By Jason Belcher
Kathy Marler Blue is a hometown hero. A lifelong Destin resident, Kathy’s devotion to her town and the preservation of its legacy is nearly unrivaled. To know Kathy is to glimpse into the heritage of Destin. As a friend and a longtime admirer, Kathy is to me the living epitome of what draws people to Destin. The heritage of Destin is about families and memories – two common themes for her. By families, I mean the founding families in particular, who scratched out a tough existence long before the tourist boom came to these white sandy shores. They were poor, hardworking families banding together, marrying and mingling together, sometimes quarreling, often worshiping, and all the while forming a community that would become the envy of the Southeast. And by memories, I mean the living memory of old Destin, as well as the memories made by families visiting this village generation after generation.
Kathy is working to help preserve the story of Destin’s past as the executive director of the Destin History and Fishing Museum (the Museum). The Museum that was once the pet project of the late Jean Melvin, has grown into a thriving source of facts and stories about those first families and Destin’s fishing heritage.
Kathy’s life from the time she was a young child in Destin up through 2009 brought many challenges and opportunities that, unbeknownst to her at the time, were preparing her to one day be the executive director of the Museum. Kathy previously served on the city planning commission and was the Destin’s first elected councilwoman. Also, Kathy worked at Harbor Docks restaurant for 15 years participating with Rally for Recreation and Harbor Docks charity fundraisers spearheaded by Charles Morgan. Kathy has a passion for serving the greater good, which is a natural extension of her giving nature. Whether it’s as city leader, a charity volunteer or something as simple as making folks feel at home when they step through the doors of the Museum, Kathy exudes the principals best described in the words of the Apostle Paul from Acts 20:35.
In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
The afternoon I met with Kathy was a typical February day in Destin. That is to say it was a nearly perfect day. We met in Kathy’s office at the Museum. The Primrose, the memorial pavers, benches and old post office all stood along the Museum’s pathway as a testament to the pioneering families of Destin. As I entered the Museum for my appointment, Kathy greeted me with her trademark smile. Kathy smiles with her whole body. Though she works long days and sees many visitors, she never misses the opportunity to greet folks with the warmest of welcomes. For this article, I asked Kathy to pretend that she and I did not know each other. Then I asked her to start her story from the beginning. Turning, she pointed to the marvelous watercolor painting that hangs behind her desk. The painting is of her grandmother’s Destin home.
Pointing to the painting, Kathy began to tell me the story of her childhood and the family compound where she grew up. Kathy is a fourth generation descendant of William Elisha and Sarah Ratencia Lancaster Marler, who moved to Destin after the Civil War. Kathy, along with her father (Ross Clinton Marler), a Lieutenant Commander, and her mother (Nell Louise Marler), a nurse for Dr. White and Dr. Wilson, lived on this same property portrayed so well in the painting. The house pictured in the painting prominently displays the small enclosed room on the exterior of the home – an old fashioned sleeping porch. That room was Kathy’s first classroom. As the oldest, she pretended to be the teacher for her cousins and family members who lived nearby. Kathy is an educator. From that humble screen porch to a long career in elementary education and onto her work at the Museum, Kathy continues to educate the young (and old) of the community.
Fast forward to 2009, Kathy was on the tail end of a 31+ year teaching career – and she found herself a little depressed. She missed the camaraderie of working with other professional educators and of teaching in the classroom. Little did Kathy know that her third opportunity to share her talents in education was just on the horizon. On Oct. 1, 2005, Jean Melvin opened the Destin History and Fishing Museum. Jean had approached Kathy about coming on board as the Museum’s associate director. Kathy was not yet ready to leave teaching, working as a full-time substitute in the last years of her formal education career. The board of the Museum extended an offer to Kathy: we’ll hold a spot for you as associate director. So, on June 8, 2009, Kathy completed a long-term substitute teacher position. The next day, she began her third career as an educator. With newly lifted spirits she dedicated herself to the work that she seemed to be preparing to do her entire life. Only this time she traded the screened porch classroom and her classroom at Destin Elementary for the role as the associate director of the Museum.
