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Adrift on a River of Grass

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

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."

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.

After that outing Podgor was soon a regular at Douglas's Coconut Grove cottage, where Friends of the Everglades, the group she founded in 1969, gathered to talk projects, eat cookies, and sip Scotch. Before long Podgor was the most active and visible Friend. While spearheading the battle to defeat a proposed jetport in the middle of the Everglades, he became a well-regarded authority on drinking water and the Biscayne Aquifer, and a respected environmental gadfly who spent more time at civic meetings and monitoring planning boards than he did at home.

While tending to the daily business of Friends -- education projects, lecturing, political campaigns, a newsletter -- Podgor also represented Douglas. "I took Marjory's agenda and I pushed it," he explains. "I did not invent Marjory Stoneman Douglas, but at a time when she was mostly bedridden and often incommunicado, I kept her a vital environmental force."

His personal life suffered. In fact, he admits, he had no personal life. Nor any money. He tied tarpon flies and traded them for haircuts in the shop below his apartment. He caught fish for dinner. He worked odd jobs: janitor, hobby-shop clerk, musical instrument sales. "I used the barter system," he says. He swapped his expertise on the computer for lessons on the pennywhistle.

"I don't think of myself as a crusader," he insists. "My idea of what I was doing was just trying to get people to do what they say they were doing. If a law calls itself an environmental protection act, let's see if it really does protect the environment."

Podgor takes a breath and neatly sets down his fork. "I'm still trying to drop a little weight," he offers, indicating the wedge of omelet as yet untouched.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas died in May 1998, and the following year Podgor's father passed on. His response to those losses was to withdraw. He stopped reading the newspapers, no longer compulsively tracking every environmental skirmish. Without his Friends of the Everglades post, he lost his seats on various oversight boards. "I was crushed, depressed," he recounts. "I felt like I had walked into a familiar neighborhood, a place I always thought was wonderful, and I got mugged."

Podgor's wallow in the sea of despond lasted for a couple of years. During that time changes took place. The barber shop closed, for example, and was replaced by a fishing-tackle store. Podgor dropped 50 pounds and took a part-time job clerking at a computer store in South Miami-Dade County.

And he picked up the tuba, an instrument he played in marching bands all through Miami Springs Junior High, Hialeah High School, and Penn. With several local buddies Podgor now plays Dixieland in a group called the Springs Jazz Society. "We're not very good yet," he confesses, "but we're making vests, we have straw boaters, and we're auditioning for a local restaurant gig."

In addition to his music, Podgor is edging back into the environmental movement at a critical time, when the eight-billion-dollar Everglades restoration plan is under way and turf wars are breaking out. He sits on the board of the Arthur R. Marshall Foundation, a West Palm Beach-based Everglades group, and has just been named chairman of the Miami Springs ecology board.

He has also met recently with current Friends of the Everglades members to discuss his still-unresolved claims for reimbursement. "We're negotiating," said Juanita Greene, who ended a one-year term as Friends president earlier this month. "We don't think we owe him $18,000, but we'd like to get him back working for Friends. He was one of my teachers, and he is greatly respected. But I know he still harbors some bad feelings."

Indeed Podgor does feel abused by the people he once worked with, though he is still passionate about environmental causes. He is not sure, however, if he wants to reclaim his role as chief publicist for the cause. "I'm a different guy now," he says, laying his fork across a plate now completely clean of omelet. "I've got a life. I have a new gal-pal. I don't want to be the guy always called by the press."

As Coons sweeps up the empty plate and refills the coffee cups, Podgor brushes the lock of hair from his eye. "There's nobody that doesn't like attention," he continues, "but my role may have run its course. I'm a salesman and my job was to sell the world on taking care of the Everglades. For years Marjory was the grand dame, but she wasn't up on everything, and I was her eyes and ears. I was the only guy who did anything. Now there are thousands involved in Everglades restoration. Now they don't need a salesman. They need someone to drive the train."


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