Sunday, October 17, 2010

Hermit in oil reveals fabled island life

Silas Dent preferred barefooted living on mosquito-ridden Cabbage Key to civilization.  He died at 76 in 1952.

PASS-A-GRILLE – In the old Florida boutique Bamboozle on Eighth Avenue, there's a huge oil painting of Silas Dent, the celebrated recluse of Cabbage Key, who is remembered for his quirky personality and non-conformist lifestyle.

He sometimes played Santa Claus for island children. Pulitzer-prize winning Associated Press columnist Hal Boyle called Silas the "Happy Hermit of Cabbage Key" in a 1948 Life magazine article. He recounted how Silas traded faded overalls for a red Santa suit once a year and invited the Pass-A-Grille kids over to his island (now part of Tierra Verde).

He gave them presents he'd bought with a meager income earned from selling mosquito swatters to tourists in Pass-A-Grille. He knew the parents of the island kids were struggling to make a living.

Longtime Pass-A-Grille residents knew Silas as the most eccentric member of a family that tried unsuccessfully to operate a dairy on Cabbage Key, eventually moved their herd to what is now Bella Vista, and finally to acreage off Ulmerton Road in Largo.

After Cabbage Key, Silas tried living the civilized life but found that it just didn't suit him, so he moved back to a palmetto-thatched hut on Cabbage Key. The oil painting shows Silas sitting in his hut playing a banjo. It was painted from a photograph well known to students of local history.

Artist Patrick Donatelli
The man who painted it has his own connection to Pass-A-Grille, though he never knew Silas when he lived here. Artist Patrick Donatelli is the son of legendary Major League Baseball umpire Augie Donatelli, who brought his family to the community in the 1950s.

The elder Donatelli and other umpires rented places to stay at the beach during spring training. Once Life magazine photographer Arthur Rickerby came to town and took pictures of the family down on the beach enjoying the warm Gulf waters for a spread in the magazine.

Patrick Donatelli fondly recalls his Pass-A-Grille childhood with memories of the wind whispering through tall Australian pine trees and dipping his toes in ultra fine sand on the beach. For young Patrick, it was a storybook life, like an N.C. Wyeth illustration of Treasure Island and the lad imagining himself as Jim Hawkins.

Though the family lived in Pennsylvania during those years, they always came to Pass-A-Grille in the spring. Finally, the family moved to St. Petersburg permanently in 1967, when Patrick was 12 years old. 

Baseball umpire Augie Donatelli lifts his son,
Patrick, on Pass-A-Grille beach in photo by
Life magazine photographer Arthur Rickerby.

As children, Partick and his siblings knew their dad was involved with baseball but they didn't really grasp how well known he was throughout the country, and among people in all walks of life. Patrick tells of a time shortly after the family moved to St. Petersburg when his dad took his mom, Mary, in the middle of the day to the Hilton Hotel downtown.

They walked past the lobby into the ballroom with Mary wondering what was up. An orchestra was rehearsing and a slight man with a big smile greeted Augie Donatelli. "Hey, Augie. How ya doin'?" It was Frank Sinatra.

Patrick Donatelli's youth in St. Petersburg is filled with memories of regular trips to the beach, soaking up the sun and beach life and basking in the spectacular sunsets. The love of place spurred him to explore Florida's history, and in the 1980s he discovered Silas Dent, the storied character from Cabbage Key.

He found that photograph while doing research at the St. Petersburg Museum of History and was immediately drawn to it. Patrick knew he would paint Silas in oil. Such an iconic figure in local history had to be part of his portfolio. It was a natural for a lad whose dreams of pirate adventures on Treasure Island fueled an imaginative childhood.

 • Read St. Petersburg Times columnist Jeff Klinkenberg's interview with Pass-A-Grille's Frank Hurley