Having first gained national recognition in the 1950s as one of America’s most courageous journalists, Mount Dora’s Mabel Norris Reese will soon be recognized with a bust sculpted in her honor. The effort to create a lasting tribute to Reese followed the 2018 Mount Dora appearance by author Gilbert King whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book“Devil in the Grove,” and its follow-up, “Beneath a Ruthless Sun,”broughtReese to the attention of readers around the world. Soon thereafter, Gary McKechnie, a local historian, and others founded the non-profit Mabel Norris Reese Tribute Fund to raise funds for the sculpted portrait.
King’s “Devil in the Grove” describes how Reese’s focus on local news changed from social events and city council meetings to the life and death struggles of the Groveland Four, four African-American men who in 1949 were falsely accused of raping a white teenager. When Reese began to challenge the brutal authority of Lake County sheriff Willis McCall, she became a target of his wrath. Bombs were detonated at her Sylvan Shores home, her newspaper office vandalized, a cross burned in her yard, and her dog poisoned. Using every resource at his disposal to intimidate Reese, McCall even launched a rival newspaper and warned advertisers not to buy space in Reese’s Mount Dora Topic. From her small town newspaper, Reese continued to expose the corruption of McCall and his deputies. In columns that gained national and international attention, she revealed his use of torture to coerce confessions and reliance on manufactured evidence to gain convictions. In 1954, she led the effort to find justice for the Platt children, judged by McCall and the county school board to be “negroes” and thus ineligible to attend Mount Dora’s whites-only schools.
In 1957 McCall and Lake County prosecutor Gordon Oldham framed Jesse Daniels, a mentally disabled 19-year-old, for rape and had him committed without trial to the state hospital for the insane in Chattahoochee. Their crime, documented in King’s “Beneath a Ruthless Sun,” prompted Reese and Jesse’s mother, Pearl, to launch a fourteen-year quest to secure his release.
The initial terra cotta sculpture of Reese is being sculpted by Jim McNalis, an artist recognized internationally for sculpting men and women of extraordinary courage. Reese will be one of the few women in the United States to be honored with a sculpture. In the feature “Breaking the Bronze Ceiling,”, CBS News reported that of more than 5,000 statues in America, fewer than ten percent are dedicated to women. The sculpture honor will be added to her December 2018 induction as the 40th woman named to the Lake County Women’s Hall of Fame. Donations can be made to the project here. For more news and events in Mount Dora, Tavares & Eustis, this month, click here. Also download the area's free mobile app.