21 Intriguing FloridiansFlorida Monthly spotlights 21 Floridians, excelling in fields from public service and film to technology and health, who intrigue us. They mirror the unique demographic and cultural makeup of the Sunshine State.
Culture - As the Director of the Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Michael Spring ensures that the city boasts a massive array of cultural venues and events. In 2007, Spring added another title to his resume—leader of Miami-Dade County’s Art in Public Places program.
During his 27 years in the position, Spring has helped revamp Miami-Dade County’s cultural community. There are now more than 1,000 non-profit cultural groups and thousands of local artists calling the city home. In the past few years, he’s helped secure more than $80 million in public funds used to improve existing buildings and create new theater venues. In 2004, he helped pass a referendum for the Building Better Communities bond program, which offered more than $450 million toward building new cultural facilities, ranging from science museums to art centers.
“It’s my goal to make Miami one of the newest cultural capitals, offering world-class programs” Spring stated. “It’s a diverse, exuberant, unpredictable, creative community.”
Spring is extremely proud to be part of the cultural lifestyle. To aid those who can’t afford the events, he’s created programs that offer reduced ticket prices for students and seniors. “I want to make everything affordable, accessible,—especially for kids.” He’s created many opportunities for all residents to get involved, whether it’s by participating in an event or simply viewing it.
In addition to his job, Spring is on numerous cultural and civic committees, including acting as secretary for the Americans for the Arts board of directors, a founding board member of the Cultural Alliance, a member and past president of the United States Urban Arts Federation, a past president of the Florida Association of Local Arts Agencies, and a member of the Board of Governors of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.
Spring earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami and then a master’s degree from New York University. He also studied in Venice, Italy. He continues to paint but rarely shows his work. “Since I’m involved in a creative process, it gives me a keen appreciation of what all of the other artists are experiencing,” Spring explained. “I know what they need. I can look at them and say ‘I know what you’re going through.’”
Journalism - Mirta Ojito has made a stunning career for herself. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’s worked for The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald since 1987, as well as The New York Times from 1996-2002, where she covered such topics as immigration for the Metro Desk. Most recently, she wrote the book Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus, which chronicles her immigration from Cuba to the United States on the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, when she was 16 years old. “Leaving in a boat, during the largest mass exodus of the hemisphere in recent history, has given me a story to tell.… It is, without a doubt, the defining narrative of my life,” Ojito commented.
Her writings have been featured in numerous anthologies, including To Mend the World: Women Reflect on 9/11, Written into History: Pulitzer Prize Reporting of the Twentieth Century from The New York Times, and How Race is lived in America. “I’ve wanted to be a reporter since … I was an adolescent. Around that time, I also saw Barbara Walters interview Fidel Castro in television in Cuba and was impressed that a woman could wield so much power and ask questions that were forbidden for most of us, the Cubans living on the island,” Ojito said. She is a graduate of Florida Atlantic University and the mid-career master’s degree program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she is now an assistant professor. She previously taught journalism at New York University and at the University of Miami. “As a reporter and as a teacher, the goal is to communicate and to make a difference,” she said.
In addition to Ojito’s shared Pulitzer, which was awarded for national reporting in 2001 for The New York Times about race in America, she received the American Society of Newspaper Editor’s writing award for best foreign reporting in 1999, for her series of articles about life in Cuba. Ojito continues to write for various publications, providing intuitive, inspirational and highly educational articles. “I’m working on a second book, but very slowly. My life is full in many ways. Writing is just one of them, but it is one that I both dread and enjoy. I dread the moments … before plunging in a project. But, once I’m immersed in it, there is nothing more wonderful than truly getting lost in a book—even one you are not reading, but writing.”
In 1994, Rob Hardy and Will Packer, two Florida A&M University graduates, created the highly successful production company Rainforest Films on the eve of the success of their first film, Chocolate City. From there, the duo continued to produce films that have been successful at the box office, including Stomp the Yard and This Christmas in 2007, and Obsessed in 2009. Earlier this year, their film Takers was in theaters. Hardy and Packer were also working on a sequel to the highly successful Stomp the Yard, as well as a re-make of the 1980s film The Big Chill and an adaptation of Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man. Visit www.rainforestfilms.com for more information.
Film - Will Packer was born and raised in St. Petersburg. While majoring in electrical engineering at FAMU, he became interested in film. “I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but my parents wanted me to get a solid degree first. I received a scholarship, so I majored in engineering.… I actually use what I learned today—my background helps me think analytically, take an analytical approach to problems,” Packer said.
Forgoing job offers after he graduated magna cum laude, Packer decided to create films that appealed to a particular audience, sticking to a certain genre, forming Rainforest Films. His passion helped foster a partnership between Rainforest and Sony’s Screen Gems to produce and distribute urban films.
