Stream our Distinguised Speakers

The Distinguished Speaker Series is funded in part by the Helmerich Trust and the Florida Division of Arts & Culture.

Recording of the Distinguished Speaker Series is generously supported by Aloys and Carol Metty & John and Marilyn Rintamaki.

John Blades: Building the Over-Sea Railway | The Untold Story

The story of the building of the Over-Sea Railroad is a much more complicated story than is generally known and involved decades of planning and strategic thinking. Ironically, the tremendous time span needed to accomplish the project, and the changes in shipping that occurred during that time, ultimately led to the failure of the very project Henry Flagler considered the crowning achievement of his life’s work.

Cori Convertito: Keeping the Light: The History of the Key West Lighthouse

The current Key West Lighthouse opened in January 1848 with a woman as its Keeper; nearly unheard of during the 19th century. In the years following, the Key West Lighthouse underwent a number of upgrades including the installation of a Third Order Fresnel Lens, an extension to the tower which allowed the light to be seen from a greater distance, the addition of Keeper’s Quarters, and finally the electrification of the light until it was decommissioned in 1969.

Craig Pittman: Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country

Some people regard Florida as nothing but the Punchline State because so many weird things happen here. Craig Pittman argues that is also the greatest state with the greatest impact on other states. In this presentation based on his hilarious and thought-provoking New York Times bestselling book Oh Florida!, Mr. Pittman explains how what he calls “The Most Interesting State” got to be the way it is.

Ralph De Palma: Changing of the Guard, A Music-Centric Conversation

Key West’s musical soul is an outpost of humanity, in a sea of swirling, turbulent, incivility. Music permeates Key West right down to the coral rock. The Soul of Key West is a combination of its historical music core and the One Human Family juju that charms the spirit of Key West life. A melting pot of musical talent blends the harmony of the soul of Key West. Key West is becoming a music destination much like Nashville or New Orleans. Our island is full of talent that migrated here from those much larger music cities. If Nashville is the “Music City” then Key West is most certainly the ‘Music Island’.

Paul Michael Taylor: American Volunteers in Cuba’s Insurgent Army: New Discoveries about a Volunteer Cavalry’s 1898 Incursion into Cuba During the Spanish-American War

This presentation reports on a research and public outreach project being carried out by the Smithsonian Institution in cooperation with the San Carlos Institute. Taylor will discuss the role of Cuban-American civilian volunteers who mustered at Tampa and places it within the broader history of the Spanish-American War and the history of Florida and of US-Cuban relations.

David Morton: A History of Florida’s Film & Television Industry

Often overlooked in its contribution to film history, Florida has played a key role in creating the modern entertainment industry. This presentation discusses how Florida became a “third coast” to the American film and television industries over the past one hundred years. Starting with the first film pioneers in Jacksonville during the 1900s and 1910s to South Florida’s television boom during the 2000s and 2010s, Florida has inspired countless exciting stories captured by the camera.

Wayne Garcia: Stories the Island Forgot

Join us for an evening of ‘Key West: Stories the Island Forgot’ with Key West native and folk artist Wayne Garcia. He will delight the audience with tales of Old Key West, his memories from growing up, and many of the island’s most infamous characters. His stories will be accompanied by his colorful wood carvings and vintage photographs depicting Key West’s incredible past.

Sharika Crawford: The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making from the Cayman Islands to Key West

In her talk, Dr. Sharika Crawford discusses the entangled histories of peoples and commodities that circulated across the greater Caribbean, which connected places like Key West to the Cayman Islands and further south toward Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The story of the humble turtle and its hunter came to play a significant role in shaping the maritime boundaries of the modern Caribbean. Focusing on the 19th and 20th centuries, she traces and connects the expansion of turtle hunting to matters of race, labor, political, and economic change, and the natural environment.

Brian Magrane: SS George Law & Key West: Ship of Gold

Gold fever was erupting across the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.  During this boom, America’s economy quickly became reliant on the continuous flow of this new capital and the popular mode of transportation for the precious cargo was the steamship.  The side-wheel steamer S.S. George Law was built to move gold in continuous service on the Atlantic leg of the Panama Route.  In 1856, yellow fever was raging in Havana and the ship was diverted to Key West—its one and only visit—for coal refueling.  Not long after her Key West stop, the ship sank in a hurricane off the South Carolina coast.

