Joan “Frec” Baggs, 92

Author, teacher, fashion designer who served world leaders food and conversation dies at 92

 

hcohen@MiamiHerald.com

Joan “Frec” Baggs knew how to talk to people. The famous and not-so famous.

“My mother was extremely feisty. That is what probably kept her living so long,” said son Craig Baggs about his mom, an author, English teacher, fashion designer and socialite, who died at 92 on Dec. 22 at an Ocala assisted living facility of complications from pneumonia.

Frec, so-named by her late husband William “Bill” Baggs for the freckles that dotted her pearly skin thanks to the South Florida sun, “was not afraid to speak her position and feelings regardless of whether it was politically correct,” Baggs, 60, said from his Ocala home. “The good news is that what people tended to realize is they always knew where they stood.”

Except when they lost their footing completely. There was that night when famed CBS journalist Walter Cronkite was thrown headlong into the swimming pool at her Coral Gables home by a pack of peeved print journalists.

At that soirrée, Frec was faced with cooking one of her specialties for a room full of media big wigs during the 1964 Democratic National Convention, a task the Georgia-born woman relished. Her husband was editor for The Miami News at the time, hence the gaggle of journalists who were in town to cover incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson’s race to hold the presidency he inherited after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Nov. 1963. In addition to his role with the paper, Bill Baggs, a civil rights crusader, was an adviser to President Kennedy and had done diplomatic work abroad. The Baggs were connected.

“She hosted a number of parties and became sort of like an ambassador to a certain extent,” Baggs said. “All these famous people came through our house like Martin Luther King and others. She had to be able to greet them and be on the same level as far as understanding what their issues were and what the causes were and she was very innovative.”

The print journalists’ issues with Cronkite were part envy, part job hustle. Their cause was not to be elbowed aside.

Television, thanks to its influence on the 1960 presidential debate that helped decide telegenic Kennedy’s victory over a sweaty Nixon, had quickly ascended in the 1960s. Print journalists were not taking kindly to being shoved to the margins by the likes of Cronkite and fellow network anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley who were clamoring for quotes and bites of Frec’s famed Brunswick stew at her home.

“A number of well-known print journalists were at this party and they got Cronkite. I heard this loud splash. I was 10, looking through the gate, and he got thrown into the deep end of our pool,” Baggs said, chuckling. “All the journalists ran through the gate and I heard Cronkite cussing and he was totally soaked. The journalists didn’t know what to do or say and they just looked at him. All of a sudden he started laughing. Profusely. And then they all started laughing. ‘Ah, hell let’s go get a drink,’ Cronkite said.”

Frec, born Joan Orr and a member of the Women’s Army Corp (WAC) and a Red Cross volunteer in Miami Beach during World War II when she met Baggs, was used to making a splash.

After all, when Baggs worked up the nerve — and managed to find $20 for a prime table near the door at The Forge in Miami Beach — actor John Wayne, in town filming the 1945 war movie, They Were Expendable, and clearly toasted, literally fell across their table. The 6-foot, 4-inch star topped wine glasses all over petite Frec, just as Baggs was about to pop the question. Nonplussed, “My dad stood up over John Wayne and said, ‘Frec would you marry me?’ and she laughed and said yes,” their first-born said.

Frec worked a an English teacher at Ransom Everglades. After her husband’s death from pneumonia at age 48 in 1969, Frec, who had a Master’s in French and Spanish from Northwestern University, would soon leave academia and open a women’s designer clothing store in South Miami. She also became a real estate agent with Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell (ESM) and wrote two books. The self-published I Thought He Hung the Moon: A True Love Story is a memoir of her life with her husband whose name would grace Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park for his conservation efforts. Classic Southern Recipes: Mother’s Favorite Receipts by Her Tried and True Methods (Morris Press, $21) collected 99 recipes, including the Brunswick stew recipe.

“She was like my second mom,” said Chris Andersen, daughter of Hardy Matheson of the pioneering Matheson family. “She was a family friend since I was born. She was my English teacher at Ransom Everglades and I worked for her when she had Frec in South Miami. She was an amazing person. If there’s one word to describe her it would be energetic. If she had an hour in the day she’d find something to do. She was volunteer tutoring until her 80s. She never gave up on kids.”

The two last had lunch in South Miami a couple years ago for her 90th birthday. Frec, who is also survived by youngest son Mahoney Baggs, 56, of Miami, four grandchildren and a great granddaughter, moved to Ocala after that lunch date to be near her eldest son.

“She needed someone to live with her and I convinced her to come up [to Ocala.] The only way for her to give in I had to convince her there would be people up here who would play bridge,” Craig Baggs, an investment adviser, said. “That’s one of the great things. I got a chance to spend a lot of time with her and have a lot of fun. She was a great listener and we’d talk about politics all the time.”

Diana Sanchez-Ordónez, another friend and colleague at EWM, remembers that sense of adventure and verve. Frec had accepted her invitation for a trip to Ecuador at age 82 at a moment’s notice.

“She was like part of my family for 15 days and they all got to know her and love her,” Sanchez-Ordónez said. “She was absolutely delightful and she said when I came back, ‘You gave me an extra 10 years.’ She was an adventurer and she was always telling these beautiful stories.”

Art Levy, park services specialist at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, admired Frec’s manner during her visits to the park that bore her married surname.

“What impressed me was she was a very genteel woman of the South. Someone you don’t see anymore,” Levy said. “Just the way she spoke was very soothing and very respectful. She had a great respect for her husband and was much appreciative of the work we were doing at the park. She said her husband would have been proud of the park.”

A service will be held in Athens, Ga. on Jan. 18.

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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