Former Florida Senator, County Commissioner Lori Wilson dies at 81
COCOA BEACH, Fla. – Lori Wilson, namesake of one of the county's most popular beach sites, died Wednesday at age 81.
But what many people may not know was that Wilson was a pioneering Florida politician long before the Cocoa Beach park opened, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.
Wilson, who moved to Brevard County as a young wife and mother at the start of the Space Age, was a trailblazing politician who served on the county commission and then in the Florida Senate at a time when few women held elected office in the state — or the nation, for that matter.
Wilson died at the Indian Harbour Beach home of her daughter, Kim Wilson, following a long illness. She had been living in an assisted living center in recent years.
"I was holding her hand and showing her pictures of her grandchildren and then she was gone," Kim Wilson said.
Wilson was born in Waynesville, North Carolina on Feb. 15, 1937. Her family later moved to Tennessee. A bright student, Wilson skipped 2nd and 11th grades and entered Tennessee Tech as a 16-year-old.
She moved to Brevard in 1960 when her husband Ronald Wilson took a job with Pan Am World Services in support of the space program.
The couple settled in Merritt Island and Lori Wilson began substitute teaching and became active in community affairs. She continued her education at Brevard Community College (now Eastern Florida State College) and Rollins College.
In 1969, Gov. Claude Kirk appointed Wilson to fill a vacancy on the Brevard County Commission, the first woman in the state to receive such a significant gubernatorial appointment, according to her Florida Senate biography. She was elected to a full term on the commission in 1970 and was elected commission chair in 1972, the first woman to hold that position.
In November 1972, Wilson was elected to the Florida Senate. She was just the third woman — and first independent — to serve in the Legislature's upper house. She was re-elected in 1974 and served until 1978.
In the Senate, Wilson received national attention as the main proponent of having the Sunshine State approve the Equal Rights Amendment. Wilson argued that her male colleagues who opposed the ERA were "good old boys" who were engaged in a "last hurrah to desperately hold onto their power," according to news reports at the time.
The Senate ultimately voted against ratifying the ERA 21-19 and the amendment failed to get the support of the 38 states needed to be implemented.
During her time on the county commission and in the Senate, Wilson played a key role in obtaining the money for the county to buy the land for her namesake park and for Jetty Park at Port Canaveral, Kim Wilson said.
After her Senate service, Wilson attended Florida State University College of Law and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1984, Florida Today reported.
Wilson's marriage to Ronald Wilson ended in divorce in 1971.
In 1973, she married Al Neuharth, founder of Florida Today and USA Today. The couple divorced in 1982.
As part of his 1989 autobiography "Confessions of an S.O.B.," Neuharth asked his two ex-wives to share their thoughts about him. Wilson's take: ''He's charming, rich, challenging, and inspiring — a great catch, as long as you don't mind riding a roller coaster with a snake.''
After their divorce, Wilson continued to live in Cocoa Beach. An amateur painter, she sold her works at local art shows and was an animal lover active with the Humane Society.
Wilson was predeceased by a daughter, Rhonda, who died in 2007. Besides Kim Wilson she is survived by Wilson's husband, Tom Groark, and the couple's two children, Zoe Wilson-Groark and Connor Wilson-Groark.
The family is not planning any public services for Wilson. They suggest that donations be made in her name to the Humane Society.
Copyright 2019 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.