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  1. Opinion

Oh, Florida! We should all be thankful for the lady accused of shoplifting while dressed as a turkey

Irene Leonhard, who lives in The Villages, put on a turkey costume to pass out candy at a Belk's store. She was arrested after police said surveillance cameras caught her swiping purses, an electric snow globe, jewelry and a waffle maker. [Photo courtesy of Irene Leonhard]
Published Nov. 17, 2017

he other day, I had a lovely chat with a lady who was arrested on charges of shoplifting ... while she was dressed as a turkey.

I guess you could say that she's been accused of doing the wrong kind of stuffing.

The lady's name is Irene Leonhard and she lives in The Villages, the largest gated over-55 community in the world, a place where everyone rides around in golf carts, even people in turkey outfits.

More on her in a minute, after a word about that special day we will soon celebrate.

Thanksgiving always seems like the briefest of holidays, squeezed into a few hours between the sugar-fueled fantasies of Halloween, the frenzy of Black Friday and the feel-good pageantry of Christmas. It's there and it's gone, with nothing to mark its passage but a fridge full of leftovers and the occasional acrimonious glare from that uncle whose NFL team lost to yours.

Yet it's the holiday that depends the most on putting aside our differences and coming together as one, which is something we as a nation desperately need these days. Granted, the cause that unites us is stuffing our faces, but still, it's a start.

Everybody knows the story of the first Thanksgiving in 1621: The Pilgrims, saved from starvation by kindly Native Americans, invite them to a feast, yadda yadda. The only problem is that it wasn't really the first Thanksgiving celebration held in the New World.

Nope, the first one was held here in Florida.

More than 50 years before the Pilgrims, some 800 Spanish settlers led by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed at what became St. Augustine. As curious members of the native Timucuan tribe watched, the first Spaniard to wade ashore was a priest, Father Francisco Lopez, who carried a cross. When Menendez joined him on dry land, the conquistador knelt and kissed the cross.

They all gathered around a makeshift altar, where Lopez conducted a Mass to thank God for giving them safe passage across the Atlantic Ocean. Afterward, they feasted, and at Menéndez's invitation, the Timucuans joined in.

"It was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land," University of Florida history professor Michael Gannon wrote in his book The Cross in the Sand.

Turkey was not on the menu. Instead the settlers dined on leftover garbanzo stew made with pork, garlic, saffron, cabbage and onion. The Timucuans may have brought alligator, bear, turkey, venison or even oysters, turtle, catfish or mullet.

So you could argue that Thanksgiving — the day that's supposed to make us count our blessings instead of our calories — is the most Florida of holidays, because we started it.

We have so much to be thankful for here — our postcard sunsets, our gorgeous beaches, our fast-flowing springs and deep forests. The end of November marks the end of hurricane season, so we've got to be thankful for that, especially this year. Plus, we're blessed to live in the Most Interesting State in the U.S., a place full of sinkholes and shark bites and machete-waving road ragers, where every day the news headlines make you say, "Wait, what?"

Which brings us back to Irene Leonhard and her turkey outfit.

She's 67, a retired GM employee and faithful church member, she told me. She said she bought her costume from a catalog several years ago on a lark. Then she added several feather boas, so that now it's "really a striking outfit," she said.

"I would wear it to pass out candy to the children," she said. "I do it for my neighborhood. It's just something fun to do."

On Nov. 10, she put on her costume and rode over to Belk's "to pass out candy," she said. She wore the outfit "because it's Thanksgiving." She hadn't been invited by the store to do that, so I guess you could say she was winging it.

As for her arrest, she's a little vague, saying that "somehow things got a little bit confusing."

The Lady Lake Police Department arrest report says surveillance cameras caught her swiping purses, an electric snow globe, jewelry and a waffle maker. She said she plans to fight the charges.

"I was hoping to wear my costume to court, but now I don't think that's a good idea," she added. "I don't think that would impress the judge."

I am hoping she reconsiders that decision, because I'm pretty sure the judge would be very impressed by a defendant brave enough to dress as the bird Ben Franklin called "much more respectable" than the bald eagle.

And then everyone in Florida would have one more thing to be thankful for.

Now get ready to pass me some of that garbanzo stew.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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