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A House built of love, and loved by all

The founder of Rogers Christmas House, the late Margaret "Weenie" Rogers Ghiotto, was a business maven.

By DAN DEWITT
Published March 2, 2006


Kristi Spangler's rise to her position as an executive at Microsoft began with a job she held in high school - working as a clerk at Rogers Christmas House Village.

The owner of the Christmas House, Margaret "Weenie"Rogers Ghiotto, took an interest in Spangler as she did many other promising young people in Brooksville.

She helped pay her way through a small liberal arts college and later arranged for Spangler, the daughter of one of her longtime employees, to travel in Europe and attend programs at Oxford University in England.

Mrs. Ghiotto's encouragement gave Spangler a "sense of empowerment, drive and focus,"she said. The memory of it has moved her to support a charity for girls in poor Asian countries.

"It finances them to get an education so hopefully they don't end up being prostitutes. It's that bad there,"said Spangler, 36, who manages partnership with several companies in India.

"Weenie inspired me to do that. So that's a definite Weenie ripple effect.''

Mrs. Ghiotto, usually just called Weenie Rogers, died last month at 89. If she was known at all to out-of-towners, it was through her creation, Rogers Christmas House Village. She was the woman who convinced customers from all over the world that the true home of the winter holiday was a place where camellias bloomed in December.

This time of year, visitors will notice another of Mrs. Ghiotto's legacies, the hundreds of flowering trees and shrubs she planted around Brooksville. They might also admire her restoration of a dozen or more historic houses.

What they cannot see, her friends say, is the far-reaching benefits of one small-town woman's great imagination and generosity.

"She's influenced so many people, especially women, that nobody will ever know,"said Sherry McIntyre, her longtime financial adviser and the informal chronicler of her life.

"She helped so many people go far beyond what they thought was possible.''

* * *

Mrs. Ghiotto was tiny - that's why her older sister called her "Weenie"- and all her life she had the quality of a bright child who couldn't wait to make her next clever remark.

But she was brave enough to do things that women from Brooksville of her generation almost never did, such as go away to college.

She graduated with degrees in physics and chemistry from Florida State Teachers College (now Florida State University) in 1938 and eloped during her senior year with a contemporary from Brooksville, Robert Ghiotto.

Six years later, she divorced him because she thought they had both become complacent in marriage.

She toured Europe, alone, after World War II. In the late 1940s, she left one of the few socially acceptable professions for women, teaching, to study at the New York School of Interior Design.

"She was just a surprising person,"McIntyre said. "She never followed convention.''

Another thing women in Brooksville almost never did was own businesses.

"You have no idea how hard it was for her to start the Christmas House,"longtime friend Lara Bradburn said.

Mrs. Ghiotto had returned to Brooksville in the 1950s to work in the family's downtown department store. Soon, though, it began to fail because of competition from malls in Tampa. The lingering illness that killed her father in the late 1960s so drained the family finances, she said in a 1994 interview, that she remembered looking at the empty box of Kleenex by his sickbed and wondering how she could afford to replace it.

She and her sister, Mary Belle Rogers, sold the store in 1971. By then, Mrs. Ghiotto had came up with a plan to capitalize on the mysterious year-round appeal of Christmas ornaments that she sold in the interior design studio attached to her father's store.

But because of her gender, her age (about 55), and a business plan that was widely considered folly, it took her more than a year to secure a small bank loan and find a piece of property she could afford - a house on the edge of town so covered with vines that most passersby thought the lot was vacant, McIntyre said.

"It was absolutely overgrown. But she literally crawled underneath it and thought, this is something I might be able to do something with.''

* * *

Though Mrs. Ghiotto resisted the conventions of her small town, she loved the style she had grown up with: houses filled with antiques and surrounded by azaleas, magnolias and sago palms. She liked to wear yellow or pink blazers and pleated skirts and to drive a big, cream-colored Lincoln.

It was this version of old-fashioned elegance that she marketed at the Christmas House - relentlessly but graciously.

"Weenie didn't yell,"said longtime Brooksville lawyer Bill Eppley, who is related to Mrs. Ghiotto by marriage. "She stated her point of view and she worked until it became the point of view.''

She advised the builders on how to frame the expansions of the Christmas House and, later, how to anchor the additional buildings she moved to the lot. She designed the gardens and chose the trees and flowers, including the tulips she planted all over Brooksville.

