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Sunday Conversation: Strawberry Festival chair Sandee Parke Sytsma carries on the legacy

By LibBaldwin, Times Staff Writer
Sandee Parke Sytsma, chairman of the Florida Strawberry Festival's board of directors, poses for a portrait with a strawberry flat inside the festival's amphitheater on Thursday, March 1, 2018, in Plant City, Fla. The festival runs March 1-11. ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times

When Roy and Helen Parke moved to Plant City in 1956 to expand their farming operation into what would eventually become the legendary Parkesdale Farms, their daughter Sandee was just 10 years old.

Working the fields with her siblings helped her realize the farming life wasnít for her; she preferred to be indoors with her hair done up nicely. So she found her niche as part of the team that has put together the Strawberry Festival for nearly 100 years. She served as the festivalís associate director and Strawberry Court chaperone before being appointed to the board.

After much convincing from former president Ron Gainey, Sandee Parke Sytsma, now 70, threw her name in the hat for chair and was elected in 2017. Tampa Bay Times staff writer Libby Baldwin sat down with her the day before this yearís festival began to reflect on what brought her here.

Youíre the first female chair in festival history, a position your father also held. What does it mean to you to be the first woman in this position and to follow so closely in your fatherís footsteps?

Iím probably more excited about being a second-generation chair than the first woman. Iíve never felt like this is much of a gender thing anyway; itís more about a passion for the festival. All the chairmen before me have been passionate about the festival, and so am I. But I just happen to be a woman.

So youíre more grateful to have followed the path of your father, Roy, who was known as the "Strawberry King" and passed away in 2008.

For 60 years, the festival has been what weíre all about. Itís literally in our blood. My dad was very influential in the early days. He was just a really big thinker; he just thought outside the box. He helped rethink the direction of the festival. I want to follow his lead; keep the family-friendly way we always have been, but stay with the times too. Thatís the line I try to walk.

Did you always want to stay involved in the family business?

Iím not really in the family business, if you think about it, because everyone else is in farming. My two brothers are farmers. My sister, who passed away last year, had the Parkesdale Market; now her family runs it. My other sister does the Parkesdale Greenhouses. Iím the one involved with the festival. Iím more of a sissy; we think Iím adopted because I didnít get the farming blood! But I love berries, and Plant City and the festival, so they found a spot for me.

Tell me how the festival has changed from when you were little to today.

It began as a three-day event with about 15,000 people, and we thought that was a lot because our little town wasnít very big. Now weíre an 11-day event with 550,000 people. And our population hasnít increased that much over time; Plant City still has only about 40,000. So for such a small town to host this huge event, it takes a village. Everybody in town has to have ownership of this festival, and they do. We all think we own it; everybody just gives and gives. People use their vacation time to volunteer for it. The entertainment when I was small was one flatbed truck with a guitar player on it. The Strawberry Strollers, a square-dancing group, were the Saturday night entertainment. So we went from that to Taylor Swift. Our ultimate performer goal is Dolly Parton; that was always Dadís dream, and that would just be the epitome for us.

Youíve been married to your husband, former Plant City High School football coach Hank Sytsma, for 49 years. Whatís the secret to such a long and happy union?

Marry Hank. But really, just choose well. Heís cute, he has great legs and had a great car. Thatís how shallow I am. But Hank is such a dear, sweet guy. He knows Iím not going to be much company during the festival. Heís so understanding; he always says that when he was coaching during football season, I was pretty self-sufficient. So heís trying to do the same thing for me now.

Do you have any favorite moments or memories as you look back on your first year as chairman?

The night that we turned over the chairmanís position from Dan Walden to me, we brought Dadís gavel. Then they gave me my own gavel. My mom, who is 92 years old and going full-steam ahead, is quite the matriarch. We still go to her house for supper every Monday. So having her there to see that was really special.

Do you like strawberries? Whatís your favorite way to eat them?

The funny thing is, my dad had diverticulitis and couldnít eat strawberries. My thing is eating them over Breyerís vanilla bean ice cream. I also like to eat them straight off the plant, when theyíre still warm from the sun. Theyíre a little dusty, but just blow them off. You wonít die.

Itís 2018, but itís often still surprising to hear that a board chair is female. What do you say to young women who ask you how they can earn a similar position?

I tell them all the same thing, which is that I donít know if my being a woman had anything to do with it. I just think Iíve worked for years with this festival; whatever I was asked to do, I did, because I wanted to. It was never my goal to be chairman. When Ron Gainey convinced me to do it, he never mentioned me being a woman; he gave me all the reasons why he thought I was right for the job. But it was never about me. I just tell them if your heart is right and your intentions are pure, that will come out. Iíve never gotten the feeling of it being an old boysí club here. They go out skeet shooting and I donít get invited, but thatís about it! We have a great love and admiration for each other on this board.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Libby Baldwin at [email protected] Follow her @LibBaldwin.