Silhouettes: by Tiffany Razzano
An eighth-generation Plant City resident, Shelby Bender remembers the exact moment she recognized the importance of community.
As an elementary school student, one of the teachers would enlist the help of local children to collect money for the American Heart Fund. Bender and her sister were selected one year and helped that teacher for as long as she can remember. Dressed in their Sunday finest, the group of students went door to door, asking their neighbors to donate to the cause. Afterward, they’d meet at the TECO community center for refreshments and to discuss how much they collected. “That was probably the start of my being active in the community,” said Bender, executive director and president of the East Hillsborough Historical Society. “I’ve always been passionate about giving back.”
Aside from spending a few years in Gainesville while her husband attended college, Bender has spent her entire life in Plant City. “Some people have real strong roots somewhere and they’re well established,” she said. “I’m one of those people.”
When she and her husband returned to their hometown, they took over the dry-blend fertilizer manufacturing company his family had owned and operated for decades in Plant City. Though she went on to earn her associate degree from Hillsborough Community College while her children were little, she decided not to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the time. “I had my full-time job with the family business. I was happy with what I was doing and the family was comfortable,” she said.
Then, after running the business for 30 years, Bender and her husband decided to shut down the manufacturing plant. The company had been in existence for 81 years. “At one point in time, Hillsborough County was a very large agricultural community,” she said. “But things change.” Forty years ago, there were “eight or nine dry-blend fertilizer companies” in the county, she added. “Now there are none.” Her family’s company at one time had been located in the heart of the city, near the railroad tracks, but Plant City’s midtown expansion forced them out.
Bender was 56 years old when the company closed down. “We had to reinvent ourselves and start over,” she said. “Sometimes in life you just have to write a new chapter.”
She decided to go back to school and complete her degree, earning a bachelor’s degree in general studies from St. Leo University and, later, a certificate in nonprofit management from the University of South Florida. She also worked for a year as finance secretary for Mulberry High School.
Even while running the company with her husband, she was always heavily involved with community activities, spending much of her time volunteering for the East Hillsborough Historical Society. Running her own business gave her the flexibility to spend a significant amount of time with the historical society. In fact, for years she was in charge of many of the duties she takes on today as executive director and president of the group. “When you own your own business, you can make your own hours,” Bender explained. “But I no longer had that flexibility while working for the school.”
So she and the historical society decided to get creative. The group always had an administrative person working part-time in the office. When that role opened up, they decided to revamp it, creating the executive director position for Bender. “I wanted to do this and I knew I could do this,” she said. “We just had to approach the role a little differently.”
As executive director, she works out of the historic 1914 Plant City High School Community Center – her former junior high school – which houses the EHHS office, Pioneer Museum and Quintilla Geer Bruton Archives Center.
Bender has always been interested in local history, as well as genealogy. She remembers as a young girl her grandmother telling her about their family history. “She was very influential. My own interest in our family history just kind of went from there,” she said.
Learning about her family, “who they were in reality, what they did, what kind of people they were,” connected her to her roots and strengthened her sense of self.
She’s traced her family lineage as far back as the 1600s, to England, Scotland, Germany and Russia. “As you keep going back, you develop an interest not just in local history, but in history throughout time,” she said.
She added, “It’s really interesting to see how they existed. A person might think we’re in hard times now, but no, we’re not in hard times.”
She’s also built up a roster of private clients, especially in the realm of adoption research. For nearly 25 years, Bender has worked with adoptees and birth families to make connections.
Bender has also co-authored four books on Plant City history and Tampa cemeteries. In fact, in addition to genealogy and family histories, her other specialties include historic preservation, the history and care of cemeteries and funerary art. “A cemetery is a true history of a community,” she said.
She serves on several other local organizations as well. She is chair of the Plant City Historic Resources Board. The board oversees three local and national register historic districts. She also serves on the Hillsborough County Historic Preservation Grant Panel and the Plant City Main Street Board of Directors, and is secretary of the Florida State Genealogical Society. And as a nearly nine-year member of the Hillsborough County Historic Advisory Council – and recently member emeritus – she’s helped establish numerous historic markers throughout the county by recommending and finding sites with historical importance to the community. Some of these locations include the Hillsborough County Cemetery, which served as a pauper’s cemetery, and Florida College in Temple Terrace.
The EHHS also hosts numerous events throughout the year in an effort to reach out to the community. They organize Pioneer Heritage Day each November, holding an open house at the 1914 Plant City High School Community Center. The organization is also gearing up for their upcoming fundraiser, one of their biggest of the year, Bender said, running a strawberry shortcake booth at the Florida Strawberry Festival.
In addition, the group sponsors and runs a number of workshops for the community, from genealogy to cemetery care and preservation. The next workshop is “Copyright Workshop for Authors, Artists and Musicians,” to be held Saturday, Feb. 4, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the 1914 Plant City High School Community Center. The workshop is free and preregistration is required.
Then, on Saturday, Feb. 11, 7 to 10 p.m., the center will host the Florida Opry’s Country to Pop tribute show to country music legend Patsy Cline.
The organization tries to reach the community any way that it can, Bender remarked. “It’s important that we all remember where we came from,” she added.