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21 Intriguing Floridians

Florida 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.

Rick SoriaEducation - “Shhh, don’t tell kids they’re learning,” is Rick Soria’s theory. As the Choctawhatchee High School assistant principal and creator of the Engineers For America (EFA) program, Soria has helped make children interested in learning. EFA is an innovative elementary school program that promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics through hands-on activities.

After hearing that the Department of Defense was short 60,000 people, the former Air Force officer decided to start a program that promoted this field to 4th and 5th graders who were losing interest in science.

“A friend once told me ‘If you’re going to go fishing, do you want to use the bait you like or the bait fish like?’ I looked at that in an educator’s perspective, thought about how I would like to learn something and created a fun program where kids didn’t realize that they were learning,” Soria said.

With EFA, math teachers introduce their students to the program, and then the students are brought to the U.S. Air Force Armament Museum, where they engage in various activities, such as creating parachutes and testing balsa-wood and paper airplanes. “I don’t tell the kids that they’re learning about science. I tell them that they’re having an airplane contest. Whoever throws theirs the farthest wins,” Soria explained.

The students become competitive and ask questions along the way. To find out how far their airplane flew or to see what they could do to make theirs go farther, they have to make calculations. It’s data the students are comfortable and familiar with, and they are eager to calculate to see who won or how they could improve. Using the “three Rs”—relevance, rigor and relationships—students attribute what they learn in the experiment to math and science classes afterward.

Although humble about his accomplishments, Soria has a right to brag. After working as an adjunct professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, he taught ROTC at Choctawhatchee High School before becoming a principal. In that time, he was named the Florida Aerospace Teacher of the Year in 2005, the A. Scott Crossfield Aerospace Teacher of the Year in 2006, and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Educator Achievement Award in 2007. This past year, he was awarded the Alan Shepard Technology in Education Award from both the Astronauts Memorial Foundation and NASA.

Soria’s program follows NASA protocol and is in accordance with Sunshine State standards. “All of the teachers who work with this program are to thank for its success.” Soria said. “We’re all teachers; in the end, we all have the same goal.”


Ann YaoMusic - Hailing from Shanghai, China, Ann Yao was born into a musical environment. At age 8, her grandfather taught her to play the pi-pa, an ancient four-stringed Chinese instrument. Although she learned the instrument quickly, she preferred her aunt’s gu-zheng, a Chinese plucked instrument. “I was afraid to touch hers, but one day I did. And, as I played a scale, my aunt heard! She wasn’t mad; instead she was proud,” Yao explained. Soon after, Yao excelled at the gu-zheng. “My aunt taught me to play. It was easier to pick up and sounded much prettier.” After just one month of rehearsals, Yao played on stage.

Yao had four years of training in college, earning her bachelor’s degree, and she performed with the Beijing Orchestra. Since moving with her husband to the United States in 1985, Yao has performed at the Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other notable venues. She also performed with artists like Yo-Yo Ma.

“I learn new things from each composer and modify my technique. I like when their new, contemporary music meets with my older style— it’s East meets West.” She currently performs as a gu-zheng soloist at the Disney World Resort’s Epcot theme park and is continuing to master her instrument. Yao has won two apprenticeships and teaches young students how to play her time-honored instrument. This year, Yao received the 2009 Florida Folk Heritage Award for her music. “I am very honored for this opportunity. Our culture and music is spreading in the U.S., but with some new flavor. I feel very lucky.”


David KirbyLiterature - David Kirby is one of the most recognized voices in modern-day poetry. With more than 29 authored and co-authored books, he’s received numerous honors, including the Brittingham Prize, and he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Florida Arts Council. His poetry collections include The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems and The Ha-ha, and his essay collection is entitled Ultra-Talk: Johnny Cash, The Mafia, Shakespeare, Drum Music, St. Teresa of Avila and 17 Other Colossal Topics of Conversation. Most recently he released Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a biography on the legendary singer, which received numerous accolades.

