Extraordinary Talents and Long-time Loves

There is a special quality in the welcome one receives when stepping through the threshold of Gene Heide and Celia Catlett’s home in the West Garden. Gene and Celia offer kind greetings, but there is a warmth emanating from the polished natural wood surfaces and lovingly tended plants found throughout their home that captures the imagination.  Here lives an exceptionally grounded couple and I looked forward to our chat.

Truth be told, I had been told Gene did some wood working before I met him, but I was not expecting the museum quality of wood carving that he and Celia shared with me that rainy afternoon.  I soon learned that this rare talent emerged very early in his life and it’s a charming story.

It started with his father’s cigars.  In those days, during the Depression, the paper rings on cigars could be collected and returned for premium gift, like trading stamps, remember those? Gene and his older brother were eyeing the pearl-handled pocket knife, so their father set up the challenge.  The pocket knife would go to the boy with the best grades.

Gene, who earned a PhD and spent his life in academia, was the better student with all A’s. He claims it was because he didn’t get into trouble like his brother who got only one B.  Armed with the tiny knife, which was still sizable for a 6-year old boy, he carved toys like swords for roughhousing with his friends.

Most children try things, play for a while and move on to the next, but working the wood with his knife was a long-lasting love for Gene.  When Celia handed me two small busts carved from dark wood, one clearly of Abraham Lincoln, the other of Jesus, I was stunned when she said Gene carved them when he was only 12.   His little hands brought out stunning detail and symmetry in the faces.  This was not child’s work!

Of course he didn’t stop there and went on to make at least two housefuls of furniture.  The coffee table at my feet with the striking grain and smoothly polished finish was his artwork, as was the desk by the window with the artfully “rough hewn” edge.  In their foyer, a handsome cherry grandfather clock stands sentinel, reminding Gene of the cherry tree which was cut down to make way for a university construction project under his watch.  He’s happy he was able to cure the wood and put it to good use.

While Gene had been a wood-carving university administrator, Celia was an English professor with an interest in children’s literature.  Gene’s hand-made bookcases held her collection of great literature and fairy tales. And somewhere on those shelves was certainly a copy of her own book, Nonsense Literature for Children: Aesop to Seuss.

Gene and Celia met while both were working at Eastern Connecticut State University.  Gene’s wife, Betty, was the Assistant Vice President  of Student Affairs and worked closely with Celia who was the Director of Writing. Betty faced down Alzheimer’s and eventually passed away.   It was sometime after a reception honoring her career at the university that Gene and Celia got together as  couple.

They share this history and many interests with a peaceful ease.  They’ve had some adventures together, too, and both point to their trips to Jamaica as real highlights.  On two separate occasions, Celia’s work took her to a program training teachers in Jamaica. Living there in Lucea, near Montego Bay, their eyes were opened to reality of poverty on the island.  Teaching in rundown facilities at night despite rolling electricity outages, they came to admire the teachers themselves who faced these circumstances on a daily basis.

As they’ve settled into life at Plymouth Harbor, the moved in less than a year ago, they have kept living life as they always have. Celia volunteers as a tutor at Booker Elementary School and this year will be spending a whole day there and across the street at the North Sarasota Public Library.

They love the surroundings at Plymouth Harbor and take advantage of them by swimming and walking as often as possible.  Celia keeps her heirloom 1947 Grumman canoe on hand to ply the waters of Sarasota Bay with Gene or one of her daughters when they visit.  And Gene can be found down in the wood working shop, fixing furniture for his neighbors or doing what he does best, making something extraordinary.