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North Fort Myers ‘pioneer’ returns home for her birthday

Vessell was a longtime teacher in the area; her husband, a pastor, started Slater Road Baptist Church

April 27, 2018
By CHUCK?BALLARO ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Ora "Virginia" Vessell took her place behind the piano in the corner of the Slater Road Baptist Church, as she has done for most of the last 50 years.

"I'm ready," she said before they started to play a hymn during a celebration of her 90th birthday Sunday.

The event featured lots of song and remembrances of her early life, which took her all over the country before she settled down in Southwest Florida in the early 1960s.

Article Photos

CHuck ballaro

Ora “Virginia” Vessell plays the piano during a celebration of her 90th birthday at Slater Road Baptist Church on Sunday.

Vessell's memory may not always be what it once was, but she still gets around by foot, communicates well, and still plays the piano the way she has for the last 75 or so years - very well.

"We wanted to celebrate what an old-fashioned saint she is and what she's done for North Fort Myers. She has always worked behind the scenes and we want to remember the lives she's touched," said current pastor Mark Leland.

Her youngest son, Jim, spoke of his mom's early life, with Virginia adding some anecdotes here and there, especially about her early life.

Vessell grew up during the Great Depression. Her mom and dad didn't have much of anything and were it not through the grace of her aunt and uncle, she might not have made it at all.

She went to boarding school and college, where she learned about structure, which she believes has been one of the secrets to her longevity.

"I never expected to live this long because my parents died in their 50s. I went to boarding schools from age 10 through college. They had curfews, three balanced meals a day," Virginia said. "You went to bed and woke up and ate at certain times. I led a very structured life."

They put her through school, including college at Bob Jones University, where she graduated and started teaching in the mountains of Kentucky, as well as Florida and Tennessee, during which time she earned her masters at Appalachian State in North Carolina.

She soon met a pastor named Dale and married in 1958. After living in Kansas to start a church there, they moved to Southwest Florida in 1960 to start another church on Sanibel.

The couple would have four children, one of whom is now deceased.

She taught school in Sanibel before going over to teach fourth grade at Tropic Isles Elementary (where she taught Mike Greenwell) and Edison Park for many years before retiring in the late 1980s.

The itch to teach not satisfied, she "unretired" and taught at Temple Baptist School and another one in Charlotte County for nearly another decade before retiring for good.

Before that, her husband started Faith Baptist Church in 1968, first meeting in their home and at the Lions Club before moving into their permanent home, now Slater Road Baptist Church, in 1975.

When her husband died in 2004, Vessell stepped away from being the preacher's wife, though she continued to serve the church and God.

"Some people can't step down from that role. She had no problem stepping down. Her heart was in serving the Lord. Very few people live what they say, and she lived it," Leland said. "It's not about her. It's about Him."

Vessell, who spent two months with her son in California before a brief return here, will move to Virginia near her other son and an assisted living facility.



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