From London to Naples

Sunday, January 25, 2015 Pam Blackwell stands at the post she has occupied for 42 years.

It's a long way from London, England to Naples, Florida, but Pam Blackwell made the journey over 40 years ago. Though she hasn't lost her distinct British accent, she hasn't been back to England since 1973.

Blackwell's husband was stationed at the South Ruislip Air Station near London in 1954, during the Korean conflict. They were married in 1955, and the first of four children was born in England.

After a brief stint in Bowling Green, Kentucky, upon their arrival back in the States, the Blackwell's made the welcome move to the warmer climate of Naples, Florida, where he accepted a position as a medical technician at the Naples Hospital.

submitted photo Bing Crosby stands with his friends at the Naples Quality Inn and golf Resort. Mario Vochasamio, owner, Sal Falani, golf pro, Frank D'Augustino and Dominic D'Augustino. The photo, taken in the early 80's, is from Blackwell's scrapbook.

"Back in 1969, there were no rentals in the Naples area," Pam Blackwell explained. "So the hospital bought up apartments and homes for their employees. My husband worked there for 17 years."

At that time, Pam Blackwell, herself, began a long association with the Quality Inn Hotel and Golf Resort in Naples, as a waitress and bartender.

"I've been here longer than the current owners," admitted the statuesque blonde. "I came in 1973 and worked under the old owners, who were into real estate development. They had beautiful dinners. Oh, my, back then, the ladies wore long gowns, and the men wore ties. It was quite elegant. An elderly man played the organ, and his 80-year old wife played the drums!" The beautifully remodeled dining room has been Blackwell's home away from home for half her life.

This early era in Florida history must have been rather scandalous, as "60 Minutes" once came down to investigate the fraudulent selling of swampland by a group known as Golf America.

In fact, Blackwell's mother-in-law and father-in-law came from Kentucky and bought property in Naples, so the whole family relocated during the 1970's.

The current owners bought the hotel in 1974 and have made significant improvements.

"These two three-story buildings were quite the sensation when they were built," Blackwell explained. "They were the largest buildings in Naples at the time!"

The new owners, Robert and Mario Vochasanio, also relocated the pool, built the "chickee" hut next to it, and completely revamped the restaurant.

As an interesting sideline, Blackwell explains that the Seminole Indians are the only ones allowed to build the thatched roofs, such as the one on the chickee hut. ("Chickee" means "house" in the Seminole language.)

Difficult as it is to believe today, the beautiful golf green behind the current club was then "one big lake," before the current owners brought in 27,000 loads of dirt and created an 18-hole golf course which attracted golfers from across the world.

Blackwell has seen a number of famous celebrities over the years, as the hotel hosted golf tournaments. She has collected a photo album, full of familiar faces.

"Bing Crosby was a quiet man," Blackwell remembers. "I really didn't have occasion to speak with him, but I remember him sitting out there at the open air tables."

Other faces include Perry Como, Claude Akins, and James Garner.

"James Garner was the most handsome man I ever saw," Blackwell said. "And he was so nice."

These days, Blackwell works only one day a week, coming in on Wednesdays to wait on the Men's Golf Association members, as she has for years.

"So many of them have passed on, over the years," Blackwell said, sadly. "We used to host the Italian tournaments. There would be 200 Italians here in this dining room. I worked every one of the tournaments."

Blackwell lives with her daughter and granddaughter these days, since her husband died. She has four children, four grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

"And two on the way!" says the proud 82-year-old grandmother.

Though Pam Blackwell hasn't been back to London in 42 years, she seems to have made a happy home for herself, here among the palm trees and sunshine of Naples, Florida, where the winter temperatures allow golf year round.