Packer has also collaborated with talented actors for his films, including Beyonce Knowles, Ali Larter, Regina King, Mekhi Phifer, Matt Dillon and Hayden Christensen. Packer also bought the rights to Kemba Smith’s story about President Bill Clinton’s grant of clemency on her 24-year prison sentence.
“Rob and I knew we had the potential, but it wasn’t until Stomp the Yard that Hollywood took notice. It felt phenomenal to reach no. 1—it justifies the years spent making the films. We were starving artists while our friends had profitable engineering jobs. Now they want to work with us.” Packer has also earned many awards, including the Meritorious Achievement Award from FAMU, the key to the city of St. Petersburg, and a “Will Packer Day” dedicated to him in both Chattanooga, TN, and Fort Lauderdale. He serves on the board of directors for Image Film and Video in Atlanta and volunteers with the reading program Readers Make Leaders, Inc. Most recently, Packer was listed as one of the top 10 Producers to Watch by Variety Magazine for his work.
Film - Rob Hardy has received much credit for his work as a writer, director and producer. Starting out as a Mechanical Engineering major at FAMU, Hardy earned the school’s highest honor, the Bernard Hendricks Student Leadership Award, for his work co-writing, directing, funding and distributing Rainforest Film’s first two productions, Chocolate City and Trols. The latter became the fastest independent African-American film to make more than $1 million. With the thriller Pandora’s Box under his belt, Hardy co-produced Motives and executive produced Trols: The Escort. He continued to write both The Gospel and Gospel Live! “We’re self taught in the field. We went out with passion and determination and after 13 years in the business, we made it with a no. 1 film. It really feels great,” Hardy said.
Hardy has won numerous accolades for his work, including a nomination for the HBO Director to Watch award and the 2006 Best Screenplay award for the Black Movie Awards. He received the Meritorious Achievement Award from FAMU and was named one of the Top 40 Entertainers under 40 in 2007 by Black Enterprise Magazine.
Along with film, Hardy has started directing television shows, including stints with ER, Criminal Minds and Heroes (the webisodes). He has started directing commercials for clients, as well, and has completed studies at the New York Film Academy. Hardy currently serves on the Advisory Board for the International Feature Project Film Lab series.
Enviroment - As director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami since January 2008, Bill Read is responsible for providing accurate tropical weather forecasts for the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Pacific Ocean. He also leads the national effort on hurricane awareness.
Before working for the National Hurricane Center, Read earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in meteorology from Texas A&M University. He spent more than four years as an officer in the U.S. Navy, during which he served with the Navy Hurricane Hunters. Read then worked as a weather forecaster and the meteorologist in charge of the Houston-Galveston Area National Weather Service, where he modernized office technology and reconstructed the field of operations.
Since working for the National Hurricane Center, Read has battled with hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma in 2008 and Jimena in 2009. “Seeing the latest science, technology and professionals at work to produce increasingly better forecasts is very impressive. Getting to address the challenges of planning and response for hurricanes with officials not only in the U.S.A. but internationally through the World Meteorological Organization is particularly rewarding.”
Read was the president of the National Weather Association in 2003 and the president of the Houston chapter of the American Meteorological Society in 2006. He was given the Special Award for Public Education from the National Hurricane Conference in 2004 and the Member of the Year Award from the National Weather Association in 1996.
“The privilege of working with staff that share a passion for tropical weather and improving our forecasting of the events is what keeps me young and excited about coming to work every day.”
Health - Not only is Ana M. Viamonte Ros Florida’s first State Surgeon General, but she is also the first woman and Cuban American to serve as head of the department. As the leading advocate for wellness and disease prevention, Ros oversees the state’s largest single clinical enterprise.
In 1983, Ros earned her medical degree from the University of Miami School of Medicine, where she earned several awards and honors. She went on to earn her master’s degree in public health from Harvard’s School of Public Health in 2005. There, she was presented the Gareth Green Award for Excellence in Public Health, the highest student award.
Before serving with Florida’s department of health, she worked at Armor Correctional Health Services, overseeing clinical operations. “I learned early on that it is important to try to make a positive impact on this population,” Ros said.
Today, she promotes healthy habits and is committed to making health care more user friendly. She wishes to increase access to health services by connecting uninsured to a network of providers. During her first 15 months in office, Ros visited all 67 county health departments and 22 medical service offices throughout the state. “This rewarding experience was an opportunity to hear the concerns and suggestions of our front-line staff so that we can better support their efforts from the state’s capital,”
Aside from her work, Ros has written several articles and volunteered with programs as an advocate for disadvantaged individuals and minority communities.
She has become a role model for many Floridians. “As a woman and with a daughter, I want to be an example that there is nothing we can’t do. I come from a family of refugees who valued education very highly— believing that education is the only thing that can’t be taken away from you.”