ENGLEWOOD — Cris Walton was 12 when her father John “Pat” Fitzgerald retired early and moved with his wife Marjorie, Cris and six siblings from Roseville, Michigan, to the small coastal community of Englewood in the early of the 1970s.
“We would go to church and take up the whole pew. We were a show; we were a young family that was here,” Walton recalled.
Walton was 17 and still a student at Venice High School when she started working at the Elsie Quirk Public Library, embarking on a 44-year career as a librarian in Sarasota County, an institution that has long been an anchor for a unique unincorporated community. which spans the Sarasota-Charlotte County line.
That long career came to an end last Thursday when she hosted her last children’s story time. It was punctuated on Friday by a party with cake and a concert, the library having hosted Cris Walton Day.
Her favorite job – even back when all librarians were generalists – was nurturing a passion for reading in young children, many of whom, across generations, affectionately called her “Miss Cris”.
“I love the excitement kids get when they come to the library,” Walton said. “They love being here; they don’t often want to go home.
“Sharing the stories with them, seeing the wheels spinning in their head in their imagination and listening to the stories and even their play – they are so authentic at this age,” she added. “And they learn, they’re just little sponges, you can teach them so much.”
Many of these young children returned with their children for story time.
An uprooting experience
Technically, Walton spent two years in the early 1990s working as a circulation manager at the North Port Public Library when Sarasota County was equalizing staffing across its library system.
The Fitzgerald family also spent the first six months after moving to Florida in North Port, while their home in Englewood was being finished.
“It was an uprooting experience for us and living in North Port, there was a gas station, there was a grocery store, there was a post office and there was a library and a scout hut,” said Walton.
Englewood, which at the time had Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger Queen, and two grocery stores, was technically the liveliest neighborhood, with a longer history.
His grandparents answered the call from General Development Corp. and moved to North Port, which is one of the reasons her father chose the area.
In 1979, she married John Brian Walton and they have two children, Jayna Concepcion and Lee Walton, and two granddaughters.
Back when they were young, “The Waltons” was a popular TV show, and Walton said her husband picked up a bit of a good mood growing up.
“I sometimes say ‘Goodnight John Boy’, and he rolls his eyes at me.”
As his family grew, Walton watched Englewood do the same.
National road 776, the main connection to Venice, has grown from two lanes to four lanes and with it an increase in commercial and residential development.
In 1999, Sarasota County formed the Englewood Community Redevelopment Area create a revenue stream to fund improvements in downtown Englewood.
Just as the city of Longboat Key is divided between Manatee and Sarasota counties, Englewood is divided between Sarasota and Charlotte counties.
At first, Dearborn Street was essentially Englewood’s main street and a hub of personal contact, as people frequented it to shop or pick up the mail.
As Englewood expanded, particularly into the southern part of Charlotte County, there was a loss of personal connection.
“You don’t know everyone – everyone knew everyone,” Walton said.
When talking about Englewood it also included Rotonda West, Placida, Cape Haze and Englewood East almost to Port Charlotte.
“Now the people who go down there don’t even come up there anymore. This used to be the main part of town, but there are so many businesses in this direction that they don’t come up this way,” she added.
With a nod to the fact that so much has been written about the early years of Englewood – which was first established in 1896 – Walton has spent time creating a timeline to document the half-century newest in the area.
The timeline is now 62 pages and covers the region from the 1950s to the present day.
“He’s had tremendous growth,” Walton said. “People who live here now don’t know what it is.”
Several key changes came at the behest of her late father, a 2000 recipient of the Chamber’s Smoked Mullet Award, which is given to community leaders.
Fitzgerald, who died in 2001, worked to secure the establishment of Lemon Bay High School, served on the Lemon Bay Conservancy Board of Trustees and the Natural Resources and Recreation Advisory Council.
He also promoted the acquisition and development of Lemon Bay Park and Englewood Sports Complex and the improvement of the Indian Mound Park boat launch.
The first job becomes a career
Walton was part of Venice High School’s diverse co-op program when she started working at the library.
“You went to school half a day and worked half a day,” Walton said. “My job was to work here.”
At the time, the library had four or five employees, who did a bit of everything.
“My first job was to type the catalog cards,” she recalls. “I sat in the middle of the room and typed.
“To begin with, it wasn’t an electric typewriter, it was an old Royal,” she said, then punctuated the memory, mimicking the sound, “Tcht, tcht, tcht, tcht.”
Her mentor, Daisy Keaser, was a member of the Youth Enrichment Society, which was made up mostly of women affiliated with Englewood Elementary School.
“This group did a lot of puppet shows; they made their own papier-mâché puppets,” Walton said. “We had a professional puppet scene and they did puppet shows for the whole school.
The company is behind the early learning program and a six-week summer reading program, but “summer had a need, we didn’t have story time here, so I asked,” Walton said.
She started this summer story hour in 1980 and continued the effort until her retirement.
“In summer, we were the place to be. We had a complement of programs – at least one or two guests a week and we told stories for school age children – you have to improve the game a bit when school is out.
The programming has basic but essential elements including music, finger games, three short stories and games with educational toys.
“Reading, writing, playing, music and phonological awareness, which is just the cadence of the words, which is important,” Walton said.
Originally, the library program was designed for children up to age 5, but with the arrival of voluntary pre-kindergarten, this had to change.
“It took our 4 and 5 year olds, who are good listeners, and left us with babies and toddlers,” Walton said. “So we had to redo and redo this program and learned to program in a different way.”
This meant more modeling of teaching methods for parents, who attend with their children.
“Now we’re involving parents in the program so they can see what we’re doing and learn and respond and take that home,” Walton said.
The Youth Library has also expanded to provide more options for teens, which used to be a library of books and now includes graphic novels and videos.
A perfect fit
Although she also thought about becoming an optometrist, she decided the library was a fun place to work and it suited her personality.
She was hired by Elsie Quirk’s first librarian, Harriet Ives.
Ives was the initial librarian at Elsie Quirk and the Englewood Charlotte Public Library, both of which opened in 1962.
Ives left the Charlotte Library after about 15 months and remained at Elsie Quirk until 1988.
Walton said she loves the creative part of her job.
“It’s like planning a birthday party every day,” Walton said.
She has accelerated her retirement date from the first week of May, when she turns 62, to mid-April so she can attend a family wedding and plans to spend the summer with her grandchildren.
Plus, there will be crafts, quilting and sewing and maybe a summer trip.
His sister gave him a dulcimer and Walton plans to learn that and the ukulele – she already plays the piano.
Walton hasn’t ruled out possibly volunteering at the library and may continue on this historical timeline.
Flipping through a photo book from a Discover Historic Englewood children’s photo contest she organized a decade ago, she marveled at the changes that have since taken place, such as the relocation of the historic church from Green Street in 2019 at its current location on the south side of Lemon Bay Cemetery.
“It’s amazing even the changes in these images from then to now,” Walton said.
“If you don’t get it, no one will know,” she added. “I’m doing my part to keep it going.”
Earle Kimel primarily covers southern Sarasota County for the Herald-Tribune and can be reached at email@example.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription to the Herald-Tribune.