Being Frederick Douglass: A Historical Figure Portrayal

Guest lecturer and reenactor John H. Anderson portrayed prominent historical figure Frederick Douglass to kick off Black History Month.  In his portrayal, Anderson first discussed the political and sociological impacts of the violent and unstable time period surrounding the Civil War and how African-Americans helped shape the nation we live in today. Donning historically accurate clothing, he performed s as freed slave turned abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass.

Robert Kerstein: Key West on the Edge, Inventing the Conch Republic

Key West lies at the southernmost point of the continental Unites States, ninety miles from Cuba, at Mile Marker 0 on famed U.S. Highway 1. Famous for six-toed cats in the Hemingway House, Sloppy Joe’s and Captain Tony’s, Jimmy Buffett songs, body paint parade “costumes,” and a brief secession from the Union after which the Conch Republic asked for $1 billion in foreign aid, Key West also lies at the metaphorical edge of our sensibilities.  How this unlikely city came to be a tourist mecca is the subject of Robert Kerstein’s intrepid history.

Cori Convertito: Shaping an Island, Key West’s Black History

From its beginnings in the 1800s, the maritime industry of Key West was dependent on the skills of Black Bahamians and Black Cubans as sailors, spongers, boat builders and fishermen. The contributions of these skilled workers has been marginalized, when in truth, their contributions were vital, valuable and integral. This project will be a step forward in doing what we all should have been doing for years – celebrating the true diversity of the heritage of the island city of Key West.

James Clark: Writers in Paradise

Beginning with a poem around 1560, the Florida story has been told and retold. This presentation features the stories of over two dozen well-known authors of the past and present who found inspiration and a haven under Florida’s sun, including Ernest Hemingway, Judy Blume, Tennessee Williams, and more.

Curtis Hall: Dry Tortugas, A Confluence of Human History & Natural Resources

The Tortugas, one of our nations oldest place names, have been many things to generations of visitors throughout centuries of time. Places of shelter, provisions, struggle, demise and perseverance. A place of research, imprisonment, freedom and recreation; a National Monument and one of the Florida Keys original tourist attractions.
Embark on the currents of the Florida Straits and sail through the history of Dry Tortugas from their early European beginnings in the 1500’s, to current projects and tips for your next visit. The period of significance (1846-74) will be covered but emphasis is also placed on lesser-known stories of Human History that shaped where we are today, and ongoing research vital for our future success.

Rodney Kite-Powell: Charting the Land of Flowers, 500 Years of Florida Maps

From the earliest depiction of Florida on the 1511 Martyr Map to a 21st century view of Florida from space, Rodney Kite-Powell’s presentation shows the dramatic changes that have occurred in Sunshine State over the past 500 years through historic maps.

James A. Kushlan: Seeking the American Tropics, South Florida’s Early Naturalists

Dr. James A. Kushlan’s talk reveals the stories of explorers, pioneers, naturalists and scientists who over centuries unveiled the tropical environment of South Florida.  He examines these scientific contributions critically, places them in a historical context, illustrates how exploration has so often trumped conservation throughout history, and exposes how much of this natural world we have already lost in this vivid portrait of the Florida of yesterday.

Mallory O’Connor: Strangers in a Strange Land, Picturing Florida’s History

“Look” for Florida in this lecture of the many eccentric images that tell the story of our state. Strangers in a Strange Land explores Florida’s art history and rich visual mythology. These images span centuries of time and attest to both the vivid imagination of the artists and the equally flamboyant narratives centered on our state.

James Clark: Hidden History of Florida

Six out of ten Floridians come from outside Florida and know little of the state’s rich history. The Hidden History of Florida uses dozens of stories to tell the little-known facts of Florida history. It is a fast, fun 50-minute journey through 400 years of history with lots of images all based on the book Hidden History of Florida. The trip will leave listeners with a new appreciation of their state’s past.

