2016 Year in Review: Connected from The City Beautiful

Sean and I board The Rock Boat 16 in January!

2016. What a crazy year for the world. A businessman, reality star celebrity was elected President of the United States, taking out two political dynasties: the Bushes and the Clintons. A gorilla in the Cincinnati zoo named Harambe was killed and captivated attention on social media and beyond. It was the “year of the meme,” as I now don’t know how we will live without sharing funny memes with each other. Russia is back interfering in global politics like never before. Terrorism hit in many U.S. and European cities — including within 10 minutes of my new home in Orlando. And so many celebrities have died in 2016 that people have resorted to calling this the “curse of 2016.”

While a lot of this has gone on in the background, we each live our own lives, not disconnected from the world, but hopefully connecting with our family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. For me, 2016 was a pretty amazing year.

Made the move to Orlando

With my friends Val, Meredith, and Mike at one of many Orlando City soccer matches!

The biggest thing this year in my life was my move from Tallahassee to Orlando. Both my job and my personal travels require me to travel all around Florida (and sometimes beyond) and Tallahassee has never been the most ideal place to do that from. Orlando is the exact opposite. You can’t get more central. And I’ve discovered this more and more each day from here in “The City Beautiful.” It was an easy move too — having started college here and working for Disney during that time, and doing work here quite often over the last decade for JMI and ISI, I already had lots of friends here. But I’ve also made lots more since moving here. It has been a very welcoming community. And I am never at a loss for entertainment. Besides the theme parks, Orlando gets lots of concerts in small venues to large arenas. My passion for the Orlando City Soccer Club started before I moved here and this year I was able to attend five matches. And the Citrus Bowl — recently renamed to Camping World Stadium — attracts lots of football games including college bowl games. I was able to end 2016 by seeing my Miami Hurricanes win their Russell Athletic Bowl game just 15 minutes from my front door.

The City Beautiful rallies after terror strikes Pulse.

Tragedy also struck Orlando — less than 3 months after I moved here, the deadliest shooting in U.S. history happened at Pulse nightclub, as an “ISIS groupie” targeted the club. While this tragedy killed 49 souls and left many others wounded both physically and emotionally, the Orlando community rallied together like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Six to nine months prior to moving here, I contemplated several places to move to in Florida that would be ideal for me. I always felt a great sense of community in Orlando and that was certainly a factor. After experiencing the way this community rallied together, it confirmed that I made the right decision on the place I moved to. Orlando is more than what the rest of the world thinks.

Life moves on

JMI Orlando Leaders Fellows participate in Orlando’s Dance Marathon! Mike Sasso, Val Particini, Andrew Malave, Nick Primrose, and Chris Dawson.

Professionally, I completed my ninth year with The James Madison Institute, continuing to lead the development efforts as the Vice President of Advancement. I also completed my sixth year on the board of Rock By The Sea, and stepped down this summer following our successful Rock by the Sea 10! I also continued my podcast, Agents of Innovation, where I interview entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and artists. I released 10 new episodes in 2016, bringing me to 22 total. More to come in 2017!

With my buddies Christian Minor and Mike Sasso at the JMI Policy Summit in August.

My travels for work took me all around the state, many times over (including 5 trips back to Tallahassee — so my friends there don’t quite miss me yet). It was also nice being here in Orlando, where the second annual JMI Policy Summit was held in August, at the Rosen Shingle Creek resort. And I also was able to see lots of people from Tallahassee and around the state attend many other conferences in Orlando throughout the year — one of the other reasons I chose to live here. Everyone holds their events in Orlando. Instead of traveling across the state for these, now I just commute across town.

Thousands pay tribute to the memory of Muhammad Ali in Louisville in June.

