Iowa residents use Christmas vacations in Palm Harbor to cement family bond

PALM HARBOR — The Wolfe family, 60 members strong, gets a good exercise in conversational Darwinism each December in Palm Harbor.

"You've got to talk fast and loud in this family," said Chris Wolfe, one of 10 grown children in the family. He said of the introverts of the bunch, laughing, "I'm sure they get to talk at home."

Every year since 1973, Kathy Wolfe and her children have left Davenport, Iowa, to spend Christmas at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club here.

That first year it was just Wolfe, her husband, Bob, and seven of their kids. Bob died a few years back, but Kathy still treks to Florida to meet up with her 10 children, nine in-laws (affectionately known as "outlaws"), 39 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Family members started arriving Dec. 19, with the last few straggling in Christmas evening. Everyone will depart between Jan. 2 and Jan. 7.

On one afternoon, a handful of them started up a game of corn toss as others tended to the stove, preparing massive amounts of spaghetti.

In the Florida climate the grandchildren, who have never had a white Christmas, can venture outside together, picking oranges, golfing and competing in tennis matches.

"It's a great place for families," Kathy Wolfe said.

In years like this one, vacationing in Tampa Bay comes with an extra plus for the Wolfes. Their University of Iowa Hawkeyes are taking on the No. 14 Louisiana State University Tigers at the Outback Bowl in Tampa on New Year's Day. The team will have 36 Wolfes cheering them on Wednesday in Raymond James Stadium. The Wolfes only attend the bowl game when Iowa plays, which has happened four times in the last 10 years.

Iowa football is sacred. When the family is together, it's not uncommon to hear accusations of "You're not a Hawkeye!" that always spawn playful fights, and not just among the children. Everyone, even in the gang of outlaws, shows off black and gold clothing.

The family unity extends beyond the goal posts. Kathy Wolfe's children are so far apart in age that if not for this yearly trip, they wouldn't have had the opportunity to get to know each other, she said. Bridget Anderson, the youngest sibling, now 37, wasn't alive yet when the Wolfes first vacationed in Palm Harbor. Anne Packevicz, the oldest sibling, now 53, was in middle school.

It's been a while since that first drive, when Packevicz jumped out of the car in Florida to hug a palm tree, one of the first she'd ever seen. Now both women have kids of their own, and Anderson and Packevicz credit the Florida trips with strengthening the relationships among the siblings.

When Kathy Wolfe's children started families of their own, it wasn't always a given that the vacations would continue. But she and her late husband, Bob, stressed the importance of keeping the tradition alive as the family grew.

The importance of family bonding isn't lost on the youngest generation.

Sam Gervase, 21, said he appreciates the time he spends holding the babies, relaxing with his grandmother, and everything in between.

"It's so much fun to come down here and spend time with each other," he said. "This is all I know. It's made me the person I am today."

Julie Kliegman can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or jkliegman@tampabay.com.

Iowa residents use Christmas vacations in Palm Harbor to cement family bond 12/31/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 4:20pm]

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