Jimmy Buffett was barefoot, Katie Couric wore a cowboy hat, and one banker carried toy handcuffs at the Feb. 15 benefit for the Everglades Foundation. Jones, relatively dressed up as the foundation’s chairman, also sported a light gray suit jacket and striped button-down shirt as he moved through the ballroom of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.
“I’ll raise money any way we can,” Jones said. “I’ll get down on my knees and I’ll crawl if I have to.”
Instead, Jones sat down, placed the green bandana provided as a napkin in his lap and dug into an evening of Southern food and country-rock-folk music as the Zac Brown Band entertained 860 guests. The event raised more than $2 million.
Jones’s dedication to South Florida’s bonefish, manatees, birds and sunsets grew out of his friendship with George Barley, a seventh-generation Floridian and real estate developer.
“They met on a shooting trip in England,” Mary Barley, George Barley’s widow, recalled at the event. “Then we lured Paul to Florida to fish. When he got married, we found him a home for his family,” on Islamorada in the Upper Keys.
Tragedy came when George Barley died in a plane crash. It was 1995, just as his campaign to clean up the Everglades was getting underway.
Jones, who’d seen havoc in the waters where he fished with his friend, took up the cause with Mary Barley. Over 20 years, there were ups and downs, starts and stops, as told in the book “Florida Bay Forever,” published last year by the foundation.
Avoiding the “politics of big money” and focusing on science was key to developing a clear path to restore the wetlands, Jones said in a video played at the event.
The priority is to move unpolluted water south, restoring the balance of salt and fresh water in the estuaries and Florida Bay.
Jones said George Barley can now see what had once only been a vision. “I know he can, because he tweeted this morning, ‘The good thing about being up here is I can now prove all those fish stories you told me were lies.’”
Guests were left with a choice: contemplating social media in the afterlife or enjoying the meal, designed by chef Rusty Hamlin, who with Zac Brown created the band’s “Eat and Greet” sessions and sideline in food products.
Key West shrimp came out of the kitchen with a dollop of Zac’s Southern Ground Love Grub Sauce (laced with bourbon, and delicious). The Florida-raised Angus beef featured Zac’s Georgia Clay Spice Rub (the meat was tender). Mango shortcake arrived with alligator-shaped chocolates.
Jones’s companions for the feast included Mark Dalton, chief executive officer of his Tudor Investment Corp., Couric, the event’s emcee, and her fiance, John Molner, a partner in private banking at Brown Brothers Harriman.
Nearby, three wise men were clad in Palm Beach pink, blue and lavender: Mario Gabelli, Thomas Peterffy and Charles Royce. Gabelli planned to avoid returning to the cold up north by attending this week’s Consumer Analysts of New York conference in Boca Raton.
Soon, most of the tables were abandoned as guests moved to the front of the stage. The Zac Brown Band’s long set included Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” with beautiful harmonies, and covers of Led Zeppelin and the Charlie Daniels Band. There were also hits and new songs from “The Grohl Sessions, Vol. 1,” the band’s collaboration with the Foo Fighters frontman.
Actor Michael Keaton, the event’s honorary chairman, caught up with rock promoter Ron Delsener, reminiscing about their times with Van Morrison.
Buffett, a foundation board member, got on stage for a spell, singing lead on his own “Margaritaville.” He also remarked on the decor. “I’ve never seen moonshine Mason jars hanging from the ceiling of the Breakers before.”
Other innovations at the historic hotel include a new bar on the beach called the Surf Break, according to Paul Leone, president of the Breakers. Holiday weekend activities on offer included Coconut Crew day camp with the theme “commander in chief,” poolside hair braiding, a tour of the hotel’s herb, vegetable and fruit gardens, and tortoise feeding.
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