If you believe that nothing good ever happens in the world anymore, keep reading. If you believe that newspapers are no longer an important resource — that they've lost their ability to mobilize a community, keep reading. And if you like a happy ending, well, certainly keep reading.
On March 14, 2012, the Daily News reported on a story entitled "Lost and Found." The story chronicled how local Naples resident Sunny Jackson accidently stumbled across a painting of herself — some 50 years after modeling for famous American artist Emile Gruppe.
Sadly, the reunion was a brief one; Jackson — who is supporting her daughter's family after the unexpected loss of her son-in-law — couldn't afford the painting's price tag. In an interview she said, "I can't spend that kind of money on a painting, every single extra penny I have right now is going to help my grandchildren."
The painting, which at that point was under the ownership of art dealership Art Link International, was packed up and shipped off to another show.
But readers of the Daily News wouldn't stand for Jackson to be separated from her painting. Within hours of the piece publishing, this reporter's email inbox was jammed with requests for how to help. Art Link International says that they too received many calls from people wanting to help Jackson buy the painting. And just two days later, on March 16, a letter to the editor from Earl Hodges ran in the paper, asking interested parties to call him if they wanted to chip in.
But all of the good-heartedness was almost for naught. By the time the article ran, Howard Brassner, president of Art Link International, already had a buyer lined up for the portrait. Naples resident Kathryn Strohmenger had seen the piece at the Naples International Art and Antique Fair, and knew it would be the perfect addition to her recently remodeled bedroom.
"I loved the simplicity of it. It was peaceful, charming and it was Old Naples," says Stohmenger, who is here in Naples for her third season. She spent her first two years here redoing her condo, and she was finally ready to add some art to the newly finished space.
Unaware of the story behind the portrait, Strohmenger and Brassner struck up a deal. And then Jackson's story ran in the paper, and Brassner's phones went crazy. Brassner had to make a decision.
"She called me about the painting not knowing anything about the story, we negotiated a price, one that was higher than the price I'd told Sunny, and then two hours later all the calls and emails began coming in," says Brassner.
One of the first calls Brassner got was from Earl Hodges. Brassner told him that the painting was spoken for, but if Strohmenger changed her mind, Hodges would be the first person on the list to get it.
"I got a lot of calls. Sunny really has a lot of people who love her," says Brassner.
Some of those people were perfect strangers, like Naples resident Bette Andrews.
"I read the story in the paper and it brought tears to my eyes," said Andrews, adding, "I said to myself, she can't afford to buy that painting, we've got to do something." Andrews reached out to the women's group at her church, and together they all pitched in what they could.
Even Hodges isn't sure he's actually met Jackson. He thinks they may have both gone to the same church once upon a time, but he can't remember for sure. Ultimately, however, whether he knew Jackson or not didn't matter. To Hodges, the painting and Jackson belonged together.
"I read the story and I just thought it was a really unusual situation and that she deserved to have the painting," says Hodges, adding that his original letter to the editor — the one that helped rally more than a dozen strangers to the cause — is the first letter to the editor he's ever penned.
But many of the others who offered to help were people who knew Jackson personally — many from the Naples High School class of 1960.
Ernie Moczik, a classmate of Jackson's was one of the first to jump in on organizing the effort. In an email to Brassner, he wrote about his relationship with Jackson, saying, "Our friendship has lasted for over 55 years, and we have always been a tight knit class."
Moczik, who is one of the benefactors of the Naples Backyard History museum, organized a crew of several class-of-1960 members to help orchestrate the return of Sunny's portrait. These classmates spent hours negotiating and coordinating with Brassner, gathering the funds from all the donors and ultimately arranging for Sunny's painting to come home. Moczik said he helped out in honor of his parents, Ernie and Mae Moczik.
Two weeks ago, "Sunny on the Beach" finally made its way home. It was purchased for $7,500. The painting now hangs in Jackson's modest living room, in a spot that she describes as "just made for it." In addition, a giclee of the painting is being made for the Naples Backyard History museum. With so many strangers coming forward to help bring this painting home, it only seemed right to Moczik that everyone have access to see the portrait for themselves.
And while many, many people — both strangers and friends alike — came together to make the fairytale ending of this story possible, ultimately, the story is about Sunny Jackson.
It was her day on the beach with Gruppe so many years ago, her day of adventure exploring the nooks and crannies of Old Naples with the painter. It was her moment — and likeness in that moment — which Gruppe captured and made permanent with his brush. And now, finally it is her painting — to have and to hold, today, tomorrow and forever.