Polk Praises Pioneers at 2019 Event

Historic association honors 7 Polk Pioneers for lifetime contributions to community

The seven honored county residents created a legacy by touching lives and making history through 643 years of living.

BARTOW — They were teachers, ranchers, firefighters, nurses and locomotive engineers.

One was the youngest of 18 children, another was the first black head coach in Polk County after the schools were integrated in 1968. Yet another ran the family ranch in Haines City while her husband served in World War II.

All of them spent their lives in Polk County. Collectively, they totaled 643 years of living.

These are the seven 2019 Polk Pioneers who were honored by the Polk County Historical Association during a luncheon at the Bartow Civic Center on Thursday.

Myrtice Young, historic preservation manager for the Polk County History Center, lauded the honorees as she introduced them at the gathering:

‒ Elna Combee Bowen, 97, a fourth-generation Polk Countian, who grew up in Davenport, where her father, Daniel Boone Combee, worked in citrus and made chair seats from the skins of animals in the area. After graduating from Haines City High School, she married Jean Bowen in 1939 and together, they managed the 5,000-acre Crescent Valley Ranch owned by P.E. Williams. While her husband fought in World War II, Bowen became the ranch foreman.

‒ Ralph Clements, 90, lived in the phosphate company town of Pierce as a child. He learned how to operate a steam locomotive before he was 15 by riding with his father, who was the engineer. Before long, he was a locomotive fireman in Pierce, then an engineer. He operated the last locomotive at Pierce — “the 143” — when it was retired in 1959. He operated diesel locomotives for several years before moving into management. He retired in 1989, but still plays golf every week.

‒ Angeline Keaton Davis, 92, grew up in the Pughsville and Florence Villa communities in Winter Haven, graduating from Jewett High School. She began playing piano in her church, and by the time she was 8, her talent was heard in churches throughout the community. She spent her career as a private duty nurse while raising six children with her husband, “Slim.” In 2001, the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce honored her with its Bankers Cup Award for her civic contribution.

‒ Arnold Ray Oates Sr. was born in Indiana, but has spent 75 of his 82 years in Polk County. Growing up in the Pughsville community of Winter Haven, he served as both a firefighter and police officer for the city. He and his late wife, Ossie, were married for 44 years and raised eight children.

‒ Alvin Lloyd Pearsall Sr., 90, became Polk County’s first black head coach following desegregation in 1968. He recorded more than 300 wins in his 40-year career, including championship titles while at Bartow and Lake Wales Roosevelt. In 2010, he was inducted into the Florida Association of Basketball Coaches Court of Legends Hall of Fame. Born in Lake Wales in 1929, he was the oldest of 11 children, and was paid 25 cents a week to deliver as many as 400 newspapers a day each morning without a bike, and never was late for school. A prior obligation in North Florida kept him from attending Thursday’s ceremony.

‒ Wilhelmina Darby Spires, 97, was the youngest of 18 children in her Florence Villa family. When she was 22 — divorced and with four young children — she enrolled at Bethune-Cookman College and received her bachelor’s in education. She retired after 37 years of teaching. As an educator, she shared her love of learning with her five children, who grew up to become an electrical engineer, a school principal, a medical doctor, a history teacher and one who works in various areas of the medical field. Of her 14 grandchildren, five have master’s degrees and one holds a doctorate.

‒ Violet Adair Vickers has lived in Davenport all of her 95 years. After marrying James Monroe Vickers in 1946, the couple bought a dairy on the city’s east side, where Horse Creek flowed through their property. They also owned a seed company for two decades. During World War II, she worked for the Atlantic Coast Line railroad, and later for a candy factory and a soda shop.

Suzie Schottelkotte can be reached at suzie.schottelkotte@theledger.com or 863-533-9070. Follow her on Twitter @southpolkscene.

Jun. 21, 2019, The Ledger