Two days after Carol Shaughnessy arrived on the island, she called her mom and asked her to send her stuff south. The 20-year-old was never going back to Minnesota.
“The decision wasn’t reasoned or even particularly rational,” Shaughnessy says. “It came from my bones.”
She had come to thaw out those bones and warm up with her beau. Though he was a no-show, Shaughnessy swears she felt the island’s heartbeat steadily beneath her feet and knew she was home.
“Back then, Key West was a haven for adventurers, from treasure hunters seeking shipwrecked Spanish galleons to the spiritual descendants of Prohibition rumrunners,” she says. “Shrimpers in white boots ruled the waterfront and lobsters and fish were free for the taking. Living was an impromptu affair.”
That was 1976. The pace was slow; dogs drowsed directly on Duval Street. There was no traffic in sight. Though rich in spirit, Key West’s economy was poor. Efforts were beginning, but tourism had yet to kick in. Instead, the industries du jour were commercial fishing (if they could afford the fuel) and pot smuggling, with more than a few city officials who pitched in.
“Everyone seemed to know they were living at the edge of a continent, in a renegade but strangely innocent world,” she said. “It was a place where a handshake meant more than a 20-page contract and people looked out for each other — in a way that many of us still do today.”
It wasn’t long before a group of nationally known creatives looked out for the starry-eyed young writer and shared their stories with her. There was Full Moon Saloon partner Vic Latham, novelist Phil Caputo, singer/songwriters Bertie Higgins and Jimmy Buffett, and pirate Phil Clark, who looked at 40 in Buffett’s song and gave his heart to Shaughnessy.
“To a certain extent, their way of life was ending, and I think they knew it,” she says. “I think they wanted me to carry on their love for Key West by making me the receptacle of their experiences.”
Some of the stories she’s written and some she won’t because, “there are still people around who probably wouldn’t want to see them,” she says.
But for every story unwritten are thousands more that are. For the last 25 years, she’s worked with NewmanPR, which has been the Tourist Development Council’s public relations agency for more than 40 years. Shaughnessy serves as senior account executive, Key West and Lower Keys correspondent and deputy director of the Florida Keys News Bureau.
“My work is about sharing my life with the media, sharing the fun and intriguing and quirky and sometimes totally bizarre things that happen here,” she says. “It doesn’t get better than that.”
That live news coverage on Florida Keys’ Mission: Iconic Reefs coral restoration? That magazine article on Robert the Doll? That travel blog post on the Key Lime Pie Festival? Chances are good that Shaughnessy was behind it — writing and distributing stories and media through wire and then connecting journalists to the stories first-hand.
“One of the things I love about the work I do is there’s always something different and exciting to be a part of,” she says. “It’s also great fun to be involved in a behind-the-scenes manner and be part of what’s going on in that sense.”
She tells me about a recent flight of endangered sea turtles flown here to warm up by a group of volunteer pilots called Turtles Fly Too.
“It’s such a joy to be a small part of sharing the incredible environmental work that is being done here,” she says. “Sharing the story of how environmentally connected the Keys are and how visitors can help us maintain that is one of the things we work hard at.”
I’ve seen it — that hard work. As my former editor at Key West Magazine, she mentored me on brevity and connection, how to make space sing when needed. As a friend, I am privy to her work practices, and I am here to report that there has never been anyone so dedicated to a place and the people in it.
“Every time I take a visiting media person around and show them this incredible Keys world and welcome them into the lifestyle for a day or two days, or whatever, it just reinforces my love for this place and my love for this life that we’re lucky enough to live,” she said.
We talk about that love on mornings I stop by while walking my dog, red hibiscus blooms nearby. Her cats soak up the sun.
“I am blessed with such a rich community of friends,” she says. “I met my husband here. He was not a Key Wester until I got through with him. We had 25 good years. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
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