VERO BEACH – In the hundred year history of Vero Beach, Alma Lee Loy stands as one of the city’s most memorable woman. Ms. Loy became a force to be reckoned with in Indian River County business and politics at a time when most Treasure Coast leaders were men.
Hometown News caught up with Alma Lee Loy just after she celebrated her 90th birthday. We reminisced about Ms. Loy’s start in business and the children’s clothing store that bore her name.
“My family had been in the retail business since 1926,” Ms. Loy said. “I went to school to study what they called ‘retailing’ back then, in other words, ‘business’. When I came home, I wanted to have my own business. I didn’t want to be in the family business, the ladies’ business, I wanted to be in the children’s business. I loved children, and that was my goal.”
“I was lucky enough to find a partner and pull some money together. When you get out of college, you don’t have any money left.”
That partner was friend Lucy Auxier. Ms. Loy had become friends with Ms. Auxier’s parents.
“One day Mrs. Auxier said to me ‘Alma, what would you really like to do?’ I said I wanted to go into business for myself, and I want to have a children’s shop. Several conversations later, Mr. Auxier said he’d make me a deal. He said ‘I’ll stake you two girls if you’ll take Lucy and teach her something about business.’ Lucy said she’d love that. So that’s what we did.”
The assistance the two young women received, Ms. Loy was quick to point out, was a loan, not a gift. “Within the first three years, we paid Mr. Auxier back.”
In 1955, “we opened what was just called Alma Lee’s. It was a complete children’s clothing center, that’s the way we advertised it. We always said that we had the happy business. Everybody that came to us, it was either for a brand new baby, or a special occasion for a child like a birthday, or grandma wanted to spend some money. There were lots of reasons, but it was always happy business.”
Alma Lee Loy ran that children’s clothing store for 42 years until 1997. During that time, she did not feel that her gender presented obstacles in business or anything else she tried to do. She said people knew her well enough to treat her according to her individual abilities, not “as a woman.”
She also never felt that she had to actually perform better than men just to be treated as an equal.
“No, that wasn’t my experience. Number one, I knew everybody. Number two, they knew what I stood for, they knew what my work ethics were, they knew my father and my mother, they knew how I’d been trained.”
“This community was so small. When I graduated from high school, the population of Vero Beach was 3,000, in 1947. My family had been here since 1926. We knew everybody. So I didn’t run into those things (women-specific challenges). Truthfully, to this day, I never have.”
“When I was president of the chamber, we had some of those issues come up. But I served with some of the finest men in this community, and it didn’t seem to make any difference to any of them that I was a female. When my turn rolled around I was elected president of the chamber, I was the first female as president of the chamber. Same thing when I ran for the county commission. So, I’ve always been in the right place at the right time.”
The only time Ms. Loy mentioned she felt some gender bias was when she was initially deciding her career direction.
“When I graduated from high school, I wanted to be a pediatrician. But, in 1947, I didn’t have the money, there weren’t scholarships, and med schools didn’t really want women. So I studied retailing, which is what my father wanted me to do.”
Our conversation turned to the most visible acknowledgment of her place in Indian River County, The Alma Lee Loy Bridge. The 17th Street Bridge that was built from 1977-79 was named the Alma Lee Loy Bridge in 2012.
“The bridge naming was done behind my back. When I was on the commission, we were all working hard on the bridge issue. When my fellow commissioners suggested naming it after me, I said ‘no way, that bridge belongs to all of us.’”
Unbeknownst to her, a bill had been presented in the state legislature to rename the bridge, and it passed.
“We had a dedication and they put the signs up on the bridge. Now, every time I go across that bridge my heart just goes bam bam bam! I’ve had a lot of fun, people call me the bridge lady.”
We spoke about the bridge as a metaphor, a bridge from old-time Vero Beach to the current day, and the similar role of Alma Lee Loy.
“I think they probably thought that way. In a number of minds, that’s exactly true. I’ve always tried my best to bring consensus, wherever we were on a project that was good for our county. I will work my fingers off to help a project that is good for the people of this community.”
I asked Ms. Loy to discuss the people who have been the most important relationships in her life.
“Number one, my mother, the finest woman you could ever want to meet. I lost my father when he was 40 years old, so I didn’t have the joy of having a father. And I’ve never married. My brother was killed in an automobile accident. My sister died about three years ago. I’m the only one left as far as our family is concerned.”
Ms. Loy speaks as though the entire Indian River County community is her extended family.
“This community has been really good to me. This past week I celebrated my 90th birthday. Some of the original customers sent me birthday greetings. Hardly a day goes by that somebody doesn’t mention that store, and how much they loved to come in there, how much fun they had in there, and how nice we all were to them. It’s something I’ve enjoyed for a long time.”
“When I closed my shop in 1997, I became a full time volunteer, and I’ve been doing as much volunteer work as I can ever since. I don’t really want to be the leader. Many times I have been the leader, but I just want to help. Whatever we can do, let’s get the job done.”
Her energy and activity levels still exceed that of people half her age, as Ms. Loy continues her community involvement.
“I’ve reached the point in life where I’ve had to limit my activities. I tend to wear out by about 4 o’clock. But one of the things I really enjoy still working on is the foundation board for Indian River State College. The other one I still love working with is McKee Botanical Garden, that’s my real love.”
“I have a passion for the city of Vero Beach and Indian River County, and always have. This is my home, and I’m going to do everything I can to make it better.”