At 92, former state representative Helen Spivey, affectionately known as the Manatee Lady for her years of tireless advocacy work on their behalf, lives her idyllic life.
For the past year or so, she and her cat Nickie, a Maine coon cat that she has raised since he was a kitten, have lived in what she calls her "tiny house," a rented cabin in Inglis.
It’s within walking distance of the Food Ranch Supermarket, and Spivey likes to hike there to get some exercise.
“My kids urged me to get rid of my car, so I gave it to Save the Manatee (Club),” she said in a phone interview. “I try to hike up to Highway 40 and back every day… I live with my cat, and he has a kitty window that he can go in and out of.
“Sometimes I sit on the front porch, and when a car goes by I wave to people,” she said.
Spivey loves living in her “tiny house,” and despite the rumors on Facebook about her possibly being evicted, that's not the case.
The cabin where Spivey lives is on a three-acre property owned by Jolene White, who recently put it up for sale.
“Because of my mom’s age and health conditions, it’s too much for her to maintain,” said White’s daughter, Lisa Pinkham. “She notified Mrs. Spivey over a month ago that she was going to be selling, to give Mrs. Spivey ample time to find a new home, if and when it sells.”
That’s when rumors started spreading that Spivey was about to be homeless.
“That was never the case,” Pinkham said, adding, “Everyone wants the best for Helen.”
Back in the day, Helen Digges-Spivey was a force to be reckoned with.
The fifth-generation Floridian dedicated her life to community service, whether it was as a Crystal River City Councilwoman, state representative in Tallahassee or environmental activist.
She’s best known as the Manatee Lady, but she has also been called the “sewer lady.”
During her years on the city council, she repeatedly hounded the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to clean up the mess in King’s Bay and Crystal River created by sewer leakage that had dumped into the local waters.
At that time she carried around a glass jar of the murky water to show people.
“The first time I met Helen Spivey she schooled me about my support for reclaimed water,” said former Citrus County Commissioner Gary Bartell. “I’ll never forget her telling me, ‘I will never support someone who believes our drinking water should pass through someone else’s kidneys first.’”
But her heart has always been for the manatees, which, as a child, she thought were deformed dolphins in the St. Johns River.
She told the Chronicle in 2013 that back in the 1960s she was camping on the Withlacoochee River and learned that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was trying to count the manatees, and she thought that sounded like fun.
“At the same time I was getting into Save the Manatee Club literature...and I thought it was terrible that (people) would use them for food and said they tasted like pork,” she told the Chronicle.
She started learning more about manatees and that they needed a safe environment to sleep on their sides and backs — and how, at that time, the endangered herd of West Indian manatees only had a small space outside Three Sisters Springs as a sanctuary.
However, it was so crowded they were “stacked like cordwood,” as she described in a 2014 Chronicle guest column.
To Spivey, that was no sanctuary.
Early on, she had decided to do something about it and advocated for a true sanctuary with regulations and safeguards to protect the sea creatures that people from all over the world continue to flock to this area to experience.
Bartell noted that, as a “true champion for manatees,” Spivey made sure Citrus County had a regulation in place prohibiting a new boat ramp on any of the outstanding waterways without first closing an existing ramp,” he said. “People complained at the time, but anyone who has been on the Homosassa, Crystal, or Chassahowitzka Rivers in the past weeks will recognize how important that little caveat in our development rules is.”
Lace Blue-McLean, also a Three Sisters Springs advocate and environmentalist, calls Spivey her good friend and mentor. Together, they worked to clean up the waters in Citrus County to save the manatees and to raise funds for the acquisition of Three Sisters Springs in 2010.
“When she turned 80, she wanted to take a trip to see the manatees in Belize,” Blue-McLean said. “But she didn’t want to do the resorts like her family wanted; she wanted to go backpacking, so I said flippantly that I’d love to go with her and carry her bags, and she took me up on it. So, we spent three weeks backpacking in Belize, Guatemala and Mexico.
“She was a trooper, too. She was sick even before we left, but she did it...and without complaining. Instead, she handled everything with dignity and grace,” she said.
McLean said these same traits helped Spivey with all the challenges they faced during the three years it took to raise the $13M to purchase Three Sisters Springs, “to keep to the course knowing the outcome of protecting this gem of a property would benefit not only the manatees but our springs and county as well.”
At Spivey’s 90th birthday party, Blue-McLean called Spivey “a woman who is resilient, passionate, flexible, committed, adventurous, and giving.”
Now 92, Helen Spivey has hung up her advocate’s hat in favor of living a more serene and quiet life, just herself and Nickie.
She said she’s not sure how long she will be staying in her tiny house, it depends on the sale of the property.
Pinkham said Spivey has paid her rent faithfully, “each and every single month.”
Right now, the Manatee Lady is keeping her eyes and ears open for housing options for her and Nickie.
“He likes to spend the nights outside,” she said. “He disappeared — I think it was on the Fourth of July — and I didn’t know where he went. I thought someone swiped him.
“When he came back, he was covered with sand spurs and stickers — he was a mess,” she said. “But I love him, and he loves me.”