EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in an occasional series profiling South Shore residents.
RUSKIN - When Sonja Wilson married Mike Council in 1971, she became part of a family of farmers, whose patriarch came to the area more than 70 years ago.
Even though Witt Council is long gone, his heirs still have their hands in Ruskin's soil.
"I've known Sonja since she married my baby brother," said Betty Jo Council, one of Sonja's closest friends. "Family comes first with her. She's very loving and giving, a great friend and lots of fun."
Sonja Council is corporate secretary, treasurer and office manager of M.D. Council & Sons, a cooling, packing and refrigeration warehouse that sits on a 93-acre farm Mike Council leased in 1994 and purchased in 1996.
When she became a Council, the family owned Council Farms, which was started by Witt Council in 1934 and grew over the years to about 4,300 acres of farmland and citrus.
"Witt came from Terra Ceia to farm in Ruskin due to continuous saltwater intrusion on his farm there," Sonja said. "His sons - Emmett, Buford and Robert - worked with him. Pat, Mike and Emmett Jr. were the next generation, followed by Michael Jr., Jason and Travis."
In 1986, Council Farms - which was then co-owned by Mike Council, his uncles Robert and Buford, his brother Emmet Jr. and cousin Pat - was sold to the Mormon church. After that, Mike Council co-owned Interchange Farms off 19th and Interchange avenues with William "Sonny" Spencer and Bill Curry, though most of it has since been developed by home builders. The trio still own about 55 acres, Sonja Council said.
Born to John Wilson and Hilda Auer, an Austrian war bride, in Lake City, Sonja grew up in Lakeland and graduated from Mulberry High School in 1966. She earned a degree in early childhood education from the University of South Florida in 1970. That year, she met Mike Council at an Islands Club dance in Tampa and married him in Mulberry nine months later.
"I couldn't have married into a better family," she said.
The couple moved to Ruskin, and after substitute teaching for a year at Ruskin Elementary School, Sonja Council landed a full-time, first-grade teacher's position, but left soon after to raise her sons, Michael Jr., 35, and Jason, 33.
"My thought was that I wanted to stay home with my children, if I could," she said. "So we just tightened our belts and made it happen."
The joy of her life, she said, is her grandchildren: Mackenzie, 7; Madelynn, 3; and Macey, 7 weeks.
"I'm about family and faith," she said, getting a bit teary-eyed. "I can't imagine not having a family who is always there for you."
She is the immediate past president of the Ruskin Woman's Club, of which she has been a member since 1986. Now the membership chairwoman, her role is to grow the 65-member nonprofit group.
"My focus these days is definitely the woman's club," she said, "where I'm involved in the preservation of the building. I've met the most wonderful, caring women there. I enjoy the local flavor of the club. Behind the scenes, we make things happen in Ruskin.
Sonja Council said now that her presidency is over, she will have little more free time.
"I want to spend more time with my mother and grandchildren and visit my friends more," she said. "We have a house on Little Gasparilla Island on the beach, and I love to go there. I don't have a hobby but I really enjoy preserving vegetables and making jellies in season. I have tomatoes, peas and peppers yet to do, and I want to make some more blueberry jelly."
GET TO KNOW
WHO: Sonja Council
FAMILY: Husband, Mike Council; two sons, Michael Jr. and Jason
JOB: Corporate secretary, treasurer and office manager of M.D. Council & Sons in Ruskin
RESIDENCE: Wimauma, since 1981
BEST FRIENDS: Sisters-in-law Betty Jo Council and Gail Paulk, and Paula Sims and Jane Buzbee, all of Ruskin; Paula Bushong of Lake Placid
OLDEST FRIEND: Linda Lacey of Lakeland; 54 years
FAVORITE FOOD: Anything with chocolate
LEAST FAVORITE: Marshmallows and jelly beans
FAVORITE PRESIDENTS: John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush
INSPIRATION: Her mother, Hilda Auer Wilson
RUSKIN MEMORY: "We used to have big Ruskin parties at George Simmons' place on Simmons Loop Road; just about everyone in town used to come. They were so much fun."