Each Christmas Eve I call someone I’ve written about that year to say thanks and wish him or her a great holiday. I try to pick someone who has had a significant influence on me that year whether he knows it or not.
Citrus County, this call is for you.
It was 35 years ago this Christmas that I first laid eyes on the place. So let me settle into my grandpa rocker here, twist off a cold Gatorade Zero, and tell you all about it.
I was living in Big Rapids, Michigan at the time (the only Big Rapids in the United States) but ready for the southland. My old college roommate, Tom Henry, worked for the Tampa Tribune in Inverness, a town I had never heard of. His next door neighbor was an editor with the local paper. Tom used his reporter know-how to get me job interviews at both.
I drove down two weeks before Christmas and stayed with Tom at his A-frame on Gospel Island where his neighbors not only included then-Chronicle city editor Jim Hunter, but also the county sheriff, Charlie Dean.
Before any interviews took place, Tom took me for beer and wings at the Cove.
Not the Cove that stands there now, a fine and successful establishment that is still doing quite well after all these years. I’m talking about the old Cove. No indoor bathrooms and blue dots on the ceiling from the tips of pool cues. It was sketchy and weird and I loved everything about it.
The first interview, the one I thought I was going to nail, was with the Tribune in Tampa. An editor who called me to schedule the interview made it sound like I was the perfect reporter for their Polk County bureau. I didn’t know what that meant, but it was a lock. My fallback was that local paper idea.
The Trib interview was, um, uninspiring. The editor didn’t have time for me, even though I had an appointment. I had to take a test that took three hours. I lost my quarter in the newspaper box.
When I finally got into the editor’s office for the interview, I gave him my spiel. He pointed to a pile of resumes on his desk and said, “These are from reporters who have worked at newspapers all over the country. What have you done?”
Well, uh, I covered the annual Lake Bitely snowmobile races, which were in the summer and highly entertaining. And I spent an afternoon with a game officer who had me keep an eye on two hunters without licenses while he chased down a third. So I had that going for me.
The interview concluded after 10 minutes and he let me loose in time for Tampa rush hour traffic.
I got back to Inverness and told Tom I’d really like to relax from that experience with a drive out to the beach. You know, that Fort Island Gulf Beach I saw signs for.
“It’s not what you think,” he said.
He wasn’t kidding. I’m not the only person arriving in Florida who thinks the coastline is all Clearwater or Daytona. We drove out to the beach. My initial disappointment of not seeing a boardwalk, shops, pizza or just about anything quickly turned to appreciation of what’s there – just raw beauty. Fort Island Gulf Beach is now one of my favorite drive destinations.
With the Tribune job a likely goner, I turned my attention to the, what was it called again? Oh, yeah, the Chronicle. Before I walked through the door I was determined to get that job.
I met with Hunter and Gerry Mulligan, then the Chronicle editor, and the interview rocked. You know what I mean. Everyone in the room knew I was a perfect fit, but nothing is that easy.
I eventually wore Gerry down and he hired me, starting a 35-year love with Citrus County. I spent my off days driving around the county, map in hand, figuring out where things are. This was long before those gps thingies, so exploration meant just that.
From the rich heritage of Floral City to the neighborhoods of Old Homosassa, the tiny communities of Ozello and Chassahowitzka, the state forest caves and beautiful drives, this place really grew on me.
The Old Courthouse at night, keeping watch over downtown Inverness.
And the people. Those loyal Chronicle readers who would recognize me out and about, offering news tips or a political opinion. Citrus folks aren’t shy and I like it that way.
This county has been so, so good to me. My retirement from the Chronicle in August wasn’t planned and I’ve received nothing but encouragement from God-knows-how-many folks who want to join in my post-retirement adventure. I’m thrilled to say the least.
We at Just Wright Citrus are going to talk a lot in 2022 about our little slice of paradise and how best to protect it, invigorate it and find purpose. Let’s get ready for the chat by taking in all that is from our community, what works and what doesn’t.
Merry Christmas Citrus County. And many more to come.
Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.