I also attended a State Policy Network (SPN) development directors retreat in Louisville, Kentucky (in June), an SPN development workshop in Austin, Texas (in July), and the SPN Annual Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee (in October). What a privilege to be able to travel to these three unique cities for work.
Just a few days before I landed in Louisville, “The Champ” Muhammad Ali passed away. Being that he was from Louisville, his funeral was held there. From the rooftop of our hotel, we could see the procession going by. And, on the day that I arrived in Louisville, I walked down the street to tour the Muhammad Ali Cultural Center, a museum dedicated to his life. On this day, it was crowded with many people offering condolences and sharing memories. Of all the “celebrities” who passed in 2016, Ali probably stands out as not simply one of the greatest athletes, but also one of the greatest cultural icons of the past half century.

At the tail end of my trip in Austin, Southwest Airlines (one of my favorites) experienced a nationwide computer glitch. It left me “stuck” in Austin for two extra days. No worries. I have plenty of friends there including perhaps my longest friend in life, Lindsey Demeritt, who I’ve known since the third grade. The two days there gave us extra time to catch up. She put me up in her house for two nights. We took in a unique movie experience and went paddle boarding on a very hot day on the river in Austin. I got to see other friends in Austin too — Brendan Steinhauser, Adam Buhrman, and Sarah Rumpf. They helped me take in plenty of Texas barbeque, burgers, and Tex Mex. I believe I came home at least 5 pounds heavier.

Getting “stuck” in Austin allowed more quality time with my longtime friend Lindsey Demeritt.

In Nashville, I was quite busy with the conference, but found time to make it down to Broadway one night with some of our fellow conference attendees, including my friends Christian Camara and Colin Sharkey. And then I found a way to catch up with friends living there locally, including Steve Buhrman and Nick Gill. It’s always nice to use travel opportunities, including those for work, to catch up with friends and see a few sights during my free time.

I also was able to attend another retreat with my young professional conservative friends from across the country. This year, we did it it at the Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah. A beautiful place to retreat and talk big ideas while building better skills for the future. A few of us also got a little hiking done on a perfect fall day in late September/early October.

Orlando Life

Being back in Orlando has its perks! Get to see Eric, Joleen, and Laurie more often!

Getting to live in Orlando has been a privilege on many levels. First, I love my new neighborhood, Baldwin Park. I also get to see so many more friends and family — both the ones here I get to hang out with often, but also the many visitors I’ve had. My parents have visited me here twice (it’s a short 3-hour drive for them compared with 6 1/2 hours from Delray Beach to Tallahassee!) and they are among the 21 total visitors that stayed at least one night in my guest room here in Baldwin Park. I have a 3-bedroom condo which includes my bedroom, a guest room, and a separate room that serves as my “home office,” as I work remotely from Orlando, while serving the many JMI supporters here and across the state. It took me 8 months living here before I “broke down” and bought a Disney Annual Pass (opted for the Silver Pass, which has some blackout dates around the holidays and the ultra-hot, humid, and busy summer months). It’s been great being able to dip over to Disney a few times already for some quick fun — and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios was just a quick 20 minutes away from my front door. I hadn’t done that in years and my friend Mike Sasso and I had a great time taking in 9 different haunted houses and a few rides.

The Currys rocked my house party!

Music life has improved here too. Too many concerts and bands to name but some memorable moments seeing Collective Soul & Goo Goo Dolls at HardRock Live (HRL) and Puscifer at the Bob Carr Center, both with my friend Christian Minor; Needtobreathe at HRL with Jen Varela & Brittany Kephart; and a quick 90-minute drive over to Tampa earlier this summer to see one of my all-time favorite bands, Candlebox. I also hosted musicians at my new place! Houston Keen came down from Chiefland to perform at my housewarming party in April; and The Currys came down from North Florida to play a very memorable house party in October. The walls are solid enough that the neighbors said they didn’t hear a sound. So this means more to come in 2017!

From MCO to the World 

A fun night in the Virgin Islands with an amazing group.

Being in Orlando has also allowed me access to the amazing Orlando airport, which has nonstop flights to so many destinations, mostly because Orlando is the #1 travel destination in the world. This is the complete opposite air travel experience than the small regional airport in Tallahassee. Flights are much better deals too!

