Adrift on a River of Grass

Relentless Everglades activist Joe Podgor once was lost, but now he's found peace

He was South Florida's most prominent environmental advocate. As executive director of Friends of the Everglades, Joe Podgor was the voice of Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her final years, a passionate spokesman for his mentor in warning of the dangers posed by Big Sugar, developers, and polluters. On issues such as the Everglades and drinking water, he was encyclopedic, witty, and very quotable, a favorite of local reporters and the national press alike.

After years of volunteer work, Podgor in the mid-Nineties was also poised to begin drawing a modest, half-time salary in return for his eighteen-hour days laboring for Friends of the Everglades. True, the pay offered was only $13,000 per year, but with a series of part-time jobs and low-rent apartment over a barber shop, he could make it.

At age 48 his environmental renown also led the heavyset, bespectacled Podgor to an unlikely romance. An old flame from his days as an English major at the University of Pennsylvania got in touch after she saw him on CNN. "I later saw the film, and they shot me from behind so it looked like an elephant stampede going the other way," he allows. "Not flattering. But she not only recognized me, she followed up."

After Friends of the Everglades dumped him, Joe Podgor retreated, but now he's on the move again
Bill Cooke
After Friends of the Everglades dumped him, Joe Podgor retreated, but now he's on the move again

They arranged to meet. On the very weekend that Podgor climbed into his Mitsubishi minivan and headed off to Pennsylvania for a reunion with his onetime girlfriend, he was featured on the cover of the January 29, 1995, issue of Tropic, the Miami Herald's respected Sunday magazine, in a salute to "The Committed," one of a handful of dedicated community activists who never seemed to quit.

Alas, by the time Podgor returned to Miami, the world had turned. In a coup d'état, a new Friends of the Everglades board of directors fired him and locked him out of the Miami Springs office he had rented for eleven years, suggesting he was guilty of laziness and sloppy bookkeeping. Not only did he never collect any of the promised salary, he says the board stiffed him on $18,000 in documented expenses as well.

Despite Podgor's vehement denials of wrongdoing, colleagues shunned him. He was wracked by vertigo and migraine headaches. Eventually even Marjory, then in her 104th year, stopped calling to ask if Joe would take her out for dinner and a Manhattan. Then the bottom really fell out: "I got a Dear Joey phone call from my sweetie in Pennsylvania," Podgor sighs. "Another old boyfriend came around and she chose him."

The saga of Joe Podgor is best heard over a late-morning breakfast at a table by the front window in the Cozy Corner, a wrinkle-in-time coffee shop just off the traffic circle in downtown Miami Springs that serves as his de facto office. Outside the window is a small town that seems movie-set improbable, a relic of the Fifties where life flows with anachronistic languor.

"Hey, Joe," says restaurant owner Carole Coons, who takes Podgor's order -- omelet with onions and green peppers, toast, and decaf coffee -- and then sets a big bottle of hot sauce on the table.

Now 55 years old, Podgor is a big man -- 6-5 and more than 300 pounds -- and though he seems barely to fit his legs under the Cozy Corner table, he is at home in Miami Springs, an Opie from Mayberry grown large. He is an engaging speaker with a rich baritone, but his manner is boyish. When the omelet arrives he douses it with fiery Louisiana Pure Crystal condiment, flicks away a wave of straw-blond hair that keeps breaking over his left eye, and digs in. "You want some of this?" he asks. "I'm only going to eat half."

Podgor was born in Philadelphia, the elder of two sons. His mother was of Pennsylvania Dutch stock, his father the U.S.-born son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. His dad was a silk-screen pioneer, an inventor, and a proponent of a vigorous outdoor lifestyle who moved the family south after discovering the Miami-Battle Creek Sanitarium, the health spa founded by physician-nutritionist-cereal maker John Kellogg. (Opened as the Hotel Pueblo in 1927, the building on Curtiss Parkway has been designated an historic site by the city. It now houses the Fair Havens Center, a nursing home.)

Transplanted at the age of twelve, Podgor says he arrived here at the perfect age to begin exploring the woods and waterways of his new hometown. He fished in the Ludlam Canal, kept a pet opossum, and developed a naturalistic religion that left him a "monotheistic semiagnostic with a respect for Mother Earth."

He began taking note of environmental issues, he recalls, when he saw that the white fishing line he tossed into the water was black with oil when he rewound it onto the reel. After graduating from college, he threw himself into the fray, working for a while at Florida International University on a drinking-water-quality research project and involving himself in community affairs. He met Douglas in the mid-Seventies when he asked her to serve as queen of Miami Springs's annual river regatta. "She agreed to take part if she could paddle her own canoe," he laughs.

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