The Niceville Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce held its 60th Anniversary Celebration & Inaugural Civic Hall of Fame Luncheon at the Niceville Community Center on Thursday, July 28, 2016. The event was a walkthrough of 60 years of the Niceville Valparaiso Chamber history and recognition of area leaders who made broad and lasting contributions to the community into the Civic Hall of Fame.
Chuck and Lori Kelley served as co-master of ceremonies for the event. The duo reminisced through the history of Niceville Valparaiso with photos and stories from 1880’s, when there was no price for gas – since there were no gasoline powered vehicles to present day. The Kelley’s were assisted by Chamber of Commerce Life Director Dr. David Goetsch who spoke to the 180 attendees about Civic Leadership and the important role it plays in our community.
The Chamber recognized the following inductees into the Niceville Valparaiso Civic Leader Hall of Fame:
Civic Hall of Fame Inductees
Mr. William John Nathey, nominated by Elisa Mitchiner, Nathey was born June 22, 1846 at the head of Boggy Bayou just one year after Florida became a state. He worked with his father to make Niceville a livable community by building a gristmill used by families from miles away. His family also owned and operated a cedar shingle business and transported their goods to Pensacola by schooners – the primary mode of transportation at that time.
Nathey and his wife, the former Mary Jane Bolton had 5 sons and 2 daughters and were among the first 30 charter members who established the Methodist Church now known as Crosspoint. He also donated land to allow roads and bridges to be built in order to promote commerce.
After his death in 1917 his widow continued to donate property to further develop roads and in 1924, his son donated seven acres of his inherited land for a new Niceville High School – the first in south Okaloosa County and the only school for the military families at Eglin Field. Today it is Edge Elementary. Portions of his old homestead are now Turkey Creek Walk – enjoyed by thousands each year.
In 2007 the Honorable Jeff Miller read and extension of remarks into the Congressional Record honoring the life and legacy of William John Nathey.
James Ellsworth Plew, nominated by Steve Ruckel, born in 1862 in Brown County, Illinois, and moved to Valparaiso as one of the pioneer developers in Northwest Florida in 1922. Here he founded the Bank of Valparaiso, and constructed the Valparaiso Inn.
During the depression, Plew sought a military presence to boost the economy so he leased the Valparaiso Airport from the City of Valparaiso and offered the U.S. Government nearly 1500 acres of land. Today that land is known as Eglin Air Force Base. A plaque mounted at the East Gate of Eglin Field was installed commemorating his patriotism and generosity that made Eglin Field possible. The current Destin Fort Walton Beach Airport is also dedicated to him for his efforts in making our area a driving force in the Northwest Florida economy.
Plew passed away in 1938 leaving his wife Nettie Ramond Plew, daughters Mrs. Mildred Meigs and Mrs. Marion Ruckel as well as two grandchildren, Ramonde & Walter Ruckel.
Ramonde “Rae” Ruckel Byrne Williams, nominated by Steve Ruckel, born in Evanston, Illinois in 1921, Williams moved to Valparaiso at the age of 11 months growing up on the bayous and forests of the area, and dancing on the “empty road” that is Highway 98 with other local teenagers. She attended and received a degree from Duke University and also obtained a pilot’s license. In 1957 Williams became President of Valparaiso Realty Company and served as Chairman of the Board until passing in 2011.
She founded the First Judicial District Guardian Ad Litem Program. She also served as President of the Niceville Valparaiso Chamber from 1957 – 1959 and served on the Chamber board many years advocating for small business and the overall development of our community. Williams was awarded one of the first two Life Directors of the Chamber. She is the first of three generations of women to serve as lead volunteer of our Chamber with her daughter Judy Byrne Riley serving in 1993 and granddaughter Marion Riley Taylor serving in 2006.
Williams was involved in politics throughout her adult life volunteering in the National Democratic Party headquarters and as a Legislative Aid in Tallahassee and served as a State Committeewoman for years. She served as a Girl Scout leader in the 1980’s teaching sailing and canoeing for years actually obtaining her Bus Drivers Permit to take her troop to see the King Tut exhibit in New Orleans.
Williams was also inducted into the Okaloosa Women’s Hall of Fame Inductee in 1998 for her accomplishments.