The biggest trip this year was spending a week back on board the SailFuture vessel, Defy The Odds. This time we sailed the Virgin Islands. I took a quick, direct flight from Fort Lauderdale to St. Thomas and we sailed the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. I went with my friends Kristen Moran and Mike Manley, and we made sure that the crew included Michael Long, Hunter Thompson, and Jeremy Justice. I also made some great new friends, as seven nights at sea together will surely form some bonds. The weather was spectacular and the beauty of the Virgin Islands is unparalleled with anything else I’ve seen. The clear, blue-green water was just amazing. We snorkeled, played beach volleyball, football & rugby, sang karaoke at the Bitter End of the BVI’s, and just had an absolute blast.

Taking in the beautiful sights of Southern California with my brother Tony and his wife Ann!

This year also marked a new move for my brother Tony and his wife Ann. They moved from San Francisco to Santa Monica (in the Los Angeles area). I took a long July 4th weekend to visit with them. It was quick and easy to get there nonstop. And it was great to be able to escape the heat and humidity of Central Florida in July! We took in a Los Angeles Dodgers game (marking my 16th MLB home park), biked 30 miles round trip along the Pacific coast line, dined in West Hollywood, and watched Top Gun on an outdoor movie screen (where I actually needed a jacket in July!) This will likely be a regular summer trip for me! I also saw Tony and Ann in Miami. We joined my parents, and our brother Manny and his girlfriend Tiffany for a Florida Marlins game on Labor Day. It was great to have everyone together!

Whitewater rafting in Asheville with Brett!

In early June, I also visited my friend Brett Landau in Asheville, North Carolina. We drank craft beer, toured the Sierra Nevada brewing company (where he was working), went to an outdoor concert downtown featuring the Steep Canyon Rangers, hiked in the mountains, and went white water rafting. On my final day, I toured the Biltmore Estate — which is one of the most remarkable sites I’ve ever visited, comparable to me to visiting Versailles in France. Asheville was so amazing that it might now be my favorite city in the United States, even though it was seasonably warm when I was there.

Beer Camp in Tampa with Chris and Brett!

Brett and my friend Chris Perrigan (his high school best friend) and I also met up the week prior in Tampa, as we spent the day at Beer Camp Across America, a craft beer festival hosted by Brett’s company, Sierra Nevada. We took in many varieties of smaller craft breweries (mostly from Florida) and had a great time.

The final trip of the epic 2016 calendar of fun was to New York. I stayed with my friend James O’Keefe, who took me and a few other friends sailing on his boat, Lucky Charms II. We brought along Carter Fowler, Nathan Bond, Anthony Hackett, and Greg Thornbury. We sailed from the town of Mamaroneck, New York to Jersey City, New Jersey. We went down the East River, passed all the skyscrapers in Manhattan, and sailed around the Statue of Liberty. It was an amazing day that won’t be forgotten. A boat filled with patriots for sure.

Sailing around New York with Carter, James, Anthony, Nathan, and Greg. Not a bad crew to celebrate freedom with.

During my trip to New York, I also got to see my friends Matt Kabus and Fred Hoehle. Fred and I took in a New York Yankees game — on that day, they beat the Cleveland Indians, who eventually went on to win the American League Championship. I also visited the 9-11 Memorial Museum and the Freedom Tower. It was weird going to a museum on a day we lived through; but it was a great reminder of the attack that took place 15 years ago now. It was very well done. It was also amazing to see that America won’t be intimidated. We put up a new tower that I can only describe as having arisen out of the ashes of the ground below it. The observatory deck there was simply breathtaking — so much so that I couldn’t last there long. Heights still aren’t my thing.


Connect Florida

My Connect Florida “Class VII” poses with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

This year, I applied for and was accepted into Connect Florida, a leadership program for under-40 young professionals across Florida. Once accepted, I participate in five “weekends” across the state. The first was in Jacksonville in early October. The second one took place in St. Petersburg/Tampa in early December. There are 45 of us in the group, representing many different backgrounds and locations from across Florida. While we all have our own unique skill sets and ideas, we have a common goal: to make Florida a better place to live and thrive. Connect Florida is part of the larger Leadership Florida organization and it’s already providing some amazing insights into Florida’s history, politics, economy, and culture, as well as some great networking opportunities with those who have been involved with Leadership Florida over its 35-year history. In 2017, our “Class VII” program will conclude with a weekend in Tallahassee in February and Miami in April. And then we will join together again at the Leadership Florida Annual Conference at the Breakers in Palm Beach in June.


