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From Gerber to gumshoe

Ann Turner Cook's life has had many chapters: baby food icon, teacher and, now, mystery writer.

Published August 26, 2003

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
Ann Turner Cook was the model for the Gerber Baby.

Ann Turner Cook achieved her 15 minutes of fame when she was just a babe. She was the model for the "Gerber Baby": the cherubic face that still adorns every baby food jar and product Gerber sells.

"My likeness was drawn by Dorothy Hope Smith, and purchased by the Gerber Products Co., in 1928," Cook says. Her face became their trademark in 1931. Cook, 77, still travels for the company and was among the guests at Gerber's 75th anniversary celebration.

"Over the years, as I've traveled for Gerber, it always seems bizarre to see my baby picture staring back at me from store windows and banners during a sales tour."

In July, Cook took Gerber's corporate jet to Reedsburg, Wis., then to the headquarters in Fremont, Mich., for a parade where she was the grand marshal.

But Cook's life has not been all pictures, parades and corporate jets. This former high school English teacher worked and raised four children. She also received her master's degree in English education from the University of South Florida while caring for her mother-in-law. After 26 years of teaching, she retired from Hillsborough High in 1989 to devote herself to writing.

She enrolled in a writing class taught by Ed Hirshberg, the late USF professor and founder of the Suncoast Writer's Conference at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Cook also joined the Tampa Writer's Alliance and wrote her first short story, The Artifact. She later coordinated TWA's critique team and was president of the group from 1994 to 1995.

The Artifact won a contest sponsored by the Florida First Coast Writer's Festival in Jacksonville and then won second place in the TWA's annual contest.

"This was my entree to membership in the Mystery Writers of America," Cook says.

"Naturally, I was encouraged, and along the way, I wrote a nonfiction article published in Florida Living in 1996 titled, Tiger Tail: Trickster or Strategist? It was about the last Seminole war chief to be captured at the end of the Seminole Wars in December 1841.

"I then began work on my novel, Trace Their Shadows, my first mystery in what was to become a series. My protagonist was Brandy O'Bannon, a newspaper reporter and amateur sleuth."

When her book was finished, she sent it to an agent in New York with blessings from her mentor, Hirshberg. Finding a publisher was tedious. And after two unsuccessful attempts, Cook took matters into her own hands.

"I wasn't getting any younger, and I thought, this is it. I'm going to get published, and I did," Cook said. "I decided to be creative. I got on the Internet, and did some exhaustive research. I made the decision to go with a print-on-demand publisher, iUniverse, which has an agreement with Mystery Writers of America. . . . For a limited time they publish members' first books at no charge offering them in their "MWA Presents' series. After that, they publish MWA members' works at a reduced rate. Trace Their Shadows was published in 2001."

Cook was born in Connecticut, but is almost a Florida native. She attended junior high and high school in Orlando. She considers Florida's waterways and coastlines ideal settings for her books.

"All of my stories and articles take place in Florida, the out-of-the way places, the small historical towns. That appeals to me," she says.

The second in the O'Bannon series, Shadow over Cedar Key was published this year and reviewed in Publisher's Weekly. The story takes places in a small town, 130 miles north of St. Petersburg off U.S. 19. When turning west off the highway, travelers go back into "old" Florida. Back beyond the brackish waters to the gulf. There are no smooth sandy beaches, just oyster beds and fishing boats. No Holiday Inns, only the 145-year-old Island Hotel.

The small town with a Key West atmosphere, the Key West of Ernest Hemingway's time, has a rich history that Cook explores in her novel. The story is about a hurricane, a lost child and mysterious deaths. Much of the story takes place at the Island Hotel, where Cook will attend a book signing in November.

Cook says mysteries always have been one of her favorite reads. Her husband, James, a retired criminologist for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, has provided several pointers for her stories.

Her career as a teacher prepared her for the lecture circuit. She speaks to groups about the writer's craft: themes, character creation and publishing.

"If you want to be a writer, then write, and when you have rewritten and rewritten, let someone you respect as a writer critique your work," Cook advises. "Join the TWA or a good writers group, and check on ways to get published. It's a lot of hard work, but persevere.

"I'm working on my next installment of the O'Bannon mysteries series. The working title is Thing of Darkness and takes place in Homosassa. This will include some quotations from Shakespeare's The Tempest.

"Because of my earlier career as an English teacher, all of my mysteries have a tie-in or quotations from literary works."

Cook's late-life pursuits are proving to be successful as well as satisfying.

"Writing is good for the mental processes, and I've always had an enormous respect for language, so writing is my logical outlet. I'm doing what I love.

"Though I feel like Queen for a Day in my role as the Gerber baby, my greatest satisfaction has been to create a story that others want to read. I know there are many out there with the urge to write. It's never too late to put it down on paper. I did, and it worked."

- Lilyan V. Dayton is freelance writer in New Port Richey.

Ann Turner Cook will be the featured speaker at the Mystery Readers Club, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 25 at Barnes & Noble in Tampa, 11801 N Dale Mabry, Tampa. The event is free and open to the public.

[Last modified August 22, 2003, 13:52:20]


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