More than 700 patrons swept into the Armed Forces Military Museum to eat, drink and raise money for wounded veterans as the Abilities Wine Tasting and silent auction celebrated its 25th anniversary during Memorial Day weekend.
Frank DeLucia, the charity's president and chief executive officer, has attended every one of the events, from the first iteration, under a tent at the ICOT Center in Clearwater, to a hangar at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, to the museum in Largo, where it moved in 2012.
Supporters could sample various vintages and mouth-watering morsels from some of the Tampa Bay area's top restaurants. As hundreds of people packed into exhibition spaces, they could not help but be moved by the reminders of military service throughout the ages.
The occasion also was bittersweet for those who remember Sharon O'Gradney-Krkljus. The muse of St. Petersburg's O'Bistro restaurant was a stalwart at Abilities fundraisers and gave even more to the community before her death in January.
"It was Sharon who introduced the concept of a VIP private reception at the Abilities Wine Tasting at Tropicana Field," De Lucia said. "The pairing of gourmet restaurants with premium wine purveyors prior to the Grand Tasting attracted thousands of patrons each year and set the gold standard for premier wine events. She also hosted countless foundation meetings, wine dinners and tributes at O'Bistro and promoted and generously supported our annual wine tasting for each of the past 20 years. We were honored that Sharon directed memorial gifts to the foundation."
Lee Neal of Pic Pac Liquors in St. Petersburg, the charity's longest-standing retail supporter, greeted VIP guests at the museum's entrance and later poured wine for guests.
"This event would not have become Florida's longest-running and most prosperous three-hour wine and food tasting," De Lucia said, "without the magnificent support of wine purveyors like Southern Wine & Spirits and Zonin USA and restaurateurs like Tom Pritchard, Frank Chivas, Sharon O'Gradney, and Steve Westphal.''
This year's event netted an estimated $75,000, he said, with overall proceeds over the quarter century amounting to nearly $3.7 million.
Mark Sforzini premiered a new work, and musical artists from the St. Petersburg Opera performed at "Bella Voce," the annual gala to support the company. The dinner event at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront raised around $60,000, according to chief financial officer Nancy Preis.
Sforzini, who is the opera's artistic director and executive director, titled his work "T's" for Barbara. The piece was commissioned by Barbara B. Smith and includes musical references to "tango" and "tsunami," for example. In addition to the maestro, performers were Anthony Carlson, Aaaron Hilsinger, Fred Gratta and Constantine Grame.
Para Norma took some liberties with Vincenzo Bellini's Norma, which opens at the Palladium on June 6, and guests heard the quartet Operatini.
Marilyn Ward led the event committee, which included Dedee Aleccia, Susan Hellman, Susan Luehrs, Gloria Matyszyk, Preis, Maggie Prittie, Michael Roberts, Krista Whipple, Cherie Willard and Donna Woolums.
Members of the Margaret Acheson Stuart Society raised $383,000 for the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, during the past volunteer year, with retiring president Margaret Amley presenting a check for that amount to museum to director Kent Lydecker at the organization's final meeting of the season.
Money was designated for educational programs, including a partnership with the Pinellas County schools; for major exhibitions; for improving projection and sound systems in the museum's Marly Room; and for acquiring books and journals for the library.
The volunteer support group is named for museum founder Margaret Acheson Stuart and was launched three years before the museum opened to the public in 1965.