Tyler Gillespie: The Thing About Florida, Exploring a Misunderstood State

Tyler Gillespie will give a behind-the-scenes look at his new book The Thing about Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State. He’ll discuss a research process that led him into unexpected places such as halfway houses, gator pits, rattlesnake rooms, and clothing-optional campgrounds to interview eclectic Floridians for stories that delve into serious issues such as addiction, Florida’s racist past, and care options for the state’s LGBTQ senior citizens.

Dave Dunn Studio Tour

Similar to rebel folk artist Stanley Papio, Dave Dunn recycles and repurposes metal components such as bike chains, tools, and scrap metal to create his sculptures of sea animals, critters, and imagined creatures. Join us for a virtual studio tour to learn more about artist Dave Dunn and his process for repurposing these everyday found objects into whimsical works of art.

James Clark: Presidents in Florida

George Washington had nothing but trouble with Florida. Thomas Jefferson tried to steal it. Abraham Lincoln hoped it would win him re-election. Three men came to Florida to fight and ended up in the White House. Franklin Roosevelt was nearly assassinated before he could be inaugurated and quick thinking by a Secret Service agent saved John Kennedy’s life in Florida. Herbert Hoover learned about Al Capone and Warren G. Harding got stuck on a Florida sandbar. Learn about America’s presidents’ strange relationship with our state. This talk is based on the book, Presidents in Florida.

David Schmidt: The Legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA in Florida

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of FDR’s most wide-ranging, yet controversial programs. Many saw it as a “make work’ program that did not accomplish its goals—the acronym was derided as “We Piddle Around.” The evidence indicates that the program was far more successful and, even today, Floridians enjoy the buildings and constructions created by the WPA. This program views the WPA and focuses on the still existing projects.

Magdalena Lamarre: Afro-Caribbean Migration to Florida

This program examinef the migration and settlement patterns of the various Afro-Caribbean peoples who made Florida their home and their contributions to its history and culture.


Fred Borch: Piracy and Key West: Commodore David Porter and the Mosquito Squadron

Piracy was a major problem in the Caribbean in the early nineteenth century and Congress wanted to protect American merchant shipping. As a result, the Navy ordered Commodore David Porter to establish a base in Key West to end piracy. He arrived in April 1823. Hear historian Fred Borch talk about Porter’s West Indies Squadron warships (also called the “Mosquito Squadron”) and the Navy’s successful battle against pirates in the open waters of the West Indies.


James Kushlan & Kirsten Hines: The Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson, A History

For over five centuries, the Dry Tortugas and its reefs provided the setting for the stories of pirates and privateers, soldiers and sailors, lighthouses and shipwrecks, naturalists and prisoners, fishers and tourists. Isolated 70 miles west of Key West, the islands of Dry Tortugas National Park appear to arise as if by magic, floating atop the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Juan Ponce de León named the islands, making “Tortugas,” the second oldest persistent place name in all of North America. The history of Dry Tortugas is tightly linked to that of the adjacent Florida Straits, an essential passageway for the commerce of nations, to its reefs that over the centuries claimed hundreds of ships, and to Key West.

Ryan Harke: The First Peoples of Key West

Ryan Harke will be discussing his most recent discoveries in studying remains from the Stock Island archaeological site that was once located on a small island northwest of today’s Stock Island (where the County prison is today). He will be sharing new radiocarbon dates from the oldest human-made deposits at the site, which provide the first hard evidence of the earliest occupation known in the Lower Florida Keys. He will also share new marine-shell isotope data that reveal the season(s) of the year that Natives were fishing at the Stock Island site.

Fred Borch: Key West in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s

Key West in the last three decades of the nineteenth century was a unique piece of America. Cuban revolutionaries on the island organized their struggle against Spanish rule in Cuba. Shipping lanes connected Key West with the world and there was bi-weekly steamship service between Tampa, Key West and Havana. The economy boomed as the island was a major cigar manufacturing center. The sponge market also thrived. The population of Key West also increased dramatically: from 5,600 in 1870 to more than 18,000 in 1890. Hear historian Fred Borch talk about Key West in this exciting period of our island’s history.

