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Ralph Stayer

This month we have two books written by authors from the Naples/Fort Myers area, both with a common theme: overcoming adversity. Adversity is rapidly becoming a worn-out cliché due to its overuse by sports figures, but there is no better word to describe the conditions encountered by the people in these two books. We start with Fourth Down in Dunbar by David Dorsey, a local writer who spent 20 years as a sports reporter for the Fort Myers News-Press, and who is currently senior editor of Gulfshore Business magazine. He is a long-time resident of Fort Myers and knows his subject well. 

Dunbar is an area in Fort Myers that gets its name from its high school; a new Dunbar High was built after the old one was shuttered. This area has produced an extraordinary number of athletes that have made it to the NFL, including Deion Sanders, Jevon Kearse, Earnest Graham and many others. But for every young man who made it, there are many great athletes who didn’t. This book is a collection of stories about these young men and the conditions they faced in their childhoods.

The common themes that run through the book regarding this neighborhood are single mothers, drugs, improper role models and the transition from segregation to integration that began in the late ’60s. The story starts with Pompey Green, Karl Morrison and James Stephens. They were the first African Americans to earn college football scholarships from Fort Myers. They set the example for others to follow; they showed that there was a path out of the low-income community that did not involve drug dealing. Drugs were everywhere in Dunbar, and dealing them was easy money. There were very few jobs available and dealing drugs was tempting when young people saw the dealers flashing big bank rolls and lots of gold. The common denominator for those who avoided the drug and prison scene was positive role models: They had someone in their lives who they could look up to and emulate. That was usually a coach, but there were other men who also filled that need.

Some great athletes made it and others didn’t—but think of all those young people, boys and girls, who were not athletes. They outnumber the athletes 100-1 and they were trapped in Dunbar with not much chance to escape. They are in this book and are a part of it. These are powerful stories that bring to life the difficult circumstances that far too many of our youth deal with daily. This book is well worth your time, and it will increase your understanding and empathy.

Fran Fidler lives in Naples and is a fitness trainer. His book, Tiny’s Wall, was sent to me by a fellow ND class of ’65 graduate who works out with Fran. 

Fidler grew up in the projects of South Boston, and was sexually abused from the age of 4 until he was 16 by his uncle, who threatened him if he told anyone. Fidler acquiesced. His family wanted to appear like a normal family and Fidler knew instinctively they would not believe him, so he learned to submerge his feelings behind a wall of silence. His mother was an alcoholic. She worked various jobs and engaged in prostitution as a sideline. There were always strange men coming and going and Fidler could hear the activity through the thin walls of their house. His mother was a mean drunk who verbally and physically abused Fran and his sister Kathy. He also hid this behind his wall. He didn’t have any friends, because he couldn’t talk to others for fear of revealing something about himself and his life. 

He turned to sports in high school, becoming an excellent swimmer because he put all his energy into the sport. He had chances to swim in college, but couldn’t make himself follow through, so he started to focus on Iron Man contests—but the years of repressing his pain caught up to him. He became an alcoholic and almost died, but what could have ended his life became a blessing instead. Fidler is an amazing man. He taught himself to write so he could tell his story in his own words. It is a compelling story about forgiveness and rising above. 

Ralph Stayer, an avid reader and owner/CEO of Johnsonville Sausage, leads a book club in Naples with about a dozen other high-power friends. The group only reads non-fiction as a way to keep learning and sharpening the mind. Every month, Stayer shares the latest page-turners earning a permanent spot on his ever-expanding bookshelves.

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