What Happens At Cooterfest, Stays at Cooterfest!

It was in the year 2010 that I finally had the opportunity to meet Ronnie Plageman Sr. in person.

Image result for ronnie plageman inverness
Ronnie Plageman Sr.

Our first encounter was at the first-ever CMTA Leader Conference in Las Vegas. We had had many phone calls over the years, and it was time to meet the voice behind the receiver, the man who started the Inverness, Florida CMTA support group. He was a kind, gentle and upbeat soul, and his accent betrayed a touch of the south, so much so that I had the darnedest time understanding him. And not to be disrespectful or anything, but to my ears, it sounded as if he were speaking with marbles in his mouth.

So, when I finally met him, and just for curiosity sake, I asked him to open his mouth and say, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. ” I saw a tongue, teeth, fillings and crowns, but nope, no marbles- it was that southern twang throwing me off.

While waiting in the buffet line, he threw out an invitation: “Y’all otta’ come to Coofest.” When he spoke about this Coofest, his eyes lit up and he became as animated as a flailing live wire. From the sounds of things, Coofest had to be a lot of fun, topped off by fundraising and the spreading of CMT awareness. “I’m in!” I shouted as if he had hearing loss. He didn’t. I was just overcompensating for that southern drawl.  Gesticulating wildly and speaking loudly, but slowly, I enunciated every syllable of every word with grand effort, just to make sure we understood one another. I’m not sure this helped either one of us at all. In the end, my communication efforts made me look like a hyperactive mime with a voice.

Since Coofest was not brought up again during the conference, I thought it was just a bunch of mumbo jumbo – passing talk, a never-to-be fantasy trip.

I didn’t see it coming…..

2 weeks later, Ronnie called me…
“ ‘lisbeth? Ronnie Plageman here from Inverness, Florida. Makin’ sure yer still comin’ to Coofest. Jerry’s pullin’ the Archy train, all the way ferm Las Vegas! You comin’ with the gang? ”  “Um, uh, um….. well, if Jerry is pulling the entire Archy train, a mere 2,400 miles ONE WAY, how could I say “No”? Trying to buy some time, I told him I’d get back to him within the next couple of days and I immediately called Pat D.
Coofest? It’s not Coofest!.” Pat scolded. “It’s Coo-TER-fest, pronounced, Kooderfest.” Well, now I’m really not going, I thought to myself. This whole thing sounds just wrong.

“What exactly is a cooter?” I ventured hesitantly? Pat D rolled her eyes.” A cooter is a North American river turtle. ”

Florida Cooter

Didn’t you click on the website link to read the story behind Cooterfest? she asked with disappointment. I did not bother to respond because the answer was quite obvious. Pat D. sighed. “Well, if you had done any research, you would know that the Florida Cooter got its name from an especially heroic turtle who impressed some other animals with its feats of bravery.  At the end of the story, the possum then gave the title “Courageous Turtle” to the reptile, but a baby mouse, who had a speech impediment, shortened the name to ‘cooter.’ So, Cooterfest is  an annual celebration of a turtle who saved the animals that lived on the shores of Lake Tsala Apopka.”

Pat D
Pat D.

So….obvious? Seriously, Pat, the former schoolteacher made it sound as if Cooterfest was a major event in American history. I must have been sick that day at school.
Having worked at the CMTA for almost 20 years before her untimely passing in December of 2015, Pat Dreibelbis, our Director of Program Services, was our leader, historian, mentor and friend. Pat D. is the one who got me involved with the CMTA and she’s the one who talked me into meeting her and Dana, the CMTA’s jack-of-all-trades, into flying to Orlando for a CMTA road trip in 2010. Somehow, Jeana Sweeney, who was working part-time for the CMTA at the time managed to reserve a seat in our van. Well, we had stipulations for her to meet should she decide to come, and like the good sport she is, our terms were unconditionally accepted and off to Cooterfest we went!!

And who is Archy and what is the Archy train? Archy became the CMTA’s mascot in 2009. Archy was a bit different than you and me, because Archy was actually a turtle, a turtle with high-arched feet, hence the name – Archy.  Archy’s adventures (written by Pat but inspired by us all) were featured in The CMTA Report from 2009 to 2014 and soon became a favorite for kids of all ages. See the entire collection of stories here: https://www.cmtausa.org/the-adventures-of-archy/

Archy, the CMTA mascot

Longtime CMTA volunteer and support group leader Jerry Cross had built and decorated each Archy train seat by hand, using overturned wheelbarrows and then hauled it from Nevada all the way to Inverness, Florida just so that the kids at the festival could hear Archy tales and take rides in the train.

As promised, Jeana showed up wearing her bright green turtle costume, claiming to be Archy’s sister, Tara.  Well, as you might guess, Tara was a big hit with just about EVERYBODY!

Tara the Turtle

The weekend was a blast. We informed the Cooterfest attendees about CMT, sold CMTA materials, spoke at Ronnie’s support group, laughed a lot and bonded with our friends, Jerry, Ronnie and their families.

Archy Train
The Cooterfest Gang

After Cooterfest in 2010, we all kept in touch regularly. CMT brought us together and kept us together, if not in person, then by phone, email, and text.

When I recently heard of Ronnie Plageman’s sudden passing in April 2017, I went numb with disbelief. I am also very fond of Ronnie, his wife Judy and Ronnie’s son, Ron who is our CMTA branch leader in Denver, CO. The sadness brought back memories of good times past where turtles saved lives and trains brought smiles to children and their parents.

Our friend Jerry Cross, the self-proclaimed grump from Pahrump, who finished every conversation with, “smile and be happy” left this world after a long illness at the end of 2015.  Pat D also died suddenly,  on Dec.  16, 2014, with Dana by her side.
We deeply miss Ronnie, Jerry and Pat D. They were inspirational people who got involved with the CMTA to make a difference and that they did. They were CMT warriors who never, ever gave up the fight to create a better world for those living with CMT. I am proud to follow in their footsteps, doing my best to widen and fortify the trail they forged. Their legacies loom large.

Long Live Cooterfest!

Vicki Pollyea, Thanks for the collage!

2 thoughts on “What Happens At Cooterfest, Stays at Cooterfest!

  1. Ronnie, Pat and Jerry–beautiful souls all three! What a difference their lives made in the world of the CMTA. We are blessed to have had them in our community–RIP and bless their legacy!

    Like

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