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Longboat Key Wednesday, Apr. 20, 2016 6 years ago

Virginia Sanders: A force for preservation

Virginia Sanders’ diminutive stature and cheery persona belied her passion for the environment.
by: Matt Walsh CEO

Virginia Sanders, the doyenne of all things environmental and artistic on Longboat Key, died Sunday morning. She was 93.

“There was nobody who cared more about our world and about Longboat than Virginia,” said friend and fellow Longboat Key Garden Club member Susan Landau. “She was unique.”

“She always had a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her lips,” said longtime friend Jeremy Whatmough. 

Sanders died after battling a series of illnesses over the past few years.

Dubbed “the conscience of Longboat Key” by Garden Club member Vicki Lyons, Sanders for nearly four decades was a force on the island. She was known as the Key’s leading environmentalist. But she also was deeply involved in the community.

“She was just an amazing lady and very devoted,” said Kumar Mahadevan, former CEO of Mote Marine Laboratory. 

Sanders had been a volunteer at Mote for nearly four decades, where she helped develop the programming for monthly meetings for the volunteers. 

Virginia Sanders, right, and daughter, Beth Rosenberg-Brewer

“She loved Mote,” said Beth Rosenberg-Brewer, Saunders’ daughter. “It was her favorite place to be. It was so special to her.”

Sanders remained involved with Mote up until her death and attended the monthly meetings in both February and March.

“She was a big cheerleader for everything Mote did,” Mahadevan said.

Not long after she and her second husband, the late Jack Sanders, moved in 1976 to Longboat Key, Sanders volunteered for the Longboat Key Turtle Watch, a volunteer group that monitored sea turtle nests on Longboat’s beach. It wasn’t long before that group teamed up with Mote’s turtle programs — which led to more involvement for Sanders.

“She was definitely a voice for little critters that couldn’t represent themselves,” said Turtle Watch Vice President Cyndi Seamon. “I just think she’s an inspiration for all of us.”

On Longboat Key, Sanders began illustrating and editing one of Mote’s publications. And that led to her becoming a longtime columnist in the Longboat Observer. With Dwight Davis, Sanders authored and illustrated the monthly column, “Marine Scene,” in which they educated the newspaper’s readers about any and every subject pertaining to marine life.

“What I remember about Virginia was her big smile, her red lipstick and she was always cheerful,” said then Longboat Observer Executive Editor Lisa Walsh. “She also always had her column in on time.”

Sanders became involved in the Garden Club, serving multiple years as president, and for more than 30 years, she spearheaded the club’s efforts on Arbor Day, donating at least one tree each year. The trees have been planted in Bicentennial Park and along Gulf of Mexico Drive.

Virginia Sanders carves her name into a leaf at last year's Arbor Day.

“Arbor Day was something she always enjoyed and looked forward to,” Rosenberg-Brewer said. “She truly loved doing that and loved the Garden Club.”

A year and a half ago, the club bestowed its “emeritus member” title on her.  

Sanders also developed the Key’s recycling program and offered recycled material to Waste Management.

If there was a community event on Longboat Key, Sanders was there to support it. Last year, at age 92 and in ill health, she rode in the Longboat Key Freedom Fest parade as its first grand marshal.

Virginia Sanders and Chamber of Commerce President Gail Loefgren at last year's Freedom Fest

“When I called her to inform her of the decision, she was so happy,” said Gail Loefgren, Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce president. “In spite of her health issues, she said she would be at the parade no matter what. The pure joy of watching her that day riding in the parade and then being surrounded by Longboat’s citizens who congratulated her and wanted to have her picture taken with them is one of my favorite memories.”

In the midst of all of this community involvement and volunteerism, Sanders filled her home on Hideaway Bay with her own colorful oil, watercolor and pen-and-ink paintings. She was prolific.

In Chicago, Sanders volunteered her time to teach art to underprivileged, inner-city children.

 “She was a very talented artist in her own right,” Rosenberg-Brewer said. “She was very gifted.”

Mahadevan said when he retired a few years ago, Sanders sketched a portrait of him on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico.

If you didn’t know Sanders, from the looks of her you likely would not have guessed the depth of her influence on Longboat Key.

Diminutive, petite and soft-spoken, Sanders was always chipper, ready with a smile. “She was such a nice lady, and so funny,” said Madelyn Spoll, former president of the Garden Club.

But she was determined in her environmentalism. Her proudest legacy on Longboat Key was the preservation of Sister Keys. From 1989 to 1992, Sanders teamed up with fellow Longboaters Rusty Chinnis and Anna Miller to form the Sister Keys Conservancy.

Rusty Chinnis and Virginia Sanders

They fought a developer’s plan to develop Sister Keys. In 1992, thanks to their efforts, the town purchased the islands, ensuring their preservation as mangrove wetlands. Sanders said this was her proudest accomplishment.

“Virginia was, from the very start, an invaluable resource on the Sister Keys Conservancy,” Chinnis said. “Everywhere she went, she would tell people about the Sister Keys and spread the word. Without her help, I’m not sure what we did could’ve happened.”

Born in 1922 in Norristown, Pa., Sanders was the younger of two sisters. Her mother died when she was a teenager. 

Sanders went on to attend and graduate from Montclair State Teachers College in Montclair, N.J. Afterward she became a junior high math teacher.

Sanders and her first husband, Edward D. Rosenberg, moved to Chicago in 1950 when he enrolled in law school. They divorced in the early 1970s. 

In 1977, Sanders married another Chicagoan, Dr. Jack Sanders, and the two moved to Longboat Key.

Since the 1950s, Sanders owned six orange tabby cats, each one named Hoody Poo.

“She always had an orange male tabby cat, always,” Rosenberg-Brewer said. “They were always very special to her.”

Throughout her life, Sanders remained in contact with the friends she made through her service and involvements.

“She was a good friend to so many people,” Rosenberg-Brewer said. “She kept in touch with everybody. She had a room in the house filled to the gills with letters.”

Sanders was preceded in death by her husband, Jack. She is survived by her daughters Nina Burke and her husband, Brian; grandsons Casey and Ryan Burke; and Beth Rosenberg-Brewer and her husband, Scott; granddaughter, Marjorie Brewer; and cat, Hoody Poo VI.

The family plans a memorial service in August on Longboat Key. Contributions can be made in Sanders’ name to Mote Marine Laboratory, the Longboat Key Garden Club and Sarasota Baywatch.

“I think everybody knew she saw the world through rose-colored glasses,” Rosenberg-Brewer said. “She was always sunny and always optimistic. She stayed involved in everything until the very end. She just really enjoyed life.”


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