If you want to know about local history, seek out Doris Reynolds.
The woman Neapolitans know as the City of Naples’ official historian often writes and speaks about Collier County’s bygone days. She’s highly qualified in that role: Reynolds moved to Naples in 1952, and personally knew many of the public figures who helped to shape the area, including entrepreneur Julius “Junkie” Fleishmann and Naples’ first mayor, Speed Menefee.
On her on own history, however, she has remained mostly silent.
Now, she has decided to relate the story of life before Naples — and specifically, her troubled and tumultuous childhood and teenage years — as part of “Eat, Pray, Love,” a special, non-denominational women’s retreat event at Emmanuel Lutheran Church on March 12.
Breaking a silence
Revealing these details puts Reynolds in an uncommon spot.
She doesn’t particularly want to talk about her past, and rarely has before, except to close friends. Nor is she in the habit of doing things she doesn’t like to do, joking that the best word a person can learn is “no.”
Plus, she’s a bit of a self-admitted recluse. Her Old Naples cottage is an oasis, a casually chic hideaway by the sea. The rooms are filled with folk art, books and keepsakes from her far-flung travels. Her constant companion is Lucy, a rescued Maltese mix who seems to instinctively know where Reynolds will sit next.
Finally, the story she has to tell is painful, which makes it doubly difficult to share. But she is also convinced that by doing so, she may be able to help other women who have experienced adversity.
“I feel that if I overcame what I overcame, anyone can do it,” Reynolds says. “It’s not easy. I haven’t had an easy life.”
Emmanuel’s Rev. Deborah Fergus agrees. Reynolds does not attend Emmanuel, or any local church, but after Reynolds spoke with Rev. Fergus about her early years, Fergus believed she would bring something extraordinary to the women’s retreat.
“She touches on a lot of things in women’s lives that you just don’t talk about,” Fergus says.
Poverty and misery
Reynolds says that it’s likely that most people believe she was born to wealth or privilege, but nothing could be further from the truth. Her hometown is Kane, Pa., a small town in the Allegheny Mountains of Appalachia. Her father was a Russian immigrant, and her mother hailed from the Ukraine.
The household was grindingly poor, and her parents and siblings were dysfunctional and abusive. She declines to say much more on the nature of the abuse, preferring to tell certain details of her story only at the retreat.
When Reynolds was 8, the family moved to Trenton, N.J. She holds few fond memories of the city, except one: Across the street from the family’s home lived a boy who was handicapped. Many of the children in the neighborhood made fun of him, but he and Reynolds became friends.
Eventually, he taught her how to read.
“That opened up a whole new life for me,” she says.
Reynolds never forgot him, and later, named her only child after him: Kenneth. Her family situation became so unbearable there that Reynolds left home — at age 13. Her parents had separated, and she had some inkling that her father was in South Carolina. She didn’t want to reunite with him, but she did hope that he might give her some money. So she headed to Charleston, where she landed a job as an au pair.
Reynolds stayed until a spot at the Charleston Navy Yard opened up. She lied about her age to get the position, but it was worth it: Suddenly, she was earning $100 a week. By 17, Reynolds was married and had her son. After World War II she moved to St. Petersburg, where she started a successful public relations business. She also divorced Kenneth’s father after what was another trying time in her life.
Naples, the haven
Soon, Naples appeared on her horizon. “This is the kind of place that was a sanctuary. And it was for me,” she says. “I could forget about my past. I could bring up my son. I could feel safe here. It was almost a dream place.”
Living in Naples also gave Reynolds a chance to nurture her love of writing. As young as 15, she wrote short stories. Although she decided to pursue a different career, in retirement she was able to write for pleasure. She’s written two books, and her work has appeared in national publications, such as the New York Times, and been nationally syndicated.
This year, she’ll mark her 25th anniversary as a columnist for the Daily News. Her “Let’s Talk Food” column appears each Wednesday in the Neapolitan food section. Reynolds claims, and no one disputes her, that she’s the oldest food columnist writing in America.
“I write something almost every day,” she says.
A happy destination
Reynolds says she has decided to call her presentation “A journey from despair to health, happiness and healing.”
Reynolds turns 86 this month, and as she looks back on her life, she ticks off the things she has done. It’s a list to be proud of: She’s had a successful public relations career and owned numerous businesses. She’s a writer and lecturer. She flew on the Concorde and rode on the Orient Express.
She has loyal and loving friends and a wonderful grandson. And don’t forget Lucy, the world’s greatest dog.
Her early upbringing was traumatic, but some good can still come from the hard knocks, Reynolds believes.
“That’s why I’m doing this,” she says.
“I think my life proves that even if you have an abusive family and tragic happenings in your life, little formal education, little parental love, that you can still have a full and productive life.”