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Living History

Featured Photo from Living History

On the eve of her 100th birthday, Myra Venable shares her journey through the last century with stops at some of Seminole County’s most memorable turning points.

During her century on Earth, Lake Mary’s Myra Venable has floated through many identities: Historian, parent, bottle and shell collector, tireless community volunteer. She once lived out of a car for 18 months while crisscrossing the Southeast, and she has traveled the world, from Hawaii to Europe to the Panama Canal.

And the story isn’t over. As she prepares to turn 100 on July 5, Myra keeps her mind sharp by devouring mystery and romance novels and working puzzle books. And she continues to give back to her community.

“It’s been a wonderful life,” Myra says, “I’ve had some good times. Some bad times. But mostly good times.”

Myra has lived in Central Florida since the late 1940s, and her personal history here is interwoven with that of the region.

Her parents once ran a motel in Winter Park, close to the Mount Vernon Inn. Myra volunteered for the Orlando Science Center for 46 years. She was also one of the early members of the Longwood Historic Society who helped organize the relocation of two historic houses from Altamonte Springs to Longwood.

“She’s something else. She’ll blow your mind,” says Myra’s daughter, Rene Bowers, who also lives in Lake Mary.

Ever curious about the past, Myra began putting together the story of her family several years ago. Myra’s Austrian father and Hungarian mother entered the United States at New York’s Ellis Island in the early 1900s at the height of the immigration movement that would transform the country’s identity.

In researching her European ancestors, Myra found stories of several circus high-wire artists and a gambling innkeeper who mysteriously disappeared. Born in Long Island, N.Y., Myra was raised in the Midwest, where her father worked as a mechanical engineer for Union Pacific Railroad, traveling back and forth to New York.

One of Myra’s childhood friends was Dorothy McGuire, who would go on to become an Oscar-nominated actress. As young girls, they took turns spending the night at each other’s houses.

“They were best buddies,” Rene says. It was through this relationship that Myra got to meet a young Henry Fonda backstage, and the two women would keep in touch until Dorothy’s death in 2001.

Myra’s family moved back to New York in 1937, where her father built a pasta factory. But a decade of fighting crowds and commuting in crowded subways took its toll. Myra, her brother Hank, and their parents moved to Florida in 1947, and her father built the Blue Ribbon Motor Court motel near the corner of Highway 17-92 and Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park.

“Back in those days, you still lived with your parents until you were married,” Myra says.

In 1948, she wed Richard, a man she had met in New York. Richard knew his way around televisions, radios, and the closet-sized early sound systems popular in affluent homes of the era. It was a highly specialized trade, and Myra and Richard traveled the Southeast answering repair calls for the entertainment equipment.

“Everything we owned we had in that car,” Myra says of their black and silver Packard. “We had a grand time for about a year and a half.”

In 1951, the homesick couple returned to Florida for good, settling into the then-sparsely populated Azalea Park area in east Orlando.

Myra holds warm memories of Eisenhower-era Florida.

“The earth wasn’t covered with asphalt and cement,” she says.

Being close to both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts inspired Myra to take up collecting seashells, and she would eventually trade shells by mail with other enthusiasts as far away as New Zealand.

The family began taking Sunday drives to Seminole County to shop for orchids and relax in a public swimming hole in what is now The Springs residential community in Longwood. It was during one of these trips that they happened to spot the historic Bradlee-McIntyre House in Altamonte Springs.

Myra was immediately intrigued by the three-story home built in 1885, and when she learned it was in danger of demolition, she joined a group of historians determined to salvage it. So began Myra’s long relationship with the Longwood Historic Society.

In April 1973, when the house was literally lifted and trucked to its current spot in historic downtown Longwood, Myra, her husband, and Rene were part of the convoy that followed on foot. That same day, another historic home, the Inside-Outside House, once owned by a sea captain, was also moved to Longwood.

Fittingly, the plan is to hold Myra’s 100th birthday party in the historic district where the houses sit today.

Myra lost her husband in 1987 and settled in Lake Mary 15 years later. Today, she lives with her cat, Sammie, at an assisted living facility on Lake Mary Boulevard, with Rene working overtime to keep up with Myra’s library list.

For the past 25 years, Myra has volunteered once a week with Maitland’s New Hope For Kids program, which supports children and families who have lost a loved one and grants wishes to kids with life-threatening illnesses.

Myra credits her longevity to good genes and a healthy diet. She has never smoked, but occasionally will ask people if she can bum a cigarette, just to pull their leg.

Myra is not much of a drinker, either. About two years ago, she says, someone gave her a half-pint bottle of Southern Comfort as a gift.

She has yet to crack it.

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