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William G. and Marie Selby

People: Sarasota History

Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Two Very Special Residents From Our Past

For a couple whose name is now well-known in Sarasota, William and Marie Selby sparked little press coverage during their early years in the city.

The high school sweethearts married in 1908 in Marietta, Ohio, and the following year William (Bill) brought his bride to Sarasota's Belle Haven Inn (where the Orange Blossom building stands today). He had visited the area earlier and used the hotel as headquarters for hunting and fishing trips into the wilds of Florida.

During the first year of their marriage, Bill and Marie paid close attention to the first transcontinental automobile race between Seattle and New York City. That sparked them to travel the same course themselves in a well-stocked touring car with spare parts and camping equipment. They made the trip in six days less than the car that won the race! Marie Selby became the first woman to cross the country by automobile.

Marie found the rural community and open spaces in Florida not unfamiliar, and joined Bill in his expeditions out from Sarasota each winter.

In the 1910s, the Sarasota Times "Personals" section noted the arrival of the Selbys for the season. They stayed several times at the Belle Haven Inn, once in the Chapline cottages on Palm Avenue, and at other times in a houseboat at the foot of Main Street.

In 1921, the Selbys purchased land on Sarasota Bay and Hudson Bayou, built a house that is now on the grounds of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and made Sarasota their home.

Bill Selby was one of three oilmen who came to Sarasota around the same time and ultimately impacted the shape and character of Sarasota. (The other two were Calvin Payne and John Ringling.)

Selby partnered with his father, who had formed the Selby Oil and Gas Company, which operated wells in Texas and Oklahoma. In 1946, Selby Oil and Gas merged with the Texas Company to form Texaco. Marie Selby was a skilled pianist whose father invented tools used in the oil industry and took his family on hiking trips along the Ohio River. In interests and background, she and Bill made a well-matched couple.

When the Selbys came to Sarasota in 1909, the town had fewer that 1,000 residents. The Town Council had begun to pave roads within the town, but roads between communities remained rutted sandy trails.

Winter visitors to Sarasota arrived by boat or the Seaboard Air Line Railway, the tracks of which came down the middle of Lemon Avenue. A newly formed volunteer fire department was ill-equipped to protect the community's predominantly wooden structures from destruction by fire. The first sewer system for the town consisted of a pipe that drained sewerage from the buildings on Main Street out into Sarasota Bay. An electric light system was not yet in place. Cattle and other farm animals could roam freely throughout the community; residents fenced their yards to keep the animals out.

As Sarasota emerged from a fishing village to a small city during the 1910s and early 1920s, the Selbys kept a low public profile. The names Palmer, Burns, Payne and Ringling appeared much more frequently in records of business and social activities. Bill Selby's business interests took him out of town. Marie's horticultural interests focused on their home.

After establishing a ranch on 3,000 acres southeast of Myakka City, Bill oversaw a herd of Angus cattle and Marie rode the horses she kept there.

In the late 1920s Marie became a founding member of the Sarasota Garden Club and both she and Bill joined the Sarasota Yacht Club. Marie won the "Express Cruiser Race" in Bilma Junior during the Yacht Club's annual regatta in 1928.

Reflecting their interest in boating, the Selbys had a series of power boats named Bilma; the name was a combination of Bill and Marie.

Not until 1955, a year before Bill's death, did the Selbys set the stage for the impact their presence in Sarasota would have on the larger community. He set up a Charitable Trust because he wished to help young people, as he and Marie had no children. In his oil business he saw a great number of young men who were quite capable, but were handicapped, due to a lack of higher education. He and Marie decided to use their money to help the youth of future generations.

They established the William G. Selby and Marie Selby Foundation, to aid local students gain their higher education with Selby scholarships. Even after Bill's death, Marie continued the fund from her personal fortune. In addition to this generous commitment, she was also an early funding contributor to the New College Fund Drive, and gave a financial contribution to the building of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

Prior to her death in June, 1971, Marie prepared a special trust that would create and maintain a public botanical garden on the property that was her home. During this same period, Dr. and Mrs. James Paulk, who then owned the Christy Payne Mansion, were battling termites, worn wiring, insulation, bursting water pipes, and coping living in the house without air conditioning. In 1973, the Paulks sold their home to Selby Gardens with the understanding that it would become part of the gardens.

Over the past fifty-plus years the foundation has provided more than $83 million for hundreds of nonprofit agencies, and more than 3,500 scholarship recipients. This remarkable feat has taken place from the original investment by the Selbys that was $19.5 million. The current market value of the foundation is over $72 million, and this insures a continuing contribution of nearly $4 million a year for qualified grants and scholarships to benefit our community. A special thank you is in order to the Selby Foundation and its management for continuing this outstanding contribution on an ongoing basis.

In addition to the William G. Selby and Marie Selby Foundation, the Selby Foundation staff administers other foundations. They are as follows:

Roberta Leventhal Sudakoff Foundation
Greenfield Foundation
Harry Sudakoff Foundation
Bank of American Client Foundation
Paddock Foundation
Beattie Foundation
Sarasota County Foundation
Posey Foundation