Walter “Walt” Ruckel, Jr., nominated by Steve Ruckel, born in 1927 in Pensacola, Ruckel served in the U.S. Army Air Force as an airplane mechanic from 1945-47. As an avid supporter of local aviation he helped to create the Ruckel Airport and he was an accomplished pilot and flight instructor.
Ruckel started as a bookkeeper and teller at his grandfather’s bank, Valparaiso State Bank, and became President in 1951 upon his father’s death. He served as Chairman of the Board until 2004. Ruckel was a Charter member of the Rocky Bayou Country Club and instrumental in forming the club. As Chairman of the Air Force Armament Museum Foundation and Chairman of the fund drive they were able to raise over a million dollars to build the current museum.
He was a Charter Member of the Niceville Valparaiso Rotary Club which formed in 1948 and served as their president. Ruckel was elected “Man of the Year” in 1957 and 1970. Ruckel was also instrumental in development and continuing success of Rocky Bayou Christian School.
He worked to develop local family real estate into homes and businesses throughout the area through his family business, Ruckel Properties, formed in 1955. Ruckel served as President of the Niceville Valparaiso Chamber from 1957 – 1959 and served several terms on the Board of Directors. Later he would become one of the first two Life Directors of the Chamber.
Plenn Howell Phelps, Sr., nominated by his children, Stephanie Phelps, Plenn Howell Phelps, Jr. and Kim Wonsick, born in 1931 to Leonard and Mattie Howell Phelps – two of the 333 original residents to signed the charter which established Niceville in 1937.
Phelps was a true “Boggy Boy” who enjoyed swimming in Turkey Creek, hunting on the reservation and fishing in the local bays and bayous. Phelps graduated from Niceville High School in 1950 and was the first in his family to go to college. There he met his wife with whom he celebrated 50 years of marriage with before his death in 2004.
Phelps spent two years in the Army before returning to Niceville to help with the family business, Phelps Department Store. He then taught at Choctawhatchee High School making positive differences in young lives. After teaching, he was self-employed as a local entrepreneur for over 40 years as a merchant, general contractor and land developer owning and operating many businesses expanding commerce in the Niceville area.
Phelps was the general contractor with a vision for Rocky Bayou Country Club house and one of the Charter Members.
Phelps partnered with Walt Ruckel and A.L. Johnson to build Niceville’s first true shopping center, Palm Plaza which included a bank, drug store, grocery store and restaurant. He felt that every town needed a movie theater and fitness center and ran those two businesses himself after the original proprietors backed out.
Elected to the Okaloosa County School Board in 1963 because he said, “I believe the time has come for definite action that will guarantee our children that a first rate education is being offered in our county. I believe that the people will not settle for less than the best education for their children.”
Honoring his heritage, Phelps partnered with his brother in 1977 and built an 80-ton steel hull shrimp boat-the first of its kind in the area. Even when the FCC made an FM radio license for NW Florida, Phelps partnered with Gary Lee of Fort Walton Beach to obtain the license with WNCV – Love 100.3 which aired in 1992.
Phelps was a major proponent for the then Okaloosa Walton Junior College to locate their main campus in Niceville. He stood behind this in the face of adversity. Mayor Randall Wise later sent a letter to Phelps stating “I would like to express to you both personally and on behalf of the city officials and our community, sincere appreciation for your untiring efforts and work in securing Niceville as the permanent location for the Jr. College. I realize these things do not just happen, that your energy and ability supplied the drive to make this happen.”
No stranger to controversy, Phelps and 17 other NHS Boosters were honored for supporting the build and design of the NHS stadium. The design was controversial, but the boosters felt strongly about giving Niceville a college stadium feel and experience which is still used and enjoy today. Phelps and his wife Norma made many lasting contributions to many local community organizations and causes including Little League, Band, NHS Athletics and funded a room at the Children’s Advocacy Center.
Lannie Corbin, nominated by Allen Tucker, was born in 1942 in Crestview to Noah and Pauline Corbin of Niceville. Corbin has always been a visionary leader who strives to make positive growth and quality service a reality for our area.
Appointed as City Manager/City Clerk in 1972, Corbin is one of the longest serving City Managers in the State, celebrating nearly 45 years of service this summer. When he started the population of Niceville was 4,300 and with only 33 city employees. Today there are over 14,000 residents and nearly 200 employees.
