Way We Were: John & Sheila Hamilton

Way We Were: John & Sheila Hamilton
Martha and Claire, Andy, Frank and John, Jr.
Hamilton home in Venetia

Hamilton home in Venetia

Sheila and John Hamilton describe the Venetia neighborhood in which they lived for 57 years as a “compound.” Its residents live there a long time, so long, in fact, many have owned two homes there – a starter home and then a family home. “They don’t move out, and now their children are moving back into the neighborhood,” John said.

Sheila and John grew up together in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and started dating in 1958. They became engaged when Sheila was 23 and John was 26 years old. They put a deposit down on a home in Grosse Pointe with full intentions of continuing to live where they grew up.

But, fate intervened when Sheila attended a medical convention in Chicago. There she met Dr. Jerry Knauer, a second-generation Jacksonville ophthalmologist with a national reputation for helping the visually impaired. He was looking for an orthoptist – a health professional trained to evaluation and manage childhood and adult eye movement abnormalities – and Sheila fit the bill. He offered Sheila a job, and she accepted. In 1959, Sheila moved to Jacksonville with a girlfriend who was also hired by Dr. Knauer. The two young women rented an apartment on Lakeshore Drive.

During one of John’s trips to Jacksonville to visit Sheila, he was offered a job with a Jacksonville bank’s trust department, Florida National Bank, which was the second largest commercial bank in Florida when it was acquired by First Union Corporation in 1990 and was renamed Wachovia in 2001. That helped the couple decide to make Jacksonville their home.

Before visiting Sheila, John had never been to Jacksonville. “I couldn’t believe how hot it was here!” John said. Sheila was a member of the Detroit Junior League and transferred her membership to the Jacksonville Junior League when she moved here, so she had some connections when she arrived.

Sheila and John with their daughter, Martha, and Nipper the dog in 1962

Sheila and John with their daughter, Martha, and Nipper the dog in 1962

“We moved to Jacksonville on the same day we were married, Sept. 12, 1959,” John recalled. After a one-week honeymoon, the newlyweds rented a house for about six months and then purchased the home at 4247 Genoa Avenue in Venetia in early 1960. “We already knew a couple of people who lived there,” Sheila said. “We loved that the neighborhood had sidewalks, a good neighborhood school and less traffic than some parts of Jacksonville.” It seemed like the perfect place to start a family, they thought.

Eight years and four children later, Sheila, who was pregnant with her last child, Andy, and John decided they needed a bigger house. “We never even considered leaving Venetia, though,” Sheila said. In fact, they didn’t even leave the street, deciding to buy a two-story home in the next block at 4305 Genoa Avenue. The home was built in 1927 and is one of the original houses in Venetia. It housed their growing family for the next 42 years.

The Hamiltons’ oldest daughter, Martha, was born in 1961. John Jr. was born in 1962, Frank in 1964 and Claire in 1967. Andy was born in 1968, shortly after they moved to the bigger house on Oct. 1, 1968, “the same day that the city-county consolidation of the governments of the City of Jacksonville and Duval County officially occurred,” John said. All of their children attended Venetia Elementary School.

Both Sheila and John had interesting careers and hobbies, in addition to rearing five children. John left the bank and took a job with Mass Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1963, when he was 30. Now 85 years old, he is still affiliated with Mass Mutual and is licensed, although now he focuses on taking care of longtime clients primarily. “I’m not retired,” John said. “I think of myself as restructured.”

John played tennis at the Florida Yacht Club where he is a member. He has also made toys with the Jax Woodworkers Club for many years.

The club meets monthly to share woodworking ideas and projects, to encourage and support its members and to work together in its annual community outreach, The Christmas Toy Project. Throughout the year, John and the club’s other members build toys that are donated in November to different charities, hospitals and other organizations that help children.

Martha and Claire, Andy, Frank and John, Jr.

Martha and Claire, Andy, Frank and John, Jr.

Sheila worked full-time until she had their first child. After that she worked part-time for Baptist Hospital and with other ophthalmologists in the city.