David L. Sloan: The Haunted Dolls of Bone Island

Discover the bizarre and fascinating history of haunted dolls in the southernmost city with acclaimed author and ghost hunter, David L. Sloan. From Calusa totems and the mysterious doll heads of Rest Beach to Fort East Martello’s Robert the Doll and the Audubon House’s missing Peck doll, Sloan will share the true history and island legends surrounding Key West’s most animated inanimate objects.

Fred Borch: Key West and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

On October 14, 1962, US Air Force spy planes flying over Cuba discovered that the Soviet Union was assembling medium range ballistic missiles on the island—missiles that could reach most of the United States in minutes and, if armed with nuclear warheads, posed a grave threat to Americans. In the days and weeks that followed, the Cuban Missile Crisis took the world to the brink of nuclear war. Given its proximity to Cuba, Key West was in the thick of the Crisis. On Thursday, February 13th, Military historian Fred Borch will talk about Key West during this event and how its beaches played a key role protecting the United States in October and November 1962. 

Robert J. Woltz: Grand Army Women: The Loyal Women of the North

Robert J. Woltz discusses the lack of preparation on the part of all combatants to the role of women as army nurses and the civilian response. Then the organization of the Grand army of the republic (the union veterans and the Civil War) and eight organizations that formed as auxiliaries to support the widows, orphans, disabled and destitute army nurses. They literally raised millions of dollars to meet their need. 

Today 7 of these organizations still survive and continue to care for veterans, preserve historic sites and offer programs in schools. Robert’s book, Grand Army Women: The GAR and Its Female Organizations features the history of each order and offers a collectors guide to their membership and officers badges. His book features 500 full color images of these badges as well as 150 black and white images of their organizations, highlighting the importance of women during this time.

Seth Bramson: The Florida East Coast Railway

Seth Bramson, Florida East Coast Railway Company Historian, Barry University Adjunct Professor of History and Historian in Residence and Nova Southeastern University Lifelong Learning Institute Adjunct Professor of History, presents on the history of the Florida East Coast Railway.

Fred Borch: Key West in WWII

Military historian Fred Borch will talk about Key West’s role during World War II. When the war began, the Navy in Key West occupied just 50 acres on the edge of the island. By 1945, Navy operations sprawled across more than 3,200 acres. The Navy spent $70 million in building Key West into what some called “America’s Gibraltar” (after the British outpost in the Mediterranean), and more than 14,000 ships passed through Key West’s Harbor between 1942 and 1945. The Army also had hundreds of soldiers stationed in Key West. Finally, the population of Key West doubled and sometimes tripled the prewar population during this period. Come hear about this dizzying and incredible time in the history of Key West.

Willie Drye: Storm of the Century – Labor Day Hurricane of 1935

Author and National Geographic News Contributing Editor Willie Drye unraveled the fascinating story of the most powerful hurricane in U.S. history in his highly praised book, Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. The work of narrative non-fiction, which reads like a novel, has been hailed as the definitive account of this event. Drye’s riveting yet meticulously accurate portrayal of the horrific power of this long-ago monster storm also was praised by some of the nation’s most respected meteorologists.  Drye explains how he compiled the story of this American tragedy, the people he met and interviewed along the way, and the many remarkable sidebars he uncovered that made Storm of the Century an unforgettable read. Diagrams and period photos will help the audience understand the impact of this incalculably intense hurricane.

Jeff Stotts: Mid-19th Century Key West African-American Community

The community of Key West in the nineteenth century evolved from many cultural contributions. Most African descendants already living in mainland Florida had escaped prior servitude. Some were multi-generational descendants of freeman from the era of Spanish Florida, who had migrated into Key West. Many generations being mostly catholic, recently Americanized from Spanish rule, were never enslaved. These Afro-American merchants, businessmen, multi-skilled workers from St. Augustine, came south to Key West. Black Bahamians whose vast majorities are seafarers and skilled laborers were leaving behind a shattered economy in the Bahamas, represented many initial colonizers of Key West. Various settlers in transition of African descent, hailing from the far corners of the new world, were carving out a unique social and economic existence in the southernmost city, Key West.

