Miami Stories

Swimming with ‘Flipper’ was a big part of her Miami childhood

The Monfort children play on the beach at Marco Island, 1962. From left to right, Bob Monfort, Janine Monfort, Peter Monfort and Toni Monfort Schrager, the article’s author.
The Monfort children play on the beach at Marco Island, 1962. From left to right, Bob Monfort, Janine Monfort, Peter Monfort and Toni Monfort Schrager, the article’s author.

“Where are you from?” was the inevitable question in a small Michigan town with a summer population four times that of the winter. When I would answer, “Miami,” my stature was assured by my one-word answer.

“Wow, you are so lucky” or “Cool” or “I’ve always wanted to go there,” were the typical responses.

I was born at Mercy Hospital in 1958, and my mother always reminds me her room had a gorgeous bay view and the entire stay cost $150. My parents had moved here from Michigan in 1956.

They lived in the “married dorms” at the University of Miami while my father finished his degree. They loved the outdoors and would buy surplus Army-Navy dive tanks, strap them on and explore nearby reefs, enthralled by the gorgeous underwater world. They also went spear-fishing for their dinner.

My uncle, Don Berg, was a developer and businessman who lived on Key Biscayne, a then-sleepy community serviced by a bridge that, when up, would back up traffic forever. If we stayed on the Key too late, and there was a full moon, coming home after dark meant hundreds of land crabs getting crushed beneath our tires — thousands would scurry over over Crandon Boulevard and there was just no avoiding them.

Uncle Don owned The English Pub, Jamaica Inn and, later, Stefano’s. He played golf regularly with Richard Nixon and Bebe Rebozo. My cousins danced in an episode of “The Jackie Gleason Show.” They had air-conditioning, which, in my mind, made them rich beyond belief.

My parents had bought a modest Mackle home in Westwood Lakes in 1958. I went to school across the street at Cypress Elementary. We used to buy lemonade concentrate and mix in half the water amount so it was super-sweet, freeze it in Dixie cups and sell it on blistering hot days for 5 cents.

It was my first taste of freedom from earning your own money. I caught the bus to Concord Plaza for 10 cents and bought my first-ever new — not a hand-me-down — shirt.

By now, my mother was raising four children alone. Though struggling, she made our lives rich. She loved where we lived because we were on a canal, and she loved the “sea cows,” or manatees, that came calling in winter.

The first time I saw one I was so frightened I couldn’t breathe. My mother, however, swam right up and stroked it, until it swam away lazily. We were allowed to “play” with the manatees, and I know our neighbors thought our mother reckless to allow it.

Her love of nature, especially the sea, paid off when she was hired by Miami Seaquarium as Carolina Snowball’s trainer. Carolina Snowball was the only albino dolphin in captivity and the star attraction.

I remember my fourth-grade class going to the Seaquarium, and there was my short-haired mother doing the show! One of the kids said, “That’s a guy, that’s not a girl.”

I blurted out, “That’s a girl, and she’s my mother!”

She got the job because she wrote to the “Burning Desire” column in the Coral Gables Guide and said she always wanted to swim with a dolphin. They made her wish come true. That Seaquarium management liked her (she held her breath underwater for two minutes!) and hired her as a trainer was completely unexpected.

It was, by far, her favorite job, and mine, too. I played with the “Flippers” (there were three then) in the lagoon where the “Flipper” TV show was filmed. I fed the penguins and played unbridled on the Seaquarium grounds with my siblings.

We roamed freely back then. Miami was our playground. We got on our bikes in the morning, and were expected home by dark. We didn’t say where we were going; we didn’t know ourselves.

I remember walking my bike across one of the fat pipes that crossed the canal that the Turnpike now parallels. We would enter horse country this way; it was my favorite place because I was horse crazy. I used to muck out stalls for free just to be near the horses. I loved everything about the barns, the scent of horses and fresh hay.

Life has a way of being circular. I now own a barn in horse country called Tally Ho. Sometimes when I am in the older back barn, I wonder if that small me was ever standing here, mucking out the same exact stall just for the pleasure of petting the horses.

We moved to South Miami when I was entering seventh grade. Our new house had a little bridge that went out to an island in the middle of a spring-fed pond.

Our home was adjacent to the railroad tracks (now Ludlam Trail), and we kids would walk the tracks because they were shaded by Australian pines. It was so soothing and cooling to walk below their whispering majesty. We jumped off the ties and ran like scared rabbits when the trains came by.

I attended South Miami Senior High School and worked part-time at a who’s who of old “Miam-ah” restaurants: Andy’s Sir Dolphin, Bodega, and the iconic (and still delicious!) Captain’s Tavern.

I went to Florida State, but graduated from the University of Michigan, where both my grandfathers had earned medical degrees. My mother always reminds me that Midwesterners are great people, and is proud of her roots.

But I was from Miami and had Florida sand in my shoes. After graduation, I returned to my hometown and jumped into real estate, first with the Green Companies and next with Stadler.

I married Bernard Schrager, a local Miami Beach boy, and together we raised three beautiful daughters here. After many productive years in the real estate industry, I co-founded Avatar Real Estate Services in 2002 with Vivian Dimond. In 2017, we sold our boutique company to a firm out of New York, Brown Harris Stevens, and I continue to do what I have done my entire adult life: list and sell real estate.

And my best friend from those halcyon days of rafting on our pond and walking the railroad tracks, Betsy Kuehner, is still my best friend and now my marketing consultant.

Miami was, and remains, a close-knit town.