My buddies, my heroes: Chilling in Baldwin Park with Mike and Hunter in October.

My engagement with SailFuture hasn’t simply been limited to my fun trips in Greece (July 2015) and the Virgin Islands (April 2016). I attended their first fundraising dinner in July in Sarasota and stayed at the SailFuture group home in St. Petersburg in July, November, and December, helping provide my friends Michael Long and Hunter Thompson with some fundraising ideas, in a volunteer capacity. Mike and Hunter both came by and visited me in Orlando for one night in late October as well. We also took the SailFuture boat out in November and December and engaged some of my friends who were there during those times as well. Living in Orlando has also allowed me be so much closer to Mike, Hunter, and the SailFuture home in St. Petersburg. I’m looking forward to taking the boat out with some friends for a birthday sail on Saturday, January 14 (a day after my actual birthday). And I’m looking forward to seeing SailFuture take its next steps as well! Mike and Hunter and the people they attract continue to impress and inspire me.


Still love my favorite boat.

This year’s theme seems to have been boats. It started with The Rock Boat in January — my high school best friend Sean Gross finally made it on and we had a blast. And now he’s so hooked on the music and the boat he plans to come again in the future. He also traveled from Denver to be with us at Rock by the Sea on St. George Island in May. I spent so much time on the SailFuture boat in the Virgin Islands in April and in St. Pete in November and December. In July, my friends Britt and Noah Riner rented a pontoon boat for me and some other friends to join them in the waters around Sarasota — and we even survived going through an afternoon thunderstorm. I did the sail around New York with James O’Keefe and friends in August — and while this isn’t a boat, Brett and I did get out on the white water in a raft in Asheville. And in December, my friend Ben Macfarland invited me and a few friends to join him for a quick happy hour boat ride on the intracoastal in West Palm Beach.

At Rock by the Sea with Kristen, Laurie, Eric, Joleen, and Sean.

And my final trip of the year — to Islamorada in the Florida Keys — got me back on a boat with my friend Aaron Moreno. We took it out for a cruise on my first day, stopping off in a sand bar and docking at a restaurant for an island burger. Then the next day we went out with his dad, brother-in-law, and nephew, for a few hours of fishing in the morning. I need to get back to the Florida Keys. And I need to get back on the water on some more boats. There’s just nothing more fun and therapeutic then being out on the water. I’m so lucky to live in Florida and to have so many friends with boats!


The family united: with my parents, brother Tony and his wife Ann, and brother Manny and his girlfriend Tiffany.

Since moving to Orlando, my tennis game has suffered. I just haven’t found a good rhythmn yet to get into here, but I plan to get back into that in 2017 for sure — especially with the grand opening of the USTA National Campus in nearby Lake Nona (25 minutes from me). It will open on January 2 and have 102 tennis courts and attract the best rising talent from all over the country.

With that said, I’ve certainly kept up my fitness levels — with nearby L.A. Fitness for gym workouts and lots of running and biking trails in my neighborhood of Baldwin Park. My friend Christian Minor and I have set various running goals for ourselves. A few months ago, I set a goal to run 3 miles in under 21 minutes. As the year wrapped up, I went for a run around a track to break this goal — and I crushed it! I did 3 miles in 19:22. I honestly don’t know how I did that. Hard work mixed with focus, inspiration, and determination. While in the process of going for this goal, “Coach Minor,” (a former national champion runner at FSU) advised me to mix in some longer runs to build my strength and endurance. One day in November, after finishing a 7-mile run on my own, I set another goal: to do a half-marathon again. And this time, I want to do it under 1 hour, 50 minutes (perhaps faster) compared to the one I did in March 2014 in 2:01:50. I plan to run a half-marathon in the early part of 2017. Stay tuned!