Hemingway Days: Voices, Places, Inspirations

Moderator: Carol Shaughnessy

“Papa’s Poems” Read by Members of the Key West Poetry Guild and facilitated by Nance Boylan

Novelists & Short Story Authors Kirk Curnutt, Kristina Neihouse, Edgardo Alvarado-Vazquez

Hemingway Days: Mini-Symposium

Moderator: Kirk Curnutt

Speakers: Brewster Chamberlin, Ph. D, Robert K. Elder, and Kirk Curnutt

Brian Magrane: Merchant Ship of 1622 Fleet

Dr. Brian Magrane will take the audience back in time to 1622 when the Spanish ruled Florida waters. He will tell the story of the Atocha’s lesser known sister ship, the Buen Jesus y Nuestra Senora del Rosario. Learn about life onboard a small Spanish merchant ship and what was found on the wreck site. Brian will discuss the coins and treasures recovered and how the Atocha and Rosario differed.

Chip Kasper & Sandy Delgado: The 1919 Hurricane and its Impact in Key West

The 1919 Hurricane was the fourth in a series of deadly hurricanes affecting the Florida Keys during the early 20th Century. The 1919 hurricane, which led to the sinking of the passenger ship Valbanera, resulted in perhaps the worst maritime disaster in the history of the Florida Keys. The hurricane also inspired Sister Louis Gabriel to design and build the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto at the Basilica of Saint Mary Star of the Sea in Key West.

Bob Bernreuter: A History of the Basilica St. Mary Star of the Sea

We will explore how small seeds of faith planted by 16th century missionaries on a small island in a new world were nurtured into a parish, survived the storms of nature and war, and ultimately would earn the attention of Rome and be honored with the distinguished title of a Minor Basilica.

Alex Vega: Fires that Forged Key West

Alex Vega is the Executive Director of the Key West Firehouse Museum, which is dedicated to the collection, preservation, and interpretation and exhibition of artifacts about fire fighting in Key West. Participants learned about the fires that forged Key West, including the Great Fire of 1886.

Laura Albritton & Jerry Wilkinson: Hidden History of the Florida Keys

What if the Overseas Railroad had never reached Key West? In their presentation the “Great Key West Extension Scare,” Florida Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson and writer Laura Albritton dive into the hidden history of Flagler’s railroad that went to sea. Uncovering a stash of records and newspaper articles, they will recount the dispute that might have led to the vital railroad line stopping in the Middle Keys. Who was involved, and why the Key West Extension was in doubt are two of the topics explored in this slideshow and lecture. The third book that Jerry and Laura have collaborated on, Hidden History of the Florida Keys, will be available for signing after the presentation.

Stephan Kitaskos: Eroticism & Experimentation in the Later Works of Tennessee Williams

A discussion that illuminates the playwright’s later one-act plays. In the canon of American dramatic literature, Williams is one of the leading writers of plays, short stories and poetry. Influenced by the socio-cultural underpinnings of American society, both pre-and-post WWII, he captured a realism and exposed a harsh brutality expressed in his characters: women and men searching for love and acceptance in a world that was relentingly hostile.

Panel Discussion: Bahama Village

Renowned historians (Jeff Stotts, Corey Malcolm, Carmen Turner and Roosevelt Sands) discuss the history of Bahama Village, moderated by Commissioner Clayton Lopez.

Steve King: The Art of Parades

Like Stanley Papio, the parade’s namesake, Steve King is an outsider artist that has left his mark on the Key’s community through his social commentary. Over the past 15 years, his creations have featured in the annual Fantasy Fest Parade, often placing or winning the event.

Tom Hambright: The Rest of the Story

You have heard the official history of Key West, now in the tradition of the late Paul Harvey, Tom Hambright is going to present the Rest of The Story for some major events in Key West History.

