Pulitzer winner had roots in Fort Walton Beach

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JENNIE McKEON @JennieMnwfdn

When University of Florida professor Jack Davis set out to write his latest book, he chose to write about one of his first loves.

The Gulf of Mexico.

“The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea,” shares both the historical and commercial significance of the water. And last week, it was awarded the Pulitzer for history. The Pulitzer website describes the book as “an important environmental history of the Gulf of Mexico that brings crucial attention to Earth’s 10th-largest body of water, one of the planet’s most diverse and productive marine ecosystems.”


As a child, Davis spent much of his time living by the water including several years in the Fort Walton Beach area.

 “That’s really where the book began,” Davis said over the phone Wednesday afternoon.

When his family moved to Mary Esther, they lived in a house on Santa Rosa Sound where Davis would spend his free time. His family later moved to Fort Walton Beach on Bay Drive where he had a paper route for the Playground Daily News.

“The sound was my cul de sac,” he said. “My boat was my bicycle. My rod and reel was my bat and ball.”

While Davis only lived in the area from around 1966 to 1970, it left an impression on the environmental historian. He began thinking about the book sometime before 2010. When the oil spill dominated the headlines in 2010, Davis said he found even more reason to start writing.

“It robbed the true identity of the Gulf,” he added. “I wanted to restore its identity. I wanted readers to know that this wonderful sea has this rich history.”

Davis remembers when Destin was “nothing but a moonscape.” Of course, that has changed over the years. The author said he did not hold back his opinions about the Destin developments.

“I remember when it was known for the charter fishing fleet, not for condos,” he said. “I see it as the anti-model of growth.”

But, his book isn’t all “doom and gloom,” he said. It also shares the history of early tourism starting with New Englanders coming to the Gulf to catch tarp and the history of commercial fishing.

When it comes to winning the prestigious Pulitzer award, Davis said he was in the middle of meeting a grad student when his office and cellphone were both ringing off the hook. He checked his phone and saw a text from his editor congratulating him on winning the award.

“I was rendered speechless,” Davis said. “I couldn’t explain what happened, I just pushed the phone across the desk to the student. I called my editor and said, ‘Is it true?’”

It took five years of research and writing to finish “The Gulf.” During that time, Davis took a trip to the area with his daughter, Willa. The two kayaked around the the Santa Rosa Sound to his old stomping grounds and around the military-owned beaches. He was pleased to find that there were some untouched gems.

“It was as if nothing has changed,” Davis said. “It was just beautiful and my daughter really got into it. It was a great experience.”

Since the book was published last year, Davis has received positive responses from readers in and out of the Gulf Coast. One highlight was receiving a picture from a friend of his book in a San Francisco book store.

“It really felt like a privilege to live by the water,” he said. “I wanted to share that appreciation.”

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