Years ago, in print, I described her as “a daughter of Florida, America, and God.” True. She loved all three. And she was one of the best friends you could ever have.
She was Martha B. Apgar, who started life as Martha Lydia Brown.
I would sing to her: “Lydia oh Lydia, say, have you met Lydia?” Those are the opening words to “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” the old Groucho Marx song. She hated it when I did that (while also liking it).
Miz Lydia, as I sometimes called her — she hated that too (while also … ) — was born in 1928. Her hometown was DeLand, the seat of Volusia County. The seat is not the famous Daytona Beach, as Martha’s mother liked to point out. She was a proud DeLand woman. Rather, it is DeLand.
It is also the home of Stetson University, an elegant institution. The university is named after John B. Stetson, the hatmaker. He was known for placing a hat on the American West, but he was from Philadelphia (by way of New Jersey), and he endowed this Florida school — whose teams are “the Hatters.”
Once, Martha arranged for Bill Buckley and me to perform a little Q&A at Stetson. (He was the A, I was the Q.) The administration gave us Stetson hats, in accordance with their tradition.
As a girl, Martha went to the Wisconsin Avenue Elementary School, and she was taught by Miss Dempsie Brewster, who was also the principal of the school. I always pictured Miss Dempsie as a perfect lady and a perfect teacher — wearing white gloves, when she went downtown. Sometimes Martha disabused me, sometimes she didn’t.
In due course, Wisconsin Avenue Elementary was renamed for Miss Dempsie Brewster.
Martha and her siblings, Bob and Louise, grew up in the Hotel Putnam, which their parents owned and operated. It “catered to the carriage trade,” as Martha would say.
I teased her that the staff would stoop over to lace her shoes every morning. Alternatively, I teased her that she was a savage out of the orange groves, shoeless.
Either line would do.
One December, Martha sent me a tin, saying, “Merry Christmas. Enjoy Jill’s shortbread.”
Jill? She was a lady from Britain. During the war, Martha’s mother, Sarah, scooped up the leftover soap at the hotel and sent it to our British cousins. She did this through the Red Cross. The Brits were experiencing a severe soap shortage. Sarah’s contact, on the other side, was Jill.
After the war, they became fast friends, visiting each other. Jill made shortbread, which wowed one and all. She shared the recipe.
About 10 years ago, on a National Review cruise, I met a lady from Lakeland, Fla. “I know Lakeland!” I said. The lady asked, “How?” “Because I’m from Michigan,” I said, “and that’s where the Detroit Tigers hold spring training.”
She then told me that, when she was a little girl, her parents worked in a hotel. One year, Hank Greenberg — the great Tiger star of the 1930s — presented them with a pair of roller skates, to give to their daughter. His reasoning: “Every little girl ought to have a pair of roller skates.”
With excitement, I related this story to Martha, who was also on the cruise. She then dropped a bombshell on me: Lou Boudreau, the great shortstop of the Cleveland Indians, taught her to play ping-pong when he was staying at the Hotel Putnam.
I got the impression that all Florida ladies of a certain age had been benefited by baseball Hall of Famers.
One of the many admirable things about Martha’s parents is that they committed acts of racial liberalism. I know several stories, the most dramatic one involving a day at the beach.
Black employees of the hotel and their children had never seen the ocean — though they lived about 25 miles from it. Determined to remedy this, the Browns took them for a day at the beach. This involved a sheriff, a police helicopter, and other commotion. It involved racist resistance. But, dammit, the families got to experience the ocean, for the first time.
She went to Florida State, in Tallahassee. Word got around, somehow, that she was a Communist. (She was anything but.) I’d say, “Were you a Red Pepper?” (That’s what some antagonists called Claude Pepper, the longtime Florida Democrat.) She’d scoff and laugh.
At home in DeLand, she met a northern boy, Jack Apgar, from New Jersey. He marveled at how flat Florida was. “You can climb up a telephone pole and see from one end of the state to the other!” They were married in 1950. They had four children, three boys and a girl. Their eldest, called “John Boy,” was severely handicapped and died when he was 14.
This, along with her parents’ racial liberalism, drove Martha’s philanthropy later in life.
She had a splendid life, but it was not all peaches and cream, far from it. She met her challenges with grit and prayer.
Martha loved Stetson University.
She endowed scholarships, a lecture series, and other things there, and she did so in the name of LeRoy Lawson. He was an Episcopal priest who for a time served St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in DeLand, and also a philosophy professor — a tremendously learned and inspiring man. He meant a lot to Martha and many others, several of whom I met.
Martha, Louise and friends would talk about Father Lawson often. What would Father Lawson think? What would Father Lawson say? Remember when Father Lawson . . .? One year, one of them (I forget which) said she was going to give up talking about Father Lawson for Lent. Not sure if it ever happened.
— Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review and a book fellow at the National Review Institute.