Don’s Rambles: Legacies of Ruth Bryan Owen and Maria Anderson

In Which a Former Mayor Continues to Seek the Soul of the City

Having built up enough courage to leave the friendly confines of my own home, “Gumbo Grove,” I ramble south along Granada Boulevard — a street which shares its name with the City of Granada, Spain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, most fittingly, one of our long-time “Sister Cities.”

My destination is the Ruth Bryan Owen Waterway Park, located where the Coral Gables Canal flows out of the Biltmore Golf Course to cross under Bird Road. This public space was named in honor of the daughter of William Jennings Bryan, the famous orator, several-time presidential candidate and, surprisingly, member of the George Merrick land sales team.

Don's Rambles: Legacies of Ruth Bryan Owen and Maria Anderson

Ruth, a Coral Gables resident, was the first female this side of the Mississippi River elected to Congress; her district encompassed the entire east coast of Florida from Jacksonville to Key West. She later served as a delegate to the United Nations’ General Assembly. Locally, Ruth served as vice president of the University of Miami’s Board of Regents and collaborated with Marjory Stoneman Douglas to establish Everglades National Park. She is one of our community’s most notable, but least remembered, citizens.

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, on a bench donated by the Harry and Mary Perrin Fund housed at the Coral Gables Community Foundation (the same fund that helped create the Coral Gables Museum and Coral Gables Art Cinema), I met former City Commissioner Maria Anderson. Her efforts in 2006 helped bring redevelopment of the park to a successful conclusion.

Historically, it was a tree-filled vacant lot, home to a sizable flock of ducks. It would become a peaceful recreational retreat of picnic tables, a barbecue pit, and a canal-side scenic boardwalk overlooking the Biltmore Golf Course. (Environmental alert: the trees and ducks are still there!)

Maria is recognized as one of the significant female leaders of this community, being the first Hispanic woman to serve on the Commission since its inception in 1925. Despite the political aggravations that accompany public service, she remembers with fondness her 12 years as part of the city’s leadership.

While there are many legacies left from her tour of duty, she treasures the efforts her commission made in the area of historic preservation to ensure the Mediterranean character of the City Beautiful. She recalled with earnest satisfaction the many projects to protect city landmarks: the restoration of De Soto Fountain, the rehabilitation of the City Hall cupola, the renovation of the entrance features where Country Club Prado meets the Tamiami Trail, and the refurbishment of the Merrick House and Venetian Pool.

Legacies of Ruth Bryan Owen and Maria Anderson
Former City Commissioner Maria Anderson at the Ruth Bryan Owen Waterway Park.

During her last years in office, Maria sought personal peace outside the political arena by studying for the ministry, attending seminary in Boston when her commitment to City responsibilities allowed. Upon leaving City Hall, she became an ordained chaplain within the Baptist Health System, and now serves as pastoral care director at Homestead, Mariners, and Fisherman’s hospitals.

She tells me that her studies and vocational transformation helped her to adopt an attitude of forgiveness toward those who hurled the “slings and arrows” that came her way during public service. To this day, she is still dedicated to the betterment of her hometown and hopes that we will find ways to preserve its historic fabric.

My delightful day “on the road” (within the city limits, of course) having finished, I now have time to plan my next excursion. Who knows, I may even venture south of US-1!

Don Slesnick served as mayor of Coral Gables from 2001 to 2011.