As a boy growing up in Miami, Freddy Fisikelli used to grab his .22-caliber rifle and his camping gear and take a bus along Tamiami Trail to the Big Cypress, where he and his best friend, Ray Summerlin, would spend the weekend in the woods and revel in the stories told by the loggers and hunters who they met.
Those experiences in the early 1940s kindled a lifelong love of the great outdoors in Alfred Fisikelli, who died Sept. 24 at his home in Southwest Ranches at the age of 90.
That love, which was surpassed only by his devotion to Sarah, his wife of 68½ years who died in January, transformed the thin, soft-spoken Fisikelli into a warrior when it came to protecting Florida’s natural resources and providing access to them.
Fisikelli helped prevent development of the Big Cypress by forcing politicians to make it a national preserve. He tirelessly fought to have clean water in the Everglades, which was a dumping ground for agricultural and urban runoff. He battled bureaucrats to keep public fishing and hunting lands open to anglers and hunters, as well as to campers, paddlers, hikers and bird-watchers. And he also was part of the successful fights to restore the Kissimmee River and stop the ill-conceived cross-Florida barge canal
Ailing from stomach cancer, several weeks ago Fisikelli went with his family for one last visit to the airboat camp that he had built in the Everglades with Pete Gonzalez and Paul Ledbetter. Fisikelli, who had worked with them at Southern Bell, wanted to plant three oak trees to memorialize himself and his friends.
While they were there, Fisikelli was asked why he had dedicated so much of his life to protecting South Florida’s woods and waters. According to his grandson, Matt Fisikelli, he said, “To be honest with you, it was purely selfish so my kids and grandkids could enjoy what I did.”
Fisikelli gave heartfelt and factual public testimony at countless meetings on issues being considered by agencies such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the South Florida Water Management District and the National Park Service. He also was president of the Everglades Coordinating Council and helped found the Half-Track Conservation Club of Dade County, as well as the town of Southwest Ranches when other cities wanted to annex what was then unincorporated Broward County.
I always loved talking with Freddy during breaks at meetings, and he invariably would tell me that he should be fishing and hunting with his grandchildren rather than being at yet another meeting. But he never stopped attending them.
“I remember something he said one day at an Everglades Coordinating Council meeting. I’ve never forgot it,” said Robert Stossel of Okeechobee. “A colonel from the game commission was talking about closing the ’Glades to hunters and Freddy was against it. The colonel said, ‘Freddy, it’s just one year,’ and Freddy said, ‘I’m 63 years old, and I don’t have many opening days left.’ I think about him all the time.”
Jack Moller of Pembroke Pines was another conservationist who fought alongside Fisikelli. Now living in Katy, Texas, Moller said Fisikelli and Francis Taylor, whom part of the Everglades Wildlife Management Area is named after, were role models for him.
“Freddy was involved in all the big issues and fights in getting the Big Cypress made into a national preserve, Everglades restoration, starting sportsmen’s clubs, just leading everybody in the right direction,” Moller said.
“He had lots of interesting, innovative ideas and he could motivate people to do it with him. He was involved in stopping the Jetport [in Big Cypress], getting the big ditches stopped in the Fakahatchee and saving the Holey Land and Rotenberger wildlife management areas.”
Those efforts were recognized by many organizations, including Ducks Unlimited and Safari Club International. The Florida Wildlife Federation honored Fisikelli in 1967 and again in 1994 with its prestigious Conservationist of the Year award.
Despite all the time his conservation efforts demanded, Fisikelli did get outdoors with his friends and family. Matt Fisikelli said five or six families would hunt ducks together during the opening week of the season at Lake Okeechobee or in the Everglades. His grandfather regularly fished for snook, redfish and grouper out of Chokoloskee Island, camping on mangrove islands before eventually buying a place there. Every July, he and Sarah and their family and friends would go to the Keys for lobster miniseason.
“It was more the enjoyment of being out there with friends, enjoying what he had worked to preserve,” his grandson said. “We’re still enjoying the benefits of his hard work.
Nowadays, the way politics are, there’s no one person who could get as much done as he did.”
Those who love South Florida’s outdoors are forever grateful.