By Martie Thompson

Longtime Fruit Cove residents Al and Phyllis Abbatiello were awarded the Garry Balogh Inspiring Excellence Award from the Florida Scenic Highway Program/ Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) at the Sept. 19 William Bartram Scenic and Historic Highway Group meeting. Surprise doesn’t begin to describe the Abbatiellos’ reaction to receiving this prestigious award.

“It knocked us over,” Al Abbatiello said. “I was basically stunned.”
Abbatiello said that Dean Stoddart, FDOT State Scenic Highway Coordinator, came to their meeting and the Abbatiellos were told he was just visiting; the Abbatiellos were completely unaware of Stoddart’s true purpose until he started talking about the award about halfway through his general remarks. 

“We were just so honored that he would attend our meeting,” Phyllis Abbatiello said. “We had no idea of the true reason for his visit.”

The award, established in 2015, is named for Garry Balogh — the past Florida Department of Transportation District Five Scenic Highway Coordinator. Each year a member of the byway community who best exemplifies Balogh’s passion for Florida’s scenic highway program is selected. Nominees are measured in numerous categories, including leadership skills, innovation, and dedication to excellence. This year, Al and Phyllis Abbatiello were jointly honored with the award after a secret nomination by William Bartram Scenic and Historic Highway Group  (WBSHH) Group Vice Chair Angie McFarland.

The Abbatiellos moved to NW St. Johns County in 1998 and were instrumental in helping to found the WBSHH in 1999, along with about 25 citizens including the late Mary Cornwell. Over the years, the group has been responsible for not only obtaining Scenic and Historic Highway status, but for protecting its interests in the area. The Abbatiellos headed up a team of volunteers that developed a local history curriculum available to St. Johns County educators and also assisted in the creation of local oral histories designed to document the stories of longtime residents of the area. Several years ago, the group received a national Scenic Byways grant to create a corridor master plan, which has served as a road map for the organization — striking a balance between growth and resource preservation.

Over the years, the number of members in the group had dwindled, so in November 2022, Al Abbatiello came up with the idea to send a mailer to all property owners on both sides of State Road 13.

“Of the 1,100 addresses we mailed to, with information about the WBSHH and an invitation to join, we netted 60 new members. We were very pleased with this result,” Al Abbatiello said. 

Phyllis Abbatiello said they have been able to form committees and are presently looking forward to having elections in May 2024.

“Al and I have been doing this for so long that we really would like some new people to join us and step in,” she said. 

The list of accomplishments of the WBSHH is long, but there are many current and future needs, according to Al Abbatiello.

“There is still much work to be done, including attending other local meetings like the Board of County Commissioners meetings and the St. Johns County Roundtable meetings on behalf of our group,” he said.

The Abbatiellos, while delighted to receive the Garry Balogh Inspiring Excellence Award, hope that mostly it will encourage others to participate in saving not only the Bartram Scenic Highway, but also NW St. Johns County as well.

“The Bartram Scenic Highway has a long history that needs to be preserved, as well as preserve the nature,” Phyllis Abbatiello said.

Photo courtesy Janice Charles
Al and Phyllis Abbatiello were presented the Garry Balogh Inspiring Excellence Award by Dean Stoddart, FDOT State Scenic Highway Coordinator, on Sept. 19.

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