To Jonie, with love

Jonie at 90 on the pier at Little Harbor Resort in Ruskin, Florida. Mitch Traphagen file photo

By Mitch Traphagen

There is no possible way to describe the sheer energy, passion and impact of Aleta Jonie Maschek. She was a force of nature. She had done everything, was doing everything and knew everyone. She loved telling stories from her days in television, from New York to Tampa, telling stories of the people she had met along the way. In many ways everyone was a celebrity to Jonie. As was she to those who knew and loved her. A published local historian, I doubt there is an obscure corner of Ruskin lore that she hadn’t peered into. She was everywhere, all the time.

With her husband Matt, Jonie moved to Ruskin when it was still a dusty tomato town. Her choice of attire was heels and designer dresses, in a place where cotton blue jeans and cowboy boots were haute couture. So it was somewhat ironic that what brought her to Ruskin was, of all things, fishing. For that she could dress down and dig in with the best of the fishermen. She found the secret places through perseverance and instinct. If Jonie wanted to accomplish something, nothing could stand in her way.

Jonie lived in the moment as few people can. She was comfortable in her own skin. And while she relished each day, she also reveled in her memories, in her experiences, in the many people she encountered.

Jonie kept her memories in the trunk of her Cadillac — and it was always a new Cadillac — which was a measure of convenience for her, not having to lug files in and out of her house. But it also struck me as a statement about her as well. Her memories and experiences moved with her, shaped her, perhaps, but she didn’t live her life in them; she didn’t live in the past. Just as she didn’t live in the trunk of her car.

She lived her days like most people would spend weeks, she defined her own life; she defied rules if they didn’t suit her. She lived each and every moment. She never stopped working, never stopped volunteering. She worked on boards serving the Hillsborough County Library and Hillsborough Community College. Despite a privileged upbringing, she worked for nearly all of her 95 years. She was a trailblazer, and a charming one at that, something that she retained for her entire life. As a young woman working at an upscale resort far from her Pacific Northwest home, she would convince the pilots of the resort’s wealthy clients for rides back home aboard the private airplanes they arrived in. 

That was Jonie. A woman of distinction and grace. Few could ever say no to her, and there was little reason to do so.

She was known as the Fish Lady to readers of her weekly column in The Observer News. Inside the office, however, she was known as family. The company published her books on the history of the area. She was working on a last book…it won’t be completed. There is no one like Jonie, and she mentioned something about having to move out of town once it was published.

Wes and Karina Mullins and family would take her to see Broadway shows at the Straz. She loved every minute of that, often posting her joy on Facebook. She loved New York, having once lived in Manhattan, working for NBC when few women, outside of secretaries, worked in the industry. She was an executive; she set her own course.

She showed me a birthday card she received from John Chancellor and David Brinkley. On the card, they were singing the birthday song from their now-legendary television news desk. She worked in television, running operations, when television was still live and there was no room for error or indecision. 

We would often talk about her time in New York. And while she loved the City, South Hillsborough was and would remain her true love, her home. 

Jonie kept her memories in the trunk of her Cadillac. Her experiences moved with her but she didn’t live in the past. Among the memorabilia, are signatures from Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Hubert Humphrey, Lyle Waggoner and others. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Always forward, she didn’t turn around to go back, she spoke in the present moment about her past. As time marched on, when she lost her husband and began losing friends to the passing years, she seemed to value the moments even more. And more so, she valued the people in her life, her family down to her great- and great-great grandchildren, Wes, Karina and others.

 On Sunday, May 20, as I climbed the steps of a subway station in Manhattan, I received a text from Wes with the news that Jonie had passed away. In that instant New York suddenly somehow dimmed. 

Her last message to me, just a few weeks ago, was to tell me that she thought I belonged in New York City — and that she wished she could come to visit. Although that was just a short while ago, moments really, it wasn’t her health that prevented a visit, it was her commitments. She deeply loved her life and the people in South Hillsborough. Her boundless energy and good heart was omnipresent, she touched so many people over so many years. 

“I’ve had a good life,” she told me on her 95th birthday. “I have no regrets. I’ve been blessed.”

All who knew her have certainly been blessed with her presence and her love.

Tuesday, May 22, would have been Jonie’s 96th birthday. It is too early yet to believe that she is gone, although she really isn’t. Her ever-present smile, her love, her energy live on in so many of us. She lives on in everything she touched. Yet today, our hearts are heavy with sadness. She seemed so much larger than life that it’s hard to believe she won’t pull up in her Cadillac with a smile, a hug and a story.

“You take the good with the bad,” she told me. “There are plenty of good people left in the world. There are good people everywhere.”

Today there is one less. But her life was far from empty. Her impact was as strong as she was. That remains. And so she remains with us. 

To one the loveliest, most graceful women I have ever been privileged to know and love: God Bless and Godspeed Jonie. You are so deeply missed. But I know you are not gone. You remain in beautiful memories and in your lifetime of love and achievement. As I returned home from Manhattan, I think I may have glimpsed you here, in the city in heels and a designer dress. The lights leading down Broadway towards Times Square brightened as you walked on, making your own way home.

And I’m certain that if the light is right, if this world turns just right in the moment, you’ll see her on Tampa Bay, too. Or on the bank of the Little Manatee River. In jeans or shorts, perhaps, with the heels, dresses and jewelry tucked away for her next event. If you are open to it, you could not possibly miss her ever-present smile. 

You’ll feel it in your heart. That is forever.

A celebration of Jonie’s life will be held at the Ruskin Woman’s Club, 503 U.S. 41 S. from 4 to 7 p.m. on June 8, 2018.

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