March is Women’s History Month, and with that in mind we wanted to reflect on the impact of female leaders in Coral Gables and the path they have carved for future generations. These are just a few of the influential women, from both the past and present, who have helped shape Coral Gables into the City Beautiful. None of them were born here, but all moved here or established themselves as part of local institutions, where they were able to significantly influence the development of the city.
Althea Merrick (1859-1937)
Althea Merrick was the matriarch of Coral Gables’ founding family. She attended Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania where she met and married Solomon Merrick, a minister. The couple and their five children moved to Miami when Solomon’s health declined, and they had a sixth child shortly after arriving. The family lived in a wooden cabin on 160 acres in what their eldest son, George, would later develop as Coral Gables.
While the family ran a guava and grapefruit business, Althea designed the remodel of their makeshift home into what is today the historic Merrick House. She passed on her love of music and art to her children in their homeschooling lessons. Merrick convinced the Dade County School Board to open a school near her home so local children, including her own, could have a formal education. Merrick founded the Coral Gables Women’s Club in 1923 and was one of the first members of the Coral Gables Garden Club. During the Great Depression, Althea and her daughter, Ethel, turned their home into a boarding house to make ends meet. Merrick died in her residence at age 77. The home was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and three years later was acquired by the City of Coral Gables. Today, it’s a museum restored to replicate its 1920s appearance. In 2010, the Garden Club erected a bronze statue of Althea in the garden for the 100-year anniversary of the house’s completion.
Roxcy O’Neal Bolton (1926 – 2017)
Roxcy Bolton was an outspoken activist and crusader for women’s rights. Bolton moved to Miami in the 1950s after a childhood in Mississippi. Following the divorce from her first husband and her joining the Young Democrats, she remarried to naval commander David Bolton.
After moving around, the couple came to Coral Gables in 1964 and had three children. Bolton helped form Florida’s first National Organization for Women chapter in 1966. She challenged the practice of “men only” dining sections in restaurants and confronted Henry King Stanford, then-president of the University of Miami, to demand equal salaries and department
head positions for women at the university. Bolton later went to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to change the naval tradition of only identifying hurricanes with female names. She also helped recruit an Indiana senator to introduce the Equal Rights Amendment and convince President Nixon to proclaim Women’s Equality Day in 1972.
Bolton not only fought for women’s rights in the workplace, but for women who were victims of abuse. She started a Coral Gables crime watch group, founded a rescue shelter to house women in crises, and helped establish the first rape treatment center in the United States at Jackson Memorial Hospital. In 1971, Bolton led a historic march in Downtown Miami to draw attention to the Miami Police Department’s lack of rape prevention resources. Bolton died in Coral Gables at the age of 90. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984 and was a National Women’s History Month Honoree in 2014.
Dorothy Thomson was the first and only female mayor of Coral Gables. Thomson, who grew up in upstate New York, first fell in love with Miami while on a trip to Florida with her mother in 1950. Three years later, Thomson moved to Coral Gables, worked for the Southern Bell Telephone Company and met her husband, Jack Thomson. After a stint in the army, the couple returned to Miami and studied at the University of Miami, he as a law student and she as an undergraduate. Thomson dropped out of the university to raise their daughter and later three other children.
After her involvement in local parent-teacher associations, Thomson ran for Coral Gables city commissioner in 1979. In her first race, she won a two-year term. In 1981 she won again, this time a four-year seat. In April of 1985, Thomson made history when she was elected as the first female mayor of Coral Gables. In her time on the commission, she tackled projects such as the re-opening of the Biltmore Hotel, the establishment of a senior center, and the founding of the Coral Gables Citizen’s Crime Watch and Crime Watch of Dade County. Thomson returned to UM to finish her degree with her grandchildren in college at the same time. As Thomson received her diploma in 2008, then-UM President Donna Shalala gave her a special recognition. “Dorothy Thomson Day” was proclaimed by the City of Coral Gables on March 25, 2008 and she was honored with the 2016 George E. Merrick Award of Excellence.
“It is interesting to note that since my election in 1979, there has never again been a time when there was not a woman member of the commission,” Thomson said in an interview last year with the UM Alumni Association. “It might even be said that my election, 40 years ago this year, created a continual, constant ‘woman’s seat’ at the commission table. It is balanced.”
Arva Moore Parks
Arva Moore Parks is an author and historic preservationist who helped save iconic City Beautiful sites like the Merrick House, the Biltmore Hotel and the Colonnade Building. Parks grew up in Miami with an interest in history passed down from her father, Jack Moore, who was a lawyer. She graduated from the University of Florida in 1960 and earned her master’s degree in history from the University of Miami in 1971. Her preservation efforts began with saving Ralph M. Munroe’s home, “The Barnacle.” Parks went on to lead South Florida’s first preservation board in Coral Gables and serve as the first female president of the HistoryMiami Museum. She convinced Commissioner Dorothy Thomson to help preserve the Biltmore Hotel when it was set to be torn down.
A few of her other preservation projects are the Wagner House, Miami Edison Middle School, the Tower Theater and the original Miami High. Parks didn’t just advocate for history — she wrote about it. Parks was prompted to write “Son of the South Wind: George Merrick and the Creation of Coral Gables” when Mildred Merrick, a close friend and UM librarian, showed her the untouched writings of George Merrick that had been packed away in the garage of his widow, Eunice. The book won a Florida Book Award and the Florida Historical Association’s Tebeau prize. She also wrote “Miami, the Magic City” and has contributed to about 30 other historical books and documentaries. From 2011-2012, Parks was the chief curator and acting director of Coral Gables Museum. When asked to name her favorite project, she replied, “That’s like asking me to choose a favorite child.” She was inducted into Florida’s Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986 and received the George E. Merrick Spirit of Excellence Award in 2008.
