Every year, on the third Monday in February, Americans celebrate Washington’s Birthday — a day more commonly known as Presidents’ Day. Believe it or not, there’s more to the holiday than taking a three-day weekend or catching a used-car sale. Originally established in 1885, in recognition of President George Washington, the day is meant to be a time to honor and reflect upon the service of all presidents — past and present. So, in celebration of the federal holiday, the Sarasota Observer tips its hat to three presidents who serve in "oval" offices on a local level.
+ Aeronautical Administration
Steve Sundheimer: President of the Sarasota RC Squadron
Four years ago, Steve Sundheimer had never flown an RC plane. In fact, he says he’s not sure he even knew what one looked like. After seeing signs for the Sarasota RC Squadron near the club’s flying fields at Rothenbach Park, his curiosity got the better of him, and he decided to see what it was all about.
During his first visit, he met a group of men as welcoming and helpful as they were passionate about their hobby: flying remote-control airplanes.
“I think that’s one of the defining characteristics of the club,” says Sundheimer. “They have a willingness to help anyone who has even the slightest interest in learning to fly.”
Sundheimer joined the club and logged in hours of practice on the club’s computer flight simulator and with a fellow club member on a dually controlled “buddy box” plane before he was ready for his first solo flight. He says the amount of concentration required to operate a plane, unassisted, can be intense and mentally exhausting.
“It was a knee-knocking experience,” says Sundheimer, who remembers sweating profusely during his first flight. “But, eventually, you get more comfortable.”
Today, Sundheimer is president of the club, and he enjoys what he describes as the potentially unlimited depth of involvement in the hobby. At the helms of one of the larger RC clubs in the country, with membership hovering around 300 members, Sundheimer says the club offers him an intellectual challenge and a social outlet.
“It’s been a real personal achievement,” he says of his journey from new member to president. “Learning to fly was one of the more interesting challenges of my life, and I’ve enjoyed the new personal relationships I’ve made.”
+ Foreign Affairs
Judi Stratton: President of the Friendship Force of Sarasota
Judi Stratton has a Christmas card list that never stops growing. As president of the Friendship Force of Sarasota, a non-profit cultural exchange program, each year, she exchanges cards with friends she’s made all over the world.
“I still keep in touch with the family who hosted me on my first trip to Bogota, Colombia,” she says. “When (the Bogota Chapter) came to Sarasota last May, my hosts sent a little gift for me, and I sent them back with one for them. It’s that kind of thing that I like about Friendship Force.”
When Stratton first heard about the organization in 2007, the retired French teacher knew the program was for her.
“It sounded right up my alley,” remembers Stratton. “I studied language in school, and I’ve always been interested in other cultures.”
Established by President Jimmy Carter 36 years ago, Friendship Force is a non-profit cultural exchange program designed to promote intercultural understanding and world peace. Club members travel to other countries, as well as host fellow members in their homes for weeklong exchanges.
“It’s about creating personal friendships around the world,” says Stratton. “It’s a simple concept, really.”
Stratton, who is in her second year of presidency, has participated in nearly every exchange the club has been involved in since 2008, and she says she enjoys being an ambassador for her country.
“Certainly, we need people working on creating peace in this world,” she says. “It’s fascinating to me to see how other people live, what their homes are like, what they have for dinner. In terms of doing what I can to make world better place, I want to be part of it.”
+ Homeland Security
Bonne Bryan: President of M.I.S.T. Paranormal Research Club
At the age of 16, Bonne Bryan awoke, frightened in her bed, with a pressure on her chest.
“I looked down and saw what looked like a person standing over me,” she says. “I reached out, but I passed through it with my hand.”
This was Bryan’s first experience with the supernatural, and it spawned a lifelong interest in investigating the paranormal.
“There’s so much out there that we don’t know,” she says. “That intrigues me. We don’t pay attention to what’s around us.”
In 2008, the Sarasota native joined Sarasota M.I.S.T., or Members Investigating Spiritual Transitions, a paranormal investigation club. She took on the role of president in 2010, after the former leader left the group.
As president of M.I.S.T., she and other members travel to some of Sarasota’s most haunted locations to try to collect evidence of spirits using equipment, including video and audio recording devices, thermometers and digital cameras.
With its history of Native American inhabitants, early settlers and, of course, the circus, Bryan says Sarasota is a hotbed for paranormal activity. The group has conducted successful investigations at the Ca d’ZAn, the Ringling Museum, Bob’s Train and the Sarasota Cemetery. Although she says it can be exciting to capture evidence on trips like these, she emphasizes that the real mission of the not-for-profit club is to help people in need.
“It’s not just about having a fun weekend and seeing a ghost,” says Bryan. “We’re here to help people. We’ve helped spirits cross over, and we’ve helped people who have had spiritual attachments. I hope to be able to visit more private homes, so that we can do whatever we can to help.”