2016 Awards

The past few years, I’ve made some notable mentions for people and culture that I’ve experienced in and around my life.

An inspiring, yet crazy coach.

Most Inspiring Person of the Year and Favorite Book of the Year go to the same person, who is also an author. That is my friend Kevin Record. I first met Kevin about 8 years ago through the Tallahassee tennis community. I got to play tennis with both him and his son Josh. Kevin turned 56 years old this past year and biked over 3,800 miles coast-to-coast from Yorktown, Virginia to San Francisco, California, raising awareness for cancer and raising money for cancer research. As a former sports journalist and current high school journalism teacher, he is a great writer. He documented every day of his 69-day trip on his Facebook page. It was captivating to follow some of it along. He also put it all together in a new book, Crazy Coach on a Bike, which I read from cover-to-cover in the last two weeks of 2016. I was also fortunate to catch up with the Crazy Coach as he was on another bike trip over winter break, which brought him through Orlando. As he says in the book, “Life is too short not to be on fire for something,” and “we are capable of far more than we think.” He has certainly proven that! This makes him my most inspiring person of the year. I challenge each reader of this blog (if you made it this far) to catch fire for something this year (if you haven’t already) and reach beyond what you think you’re capable of.

The Virgin Islands is paradise.

Favorite new place: I had never been to the Virgin Islands until 2016. A place of such beauty. We visited “Trunk Bay,” on the island of Saint John. It’s definitely the most perfect beach I’ve ever been to, but the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, on a whole, were incredible. My rediscovery of Asheville — a place I only visited twice before, but that I really got to see better through the eyes of a “local,” thanks to my friend Brett Landau, who had been living there for four years prior. It might be my favorite city in America now.

Favorite Movie: I see too many movies to keep track of — mostly at home on Netflix and HBO. I think the only film I went to the theater this year was for the new Star Wars (Episode VII), which debuted in late 2015. It was awesome. On HBO, I watched “Race,” the story of Jesse Owens, which was both inspiring and educational – and mixed well with all my recent running, but it had some bigger themes than running. I also finally started watching the Harry Potter series (seriously, I never had before) and got through the first four films. Thank you, 2016.

The Boss!

Best concert: Bruce Springsteen — hands down. I saw so much live music this year, but getting to check off “The Boss” from the bucket list lived up to the hype. He played nonstop for 3 1/2 hours in February at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, the city I grew up in. It was great to experience this with my friend Fred Hoehle, who was living in Orlando at the time, just before he moved back to New Jersey and just before I moved from Tallahassee to Orlando. It goes down as one of the top 3 concerts I’ve been to in my life.

Favorite new TV show: Westworld — a new series on HBO. Simply one of the best shows on television. It is set in an artificial “western” world where guests live out their fantasies. Problems arise when these perfectly artificial creatures start learning they aren’t real. Fantasy meets philosophy as they ponder their own creation and as the audience continues to learn new things about all the characters and the world they’ve been watching before their eyes. Things aren’t always as they seem. Can’t wait for season 2!

We Survived 2016

2016 shows we can rise from the ashes. Triumph over tragedy. America is full of great people and inspiring dreams.

With all the celebrity deaths this year (including Harambe), I saw someone post that someone should create a shirt that says “I survived 2016.” While there were acts of terror, crazy electoral politics, and the passing of so many great talents, I have to say I would rather have a shirt that says “I lived 2016.” It was a year I made a new move to Orlando, took in so many travel destinations all over the United States, sailed the Virgin Islands, saw so much live music, continued my ninth year in my career at The James Madison Institute, began my Connect Florida “Class VII” year, and got to connect with so many family and friends all over the place, including in my new home in Orlando. I can only thank God for putting so many amazing people in my life and the opportunity to see so many new places and have so many great experiences. As Crazy Coach Record would say, “Life is too short not to be on fire for something.” Let’s light some fires in 2017!

Get social with us!

1 Comment

  1. Gerry Gonzalez says:

    Inspiring! 2017 will certainly be another good one!

Leave a Reply