Villa am Meer – the final chapter

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I’m on my way home from Longboat Key today. What a week. The weather was pretty cool and windy most days, but at least the sun was out, so nobody seemed to mind much. My presentation for the Longboat Key Historical Society was on Thursday, so of course, I spent every single day working on it (because I hadn’t started it yet).

When we arrived in Longboat Key on Saturday afternoon, I picked up a copy of the Lonbgoat Key Observer and there, right on the cover, was the story about me and Villa am Meer. On the cover! I couldn’t believe it. People I didn’t even know were telling me how excited they were about attending my presentation on Thursday. (The one I hadn’t started yet.) I politely nodded and broke into a sweat.

On Monday, I met with Monika Wehofsich and her daughter, Katja, from Hamburg, Germany. Hertha Kohl was Monika’s great aunt (her grandfather’s sister), so they had traveled all the way to Florida to see Villa am Meer and hear my talk. Monika had contacted me in January after running across my blog on the internet. She had just begun to do some genealogy research on her grandfather’s family and was blown-away after discovering my story about Villa am Meer. She contacted me by phone in February and we chatted for almost an hour. (I should note, Monika was an English teacher in Germany, and her daughter Katja went to college in England, so they both speak fluent English. Thank goodness.)

Monika had quite a story to tell. It seems there was a bit of a kerfuffle back in the 80s when Monika’s family was contacted by an American lawyer who had been hired to investigate the settlement of the Kohls’ estate. Hertha Kohl had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1968, and after Hermann Kohl died in 1971, Hertha’s will was amended, leaving the entire fortune to the Benedict family. The probate judge had been told that Hertha had no remaining relatives in Germany, when in fact, that was not true. Thus, the kerfuffle.

There was another comment on my blog from someone named Hans who mentioned that he used to work for Hermann Kohl. Monika happened to see the comment, so she decided to contact Hans to find out more information about Hermann and Hertha Kohl. As it turns out, Hans and his wife, Ursula, are also from Germany and now live in Sarasota. Monika and Katja met with them on Tuesday and convinced them to also attend my presentation. (The one I had barely started at that point.)

Later in the week, I was contacted by Chet Pletzke, a member of the Longboat Key Historical Society, who told me people had been contacting him all week about the presentation. He expected it to be their largest crowd ever. Gulp.

By the time Thursday rolled around, my face had broken out like a teenager and I hadn’t slept in four days. The pressure was really on to deliver something wonderful. Something well-planned, well-rehearsed, well-done.

Good lord, what had I gotten myself into?

I met Chet earlier in the afternoon to make sure we wouldn’t run into any technical difficulties. Which, of course, we did. After much hair pulling, Chet finally determined that the cable connecting my laptop to the projector was bad, so we had to do some last-minute Macgyver-ing to make everything work. Chet mentioned again that they were expecting a large crowd. I went back to the condo and had a beer.

By 6pm, an hour before my talk, Ross and I were on our way. Earlier in the week I had cajoled my entire family (husband, children, parents, brother, niece, nephew) into attending, just to make sure there would be some seats filled. Now I was worried there may not be enough.

I made a swing through the crowd to see who was there. I met my mother’s cousin, Barb, who had driven down from Orlando with her husband to see my talk. I met people from Indiana, New York, and even Spicer, Minnesota… my own hometown… all there to see my presentation. (Which I had just started five days ago.)

In the end, it went just fine. Once I started talking about “my house,” everything just felt easy and natural. It was like sharing a story about an old friend.

But the real magic happened at the end of the night. It turns out I wasn’t the only one who had fallen in love with Villa am Meer. Others had stories and photos to share as well. Others had dreamed and wondered about this magical place… curious about the mysteries it held within its sturdy, stone walls.

And then, after most people had already filed out, Monika took me by the arm and told me she wanted to introduce me to someone. She led me over to a small group where Katja, Hans and Ursula were chatting with a tall woman in a blue scarf. She had long dark hair and seemed somehow familiar.

“This is Elena Benedict Smith,” said Monika. “Elena Duke Benedict’s daughter.”

I about fell over. I had no idea that one of the Benedict daughters was in the audience that evening. She took two small, laminated photos out of her purse and handed them to me. One was a picture of six young girls lined up on the stairs of their Purchase Street home in Harrison, New York. The other was a photo of Elena’s mother, Elena Duke Benedict, sitting on the grass and playing with her young daughters.

There was so much I wanted to tell her in that moment. I wanted to tell her how Villa am Meer had taken me through a mid-life crisis and turned me into the writer I had always wanted to become. I wanted to tell her that I felt she was very brave to have shown up that night, not knowing where my story might lead. And mostly, I wanted to tell her that by sharing this story, I sincerely hoped something good had come from it… something good for her family. My need to tell the story… my compulsion and dedication to it… was like a pull I’d never felt before. It was bigger than me, and it made my life feel purposeful. I wanted to know if she had felt it, too.

I don’t know how this story will end… or if it ever will. I don’t know where it will lead me next. I can only trust that I’ll feel the pull again when the time is right. Until then, peace to all whose lives this story has touched.

Thank you for following me on the journey.

Watch the video of my 2013 presentation to the LBK Historical Society…

Next time… back to Jacob… Kevin’s story.

