Jonie at 95

Jonie at 95

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

mitch@observernews.net

Aleta Jonie Maschek’s 94th year ended with a flurry. She attended a Broadway show at the Straz. She was crowned as a Ruskin Tomato Festival Queen. She is still writing her column, Fish Tales, for The Observer News. She is involved in things large and small throughout the community and the Tampa Bay area.

Aleta Jonie Maschek, the author, columnist, recently crowned a Ruskin Tomato Festival Queen and so much more, will celebrate her 95th birthday this week.
MITCH TRAPHAGEN PHOTOS

And now at 95, she’s reevaluating things a little. Just a little: She has cut back a little on some of her volunteer and executive committee work.

She is known by tens of thousands of people as “the Fish Lady.” But if there is one thing by which Jonie Maschek can be defined, it is a near complete inability to define her.

For those who have not had the good fortune to meet her, there is no way to quantify and describe Jonie’s sheer energy. She is a force of nature. She has done everything; she knows everyone. If a community has skeletons, she knows where the closets are. A local, published historian, it would be doubtful there is an obscure corner of Ruskin lore that she hasn’t peered into; or at least heard stories about. Jonie seems to be everywhere, all of the time.

She came to this area decades ago with her husband to be by the water. Eventually they bought property, building ever higher until their house became their full-time home on the water’s edge.

She knows the fishing holes, and she knows how they change with the seasons and the weather.

“There really is no one certain place,” she said.

Jonie is every ounce a Lady in the best possible (and capitalized) definition of the term. She is also tough as nails with an unusually soft heart. While her attire of choice tends towards the high end, she is also well at home in jeans in the area bait shops; seemingly an anachronism that she simply doesn’t see. But when she chooses to dress up, she dresses up and understands that it’s not for everyone. And she’s fine with that.

But it works for Jonie.

A birthday card from her television days: NBC News’ John Chancellor and David Brinkley singing “Happy birthday to Jonie.”

She has lived in cities across the country, from Chicago to New York City to Tampa. She has had a long career in television — she never refers to it as TV, it’s always television. She has operated and has worked for newspapers, including her long, successful tenure with The Observer News.

In television, she worked as a director of continuity, essentially laying out the programming for each day. The job was far more complicated than it would appear on the surface. She had to be aware of what advertisers were where and was always conscious of what could and could not be said over the airwaves.

“I was in television when shows were still shown live,” she said. “As a director of continuity, everything went across my desk.”

But she found her longtime home in South Hillsborough. She seems to know the secrets that make the heart of the community tick. Often, particularly when something is personal for someone involved, she keeps those secrets to herself, with the exception of an occasional, sly suggestion that made clear that she knows what is going on with this or that, but won’t divulge anything further.

And now, as she enters her 95th year this week, not much is going to change. She takes no medication; in fact she doesn’t appear to much listen to doctors. And with her upcoming milestone, she just renewed her driver’s license.

“Because of my age they made me re-take the driver’s test,” she said.

She passed and the test examiner gave her a “high five” on how successfully she completed it.

Jonie’s life is almost certainly the result of her attitude. She looks for the good in things, and she never seems to stop moving.

“Life is what you make of it,” she said. You’re the one responsible for it. No one should ever forget that.”

She paused for a moment and then added, “You take the good with the bad. There are plenty of good people left in the world. There are good people everywhere.”

I fell in love with Jonie from the first moment we met in September 2001. At the time, The Observer News offices were located in what I called “the igloo,” the rounded cement building on East Shell Point Road near U.S. 41. On that day, just after 9/11, Jonie was holding an open house for an upscale clothing store she had just opened, near the office.

It wasn’t the best time for a grand opening, but Jonie persevered, as she always does, and her new store was crowded with well-wishers, and a veritable who’s who of people who made things happen back then in the Ruskin area. Perhaps people needed a respite from the nonstop coverage of the terrorist attacks, but more likely was that people truly loved Jonie and sincerely wanted to wish her well, regardless of the fact that the world had suddenly become so uncertain.

Aleta Jonie Maschek will turn 95 years old on May 22.
MITCH TRAPHAGEN PHOTO

She has fished her entire life in storied places across the country, she lived on the shores of Tampa Bay for 30 years. She is still known to visit bait shops and chat up charter captains.  She could be in jeans or in something much more formal as she steps out of her new Cadillac to pop in for a visit.

Aleta Jonie Maschek has always lived her life on her terms, without making demands but instead having a vision to follow. For Jonie at 95-years-old, that won’t change. She is working on another book. She is involved with the Hillsborough Community College, and she has her column, Fish Tales, for as long as she is willing to write it.

This week, her daughter, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchild will celebrate her birthday with a party, as will her church.

“I’ve had a good life,” she said. “I have no regrets.”

And with that, Jonie pulled out the tiara that came with being crowned a Ruskin Tomato Festival Queen earlier this month. She was wearing jeans but later that day or that evening, she could be wearing something more formal, attending a meeting somewhere. Jonie at 95 is the same energetic, driven and beautiful woman as was Jonie at 30. Or 50. Or 70.

In her tiara and blue jeans, she smiled for the camera.

“I’ve been blessed,” she said.

And so have I to be able to call her a friend. On behalf of The Observer News, tens of thousands of readers, and myself: Happy birthday Jonie!

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