Historians gather ‘Legendary Locals of Greater Miami’ in new book

The first “postcard” to come from these parts reputedly was sent 450 years ago by Jesuit Brother Francisco Villareal.

However, the message was not of the “Wish You Were Here” style that tourism bureaus might welcome.

“I and others have constantly remained healthy, glory be to God, which helps us endure with the little difficulty some of the burdens of the land that otherwise would seem insufferable,” Villareal wrote while leading an outpost mission at the mouth of the Miami River.

Miami presents challenges, but its ability to adapt to changes makes the city an ideal setting for Monday’s publication of Legendary Locals of Greater Miami (Arcadia Publishing; $21.99, 128 pages) by local historians and scribes Howard Kleinberg and Arva Moore Parks. Through its 128 pages we meet about 200 of the men and women who have made the Miami of today.

Kleinberg and Parks introduce readers to hardy pioneers like the Brickells, William and Mary, whose donation of 640 acres of land led Henry Flagler to bring his railroad to Miami in the late 1800s. Also, Julia Tuttle, whose land purchase along the north bank of the Miami River in the 1870s opened the region to trade.

Developers like Jorge M. Pérez, named one of the nation’s 25 most influential Hispanics by Time magazine, made the book as did religious leader Sister Jeanne O’ Laughlin and University of Miami President Donna Shalala. There’s Cuban American National Foundation founder and construction mogul Jorge Mas Canosa. Dorothy Jenkins Fields, founder of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida. Civic leader Mitchell Wolfson Jr. along with sports and entertainment figures like Miami Dolphins perfect-season coach Don Shula and Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III or, as the world came to know him, Ricky Ricardo of I Love Lucy fame.

“We were trying to really represent our true diversity…[T]hat became important to us,” Parks said.

Gathering these names — whom to include and whom to cut — was not easy.

“Some people will be offended they are not in the book,” Kleinberg said. “That’s how you lose friends.”

Fortunately, Kleinberg, a former sports writer and editor of The Miami News, and Parks, an author and historian, came to the project as friends.

And they left as friends, the two confirm with a laugh.

“The first list had several hundred names, and then we had to start paring down. Arva and I batted heads,” Kleinberg, who wrote the captions, said. “She was expert in some areas of a type of people — all the big businessmen. There was a lot of give and go. Some people are in the book that I didn’t think should be, and some are that Arva didn’t think should be. But we had to compromise, and Arva and I have been friends for years so you choose your battles.”

For example, Parks, who was responsible for tracking down the black-and-white prints that illustrate each submission, had not heard of Nathaniel “Traz” Powell — who made the cut.

Powell, who died in 1980, had graduated from Booker T. Washington High School as one of the finest football players in pre-integration Florida and later coached at Miami’s Carver and Mays High in Goulds and built a 170-33 record in 21 years of high school football. Miami Dade College’s North Campus named its stadium in his honor.

“He’s an example of someone who is really important in Miami history,” Parks said. “That is one of the favorite things I learned.”

Arcadia has about 80 titles in its Legendary Locals imprint, such as Burlington, Bethlehem and Newton. Finding the right authors is important to ensure the optimal mix of personalities in the series.

“In terms of acquiring this title with Arva and Howard as co-authors, there was no question. Arva is a valued previous author, and she and Howard are a dynamite team. Both are prolific writers and both are well connected in the community,” said Amy Perryman, publishing editor for Legendary Locals and Arcadia Publishing.

Charlie Cinnamon, founder of the 50-year-old Coconut Grove Arts Festival and a publicity master, is thrilled to find himself sharing pages with fellow arts icons like Hello, Dolly! composer Jerry Herman and TV showman Jackie Gleason. In the 1960s, the Honeymooners star touted Miami Beach as “the sun and fun capital of the world.”

“I feel it a major privilege to be included in the company of such colorful personalities who lived through these magical decades of moving forward the impact that Miami and the Beaches have had on the international worlds of leisure and commerce,” Cinnamon said.

Miami stands apart in another way, too, according to Parks. Old-timers and newcomers alike continue to shape our history.

“It doesn’t take four generations to become a legendary local in Miami. That’s one of our good things,’’ Parks said. “If you talk about Boston or Charleston, maybe in five generations you can make it. You can make it fast in Miami.”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.