13 Comments

  1. Kathy Alm... |

    What a great “almost” ending to a continuing, interesting history of architecture, family, and a love of story telling. You handled it all so well, and we really felt your dedication to the saga. Bless the Kohl and Benedict families for sharing this with us, as well as you, Joy, one of the lights in our lives – always!

  2. Susan Dressel |

    Joy, let your internal light shine on!!

  3. Elena Benedict-Smith |

    Hi Joy,
    Just wanted to say that I certainly wasn’t expecting to meet you. Indeed, my friend Ron had to drag me to see you Thursday night because I wanted to remain totally anonymous. Our parents always counseled us tall girls to “keep a low profile” and we always have tried to do so. And I certainly didn’t want the history of my mother – business and personal – publicly exposed. But it was a fabulous surprise meeting the Trapps and Hans and Ischi (?) his wife, who both worked for Norda. And I have to admit I now get how you fell in love with Villa Am Meer. I love it and miss it incredibly. Good luck to you , Elena Benedict-Smith

  4. Betsy Bonnema |

    What an adventure! Congrats on your presentation and for touching so many lives! Very inspiring!

  5. Hans Eugster |

    It was an incredible experience to meet Joy Baker and
    listen to her lecture on The Villa am Meer. She has such charm and enthusiasm about her pet project. Monika and
    Katja represented Hermann and Hertha Kohl’s family from Germany and contributed much to our understanding of Kohl’s roots. The biggest surprise of course was meeting Elena Benedict whom I had seen last in 1969
    in Spain where her father had sent me to watch one
    of his investments. Elena put a human face to the
    story without trying to upstage Joy Baker. Thank you
    Joy, Monika, Katja and Elena for everything.

  6. Monika Wehofsich |

    Joy,
    having returned home I read your momentary end to this story. I was deeply touched by it! It was just great meeting you and your family and Hans and Uschi as contemporaries of Norda-times and Elena. All this together made up a great event and I am glad that Katja and I made the trip to Sarasota-LBK to see what had been part of our family which had got ” lost “.
    You have presented this Villa am Meer-story in a very sensitive way and you know how to handle details.
    I am sure that we will come back and next time my husband would like to join in.
    Wish it wasn’t that far from here. Katja and I loved to be there!
    Congratulation and thank you very much, Joy!

  7. Evey Huntington |

    I’m on the Board for the LBK Historical Society. We appreciate your most interesting, knowledgeable presentation. It must have taken weeks of involvement. You brought in the largest crowd we have had in several years !!! Many thanks.

  8. This was a beautiful story/quest. I felt that I could greatly relate to your curiosity, your gift of writing-for-the-sake-of-the-story and the grace that is found in the immersion of such a piece of history.

    I grew up in Garfield, MN–just west of Alexandria ( a few counties away from you 🙂 ), and have LOVED the gift of growing up amongst extended family and the artifacts of our history in Douglas County. I believe it’s because of this, that your narrative really spoke to my soul in a familiar way.

    Thank you for this story!

  9. This was indeed a great read! My dad and brother, George Hapke,Sr. and George, Jr. both worked for Norda. Although I never met the ” girls” I hold them in my thoughts and prayers and all who were part of the Norda family.

  10. I was spending a rainy morning getting ready for NaNoWriMo. It begins this Sunday and I promised myself I would try it this year, no excuses. My daughter sent a text that said someone was arrested as a POI in the Jacob Wetterling case. I went to Websleuths to see what they were saying and one of the links they had posted led me to your blog. As you can see by the time stamp, I am still here. I got side tracked by your house. I think it caught my attention because I love old houses and I always wonder about the history of them. You have done such a beautiful job. The story you have written will continue to move and inspire people for years to come. You are a writer, Joy.

  11. Love this. I saw the front entrance by the road. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I told my niece, who had moved in with me along with her two kids as they had no place to go. The 4 of us decided to take a drive. I parked at a beach access North of this place, quite a distance as it was North of Publix! We set off walking the beach, well her 17 year old daughter wanted to wait in the Jeep. So my niece, her 10 year old son, & I set off for our journey. Ahhhhh we made it. But it was fenced in 🙁 a fun day.

  12. Joy, I just read this from the beginning. WOW! What a journey. I have been visiting LBK since 1970 when my parents bought a little place across from the Publix. My first walk on the sand, dive for sand dollars, shelling and countless other beachside events were there on that little island with my Mom, Dad and 2 brothers. I have walked and driven past that property since I was 5 years old and had conversations with my father about how wonderful it would be to own such a gem as we wondered…. “who lives there?”. I lost my Dad in December 2014 and now the little place is mine. I have been spending some time there lately getting it updated and was just there with my best friend. Our first walk on the beach, I had to take her the little beach house. It’s so different now. They have cleaned it up and preserved it as part of a much different property. Glad that they saved it, sad that the old pristine land is gone. Thank you for sharing all of this hard work. So glad I came upon it!

  13. What a wonderful story and you are a truly amazing writer. You have definitely found your calling. I found your blog through a link on Facebook about “Danny Newville – A Request From the Sheriff’s Office” that a friend had shared. After reading a few of your blogs on Danny Newville I decided to see what other blogs you had listed. Your story on Villa Am Meer caught my attention and I had to read it to the end. Thank you for sharing and will continue to follow your blogs.

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