Cudjoe Key’s John Viele, age 99, has passed away. He not only lived a long life but left a tremendous footprint on the Florida Keys, the local history and my historical endeavors.
I never met the legendary historian or had the opportunity to thank him for his incredible contribution to my knowledge and passion for local history – at least not face to face.
Mr. Viele was the consummate researcher, and, reading his books, I learned invaluable details about the history of Monroe County and the Florida Keys. His three-book series, “The Florida Keys,” volumes 1, 2, and 3, were some of the earliest local history books I purchased for what has grown into my rather substantial collection. For everyone who has read one of his books (and everyone who loves the history of these islands absolutely should), he was a no-nonsense writer. He was all about the nuts and bolts of the story and presented his words with military precision – which makes sense as he served as a submarine commander during his distinguished military career.
We did, however, communicate with each other, in a manner of speaking, on a couple of occasions. While I was writing “Snorkeling the Florida Keys” (which is more about history than snorkeling and was initially titled “Snorkeling into History”), my publisher asked Mr. Viele to review the book. As it turned out, he was not a fan of my writing, which does not adhere to a nuts and bolts approach to the written word but tends to be a little more creative. He did not care for my style or “flowery” descriptions, and when my publisher sent me the notes from a man I admired, I found them crushing.
Writing last month’s four-part series about No Name Key, I became keenly aware that I was including information about Nicholas Matcovich, the Russian immigrant with large hands (once known as the King of No Name Key), that contradicted the story Mr. Viele wrote in his book, “The Florida Keys: A History of the Pioneers.” But, one of the things about history is that new details emerge – especially since the advent of the internet, when so many sources and resources have become available just by tapping on a computer keyboard.
In this case, a 1902 newspaper story recounted a trip to No Name Key where the writer interviewed Mr. Matcovich and offered what was presented as a firsthand account. Even before the column’s publication, I wondered what Mr. Viele would think about what I was writing. Having learned of his passing, ideas of that nature no longer seem relevant, and what I will always remember is my last communication with the historian. To be more precise, I will remember my communication with his daughter.
Occasionally, people send me notes about the stories I tell, which I am always grateful to receive because writing is solitary work. It is always nice when people tell you they appreciate what you are doing.
Last summer, I wrote a series of columns about my favorite island in the Florida Keys, Indian Key. After it was published, I received a note from Mr. Viele’s daughter, who was writing on behalf of her father. She wanted to tell me how much he appreciated and enjoyed reading my column, and the message I received could not have left me feeling more warm and fuzzy.
Recognizing that I have refined my writing style a bit since he reviewed my book more than a decade ago, I wonder if he remembered his reaction to “Snorkeling the Florida Keys” while reading my column. I wonder because John Viele is one of the reasons I developed such a passion for the history of this island chain. Over the last decade, his silent influence is one of the reasons I have continued to work at becoming a better historian and producing historically accurate stories about what I think we would both agree are a pretty awesome string of islands.
While I never actually shook his hand and said “thank you for helping me to become a better local historian” (and leaving behind a trail of such easily identifiable footprints), I expressed my admiration for her father’s work when I responded to her most unexpected and memorable email. The Florida Keys are a richer place because of John Viele, and if I cannot give that message to him, I want to deliver it, once again, to his family and those who loved him.