Florida Keys

Conch Republic’s Peter Anderson survives cancer to lead 25th Independence Celebration in Key West

 

cclark@MiamiHerald.com

Sir Peter Anderson blew his conch shell with gusto at the start of the island city’s “Independence Celebration” parade. Next, he proclaimed for all to hear: “Long live the Conch Republic. Looooong live the Conch Republic. And long live each and every one of you!”

The “Secretary General” of the “Sovereign State of Mind” repeated the routine with equal exuberance about once every block for nearly a mile along Duval Street as he drove his official royal blue Conch Republic electric car, with his grown daughter seated next to him and his ex-wife riding in the back.

A woman on the sidewalk shouted back: “And long live Peter Anderson.”

In 1990, Captain Tony Tarracino, then Key West’s mayor, appointed Anderson Secretary General of the Conch Republic, the fake country created by Key West leaders so they could “secede” from the United States in 1982 in retaliation for a U.S. Border Patrol roadblock at the entrance to the Keys.

Anderson took the humorous role super-seriously, creating an office, passports, official vehicles, ambassadorships, conch-sulates in several countries and a brand that is internationally known. For 25 years, he has been the public and sometimes controversial face of the Conch Republic, keeping alive its fun-loving spirit, charity works and zany independence events that involve drag queens and sea battles with the real U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy. Without Anderson, some say, the Conch Republic might have become just another wacky footnote in Key West’s rich history.

But this year, Anderson was not expected to attend the 32nd Conch Republic parade, held last week as part of the annual 10-day Independence Celebration. Anderson was supposed to be dead.

In October, he was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer.

“The doctor gave me about three months,” Anderson said. “He told me there was nothing they could do.” In December, around Christmastime, he was put into hospice care.

But Anderson, 67, has led an unbelievable life, even by Key West standards, so tracking down a “miracle” and recovering from near death is just another chapter.

One of Anderson’s four wives was formerly married to notorious psychedelic drug guru Timothy Leary. When he worked for Hosiery Corporation of America, Anderson coined the term “cotton center panel” as a better marketing choice than “cotton crotch.”

He built the home of David “Kung Fu” Carradine in California’s Laurel Canyon. And in 1980, he worked with Omni magazine to try to get President Jimmy Carter and then-candidates Ronald Reagan and John Anderson to attend a summit about space colonization.

“Every time I think he is making something up, I find proof about it,” said his daughter, Mikaela.

And, under Anderson’s leadership, the Conch Republic has had an existence almost as colorful: crashing the historic 1994 Summit of the Americas with the late Mel Fisher showing off his shipwreck treasure; issuing more than 25,000 souvenir passports (including one that may have been used by a 9/11 terrorist); dive bombing the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion convoy with stale Cuban bread as it tried to enter the capital of the Conch Republic without permission; and going to war with the Nature Conservancy.

Anderson’s Conch Republic also has had a “civil war” with the Northern Territories of the Conch Republic in a real court case over a similar independence festival in Key Largo. And Anderson, as Secretary General, annexed the abandoned Seven Mile Bridge where 15 Cubans landed in 2006 and were sent back to Cuba.

Anderson, who has lost 80 pounds because of his illness, soaked in every second of the independence parade — happy to be alive and knowing it could be his last hurrah as the Conch Republic’s Secretary General. “The question of what’s next after me has been on my mind,” Anderson said.

He said the running of the festival is in good hands with Sheila Sands-Devendorf, who has helped him the past five years. “But,” Anderson said: “Who’s that smiling face? The crazy wacko? The one who is the face of it all?”

If he can’t find a successor in the Keys, he said, he might put an advertisement in The New York Times: “Small country needs head. Bring money.”

“I’ll see if I can find some crazy, bored person who wants to give me a quarter-million to be me. I could retire with a little nest egg,” Anderson said.” I could be the Secretary General emeritus to advise this poor slob.”

Capt. Frank Holden, who serves as Admiral of the Conch Republic Navy, said: “We all are concerned about what will happen to the Conch Republic without Peter.”

Anderson was at first an unlikely candidate to head the fake country, considering he hadn’t even heard of the Conch Republic when he arrived in Key West in 1984.

But only two weeks into his move, Anderson attended the Conch Republic Days’ Grand Ambassadors Ball. He couldn’t believe the eclectic collection of people, who included real military members in full dress mingling with people in outlandish costumes. Anderson ended up dancing with a man for the first time in his life, “The Minister of Propaganda,” who was wearing a construction hard hat, short cutoff Levis, a white T-shirt with a pack of smokes rolled up in the sleeve, black fishnet stockings and high heels.

“He was the editor of the Key West Citizen,” Anderson said. “It was just a fabulous introduction to Key West and the Conch Republic.”

He soon learned the story of the U.S. Border Patrol setting up a checkpoint at the entrance to the Keys in 1982 to search for illegal immigrants and illicit drugs, which caused massive traffic jams that hurt tourism.

He loved how Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow proclaimed on the federal courthouse steps in Miami to a throng of TV crews and reporters that if Key West was going to be treated like a foreign nation, it was going to start acting like one and would secede from the United States at noon the next day.

