Appleyard shares secrets of long life

Pensacola historian John Appleyard (WEAR-TV)

Pensacola historian John Appleyard is making a little history of his own. He celebrated his 95th birthday on November 14th.

Appleyard is the go-to person for information about the Pensacola area's rich history. His knowledge and interest grew in 1958, when he was put in charge of organizing Florida's Quadricentennial celebration. Appleyard describes the event as a "mini-World's Fair of history." After that, he says, people kept bringing him booklets and other items of interest, along with their stories. Now, he says, "If somebody asks a question about a subject, I know where to go for an answer."

He holds a degree in history from the University of Delaware, but his love of history goes back farther than that, to when he was a small child. He enjoyed studying history, and his father and aunt encouraged his interest. At the same time, good teachers helped him develop strong storytelling skills through class projects like 'show and tell.' He honed those storytelling skills while working in public relations. Today, he's called upon to speak to dozens of groups every year, sharing the details of life in old Pensacola.

"I don’t go with a script," he says. "I have a whole book full of outlines. It takes me two minutes to get the high points, and I just tell the story."

Many of his stories -- and his unique way of telling them -- are now recorded for posterity at the Appleyard Storytelling Cottage, located in McMillan House in Historic Pensacola. Appleyard worked with Cox Communications to record more than fifty different stories, some as short as 15 minutes, others lasting as long as 90 minutes or spanning multiple episodes. Visitors can choose the topic to learn about a particular area of interest, such as the development of banking. Appleyard also visits the cottage every Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to noon; when he's there, a sign is posted that says "the storyteller is in."

Today, Appleyard is still learning. He reads every day, he says. He particularly enjoys historical fiction -- a passion that began in his youth, when he and his friends "couldn't wait for the next one" and loaned their copies to each other -- and biographies, which he says can be a wonderful resource for historians.

He knows whereof he speaks. He's written more than 192 stories in his book series "Mysteries of Pensacola." He had the idea for a Sherlock Holmes-style story featuring a Pensacola police officer back in 1998. Two years later, he approached Carl Leahy, then the general manager of WEAR-TV. Leahy supported the printing of 1,500 copies, and proceeds from the sale were donated to the United Way. The next year, Leahy came back with a new idea: write more mysteries and sell them to support Communities Caring at Christmas. The books grossed $13,000 to $14,000 a year, helping buy toys for children who might not otherwise receive Christmas gifts. Appleyard continued to write the books through 2010, when -- as he tells it -- his wife told him he was too old to carry around boxes of books.

As Appleyard begins his 96th year, he credits his longevity to keeping busy and mentally active. He and his wife installed a pool in their back yard more than forty years ago, and he still uses it faithfully, swimming a "good number of laps every day." He admits he had to quit playing baseball two years ago.

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