Kirby’s work is frequently published in the Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize volumes, and it has been featured in many literary journals. He’s a regular writer for The New York Times Book Review, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Chicago Tribune. Last April a poetry collection he and his wife, fellow poet Barbara Hamby, co-edited, was released. In addition, his newest book of poetry, Talking About Movies with Jesus will be published in 2011.

Along with writing, Kirby is an esteemed professor at Florida State University who specializes in 19th-century U.S. literature and poetry. He received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University and was named the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor at FSU for 2003-2004. To him, poetry and teaching are similar. “Whether it's an essay or a poem or a class I'm teaching, I assemble a lot of individual pieces, decide which ones I'm going to begin and end with, and then see where the process leads me. It's all creative—all fun.

In regards to writing, Kirby stated, “Most of us [writers] are like magpies, picking up shiny objects in our beaks and trying to make something beautiful of them.” For more information, visit www.davidkirby.com.


Edward VillellaDance - Edward Villella is one of America’s most celebrated male dancers. Best known for popularizing the role of male dancers, as well as giving them a positive perception, he’s performed around the world, providing the highest amount of artistry to every routine.

He briefly enrolled at the School of American Ballet at age ten, but it wasn’t until after receiving his B.S. in marine transportation from the New York Maritime Academy in 1955 that he took up dancing, and the school, full time. “I love the wonder of the movement,” Villella stated. “It’s a mind driven physicality. It’s not just being athletic so much as having an awareness and allowing your mind to drive that physicality.”

In 1957, he was invited to join the New York City Ballet and was promoted to soloist within a year and principal dancer within three years. Villella was the original lead in many important ballets, including Tarantella, Symphony in Three Movements, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, his most famous performance.

Notably, he was the first American male dancer to perform with the Royal Danish Ballet and the only American to be asked to dance an encore at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. “It was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 60s. To me, it said that art crosses borders. Personally, it was a very exciting moment,” Villella said.

Other notable accomplishments include dancing for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford’s inaugurations; receiving the 1997 National Medal of Arts; being named a Kennedy Center Honoree; directing and producing the PBS series Dance in America; and earning an Emmy Award for his production of Harlequinade. Currently, he serves on the Board of Trustees of the School of American Ballet and is the founding artistic director and chief executive officer of the renowned Miami City Ballet.

“It’s most important to repay a debt that I owe to the art form because it treated me terrifically well. This is my opportunity to return the favor and produce ballets the way they were originally intended to be performed.”

This past January, the Miami City Ballet performed at Manhattan’s City Center, where both Villella and the New York City Ballet began. “It was such a sentimental, nostalgic, romantic idea. The reception the dancers got was outstanding—six standing, screaming ovations. I have a deep regard and respect for each and every performer.”


Tom GrayFood - As one of the Southeast’s most respected chefs, Tom Gray has make a solid reputation for himself in restaurants nationwide, such as Asylum in Beverly Hills and Wolfgang Puck’s in San Diego. In 1999, he opened the now-wildly popular Bistro AIX in Jacksonville. Currently, he serves as the executive chef and managing partner.

Gray graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York in 1992. He then traveled around the world to experience local fare and found comfort in Mediterranean and California cuisines. Mixing those cuisines with the skills he learned at a Napa Valley boutique winery, he created an innovative and delicious fare for his restaurant. “Food is constantly evolving and I always have to be on my game. It’s a real adrenaline rush, and I love that. I love that instant gratification— knowing if people like what I make or not. It helps me evolve,” he said.

Under Gray’s guidance, Bistro AIX started using eco-friendly containers for to-go boxes. In addition, the restaurant gets most of its ingredients from local farms.

Most recently, Gray was a semi-finalist for the highly coveted James Beard Award: Best Chef in the South. Gray was selected from more than 15,000 entries and up against many of the best chefs in the country.

With Gray’s expertise, Bistro AIX has won numerous awards, including Best Restaurant from Jacksonville Magazine and Folio Weekly, Audience Winner in Best of City Search, and Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator. It has been featured in publications such as The New York Times and USA Weekend Magazine. “It’s definitely exciting to be recognized as one of the bests, it really is,” Gray stated. “But it’s not just me; I have a great team surrounding me.”

Visit www.BistroX.com for more information.


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