“Memories of a Milltown Girl”

      “Oh, John, We’re All Gonna Die”    

Those were my mother’s words to my Dad, as she looked out onto the wing of the airplane. She’d seen what she thought was a flame from the engine. It was merely exhaust fumes against the black sky. That moment would affect me for years, whenever I flew.

My parents and 3 of us kids were on our way to Florida, where we’d join 49 other families. We were Rhode Island’s representative to the 1960 “All American Family” Contest.

My father, John J. Kelly, was a competitive, contest-kind-of-guy. Sort of like the Dad in “A Christmas Story” who won that garish leg lamp.

One year Dad won roller skates—the kind with a metal key by which I’d adjust the skates to my shoes. As soon as I fitted them, I’d skurr up and down the sidewalks of our street, for hours.

Other times Dad would win a jar of peanuts, a gimmicky tool…something of little consequence.

But that year he hit the jackpot. He’d entered us in a contest for America’s best families and we won.

The flight down and back and a week-long stay were part of the package. All meals would be provided. The one kink? My older brother could not join us since he was a Plebe (1st year) at West Point. (My mother forever believed his absence deprived us of winning.)

Because our week included a Sunday and because Florida had so few Catholic churches at this time, sponsors transported us Catholics, by bus, to a church about 100 miles away. During the journey, my most prescient memory is the native Americans I saw, fishing aside a thin, brown waterway, along the bus route.

Florida fascinated me, for its warmth and topography that were so different from Rhode Island; the tiny tree frogs…the lush flowers…the fact it showered briefly every afternoon. It was before the time of Disney World (that would open in 1971).

All week we families were prompted…prodded…questioned…and watched.

Each morning we all filed into a giant auditorium for breakfast, facing a panel of celebrities that included Don McNeill of the long-running NBC/ABC televised “Breakfast Club” and entertainer Anita Bryant. At the time, she was known as the “Come to the Florida Sunshine Tree” girl for her orange juice commercials and her singing. She’d be infamous, in future years, for her vehement anti-gay stand.

In that week, there was the Family Talent Show night that didn’t go well for our family. I came up with the brilliant idea that my younger sister (5thgrader at the time) and I would sing “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” a suspect plan since she and I had no experience performing before a crowd and no real singing talent. At the last minute, she pulled out which killed our act but spared us public humiliation.

On another occasion, we fake-fished off a dock where all 5 of us Kelly’s stood in the same direction, holding poles, wearing our blue ribbon badges designating us as representatives of Rhode Island. We were dressed in clothes totally inappropriate for the activity. (Mom wore a dress and heels.) It was a PR stunt and the photos were sent back to our individual states for  publication.

And in Lehigh Acres, Florida, I had my very first boyfriend, a member of a wonderful New Jersey family. Bill was blonde, athletic and handsome and I only began to realize he was more interested in me after my brother John said “I think he’s hanging around with me to see you.” This was stunning news to me since in West Warwick, my brothers (the Kelly boys), got all the attention.

Despite the fact we didn’t win, our selection to represent Rhode Island was a stunning affirmation that in the United States, in the 60’s, a middle class family from a small mill town (West Warwick) could rise to the level of America’s best.

Some years later, another West Warwick family would represent Rhode Island in the “All American Family” contest.

Our small mill town produced excellence, indeed…as long as singing talent wasn’t part of the criteria.

Below is an article explaining how the All-American Family contest came about (from icec.net). Maybe some current or former Rhode Islanders are residents of Lehigh Acres, Florida. If so, pls weigh in.

Lehigh Acres

In 1954, a wealthy industrialist, oilman and inventor, by the name of Lee Ratner, decided to carve a town from his “Lucky Lee Ranch”. He created the Lee County Land and Title Co. to develop his dream, Lehigh Acres.

He launched the community in 1955, and by the beginning of 1960, the Lee County Land and Title Co. had built about 500 homes.

Lehigh Acres grew by leaps and bounds and became more well known after the Book of Knowledge ran a contest to find the All-American Family in 1960. The winners of the contest, chosen from nominations that came in from all over the country, would receive a free home in Lehigh Acres.

In order to choose the All-American family, one family from each state came to live with the judges for one week.

The prized house was touted as a Westinghouse Total Electric Gold Medallion home. The newspaper said the home had “the maximum in electricity controlled automatic devices plus perfectly controlled lighting under all conditions.”

Lehigh Acres continued to grow after the All-American Family contest, and in 1961, the town had grown large enough to have representation on LCEC’s Board of Trustees.

Today, Lehigh Acres is still growing and home to about 87,000 residents. Lehigh consists of more than 100 square miles, many lakes and ponds and 175 miles of canals.

Lucky Lehigh Acres gets the all-american family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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