By Martie Thompson

Lucy Cortese, longtime member of the Italian American Club of Jacksonville and recently published author, likes to say that she “originated” in Florida even though she was born in New Jersey. Her parents were Italian immigrants who moved to Florida and opened an Italian restaurant near what is now Whitehouse. When her mother learned she was pregnant with Lucy, she said she didn’t want to have her baby in the rural “woods,” so she convinced her husband to sell the restaurant and move back to New Jersey. “My father knew that after just one winter, they would be back in Florida,” Lucy said. And he was right. The family moved to Jacksonville this time and Lucy grew up in the city and attended Duval County schools. She earned a degree in education from the University of Florida and taught both regular and special education before serving as the principal of St. Paul’s Catholic School at the beach for seven years and then executive director of Tree Hill Nature Center. She is married to Mario Cortese, with a blended family of five children and seven grandchildren. She is an active writer and environmentalist. 

Q: What can you tell us about your connection to the Italian American Club?

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A: My parents actually started the club in 1951 and I grew up in the club. When as an adult I moved back to Jacksonville in 1977, I became a member and have been actively involved ever since. My husband has served as president twice and I’ve rotated on and off the board five times. It makes me happy that my parents’ joy of starting a group for Italians continues. It’s a real social group which has grown into a true community organization. Not all members are Italian, but they love all things Italian.

Q: How did you come to be the executive director of Tree Hill Nature Preserve?

A: I’ve always been interested in the environment and when I was 40 years old, I found my dream job as executive director of Tree Hill. I trained teachers and helped develop programming for third graders in Duval County. I retired 23 years later.

Q: How did you meet your husband?

A: When I was the principal at St. Paul’s, this handsome man walked in and asked me where he could find the principal. I said, “I am the principal!” He wanted to enroll his children in school. Over the years, we worked on parish committees and attended the same mass. We were friends for many years. After mass he would always say to me, “Some night, we have to go out.” Finally, after mass one night, I interrupted him and said, “Tonight we have to go out!” We learned that being best friends could lead to something romantic. I think we had my Italian mother in Florida and his Italian mother in New York both praying for an Italian spouse for their children. 

Q: Who are the Twinkys?

A: I always liked to write. I took some classes in creative poetry and creative writing through the University of North Florida’s OLLI program and kept finding myself in class with the same group of women. So about 10 years ago, the five of us formed our own writing group and we meet bimonthly to mentor and encourage each other. We call ourselves “Twinkys” (Thoughtful Writers Inviting Novel Kindred Yearnings). At one point, we decided to work together on a poetry project and since we all loved the ocean and teaching kids, we came up with the idea for a children’s book, which one of our members would illustrate, about sea creatures. We tried at first to write all the poems in the same style, but we all had different styles of writing, so we decided to go with that. All the poems in the book are quite different, but they all lead to the answer to a riddle about a sea creature. It’s a joyful book with beautiful and realistic illustrations.

Q: What can you tell us about “Do You Know me? Poems about the Sea,” and how did you feel when it was finally published?

A: The writing part of our book was easier than the publishing part. Trying to get five women to agree on things like fonts was a challenge, but we really came together and became so close in the process. It took nearly a year and a half before the book was finally published in early 2020. It felt amazing to hold the book in my hands and to turn the pages was euphoric. We had grand plans for promoting the book, but then we had to stop due to the pandemic. So we switched gears and now promote our book through our website, with a newsletter, blog posts and a Facebook page. Soon we hope to be able to attend book shows and festivals.

Photo courtesy Lucy Cortese

Lucy Cortese on the Amalfi Coast.

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