Jonie, in her ninth decade
You may think you know her as the Fish Lady but Aleta Jonie Maschek is so much more than that.
In the black and white front-page photograph of the March 18, 1965, edition of The Tampa Times, she is standing on the wing of an aircraft in high heels, a tailored suit and holding an expensive-looking leather briefcase. The headline reads, “She Flies With the Greatest of Ease” with a sub-headline of “And Not On a Trapeze.” In 1965, flying anywhere was still a big deal, generally reserved for a class known as the “jet set,” but to Jonie Maschek, it was just how she got around.
To tens of thousands of people in South Hillsborough she is known as the Fish Lady. Her weekly column “Fish Tales” has appeared in the Observer News for nearly a quarter of a century. Readers may think they know her through the column, perhaps as a scrappy native with a fishing pole in one hand and the other hand on an old typewriter. The truth is far from that image but, yeah, Jonie could definitely be thought of as scrappy. There is, however, so much more to her than that. Aleta Jonie Maschek is a woman who literally sparkles.
On Tuesday, May 22, Jonie celebrated her 90th birthday. Entering her ninth decade has done nothing to slow her down. It is almost certain that she has accomplished more in the past week than I have in the past month, perhaps in the past six months. Jonie is a force of nature.
She entered the media world in the late 1940s — a time when men ran the show and women were there only to take notes and fetch coffee. Jonie has never fetched coffee for anyone at work and she never will. That’s not her way. That said, she is loaded with style and pitching in to help is part of it. Her fingerprints are all over the Tampa Bay area, from the restoration of the Tampa Theater to the Hillsborough County Public Library system to the Hillsborough Community College system. She has touched the arts and those less fortunate through literally dozens of organizations, many of which were focused on helping the disabled. She was the founder of the Flying Pharmacists of Florida and the president of the Hillsborough County Pharmaceutical Auxiliary. The list of things she has joined and volunteered for goes on at length. Among all of that, she raised a daughter and spent several years at WFLA TV as the Director of Continuity.
Aleta Jonie Maschek was born in Mossy Rock, Washington, south of Seattle. Her mother was a voice actress for radio soap operas and a newspaper writer. She grew up in relative wealth with a nanny, a driver, and the finest clothes and accessories. Jonie went on to college in her home state but decided that California was the place to be. While still a journalism student, she took a job, her first ever, at an exclusive resort among the redwoods of Northern California.
“One of the kids I knew in college had a job at an exclusive inn in California. It was a place where people like Bing Crosby would go all the time,” she recalled. “People would fly in using their own planes.”
In the late 1940s, very few people had ever flown in an airplane, and far fewer still owned their own planes. But it wasn’t unusual for Jonie. Before long, she would find a way to take advantage of it, but first she had a slight problem with her new job.
“I knew nothing in the world except for being waited on,” she said with a laugh. “I was 4 foot 10 and the servers had to carry these huge trays….”
The trays turned out to not be a problem. Somehow, the men she worked with decided they would carry them for her.
“But I would take the orders,” she said laughing. “I don’t know how I got by with it.”
She got by with it because there is something magical about Jonie. That magic was there in her second decade just as it is in her ninth. That magic extended to everyone, from the coworkers who carried the huge trays to the pilots of the private airplanes.
“I met the pilot of a plane that carried the president of some big company back and forth,” she said. “When he would fly in, I would fly back with him to Washington State when the plane was empty. Then I met another pilot who would give me a ride back to California.”
By the 1950s, Jonie had come to Florida where she met her husband Matt. Together they have traveled the world. This August, they will have been married for 54 years. Somewhere along the line, they made friends with the Dickman family and others in Ruskin and began visiting from Tampa on a regular basis. By the early 70s, they had purchased a home on Shell Point Road. Ruskin, particularly back then, was an adjustment for the woman who wore heels, tailored suits and attended Broadway shows, but that didn’t deter her from pursuing her interests. And among those interests, history was prominent.
She has been called the Historian of the South. She is without a doubt the preeminent expert on the history of the South Hillsborough area. If your ancestors have been in this area long enough, chances are that Jonie has the dirt on your family. But don’t worry, she won’t tell — at least not the details.
“At first people wouldn’t even talk to me,” she said. “I think they didn’t like my high heeled shoes. I did not own other pairs of shoes. I did not own shorts.”
She did it the old fashioned way by using shoe leather and actually talking to people, just as she learned through her journalism degree. She would knock on doors, she would smile, get to know people and ask questions. It was difficult at first, as the high heels were a surprise at the fishing shacks and mobile homes she tended to visit, but soon enough both sides softened. People accepted her and she began to lower the high heels — at least in those situations. She knew so much about the families, she knew the good and the bad, and before long, she was being invited to both weddings and funerals. Sometimes, such as when the birth of a first child wouldn’t match up well with the date of a wedding, Jonie could be trusted to handle it with grace.
Tracing history isn’t always a straight line. She would meet people and ask about their parents. They wouldn’t always know when they were born or died, but they knew where they were buried. It didn’t always help.
“I’d go into the cemetery to look them up,” she said. “But the names had a different spelling. So I’d go back to their house and people would tell me they simply changed how their names were spelled.”
By the late 1980s, Jonie retired from WFLA and before long, she became known as the Fish Lady.
“We moved on to the water [on Shell Point Road] and I had fished all over the world,” she said. “One day I noticed that the local paper didn’t have anything about fishing. Why doesn’t somebody write something about fishing? Matt told me that I should do it. I’ve been there forever now.”
She keeps her finger on the pulse of the fishing community because everyone knows her and she enjoys talking to people, whether at a boat ramp or in the grocery store.
“It used to be that I’d go into a grocery store and people would ask me to autograph a Wall Street Journal,” she said laughing.
Today they ask her to autograph The Observer News.
The black and white photograph from 1945 shows a beautiful woman in a tailored dress (of course) and a carefree smile. Fifty-seven years later, Jonie still has the beauty and the carefree smile. She doesn’t worry about things; she takes no medication at all, not even aspirin, and she fired her own doctor a while ago.
“Nothing bothers me,” she said. “I have the attitude that if something goes wrong or doesn’t go how I planned it, there will be another day. And everything will turn out OK. Don’t worry because worry can hurt your health. If you could solve every problem you had, you would be a saint. It’s impossible.”
Jonie is currently nearing completion of her 11th book, entitled Your Pad or My Pad, about women living in a senior community, looking for men. Any resemblance to reality, such as the book’s senior community, may well be coincidental. But don’t worry, Jonie has the grace to handle sticky situations. That said, when it’s published it will almost certainly be a hot commodity in Sun City Center with the potential to shock two distinct groups: those who recognize themselves and those who don’t, but think they should have.
So many things have changed in the passing decades, but in many ways, Jonie remains the same. She is a woman of beauty, grace and style who sparkles with life, a force of nature, and certainly, she is a woman who flies through her life with the greatest of ease. This week a group of friends will be taking her out for her birthday — to the Hard Rock Cafe. Jonie, in her ninth decade, isn’t slowing down one bit.