In 2015, Jean Melvin’s declining health made it necessary for him to retire from the Museum and Kathy became the Executive Director. Following the path of Jean’s leadership, Kathy set out to make substantial improvements to the Museum, improvements that would enhance its mission and its longevity of purpose. As the executive director since 2015, Kathy has overseen the enhancement of the Museum’s visitor experience, and major accomplishments include:
• Digitization of many displays and artifacts
• Upgraded exhibits with professionally printed data banners and displays
• Installation of media displays with video histories of the founding families
• Added new plaques and data displays to the Museum’s Heritage Park
• Added a cradle to support the restored net boat Primrose
• Completed the multi-year renovation and build out of the Rodeo Room – complete with multimedia resources and static displays
• Added touchscreen computer to Victrola/Early Living Exhibit & programming with digitized vintage records
• Partnered with the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance, Sea Grant, Okaloosa County and Henderson Beach State Park to build exhibits on the local artificial reefs, bay ecology and beach ecology including an interactive IPAD to Reef Exhibit featuring the County Reef System maps & pictures
• Significantly improved the exhibit dedicated to the early churches and religious life of Destin
• Enhanced landscaping and lighting to improve the overall esthetics
The Museum is a special place for young and old to visit. The building houses 5,500 sq. ft. of exhibit space. Surrounding the main building (once Destin’ public library) is a park complex including the seine boat Primrose, the Linda Ann stern with fighting chair, an actual pilot house, the mullet boat, Little Jimmy, net reel, memorial walkway and the first post office building. One of the most talked about attractions is the 75 mounts of locally caught fish. Not to mention that in recent years the buildout of the Rodeo Gallery featuring “all things Destin Fishing Rodeo.” Throughout the facility there are displays and artifacts of the early pioneer families and Destin’s fishing industry. Visitors can enjoy a leisurely stroll among the displays, a guided tour, or a mix of media including audio-visual and interactive displays. And true to her humble character, Kathy is quick to give the credit to the Museum board and the many businesses that support the Museum. She takes very little (actually zero) credit for the many improvements made. She prefers to thank her board and the community for the notable improvements made in recent years.
Under Kathy’s care the Museum truly has grown into a first class facility. The fruit of the seeds planted by Jean Melvin and the early board of directors now seems to be coming fully to bare under Kathy’s leadership. I have often thought that this jewel of our city’s heritage is one reason we are the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” We are fortunate to have a museum dedicated to preserving the living history of our town. Whether you have lived here only part of your life, like me, or for its entirety, like my wife, Kathy’s hard work along with the volunteers and board of the Museum help to make us all feel connected to the old Destin that we love so much. And we are blessed to have Kathy spearheading this continuing preservation of Destin’s legacy. I use the word “blessed” instead of “lucky” because of the intentionality of the word – seeing a guiding hand in the life of Kathy Marler Blue. She continues to educate the visitors (and locals) on Destin then, and now, as if she were destined from childhood to do the work she devotes herself to so passionately.
As my time with my friend came to a close on that February afternoon, Kathy and I strode through the exhibits. Though I have made that walk many times before, there was one special artifact that I had not considered. Kathy pointed to a plaque in the “Church, School, Community Center and Blessing of the Fleet” exhibit. The plaque has a saying her father repeated to her often. Knowing my friend and seeing the work she does with so much passion and care, I then realized that she was being prepared even as a child to shepherd the history of our town. Mr. Marler, you should be very proud of your daughter. She is a hometown hero for many of us because she lives out the words that you once spoke and that are now prominently displayed for all to see. Those words are: “Destin … Not just a place, but a way of life. Growth and heritage thru ties to the sea, family, and beliefs.”
Destin Life’s “Hometown Heroes” are sponsored by Mary Kay Phillips and Paige Peterson of Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate and the Homes for Heroes program. To find out if you qualify for Homes for Heroes cash back, contact Paige at 850.259.0643/Paige@BHGEmeraldCoast.com or Mary Kay at 850.376.7261/MaryKay@BHGEmeraldCoast.com.