Frederic Borch III: The Spanish American War

Key West played a prominent role in the War with Spain, given its proximity to Cuba, and its important military and naval facilities. Military historian Fred Borch will talk about the Spanish American War, the USS Maine, and Key West.

Rafael Penalver: The History of the San Carlos Institute

The San Carlos Institute is one of Key West’s most beautiful and historic landmarks. Founded in 1871 as a Cuban patriotic and educational center, the San Carlos stands as a symbol of freedom and hope for the Cuban people. Jose Marti, Cuba’s legendary patriot, and poet, united the exile community at the San Carlos in 1892.

Theresa Schober: Bringing the Mound Key Story to Life – The Making of Escambia: The Kingdom of Carlos

Remnants of elevated mounds and ridges, sculpted canals and water courts remain a visible yet subtle reminder of the once thriving Calusa chiefdom that controlled the southern third of the Florida peninsula by 16th century Spanish contact.

Leslie K. Pooler, Ph.D.: Saving Florida – Women’s Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth Century

Florida is renowned for its beautiful beaches, natural springs, and subtropical wilderness. However, dredge-and-fill projects, air pollution, and pesticides spread so uncontrollably during the twentieth century that they sparked an environmental movement. Those who engaged in and led the fight were often women.

Jeff Stotts: Sandy Cornish’s War Garden

Jeff Stotts interest in horticultural practices throughout the Florida Keys has led to extensive research on Sandy Cornish, freed slave and civil war gardener. Cornish’s garden, formerly located at the site of The Basilica of St Mary Star of the Sea, was regarded as the “the best fruit grove and garden on the island” enjoyed by malnourished soldiers and visited by dignitaries such as Salmon P. Chase.

Frank Conlan: Kinetic Sculptures: From Theory to Reality

Frank Conlan, a self-professed tinkerer, and building contractor by trade, entered the Kinetic world on Roller skates as a Kinetic Cop. Inspired by Hobart Brown, the founder of the Kinetic Sculpture Race, Frank made his foray into the Kinetic Sculpture Race in Baltimore, with a sculpture titled D-Vine – the Grape Stompers, a tribute to filmmaker John Waters.

Tom Hambright: The Navy in Key West

Join us for a memorable presentation by retired Lieutenant Commander and Monroe County Historian Hambright, a living repository of Key West history. Having overseen the archives of the Monroe County Library for the past 30 years Tom’s passion for history and curiosity has led to the revelation of intriguing stories.

John Hemingway: Pamplona Posse

Imagine running with a herd of half-ton stampeding bulls down the narrow, cobbled streets of Pamplona, hoping to God you don’t get gored.  Every year, thousands do, including the grandson of the world’s most famous writer, John Hemingway.

John Blades: Henry Flagler’s Yacht, A Banana King, and the Founding of the State of Israel

Willie Drye: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935

Author and National Geographic News Contributing Editor Willie Drye unraveled the fascinating story of the most powerful hurricane in U.S. history in his highly praised book, Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.

Henry Schvey: The Plastic Theater of Tennessee Williams

Henry I. Schvey, Professor of Drama and Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis—the same institution where Williams was enrolled as a student during 1936-37—will examine how Williams’s lifelong preoccupation with painting provides a crucial key to understanding his plays. Beginning with the breakthrough success, The Glass Menagerie (1944), Williams developed a style he termed “Plastic Theatre,” concluding that his theatrical work should be seen almost as a kind of visual art, in which “The printed script of a play is hardly more than an architect’s blueprint of a house not yet built…its message lies in those abstract beauties of form and color and line.”

Moderated Panel: The Key West/Bahamas Connection

Early settlers in the Florida Keys came from a variety of places, including Cuba, New England, the mid-Atlantic and Europe. Perhaps the most influential of the initial settlers were the Bahamians. During the first two decades 18th century, Bahamians visited the region, being attracted to the wealth obtained through salvaging wrecked ships, fishing, and logging tropical hardwoods. After Key West was purchased by John Simonton in 1822, Bahamians moved to the Florida Keys in large numbers. Families settled along the length of the island chain, driven by the poor economic situation in the Bahamas, and the ability to start afresh in an area that provided a number of opportunities.