And Key West did. The 5-foot-3 Wardlow stood on a rusted flatbed truck in Mallory Square and declared war on the United States. A city commissioner pelted a Navy official with a loaf of stale Cuban bread. The great battle lasted a minute. The Conchs surrendered, demanding $1 billion in foreign aid.

The zany antics worked, and the roadblock soon disappeared. Wardlow thought the Conch Republic wouldn’t last more than a few weeks. But the secession became an excuse for a great party. The fun lasted until 1990, when the professional organizers of Conch Republic Days — more a locals celebration than a tourist draw — decided it wasn’t worth the expense and effort.

Anderson, Evalena and Paul Worthington (owners of the Schooner Wharf Bar) and Capt. Finbar Gittleman (owner of the Schooner Wolf, the flagship of the Conch Republic Navy) got together to save the day, putting on a three-day independence festival, which included the Last Tango on Tank Island.

“Peter picked up the ball and ran with it, and some of us ran with him, too,” said Gittleman, now Commander of the Conch Republic Military Forces. “It was never a money maker, but always a hell of a lot of fun.”

They owed $6,000 after putting on their first festival. “We lost our shirts,” Anderson said. But the party went on the next year, and in 1992, Anderson went big and put on a 10-day celebration for the 10-year anniversary of the secession. “Finbar, Evelena and Paul all said I was crazy, so I became sole proprietor of the Conch Republic Independence Celebration,” Anderson said.

Running his own country was a longtime dream that began when he was a ’60s hippie in California. “In Big Sur, there is a big rock like Gibraltar, with a lighthouse on top,” Anderson said. “My plan was to march out there and take it from the Coast Guard and turn it into hippie country. Then I had another plan to move all the hippies in the country to Texas because it has the right to secede by treaty.”

Mary Martin, Conch Republic Army Lieutenant in charge of Logistics and Headaches, said: “I think the public think it’s just a joke, but the Conch Republic is a very socially conscious organization. So when people are in need, whether in our community or elsewhere, we rise to the occasion.”

After the earthquake victims of Haiti in 2010, the Conch Republic Navy traveled to a city there besieged with refugees, bringing 22 tons of medical and food supplies on four sailing vessels. “We also did humanitarian missions to Jamaica, when it was devastated by Hurricane Gilbert, and Honduras when it was hit by Hurricane Mitch,” Gittleman said.

Anderson also has made sure the Conch Republic has raised tens of thousands of dollars for a discretionary fund for children in foster care that has paid for class rings, prom dresses and school supplies and once bought beds to keep five children from the same family under the same roof. “Peter was so happy they did not have to be separated,” Sands-Devendorf said.

Over the years, Anderson has been in the middle of many big controversies. One included whether to create a National Marine Sanctuary in the waters of the Keys. He was a member of Reef Relief, which was for it. But fishermen and others wanted him as Secretary General of the Conch Republic to take a stand against it over concerns that plans called for Florida to surrender huge chunks of its sovereignty over its waters and land to the federal government.

“I was never an enemy of the sanctuary, although I did dislike a number of the aspects of their plan,” he said.

As president and CEO of Reef Relief, Anderson took heat a few years ago for Reef Relief not taking a public stand against the city considering widening the Key West Harbor for use by bigger cruise ships. He was vilified by some for being more concerned about losing the business of selling Conch Republic souvenirs and passports to tourists than he was about marine damage that could be done by a massive widening project.

But in October, Anderson needed to save himself after getting his cancer diagnosis. For Anderson who came up with the Conch Republic’s slogan, “We seceded where others failed,” doing nothing was not an option.

So he logged onto his computer and began searching for a miracle. He came up with proton therapy, which beams protons with a dose of radiation directly to a designated target tumor. Only seven medical centers in North America offer the therapy. The University of Florida turned him down because his cancer was too advanced. But MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston took on his case.

It was a horrible ordeal. He returned home weak. “I could see in my daughter’s eyes she thought I was going to die,” Anderson said.

But slowly he began gaining strength. He began walking in the pool of a friend’s hotel. He became excited about his 25th Independence Celebration. And on its first day, when the colors were raised at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, Anderson was there to tell the zany story of the Conch Republic to another group of incredulous tourists.

They heard many of his famous one-liners, including: “We are the world’s first Fifth World Nation”; “We are proud to have stood up to the tyranny of government gone mad with power”; “We seek to bring more humor, warmth and respect to a world sorely in need of all three,” and” Life is Short. Live Wide. Play Deep.”

Despite tiring easily, he attended all of the 20 or so events, even if just for a few minutes. He showed up at the Drag Races long enough to have his picture taken with two female impersonators. He put on his blue skirt as the only male member of the Conch Republics CIA (Cuties in Action).

“Peter is the voice and persona, and the heart and soul, who has steered the Conch Republic,” Sands-Devendorf said. “People like Evalena and Finbar come up with such great ideas for the events and do it year in and year out, but Peter lives and breathes it 365 days a year, from the soles of his feet up to the hair on his head. After this festival is over, we can’t wait any longer to put together a board and see how we can preserve Peter’s legacy and preserve this for Key West.”

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