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Caretaker serves as snapshot of Plant City's charm

Royal Wise, carpenter by trade and caretaker of the City's 1914 Plant City High Community Center, has always had a song in his heart.

Visitors to the center are likely to hear music coming from the Steinway in the auditorium or the Baldwin in Wise's modest first-floor apartment.

"I've always played for my own enjoyment," he says.

A lifelong love of music prompts fond memories of his family, including 10 siblings, his father, Monroe, and especially his mother, Pearl Lee (Holley) Wise.

Growing up, she let him take apart her old-fashioned pump organ and it was no surprise when he learned to play that as well as a Gene Autry guitar from Sears.

"I guess music runs in my family," Wise says. "A relative, Joan Holley, was a concert pianist and played all over Europe."

Wise's first piano was a Baldwin upright, painted bright orange, given to him by a niece.

"It came from the University of Florida," he says, fondly recalling putting his carpentry and painting skills to work, stripping it and giving it new key covers. It is his pride and joy.

"It's old, but still has a beautiful sound."

Wise's parents, farmers from Alabama, moved to Plant City when Wise was a boy, and raised 11 children here. Life was not always easy, especially during the Depression and war years.

Sometimes lunch was a bowl of fresh rutabagas from the garden, but whatever Pearl fixed, it was good and plenty, Wise recalls. At 10, without lessons, the youngster was talented enough to play by ear and fill in for the church pianist.

Like many veterans, Wise rarely talks about the painful memories of the war years. He was drafted at 19 into the Army, and was two days at sea on the way to the South Pacific, when World War II ended. Nevertheless, he and his fellow soldiers of the 6th Infantry Division were sent to Korea where riots had erupted between North and South Korea. All five of his brothers served in the military.

Shortly after Wise returned stateside, and 18 days before the Korean War ended, the family received word that his brother Edward Lee "Bill" Wise was killed in action.

In June, Wise flew to Washington courtesy of Honor Flight of West Central Florida, a nonprofit that gives veterans trips to the nation's capital to visit national war memorials, all expenses paid.

Roberta Jordan, a retired lieutenant colonel, believes Wise exemplifies the "Greatest Generation" and was thrilled when he followed through with her suggestion to apply for the trip to Washington.

"Roy continues to serve by volunteering his time and talents to his community and church," Jordan said. "It was my honor to play a small part in facilitating that trip."

When he came to bronze statues of Korean War soldiers, Wise was thankful for those extra minutes as he remembered Edward, who crawled out of a foxhole to get help for a wounded soldier and was hit, along with a corpsman, as they tried to rescue a buddy.

"He was just a young fella just out of high school," he says.

During his years in Plant City, Wise worked as a carpenter on many of Plant City's homes and businesses in the historic districts: Dr. John Alsobrook's home, the Mays Building, the Merrin-Turner Dress Shop, Sam Allen Jr.'s house and the Orange Blossom Tea Room.

It was during this time he took piano lessons from Hattie Carswell.

"I found myself memorizing the songs and after a few tries didn't need to see the notes."

Soon he was playing at local weddings, funerals and church services.

The 85 year-old bachelor has been caretaker for 20 years at the 1914 Community Center, at 605 N Collins St. October through May, the three-story red brick building is home to the Florida Opry, bringing live family entertainment to the stage such as the locally based Southern Express Bluegrass and the nationally known Easy Street Band.

The 1991 movie My Girl was filmed in a classroom at the center. The building is also home to the East Hillsborough Historical Society (Wise is vice president) and the Quintilla Geer Bruton Archives, named for a Plant City judge's wife who was instrumental in starting the local library.

When he's not working around the center, Wise spends time in the archives with the volunteers and those who drop by for genealogical information. He has a wealth of knowledge about Plant City.

"Roy is, by far, one of Plant City's greatest gems," says Shelby Bender, lifetime Plant city resident and East Hillsborough Historical Society president. "He is the cornerstone of the 1914 Plant City High Community Center. He is a man of strong faith, a constant support and friend."

The gifted pianist has used his God-given talent to bring comfort to many in Plant City. There is always another wedding, funeral or church service just around the corner, and Wise has never shied away from the peace that comes from sharing his talent.

Betty Briggs can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Caretaker serves as snapshot of Plant City's charm 08/30/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 30, 2012 4:30am]
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