"She found those in a catalog,"said Beth Tarr, a buyer at the Christmas House. "As usual, she turned back the page and said, 'Bethie, aren't those gorgeous.' And I said, 'Yes.' And she said, 'We have to have them.' "

"It just became innate to get it the way Weenie wanted it. I got steeped in her style,"Tarr said. "Shopping for ornaments, I would always look for things that would make Weenie smile.''

In the 1970s, Mrs. Ghiotto was appointed to the board of a local bank and elected to the City Council. In the decades that followed - as Brookville's downtown became lifeless and weeds grew through cracks in the sidewalks - her oak-shaded parking lot overflowed with cars and buses.

"She actually had to call the tour companies and say, 'You have to call ahead and schedule a time to come,' "McIntyre said.

She spread the idea that the Christmas House was more than a collection of ornaments and figurines - that its terraced arches led to a world that was not to be missed - through numerous billboards that sparkled in cars' headlights. She had Christmas House videos made in various languages so she could hand them out to foreign visitors to take home. She mailed advertising fliers to towns throughout the state, especially to wives of doctors and lawyers, whom she considered trendsetters.

"If you can hit the leaders, then the rest will tag along,"she said in 1994.

Mrs. Ghiotto also promoted her business through buying trips to Atlanta, New York, Europe and Asia, accompanied by as many as a dozen of her employees and their children. They met with merchandisers and stuffed Christmas House brochures in travel kiosks at international airports, but also went out to restaurants, theaters and museums.

The trips were part of her informal contract with employees.

They were expected to work almost as hard as Mrs. Ghiotto, who worked every day and famously kept the Christmas House open every day - except Christmas.

Mrs. Ghiotto, in return, offered an escape from Brooksville's provincialism, which she recognized despite her loyalty to the town.

"She always said, 'Kristi, don't marry young. You have to leave Brooksville and get exposure to the world,' "Spangler said.

She also gave them what most people don't expect at their workplace, McIntyre said: "Love, pure love.''

On Thanksgiving day, the break room filled with the smell of the turkey dinner Mrs. Ghiotto always provided. In the summertime, Mrs. Ghiotto would announce over the intercom that she had brought in the makings for Coke floats, which she called, in the language of the 1920s, "flapper dopes.''

Every time she poured a new walkway on the grounds of the Christmas House, she invited her employees and their children to write their names in the wet concrete.

"We were all given a nail,"said Tarr, 64, who has worked at the Christmas House since 1982, when, having recently divorced her husband and seen her children off to college, she was courted by regular telephone calls from Mrs. Ghiotto.

"She'd say, 'Bethie, Why don't you just come and help out for a little while?' Of course, I've been here ever since," said Tarr, standing in the entrance of the Christmas House, which, coincidentally, had been her childhood home.

"I could talk to Weenie about any personal issue that you could think of, and she did the same to me,"Tarr said.

"This absolutely became like a family.''

When Mrs. Ghiotto's health began to fail after a series of strokes, Tarr said, "I'd go home crying every night because I knew what was coming. It's so strange to think I can't go over to Olive Street and see Weenie. You could never replace that kind of relationship.''

* * *

After Mrs. Ghiotto's death on Feb. 16, stories about her began to flow from current and former Brooksville residents: how she showed up unannounced with a silver ornament after the birth of a child, how she counseled and watched out for lonely teenagers, how her former students and young employees had gone on to become doctors and scientists.

"I owe a tremendous amount of where I am because I knew Weenie,"said Jimmy Biggart, 36, who, like Spangler, benefited from the European trips and stints at Oxford that Mrs. Ghiotto sponsored. He is now managing partner of the powerhouse Fowler White Boggs Banker law firm in Tallahassee.

Biggart's mother, Sue Stoops, talked about the indirect way Mrs. Ghiotto is still helping young people in Hernando County. Stoops, 59, said she would probably be retired now if not for the example of Mrs. Ghiotto's highly productive later years. Instead, Stoops, who returned to education in 1986 after a decade at Christmas House, is in her first year as a principal of a K-8 magnet school with 1,400 students.

She has a reputation for coaxing top test scores from students and inspiring the loyalty from her teachers that Mrs. Ghiotto garnered from her sales force.

"You do the best you can for your employees and support them any way you can. I really think that's one thing I've learned from Weenie,"she said.

When she talks to troubled children or angry parents, Stoops said, she always tries, as Mrs. Ghiotto did, to start by hearing them out.

"She always validated people's feelings," she said. "I never saw her belittle anyone. I never saw her treat anyone unkindly.''

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6116.

[Last modified March 2, 2006, 08:33:24]


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