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Community takes control of its own destiny

By Staff | Aug 26, 2010

Don Graf

As Cape Coral made the transition from a Rosen brothers vision to a full fledged city, the earliest of the municipal pioneers were faced with the challenge of delivering upon the services that a city – newly formed or otherwise – are required to offer.

Many Cape residents in the late 1960s felt they were being largely ignored by Lee County government.

Road repair, maintenance issues, representation – these are but a few of the complaints Cape residents had in those early, according to city historian Paul Sanborn.

With the Cape’s population quickly booming, Sanborn said it was simply time for the would-be city to take its destiny in its own hands.

“The feeling was we needed to be our own masters, so to speak,” Sanborn said. “People didn’t feel they were getting the services out of the county they deserved.”

CONTRIBUTED Cape Coral’s first mayor, Paul Fickinger, with his wife, Elsie, and local Realtor Rhonda Beyer, right.

With the Cape Coral Civic Association leading the way, a charter committee was put together to investigate what incorporation truly meant.

Sanborn said not only Lee County, but Gulf American Corporation, also provided some basic services, acting as the city government before there ever was one.

Sanborn was an employee of the Gulf American Corporation and the Rosen brothers.

“We did everything the city would normally do, but piece by piece we turned it over to the city,” Sanborn said. “It was Gulf American’s philosophy to get out and turn it over, because they were land developers.”

On Aug. 18, 1970, the city was officially incorporated by voters, and not long after that seven men were chosen to be its first city council.

They were Cleo F. Snead, representing District 1; Paul Flickinger representing District 2; J. Chandler Burton representing District 3; Robert G. South representing District 4; Gordon A. Berndt representing District 5; Lyman G. Moore representing District 6; and “Casey” Jablonski representing District 7.

Fickinger was selected by the council to serve as the city’s first mayor.

Sanborn said that all of those individuals have long since passed away. But they were instrumental, he said, in helping the city establish itself in those earliest days of incorporation.

“It was a trying time because it was all new,” he said.

As the city’s population boomed, and the new government began asserting itself as a viable municipality, people within the community began stepping up and taking on the challenge of public service.

One of those to heed the call was local businessman Don Graf, who would eventually become the city’s first elected mayor, serving from 1975-77.

Graf and his wife, Betty, moved their family from Milwaukee to Cape Coral in the early ’60s and proceeded to open a plethora of successful businesses in the city.

The building that houses a laundry mat, near Wendy’s on Cape Coral Parkway, once belonged to the Grafs, as did gas stations, a car rental business, a clock store and rental properties.

Don Graf quickly made a name for himself as an upstanding businessman and citizen, belonging to a number of civic organizations throughout the city, and sitting as the director of a local bank.

He was approached by other local business people to make a run for mayor, his wife, Betty, said.

“They backed him and worked diligently for him and he won,” she said. “He wanted to improve the city and help it progress.”

Graf passed away June 16, 1995.

Betty said he was happy to have been part of the city’s history and its future, helping to guide Cape Coral during the earliest days of incorporation.

But during the those early days, Betty said she didn’t want to leave friends and family in Milwaukee to relocate to Cape Coral, but her husband convinced her to come, saying that if she didn’t like what the Cape had to offer in a year, they would return.

Don believed in the city, she said. Next May will mark the 50th year that the Grafs have been in Cape Coral.

“When we originally came here, we had to go to North Fort Myers for bread, for banking, for any professional services, really,” Betty said. “But when we became a city, we still had many needs to travel over to Fort Myers for.”

Betty believes Don would be pleased with the progress the city has made in the 15 years since his death.

Veterans Parkway would have been very important to him, she said, and that despite the recent housing boom and bust, he would still believe the city’s destiny is a prosperous one.

Turning 87 in November, Betty said she still cuts all of her own grass, trims all of her own bushes and has little time “for getting old.”

Recalling her husband, and the early days of Cape Coral, she said Don was willing to take chances with all the business investments, doing so entirely with cash and their own money.

She said they lost upwards of a quarter of million dollars during their entrepreneurial days, but that did little to deter Don from pushing on and making a way for himself and his family in the once burgeoning city.

She said every woman should have a husband and every child should have a father as good as Don.

“I’ve forgotten a lot of the good stuff, and a lot of the not so good stuff as well, but that goes with life,” Betty said. “You have to accept it, you have to make a life for yourself, you can’t be on the negative side all of the time.”

Although Don, and many of the founding municipal fathers, are no longer with us, there are still plenty of others around who have heeded the call of public service through the city’s brief history.

Joe Mazurkiewicz was, by default, the city’s longest serving mayor, putting in 10 years over four terms in the 1980s and ’90s.

When Mazurkiewicz was elected to his first term in 1983, mayors were only serving for two years. In his fourth term, that time was changed to four years.

Never anticipating serving for a decade, Mazurkiewicz said he ran initially to prove that a young candidate could do well in a municipal election.

The city would not only see changes to its charter during Mazurkiewicz’s tenure, but the birth of the utilities expansion project and a population boom, among other challenges.

When his decade-long run was finally over, he said he knew it was time to move on.

“I had no expectations,” he said of his time in the mayor’s chair. “I stayed until I felt comfortable the city was up and running, and the utilities were up and running.”

If he could see the city accomplish anything in the 21st century, Mazurkiewicz said he would like to see Cape Coral recapture some of its political glory of the ’70s and ’80s, when the Cape made up a bulk of the county’s voting base, and politicians had to heavily campaign in the Cape if they were to be taken seriously.

“I saw the city take a role in the region’s leadership and we’ve fallen back a ways from then,” he said. “We used to be a political powerhouse in the county, used to lead the county in voting. Now there seems to be the absence of being a regional leader … I’m a little surprised by that.”

Mazurkiewicz hopes that more young people will become involved in civic matters throughout the city.

Other than the utilities expansion project still hanging in limbo, he said his greatest disappointment so far has been the decided lack of participation by young people in the civic process

“I had foreseen young business people and young professionals serving, but not as lifetime politicians,” he said. “I served 10 years, but that was a fluke. I had expectations of a lot more young people being involved.”