville with her two children. She works with people with special needs. We haven’t seen them for two years because of Covid.”
Rose Marie finds the history of Boca Grande endlessly fascinating.
“The fact that you have this small island, about seven miles long with three communities. You have fishermen at the north end, in the middle the very wealthy, and then the south end with the railroad and ships coming in from all over the world. I just don’t know of any other place that has a train that has totally changed a barrier island in quite this way,” she said.
Rose Marie says living in Boca Grande is a blessing.
“The azure blue over the bridge is breathtaking. There isn’t a time where I don’t feel privileged to live here and to walk the beach. It gets me every time.”
For Rose Marie, it’s not just preserving the past history but the fact that we’re making and preserving history every day.
“There are so many hidden treasures out there, just waiting to be found,” she explained. “We want the Historical Society to be a place where people enjoy visiting. Not a static place to just look around, but to share, enjoy and do research. A welcoming place. We’ve had visitors from museums come in and visit. We’re so tiny and have such limited space, but they’ve been complimentary which makes us feel good.”
Rose Marie and Jim might be full-time archivists, but it’s important for people to know that everyone living in Boca Grande is an archivist.
“We need people to come forward and share the information that they have,” she said. “There is a Boca Grande, old-timers Facebook page, and they will periodically share pictures. They know how important it is to preserve this history properly. We can scan and return it to them. Jim and I keep trying to reach out and speak to people, to let them know how important their history is to the community. For example, I wonder if people even knew that back in the 1940s there were mines loaded on the trains that would come through town. Or that there was a juke joint, a jail, and a church on Island. We’re still trying to find out what went on at that juke joint.”
Rose Marie and Jim continue to do the work of a good detective duo. They are digging for the truth.