The Way We Were: Eleanor Ashby

The Way We Were: Eleanor Ashby

By Victoria Register-Freeman


The seed that blossomed into Eleanor Johnson Ashby’s love for history just might have been planted one day at the Jacksonville Terminal, a site know today as the Prime Osborne Convention Center. Wearing a yellow handkerchief linen dress sewn by her mother Imogene, a six year old Eleanor handed a bouquet to one of the century’s most infamous women, Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. Simpson had come to Jacksonville to visit Lester Thompson, a boarding school friend of hers.

But young Ashby was not always a perfect Norman Rockwell cover lass. A less magical moment in her personal history occurred when she exercised some youthful entrepreneurial skills.

“We lived on Powell Place when my parents first moved to Jacksonville from Pennsylvania. I was five when we moved. Bill Johnson, my father, came to open the Visitors and Convention Bureau and later became Director of the Chamber of Commerce. For some reason one day I decided to sell my mother’s demitasse collection to folks who passed by the corner of Powell Place and St. Johns Avenue. My mother, known as Jimmy to her friends and neighbors, was angry at me, but angrier still at folks who had bought the tiny cups.”

A brush with cinematic history came when Ashby was eight.

“My parents took me to the opening night of Gone with the Wind at the Florida Theater where Jimmy Knight played on the mighty Wurlitzer organ. We went with the Masons, the Thompsons, and the McEuens. I remember that we were all dressed up. I remember, too, that I was the only girl. It was a wonderful evening.”

Ashby’s kindergarten and first grade experiences took place at Miss Francis Christopher’s school on St. Johns Avenue.  For second grade and third grade it was on to West Riverside Elementary, followed by attendance at the Bartram School until graduation.

“I really liked Miss Pratt, the Headmistress of Bartram. She was a Vassar graduate who taught math and history. She was also very helpful to the young teachers. Miss Miller, the second in command, always wrote on my papers, ‘Wonderful ideas but poor construction.’ The music of Gilbert and Sullivan was very much a part of every student’s Bartram experience. My personal claim to fame was being cast as the emperor’s umbrella carrier in the ‘Mikado’ and I can still recognize most of the wonderful old hymns.

When we weren’t poring over the textbooks during the school year, my friends and I had fun. During the summer, we would pile into someone’s car and go to Ponte Vedra. There we would swim and flirt until the storm clouds rolled in around 4p.m. There were also the  Saturday night dances. Dress was casual, but not today’s casual. Casual meant coat and tie for the boys and dressy sundresses for the girls. Sometimes there were also heels dyed to match.

After Bartram it was on to Sweet Briar College where I majored in Modern European History. Of course, it’s not so modern now. Then, in 1953 I met Garnett Ashby at Catherine Yerkes wedding to Seafield Grant R.N. Garnett was a groomsman and I was a bridal attendant. We began going out. We had grown up in Avondale a few streets apart, but he was four years older than I was and that really meant something when we were young.

After we were married in 1954, we moved to Atlantic Beach into the house Garnett’s grandparents had built. That is where we raised our three children: Stuart, Elizabeth “BaBa” and Linden, children who have now produced nine grandchildren.”

And it was from that Atlantic Beach home base, that Eleanor Ashby advanced Jacksonville’s history of positive leadership. After working with the Symphony and being involved in several other volunteer organizations, she became the executive director of Leadership Jacksonville in 1978 just two years after the non-profit organization — designed to prepare civic movers and shakers — was founded.  A youth program was added under her leadership in 1989.

She retired in 1998 to travel and “have fun” with Garnett, a well known boater, entrepreneur, and humanitarian. At her retirement she received praise from wide variety of her former leadership students including John Delaney, Linda Lanier and Nat Glover. Ashby also became one of the half dozen women who have received the Eve “Mama” Williams Lifetime Achievement Award which is given to women who have performed exceptional and extended community service.

Indeed, it is true the little girl in the yellow dress touched Wallis Simpson, a woman who changed world history flamboyantly by marrying royalty. It is also true the same little girl in the yellow dress went on to become a woman who changed local history quietly by encouraging one leader at a time. As Linda Lanier, former Sulzbacher Center Executive Director, said, “Ashby knew how to put people together in exactly the right combination to get things accomplished.”

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