St. Petersburg Times
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Letter to the editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message

Birthday girl surprised by Idol

A lively party is capped by a performance from Ruben Studdard.

By JODIE TILLMAN, Times staff writer
Published December 8, 2007

Louise Flagler reacts to her big 60th birthday surprise, Ruben Studdard of American Idol fame. Studdard sang a birthday song to Flagler, and friends and family from around the country came to the party, making her day unforgettable.
[John Pendygraft | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG - Louise Flagler's 59th year was one of her worst. The lowest moment came on Mother's Day when her mother died in her arms.

So Flagler's daughter, Symone Dexter, wanted to start off her 60th year Friday with a cheerful, big to-do: a surprise birthday party at the swanky Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park with all her friends and a Happy Birthday performance by an Idol.

"I said, 'Ruben, listen, I need you,'" Dexter said.

Ruben as in 2003 American Idol winner Ruben Studdard, the big, gentle choirboy from Alabama dubbed the "Velvet Teddy Bear."

Dexter, a singer who has performed backup for Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder, says she knows Ruben through her music industry connections. She said she paid only to fly him in from L.A.

"Everybody loves Ruben," said Dexter, 40. "I pulled this together in five days, I kid you not."

The party was held in the Picasso Salon ballroom, a few doors down from where Raytheon employees were living it up at their holiday party. The room was decorated in gold and black, as were the guests, at Dexter's request. The reason why was spelled out in table placards: "A strong black woman with a heart of gold."

Flagler, who retired from the Pinellas Housing Authority earlier this year, didn't know the first surprise - a room full of her friends and family - was indeed only the first one.

"Aunt Fanny!" she said, nearly bent over at her waist just after the crowd had erupted into their own "Happy birthday." Friends from her hometown of Syracuse, N.Y., then started filing in.

Studdard's identity was kept a secret even from most of the guests, though some heard rumors. Guests, who had only a few days notice of the party, said they weren't surprised by the over-the-top feel to everything. And before Flagler even arrived, they were predicting her reaction.

"She's going to be devastated!" said Phillip Boone of Lakeland. "In a good way."

Just before 9:30 p.m. Dexter took the stage with a couple.

"I just have a little something I want to do for my mama," she said. "I brought a couple of friends."

Soon, someone started singing, "Happy Birthday to You."

It was Studdard, dressed in a pinstripe suit and dark-rimmed glasses, who emerged with a microphone. Flagler clasped her hands together and laughed as she walked toward him. Cell phone cameras started flashing like lightning bugs.

In the back, family friend Regina Knight said she couldn't believe her eyes. "I'm so impressed, so elated," she said. "I feel like it's my birthday."

Studdard's first post-Idol album, Soulful, sold nearly 2-million copies. His last album, The Return, included such songs as Get U Loose and Blow Ya Mind. It did not do so well.

No matter. Within an instant, the crowd was swaying. And Flagler's face was aglow.

The energy was apparently contagious. Outside the room, a woman from the Raytheon work party stood outside the door and called out, "I want to go to ya'll's party."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at or 727 992-8267.

[Last modified December 8, 2007, 00:16:04]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters