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Does Publix founder deserve a statue in U.S. Capitol?

CANDACE WEST / FREELANCE PHOTOGR

A famed Florida educator and civil rights pioneer, the state’s best-known environmentalist and the founder of an iconic grocery chain were all nominated Wednesday to be enshrined in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.

A four-member panel (three other members were absent) selected a trio of visionaries: Mary McLeod Bethune, one of the most prominent African-American women of the 20th century; Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the leading champion of the Everglades; and George Jenkins, founder of the Publix supermarket empire.

Next year, the Legislature will choose one of them to be the subject of a statue to replace Edmund Kirby Smith, a Confederate general, in the ornate hall in Washington where a pair of outstanding citizens represents each of the 50 states.

State lawmakers who sponsored a bill in the 2016 session that led to Wednesday’s action said they supported Smith’s replacement because he’s not well-known as a Floridian, not because he was a Confederate general.

Florida’s second citizen in the hall is John Gorrie of Apalachicola, who is credited with inventing air conditioning.

Only Bethune, who arrived in Daytona Beach in 1904, won votes from all four members of the panel, after supporters quoted from her last will and testament before her death in 1955.

“Our aim must be to create a world of fellowship and justice where no man’s skin color or religion is held against him,” she wrote.

Dr. Ashley Robertson, curator of the Bethune Foundation at Bethune-Cookman University, said Bethune would be the first African American and the ninth woman honored with a state-commissioned statue at the hall, which is visited by millions of tourists each year.

“In looking at the demographics of the statues that are already in place, many of them do not reflect the diversity of our nation,” Robertson said. “This is an opportunity for Florida to make history.”

Gov. Rick Scott’s appointee to the panel, Maj. Gen. Michael Calhoun, the state adjutant general of the National Guard, voted for Bethune, Jenkins and Alexander “Sandy” Nininger of Fort Lauderdale, the first Army soldier to receive the Medal of Honor in World War II.

Douglas, who was 108 when she died in Coconut Grove in 1998, wrote The Everglades: River of Grass, a 1947 best-seller that foresaw the threats to the sensitive wetland ecosystem and its wildlife that would be posed by development and population growth. Born in Minneapolis, she moved to Miami to work for her father, Frank Stoneman, who was the editor of the Miami Herald. She worked for the paper from 1915 to 1923.

The most surprising nominee was Jenkins, a long-time Lakeland resident who benefited from Polk County’s presence on the review committee.

Jenkins is not a household name to most Floridians, but Publix is, and Jenkins founded the state’s iconic retail brand in 1930 in Winter Haven with $1,300 in savings.

Publix is known for putting a premium on customer service, and its stores were among the first with air conditioning and ATMs.

Jenkins died in 1996 at 88.

Panel member S.L. Frisbee IV, a retired fourth-generation publisher of the Polk County Democrat, was first to nominate Jenkins.

“He established a management model,” Frisbee said, “and it’s the degree to which he established a customer-centric model for retailing.”

Frisbee was appointed to the committee by another Polk native, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

To be nominated, citizens had to be residents of Florida and deceased for at least 10 years.

More than 3,500 people made nominations online. Bethune’s 1,237 votes were nearly three times as many as the second-most popular choice, James Weldon Johnson, a teacher, poet, essayist and first African American admitted to the Florida Bar.

Among those not making the cut were railroad magnate Henry Flagler, author Zora Neale Hurston, civil rights pioneer Harry T. Moore and industrial tycoon John Ringling.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.

This story was updated to delete an error in Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ birthplace and add details of her moving to Miami.

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