Corbin was instrumental in organizing the first Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival, which originally was a Chamber of Commerce event, and he continues to lead todays Mullet Festival committee. He also created the Twin Oaks Complex for local soccer, baseball, football and a dog park. In addition, he provided oversight for the first storm water utility project to provide necessary infrastructure to protect the bays, bayous and creeks. Corbin has worked with Military Leaders on many joint projects including the lease for the Twin Oaks/Mullet Festival land and the reclaimed water project.
He is dedicated to protecting the delicate natural areas of the area with projects for public use such as Turkey Creek Walk which now boasts a one-mile contiguous walkway from College Blvd. to John Sims Pkwy. His works also includes quality of life projects for all ages including the building of the Children’s Park/Spray Park, mixed use sports facilities, youth center, and the new senior center currently under construction.
Corbin was instrumental in forming the Okaloosa County Library Cooperative offering public library services to all citizens. He has also taken an instrumental role ensure the Fourth of July Fireworks over the Bayou tradition continues by establishing the Fireworks Foundation.
As a member of many local civic organizations, state associations and First Baptist Church of Niceville, Corbin has served as President of the Chamber in 1980 and has continued to support and encourage others to support the Chamber and our local business community. Local attorney Jeff Mc Innis said, “He is at the heart of maintaining and improving the Niceville community for over 40 years and continues daily his mission to make each day in the City better than the day before.”
Francis Walter Spence, nominated by Kim Wintner, Col USAF (Ret.), born in 1926 in Niceville and graduated from NHS in 1944. He served in the Navy during WWII then studied at Tulane, University and MIT. In 1950, as a civilian engineer at Eglin AFB, he headed up the Physical Science and Target Development branches of the Armament Center where he received many commendations for services outside his normal duties including cookouts for troops and a study of the effects of DDT on fish populations.
Spence left the area for 10 years from 1963-73 and returned to open Spence Brothers Properties, assisted with existing companies owned by his family. He as a consultant for Government contractors over the years and was recognized by Honeywell for providing mentorship and vision resulting in over one billion dollars in Air Force business.
Spence served as President of the Niceville Valparaiso Chamber 1975-1976, during which time he came up with the concept of the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival as a means to attract business to town. He continued to be involved with the festival over the years, using it to foster the relationship between the local community and Eglin AFB.
As a humanitarian, he personally sponsored over 75 families who were Vietnamese Refugees housed at local temporary “tent cities” as they were integrated into our nation and community. Spence had the original vision to build a bridge from Niceville to Destin in order to expand and diversify the local economy and was the driving force for the Chamber to endorse the “White Point Bridge” beginning in 1968. He never wavered from pursuing this project and the Mid-Bay Bridge finally opened in 1993 with over 10,000 people participating in a race after the Mayors and Chamber Presidents met in the middle to exchange gifts as the two cities were finally connected.
Spence worked extensively promoting and protecting our local military mission, commerce, economic development and spearheaded the first fully comprehensive environmental studies of Choctawhatchee Bay which recognizing the importance of protecting our delicate waterways as the area is developed.
Mayor Randall Wise, nominated by Sheila Bates, born in Niceville in 1930 Mayor Wise graduated from NHS in 1949. An original Boggy Boy, he enjoying hunting, fishing and swimming in our beautiful local waters.
His first start in City government was in the 1950s when he served one term on the City Council and was one of the first captains with the Niceville Fire Department. He worked with a military contractor for years while also being an entrepreneur. Sworn in as Mayor of Niceville in 1972, this year he celebrates 44 years of continuous service.
His dedication to his hometown is unparalleled. Mayor Wise served as president of the Florida League of Cities in 1979 and continues to be a member today. He is the Past President of the Panhandle League of Cities and the Okaloosa County League of Cities. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Okaloosa Gas District, and has served as Honorary Commander at Eglin AFB, Hurlburt Field and Duke Field. Even the Media Center at Ruckel Middle School is named in his honor.
Mayor Wise is a longtime member of First Baptist Church of Niceville. Throughout the years he has supported local businesses, attending ribbon cuttings and other community celebrations. He currently serves as a Life Director of the Niceville Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce and is very active in the organization.