He was over six feet tall, but the impressions he left on people’s hearts and memories are immeasurable.
Leon Shell met his future bride in high school in their hometown of Sandy Hook, NJ. Lois said she remembers only once over the course of their nearly half a century together that Leon ever got into any kind of confrontation.
“We were at a dance, and somebody stuck their tongue out at my brother’s girlfriend,” Lois laughed. “That was the only time I ever saw him get into a fight.”
The Shells were married in 1953, and after raising three children – Lee, Larry and Laura – they decided to head south to Marathon and start a new chapter in their lives. Rheumatoid arthritis sent the General Motors Machinist into an early retirement in 1976, but Leon simply saw it as more time to pursue his passions of fishing and boating. He was the only child of an outdoorsman, and Leon and Lois shared their passion for the water and the outdoors with their children at an early age as well.
Laura remembers helping her father paint his first boat – a 32’ Chris-Craft appropriately named the Laura Ann – and then setting off up the Hudson River for weekend boat camping trips.
“His charter customers in New Jersey were so loyal, they would book their trips a year in advance,” she remembers. “When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I remember standing on the end of the dock waiting on him to return from a trip. I had an old cane pole trying to catch snappers, and right as they were pulling up to the dock, I hooked a fish and fell in the water. He introduced me to his customers as I swam up to the boat.”
Leon and Lois rented an apartment in Key Colony Beach for two months in 1978 so they could be close to The Puffin, Leon’s head boat docked at Key Colony Beach Marina. This wooden party boat was designed for taking out a dozen or so anglers to bottom fish, but after encountering the sailfish that crowd the Straits of Florida during the winter months, Leon decided to install outriggers and a fighting chair on The Puffin.
“Oh, the other charter boats around us didn’t like that,” Lois remembered.
One spring, Lois said she and Leon had the boat all packed and ready to head back to New Jersey. Over drinks at the old Tavern By The Sea (now Cabana Breezes) she said they looked at each other and simply knew they couldn’t go back north – they were already home.
“He would fish, and I would wait tables. We would have to work hard at it, but we knew, with the kids all grown, we could make a living and a life down here.”
Leon sold his boat soon after the couple bought their home in Galway Bay and began delivering boats and yachts. Lois, who’d always worked office jobs, was happy to wait tables and join Leon when his work sent him to Mexico and through the Panama Canal on a delivery.
Between jobs, Leon turned his screened porch into an impromptu workshop for his signature fishing lures.
“Even as a kid, Leon always made his own lures,” Lois said. “Our neighbor called this his light workshop in Galway Bay.”
His specialty was offshore trolling lures. The first ones were carved out of cedar, but after a friend of his got into the fiber optic business, Leon began using cords of plastic fiber optic cable. Before long, captains of the big game boats were ordering Leon Lures by the dozens. Though no longer in production under his name, Leon’s lures helped many a fishermen win tournaments as far away as Senegal and St. Thomas.
“Leon loved making lures, but more than anything, he loved talking to his friends and meeting new people through that business,” Lois said.
In 1997, a seizure at home sent Leon to the hospital and he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Four tumors were relentlessly treated with radiation and chemotherapy, but Lois said they finally decided enough was enough.
“He came home and lived out his final days here,” Lois remembered with pain in her voice.
He passed four months to the date of his diagnosis.
“He was my best buddy,” she affirmed.
In 1998, a group of Leon’s many Florida Keys friends – Jimmy and Joyce Allen, Terry Fisher and Captain Larry Bell, just to name a few – established a memorial sailfish tournament in the great captain and lure-maker’s name. Lois said when they asked her who the tournament would best benefit, she immediately agreed the beneficiary should be Hospice of the Florida Keys.
“I wanted the money to stay local, and because of the nurses and social workers from Hospice, Leon was able to pass here at home,” she said.
The Leon Shell Memorial Sailfish Tournament – a homegrown tournament to honor a hometown guy – has raised $100,000 for Hospice of the Florida Keys to date, and the tournament continues to grow each year.
Just a few days prior to the kickoff of the 11th annual tournament to honor her father’s memory, Laura agreed with her mother that the great man who’d collected so many friends over the course of his 62 years would be proud of the event.