After she turned 60, Sheila decided to pursue her real interest, which was cooking. She enrolled in Florida Community College at Jacksonville (now called Florida State College at Jacksonville) in its Culinary School and earned a two-year degree. “Unlike my first degree, which was in a field that I knew would pay well, I decided to get a second degree in something I loved,” Sheila said.

She opened a culinary catering company, which she named Cornucopia, on Edgewood Avenue. Sheila recalls catering a large event for a Ponte Vedra family each Christmas and events for the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. Her largest catering event was for The Florida Theatre in downtown Jacksonville.

Sheila operated Cornucopia for three years until her business partner became pregnant and didn’t want to do catering any longer. “I just didn’t think I could run the business by myself at my age,” Sheila said.

In her late 60s, Sheila took up Jazzercise. For two years in a row, she even performed in a Jaguars halftime show with other Jazzercisers.

John is a member of the Florida Yacht Club, and the family enjoyed their proximity to its amenities. Sheila and John also took their family camping for several years with other families at Thanksgiving. “We enjoyed going to Ginnie Springs on the Santa Fe River in High Springs until finally the noise from increasing numbers of motorcycles bothered us too much,” Sheila said.

The Hamiltons took their children to Detroit and Flint, Mich., to visit family. “And, of course, with five children we made numerous trips to Disneyworld,” Sheila laughed.

Martha and Claire, Andy, Frank and John, Jr.

Martha and Claire, Andy, Frank and John, Jr.

But, mostly they enjoyed close-knit relationships with Venetia neighbors. Their family is the epitome of Venetia’s multi-generational appeal. Son Frank and his wife used to live across the street from where he grew up. Now they live in a house right next door. Daughter Martha lives on the same street as her homeplace and Claire lives around the corner. John lives just a couple of miles away in Cedar Hills. Andy ventured further because of his job; he is a Jacksonville firefighter in St. Johns County where his wife is a school teacher.

Sheila and John have 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, all of whom have moved here except for one granddaughter who lives in New York.

That strong sense of family in Venetia is what made leaving their home difficult. But, the time had come for them to find a smaller, one-story house that would be easier for Sheila, who is 82, to manage.

“We didn’t even think about moving to another part of town, however,” Sheila said. They wanted to be near their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In May 2017 they into Ortega Bay Condominiums on Lakeside Drive.

The move was not without its challenges, however. When it became clear that Hurricane Irma was going to hit Florida, Sheila and John evacuated to a motel in Lake City, thinking they would be out of harm’s way. But the hurricane followed them to Lake City and then to Jacksonville.

They, like most of Jacksonville, didn’t anticipate the flooding. The condominiums had never had a problem with flooding in its 18-year history. But when Sheila and John returned to Jacksonville four days after they evacuated, they discovered that the Ortega River had come all the way up the bank and flooded their condo. That was in mid-September.

“All of the floors and part of the walls had to be replaced,” John said. “Thankfully we had very little damage to personal stuff, but we did have water on some furniture.”

They were supposed to be back in the condo by January 2018 but couldn’t return until April. “Thank goodness our son, John, offered for us to live in his house in Cedar Hills,” John said. John Jr. moved into a mobile home at his business, Hamilton Tree Service, to give his parents some privacy.

John and Sheila

John and Sheila

Sheila and John continue to stay close to their neighbors in Venetia. John built a Little Free Library with his former neighbor, Linda Hunter, and they installed it in front of Venetia Elementary School. “I can tell that books have been changed since we installed it, so I’m happy that it is getting some use,” he said.

And, he continues to make toys with the Jax Woodworkers Club. While he used to make the toys in his Venetia garage, he now uses a corner of Linda’s garage that she offered him. He cuts the toys with a scroll saw at Linda’s and then assembles the toys in his garage at the condominiums.

Even well into their 80s and no longer living in the neighborhood, Sheila and John continue to care for their neighborhood and model the importance of place to future generations.

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