Perhaps, back in the day, they called her “spunky.” Short and tan, she’s still vivacious, but at almost 70 years old, the energy has mellowed until she exudes a cheerful “positivity” that soothes everyone around her, not the least the special needs children whom she tends to so carefully at Stanley Switlik Elementary School. They call her Ms. Appel, (pronounced like the fruit), though more accurately her name is Mrs. Toni Appel.
And, goodness, has she packed a lot of living into those years.
“We call her ‘Mama Appel’ because she takes care of all of us,” said school office manager Leslie Hendrix.
Retired teacher Beth Pinkus said, “She is a feisty young lady, full of adventure and fun. She’s always ready for a good time but she also always has your back. She’s a dear friend.”
Toni went “back to school” when her husband passed in 2003.
“I’m not one to sit around” she said, sipping on a tall glass of water at Sweet Savannah’s bake shop. “I did enough socializing. I played enough bridge. I did enough gardening and mahjong. A friend of mine suggested that I apply at the school as a teacher’s aide.”
The kids, of course, adore her. First, she’s fun-sized … or about their height. Second, she throws herself into the holidays with all the abandon of a nine-year-old. She has an orange yarn wig that she wears for Crazy Hair Day. She has enough patriotic gear to accessorize a small crowd. And she can throw a ’60s costume together in a snap.
And Toni is always between gigs. Our interview was scheduled a week out, squeezed in between the end of her part-time work day, but before the setup of Relay for Life. At any given moment, she’s poised to attend another workshop, board meeting, family reunion, volunteer at a fundraiser or travel to Boston to learn more about … “poopy” water.
“This is my second term on the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority’s board of directors,” she said, laughing. “We’re going to Boston this summer for a conference on sewage and stormwater.”
Before her school days, Toni was a professional wife and stepmother. She was married to “Sonny” Appel for 26 years. They met in an Ohio emergency room when she was a nurse. The meeting caused a big stir on a lot of levels.
“He came back three months later and asked me out on a date. It was a house party at his house on Fourth of July,” Toni recalled. But he was 19 years older, a board member of the hospital where she worked, divorced and the father of four children.
“My family was blue collar and his family was white collar,” she said, smiling at the memory. Toni said her strict German Catholic mother did not approve of the match. “But my father liked him. He took me aside and told me Sunny was a good guy. We were very happy together.”
It’s quite possible Toni found the leap easier to make because she had already survived one huge life upheaval. When she was eight years old, she and three of her siblings were removed from their grandparents home in Calabria, Italy, after a terrible accident. One day they were living with Nonna and Nonno, and the next they were whisked away to an orphanage, Toni said.
“I think we spent about three months in the orphanage before coming to the United States,” Toni said.
Toni and her five-year-old brother, Frank, were welcomed into the same home and had a very normal, Ohio childhood, with very loving parents.
“Of course, when I arrived, I couldn’t speak a word of English. At St. Mary’s, a Catholic school, the nuns paired her with another girl her own age. Sixty-two years later, they are still the best of friends.
“I would point at something and she would tell me the word,” Toni said, smiling. “She just took me by the hand never let go.”
Little by little, Toni reconnected with the rest of her biological siblings. Two sisters were raised in a home together about 60 miles away from where Toni and her brother were raised. (One of the sisters found Toni by getting a job at the local Catholic Charities office and doing some investigative work on the sly.) After declining several invitations, Toni eventually traveled to Italy to meet her birth mother, oldest sister and youngest brother. It was an emotional meeting, Toni said.
“I never wanted to meet my birth mother while my real mother was alive. I thought it would hurt her terribly,” Toni said. “But when I finally went to Italy, it was bittersweet. I couldn’t speak Italian and she couldn’t speak English, so we had some cousins interpreting for us. Although, I was finally able to tell her, ‘Thank you for giving us the life we had in the United States.’”
It’s a full life. She volunteers for Relay for Life and serves the San Pablo Women’s Club group. She’s the secretary of Club Duck Key and the county’s state committeewoman for the Republican Party. She’s practically a lifer in the Marathon Garden Club and is also an honorary member of the Teacher’s Sorority — Alpha Delta Kappa. At least once a year, she and a few of her teaching colleagues make a shopping trip to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on the mainland. Otherwise she spends her time with Duck Key resident Anna Lockwood, 88.
“She’s just the best friend. I consider myself so lucky. I don’t drive anymore, so she makes sure I get to events and then takes me home and get in the house safely,” Lockwood said.
She’s too active to formulate any type of life philosophy.
“I’m just me,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “I don’t put up a front. I Iike to make people happy and smile.”
Little known fact:
Toni Appel can’t cook. But boy does she know her way around a microwave.