What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders?
“You have to study and know what you’re talking about. Then you have to not be afraid to stand up and let people know what you know, and why it’s important that they know it.”
Virginia Miller is the president of the Coral Gables Gallery Association and the owner of ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries. A trailblazer in Miami’s art scene, Miller is a self-described “Miami girl” who comes from a long line of city pioneers – her maternal grandfather came to Miami in 1908 to work on Vizcaya while her paternal grandparents arrived in the 1920s. Her fascination with art began while attending the University of Miami. During a semester-at-sea program, she studied art history across Asia and Africa. By the time she opened her first gallery in 1974, she had already curated some 50 exhibitions around the community.
Since then, she has shown over 300 exhibitions and run five galleries in the Miami area, including spaces in Coral Gables, Coconut Grove and Downtown Miami. The Russian-themed opening of her Madeira Avenue gallery in 1981 hosted about 2,000 people and was called “the party of the year” by the Miami Herald.
In 1980, Miller chaired the Chamber of Commerce’s Cultural Affairs Committee, where she began the annual “Gables Gallery Night,” a now 40-year-old tradition. Miller has done art consulting for major corporate collections like E. F. Hutton and G. D. Searle Pharmaceutical Group. She also commissioned two of the nation’s largest bronze sculptures, one on Biscayne Bay and the other in Omaha, Nebraska. Some of her recognitions include a feature in a 1988 issue of ARTnews magazine and in the 2019 film “The Dramatic Life of American Artist Annette Rawlings.”
What has been the most challenging part of your career so far?
“When I started out, the challenge was being accepted as a female businessperson. When I was looking for a construction loan for the renovation of my building in 1979, one banker actually suggested I go home and take care of my husband and kids — and that was in front of my attorney. An ongoing challenge has been the need to reinvent my business every five years or so in order to compete in the marketplace.”
Barbara Stein is the executive producing director of Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre. Stein has been a Miami resident for over 50 years. While studying dental hygiene at the University of Pennsylvania, she met Dr. Lawrence E. Stein, now her husband of 56 years. Through him and his family, local theater enthusiasts, and other cultural communities in Philadelphia, Stein discovered her love for the theater.
The couple took a “blooming leap” and co-founded the Actors’ Playhouse in an old Kendall movie theater. After Hurricane Andrew devastated the theater, Stein spearheaded negotiations for a partnership with the City of Coral Gables to reimagine the Miracle Theatre, which was about to be sold to a discount retailer. While her husband kept up his dental practice, Stein helped raise about $7 million in an eight-year span to renovate the space into what is now a performance venue with three stages. Many credit her with saving the historic theater and kick-starting Coral Gables’ downtown revitalization. Under Stein, the Actors’ Playhouse was named one of Miami-Dade County’s 13 major cultural institutions and has a children’s educational program that has produced playwrights, film stars and Broadway performers.
Actors’ Playhouse recently celebrated its 32-year anniversary while their “Young Talent Big Dreams” youth talent show celebrated its 10th. Stein’s work has been recognized with accolades such as Miami-Dade County’s “In the Company of Women Award” in 2008 and the “Breaking the Glass Ceiling Award” from the Jewish Museum of Florida in 2018.
What women inspire you or have been the most influential?
“My mother was the most influential person in my life. She was a true leader and a truly smart woman who made me feel good about myself and confident in who I was. She gave me the impetus to resolve issues, think the right way, and use the right skills. And she did it by example.”
Donna Shalala is the U.S. Representative of Florida’s 27th District and the former president of the University of Miami. Her grandparents migrated from Lebanon. She was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, along with a twin sister. Shalala studied history at Western College for Women and then earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in political science and economics from Syracuse University. Early in her career, Shalala lived in a mud hut in southern Iran as a member of the Peace Corps, was a professor, and became the only woman on the Municipal Assistance Corporation of New York City.
In 1977, President Carter tapped her as the assistant secretary for policy development and research in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, where she helped implement solar panels on the White House roof. Shalala was the president of Hunter College in New York City for seven years and in 1980 became the first woman to lead a “Big 10” institution as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Shalala as the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. In her eight-year service — the longest tenure in the history of the position — she introduced the Children’s Health Insurance Program and doubled the budget for the National Institute of Health. In 2001, Shalala headed south to become the University of Miami’s first female president. But the region was not new to her — Shalala had cousins that attended Gables High and UM. After 14 years, an improved ranking for the university, and a sizable endowment initiative, Shalala stepped down. But she continued her involvement with the university, traveling between New York and Miami during her year leading the Clinton Foundation to teach courses. In March 2018, Shalala announced her campaign for Flor- ida’s 27th district, which includes all of Coral Gables. The following January, she was sworn into Congress. Today, Shalala splits her time between D.C. and her home in the Gables, where she still teaches as a UM guest professor at least once a month. Shalala was named one of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. News & World Report in 2005, won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008, and received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 2010.
What do you view as your biggest accomplishment?
“Every graduation at every university I’ve ever been at. It’s wonderful to see young people walk across the stage when they achieve their degree. That’s my real legacy.”