by Jack Alexander
Many individuals stand out in Rotonda West’s history as affecting the community’s course over time – William
Vanderbilt, Joseph Klein, Col. Joe Tringali, TV pitchman Ed McMahon, Jim Petrides, among others. Many residents devoted time and energy to creating and then leading the vital community organizations – the original Property Owners Association and Rotonda West Association among them: Richard Bean, Jim Graham, Dick Tanner, Francis Labar, Ed Hennessey, Joe Obey and John Meadows in particular.
Others deserve recognition, but came along later when things were more settled.
One unexpected name from Rotonda’s early past is O.J. Simpson.
My book, Rotonda: The Vision & The Reality, carries a photo (page 98) of an attractive young Simpson chatting with the late sportscasting legend Howard Cosell. It was during an interlude of The Superstars, the sports event televised nationally by ABC-TV from Rotonda from 1972 until 1976, which attracted here the world’s leading male athletes – and eventually women athletes and celebrities.
Of all the athletes – including such luminaries as Johnny Bench (baseball), Rod Laver (tennis), Joe Frazier (boxing), and Johnny Unitas (football) – O.J. made perhaps the greatest impression, not only for his performance in sports other than his own speciality (the theme of Superstars), but for his graciousness and accessibility.
Most of the athletes mingled easily with the Rotonda residents, with Simpson labeled “a real charmer” along with, especially, Kyle Rote, Bob Seagren and Rod Laver. (Billie Jean King and Reggie Jackson were seen as prima donnas as were some of the Hollywood stars who graced the later games).
The late Ethel Furia, Rotonda’s early historian, remembered O.J. warmly. “When O.J. came he was followed around by groups of kids shouting, ‘O.J., O.J.” she told me.
Pastor Carl Kaltreider recalls that O.J. “spent hours chatting with us… and I remember debating with him stories of Noah and the Arc and Adam and Eve. O.J. (and Kyle Rote and Franco Harris) endeared themselves to us.”
Arguably, much of O.J.’s later wealth and success came from his Rotonda appearance. It was caught on TV by ad agency executives seeking a “personality” athlete to represent Hertz Corporation. Hertz subsequently signed Simpson to a $200,000 per year contract for three years, increased later to $500,000 annually. This exposure garnered O.J. multiple other quality endorsements giving him an eventual income exceeding $1 million a year.
No community exists in a vacuum. Individuals step forward and, for good or ill, put their stamp on its growth. Perhaps there should be a scroll somewhere listing those who indelibly impacted Rotonda. Such a list might include those mentioned herein – plus developers Frank Markle (Deltona), Jerome Cohen (Land Resources), Jim Penzell and Gary Littlestar; church leaders Kaltreider and Edison Brooker; golf professionals Walter “Red” Lathrop, Ray LaGoy, and Ray Floyd, and others.
Also, in a category by himself (you name it); O.J. Simpson.
Note: Updated copies of Jack Alexander’s book, “Rotonda: The Vision & The Reality” are available for $6.00 at the Rotonda West Community Center, 3754 Cape Haze Drive, Rotonda West 33947, (941) 697-6788.