Secretary General Peter Anderson of zany Conch Republic dies of cancer at age 67

 

cclark@MiamiHerald.com

In October, Sir Peter Anderson was given three months to live with Stage 3 lung cancer. The dire diagnosis did not lead him to resignation, but instead to the Internet, where he searched for hope and discovered pioneering proton radiation therapy.

Seven months later, he was in remission back in his home in Key West, where he was smoking medical marijuana before climbing into his official, royal-blue Conch Republic electric car to lead the fake country’s “Independence Celebration” parade.

His grown daughter, Mikaela, was seated next to him, and his ex-wife, Judith, was riding in the back. “I’m so lucky to be alive,” he said.

Anderson also was celebrating 25 years as the “Secretary General” — and as the public and often controversial driving force of the farcical Conch Republic. He could not stop smiling as the crowds cheered for him.

Despite his weakened lungs, he blew his conch shell with gusto all along the nearly mile-long route on Duval Street. He also proclaimed at least once every block: “Long live the Conch Republic. Loooooong live the Conch Republic. And long live each and every one of you.”

One parade watcher shouted back: “And long live Peter Anderson.”

It would be his last Independence Celebration — but probably not his last parade. The cancer returned, and Anderson died at home in his bed Wednesday morning, with his daughter, ex-wife and dear friend Kate Miano with him. He was 67.

“We talked about having a parade for him while he was in bed last week,” Miano said. “We wanted to pinpoint him on a lot of things, and he said, ‘Oh, yeah, I want a parade.’ 

A group of his friends are working to get city permission to have a procession down Duval Street in Anderson’s honor on Aug. 3, with a celebration of life to follow at the Gardens Hotel, which Miano owns.

“Peter wanted his epitaph to say: ‘He had fun,’ ” Miano said.

And, oh, how he did.

Anderson traveled extensively before arriving in Key West in 1984. He said he knew he had found home on the island with its fun-loving, independent spirit. He embraced the story of how the island city at the end of the road had seceded from the United States after the U.S. Border Patrol would not remove a checkpoint set up to search for illegal immigrants and drugs. That checkpoint at the entrance to the Keys was causing massive traffic jams and hurting the fledgling tourist industry of the island chain.

Anderson said 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.

The Conch Republic was born, creating a great excuse for an annual party. But by 1990, the professional organizers of the “Conch Republic Days” decided it wasn’t worth the expense and effort.

In stepped Anderson, along with several others, to take over the celebration. Capt. Tony Tarracino, then the real mayor of Key West, proclaimed Anderson as the Conch Republic’s “Secretary General.”

Anderson took the role seriously, setting up an Office of the Secretary General of the Conch Republic and selling real-looking passports. He installed Conch-sulates in foreign countries and created a brand that included sayings like: “We are the world’s first Fifth World Nation,” “We seceded where others failed” and “We seek to bring more humor, warmth and respect to a world sorely in need of all three.”

He drove around in an official Conch Republic convertible and electric car.

“Peter came up with some wacky ideas,” said Andy Newman, whose public relations agency handles the account of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. “Who else would have though of a Conch Republic drag race, with drag queens racing in high heels down Duval Street?”

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

Anderson also gave much of his time to the community. He served the past five years as president of Reef Relief, and on the eve of his death was elected president again, as a tribute.

“Many people don’t know but he also was the founding president for Habitat for Humanity in the Keys and that he started a foster children’s fund,” Miano said.

Anderson also helped lead the Conch Republic’s effort to bring 22 tons of medical and food supplies to refugees from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

“Peter could be a royal pain in the ass, but he genuinely loved the Keys,” Newman said. “And when you needed him to do something, he would. After Hurricane Wilma, Key West was shut down to visitors for a while. When the airport finally was able to reopen, we asked Peter if he would go to the airport and blow his conch shell to welcome the first returning visitors. And he said absolutely he would do it.”

Anderson traveled to Costa Rica in May with three friends and last month went to New York with Miano to visit his brother. “He saw his first Broadway Show,” she said. “It was Wicked.”

He needed wheelchairs and scooters to get around because he barely could walk, but it didn’t stop him from visiting Central Park.

“I thought he always knew he was going, but he was living like he was a complete remission miracle,” she said.

On the airplane trip home, Anderson became sick. A couple days later he was hospitalized. The cancer had returned in force, and this time there was nothing that could be done. He was released July 4, to live out his last days at his home on Simonton Street, which doubled as the Office of the Secretary General of the Conch Republic.

“He always said he was not fortunate enough to be born in the Conch Republic, but he would be fortunate enough to die here,” Miano said. “And today he did.”

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