by Tim Gilmore, 1/16/2022
Pokey’s annual Christmas invitation meant the world to Virginia King. Jean “Pokey” Lyerly — she was Pokey Towers at the time — called Virginia “Ginger” and Virginia called Pokey “Pork Chop.” Pokey may have been Virginia’s only real friend.
“I felt protective of her,’ Pokey says. “She was a nut, but she was a person.”
Now Virginia takes the stage, as does a version of Pokey, in The Mad Atlas of Virginia King, legendary FSCJ DramaWorks director Ken McCulough‘s last production before he retires.
Perhaps, surmises Pokey, Virginia developed that curt way of interacting with people because people so often treated her so cruelly. Perhaps since people found Virginia easy to push aside, she responded by becoming increasingly implacable.
“I remember one Christmas,” Pokey says, “when my mother bought Virginia a hat – everybody wore hats then, and Virginia wore a hat long after everyone else had stopped – and had me deliver it to her.”
Pokey was young, in her early 20s. Virginia was about 15 years her senior but seemed decades older. Virginia told her to take back the hat, said it was ugly and she didn’t want it.
In later years, Pokey and her family sometimes had Virginia over for Christmas, “because you knew that otherwise she’d be lonely.” Pokey says, “If you went to hug her, she’d push you away, but it still meant something to her to be hugged.”
Back then, Pokey Lyerly was Pokey Towers, of the Towers’ half of Rogers Towers, one of the oldest and most prestigious law firms in Jacksonville, formed in 1905.
Pokey’s husband was William “Bill” Towers, son of Charles Daughtry Towers, widely known in the 1930s as “Boss Towers.” His friends and family called him Daughtry.
In 1964, Virginia told a Florida Times-Union reporter, “I said to Daughtry Towers – you know Daughtry Towers? – ‘Hello, little boy.’”
Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Rocco Morabito, who snapped her picture for that store, takes the stage in The Mad Atlas too, as does the architectural genius whose work Virginia loathed, Taylor Hardwick.
The people who hid from Virginia when she stalked them, harassed them, ambushed them, walking sometimes 10 or 15 miles a day across the city, rarely knew what she was up to. She was always taking pictures with her Kodak Brownie camera, all photos crooked and blurred. She sold magazines for a living.
Her life purpose, however, was writing her book, Interesting Facts About Leading People and Families of Duval County; Also, Where Progress Has Changed a Lot of Homes and Buildings. She printed five editions, from 1968 to 1976, each much longer and less comprehensible, never printing her final edition of 8,448 handwritten pages.
So strange little Virginia King, who seemed born old and demonstrated all the characteristics of someone with Asperger Syndrome – difficulty with social interactions, difficulty showing empathy, remoteness, difficulty with nonverbal communication skills, obsessive fixation on particular topics – but born too soon for that diagnosis, came for Christmas to one of the grandest old-money houses in the city.
For Pokey’s 1928 house was built for Edward Lane, one of the founders of Atlantic National Bank. Built in the Tudor Revival style popular during the Florida Land Boom that went bust at the Great Depression, it measures more than 14,000 square feet and features decorative half-timbering and highly pitched gables. Inside, great-beamed rooms contain expansive hearths and the octagonal “breakfast room” sits beneath a ceiling of gold leaf. Photos of 1930s garden parties at the height of the Great Depression show dozens of men and women standing before the house in elaborate white like a scene from The Great Gatsby.
The Towers family bought what’s now known as the Lane-Towers Mansion at 3730 Richmond Street in the late 1960s and grand invitations continued. Virginia surely felt and acted awkward at such gatherings, but Pokey Towers made her feel included in the world whose structure she sought constantly to chronicle.
Edward, Lane, Jr. grew up in the house and became president of the bank his father helped found. He married Helen Murchison in the early 1940s and bought from her father the house in which she grew up so she’d never “have to move.” Helen Lane continued to live in her childhood home for more than eight decades.
It was after he died in 2004, 93 years old, that she finally moved from her childhood home. She didn’t move far. She bought the almost 10,000 square foot 1928 Mediterranean Revival-style house across the street at 3755 Ortega Boulevard. The house has three stories, a courtyard tower, and an elevator.
“Everybody knew Virginia,” Helen told me. “She drove everybody crazy. She was frail and fragile, and you wanted to help her.” Though Virginia concerned herself with the city’s lawyers, doctors, and realtors, she was perhaps more obsessed with where they lived, where they’d previously lived, and what happened to their houses when they moved.
“But she never mentioned money,” Helen says. “She didn’t seem to be interested at all in how much money people had, just what houses they lived in if they had any.”
When Virginia’s health turned for the worse in the 1980s, Pokey invited her to stay as a “house guest” there on Richmond Street to coalesce. In 1985, Virginia moved from Pokey’s home to the assisted-living Riverside Presbyterian Apartments, but left boxes and boxes of materials behind.
“I ended up with a lot of Virginia’s boxes,” Pokey says, “and we put them under a pool table out in the garage where we had a recreation room. It was a full-size pool table and the whole space underneath was full of her cartons, her boxes.”
Pokey knew the boxes contained “her notes and the things that were important to her,” but she never looked through them. “It was just too much material. You couldn’t even start, or it would completely overwhelm you.” She was right. It completely overwhelmed Virginia King, who probably worked harder for her native city than anyone else who ever called it home.