Community Profile: Wynelle Deese
By Arielle Stevenson
For Wynelle Alma Deese, postcards mark more than a token or keepsake from a gift shop. To her, they are pieces of history. Deese’s father, Silas Scott, was an engineer working to build highways in the first part of the 20th century. They moved around from Mississippi to Texas and then to Kentucky. Deese watched her mother, Alma Lee, whom she is named for, give up her career to stay at home and care for the house and children. Deese decided to follow a different pathway toward a career. She completed a double major in Psychology and Biology at Asbury College.
Uncertain of her next step, she applied to her father’s alma mater, the University of Mississippi, for graduate studies. There she worked in clinical psychology while she was in school but wanted something more personal. Shortly thereafter, she met J.W. Deese, her future husband. They were married after he finished law school and he had confirmed a job offer in Kentucky, where she wanted to live. Her mother made her wedding dress.
“Our parents never thought we would last, but the reason we did was that we were both very selfish people,” Deese said. “We took turns, we learned to take turns.”
Children were something neither of them wanted, which is another reason she notes the marriage was so successful.
“Judge”, as Deese affectionately refers to her late husband, was teaching at Bowling Green University. She took a job at one of the country’s first community mental health centers.
“This was in 1965 when president Kennedy came up with the community mental health system,” Deese said. “It was a wonderful idea except for the funding was not always available.”
After two years in Bowling Green, Judge got a job offer near Lexington, so the young couple moved and she took a job at Eastern State Hospital. Historically, the hospital had housed the mentally ill in the area. When she arrived in 1969, the hospital’s wards had opened and released patients from strict ward confinement. The change caused distress in many patients who had never been outside of the ward.
“When they opened up the wards and they [patients] disappeared, well what they were doing was going out and hiding, they didn’t know how to interact,” Deese said.
Until 1824, the state hospital was known as the Lunatic Asylum. Underneath the hospital was a labyrinth of tunnels and that’s where Deese found many escaped patients.
“So I’d go out and find them and we’d talk in the tunnels,” Deese said. “They didn’t want to talk, of course, but then they learned to relate.”
The practice became known as “tunnel group” and continued as Deese helped transition many of those patients back into the community.
“When I went there in 1969 there were a thousand patients,” Deese said. “When I left, 28 years later, there were only 320. It’s called deinstitutionalization.”
She worked hand in hand with the community mental health centers as those patients exited her care and were integrated into everyday life.
“I was the only one that did that and I had people that wouldn’t have made it otherwise,” Deese said. “I’m talking about really isolated people; they got to know me and talk to me and they didn’t want to talk to somebody else in the community so that’s what we did. That was unusual then.”
After 28 years, she and Judge retired and moved to St. Petersburg. She had collected postcards throughout her years and attended collector shows regularly. One show was searching for writers to compile past and present post card collections. Of the cities the publisher needed for historical postcard books, Deese noticed her former home of Lexington, KY. She had some hesitation having never written a book, but Deese decided this was a good place to start.
“I remember someone telling me that if you want to write, and I wanted to write, then start wherever you can,” Deese said. “After I did the book of postcards on Lexington, the publisher wrote back and asked if I’d do another one.”
That book led to four more at Arcadia publishers. All of the books were about places where she had spent part of her life: Mississippi, St. Petersburg and Kentucky.
Those books were published in black and white. After four of them, she wanted to publish some in color.
“These postcards are too pretty to be in black and white,” Deese said. “I want color.”
Deese wrote to Schiffer, the publisher of color postcard histories, about doing a book of past and present in Downtown St. Petersburg. She spoke with Raymond Hinst, whose family owns Haslam’s bookstore in St. Petersburg, to inquire about her potential publisher. Hinst confirmed the quality of the publisher. But Deese was concerned about capturing the present day location photographs. Luckily, Hinst’s background was in film.
“I had never worked on a project like this so there was plenty of trial by fire,” Hinst said.
Hinst says he was eager to help Deese get the photographs she needed for the book. That meant lots of long days in the Florida heat searching for images of the past in the present.
“At first, everywhere we went was now a parking lot,” Hinst said. “I thought, how many compelling images of asphault can I photograph?”
The book focused on a specific area of St. Petersburg but only downtown. Now Hinst and Deese are working on an extended version of their first book together which includes areas outside of St. Petersburg.
“Wynelle is always pushing ahead on a project and she is always, no matter the circumstances, incredibly positive,” Hinst said.
He and Deese share their birthday, July 4, exactly 30 years apart in age. But Hinst cautions against underestimating Deese in her older years. For Hinst, Deese is the driving force behind the project and nothing gets in the way of her accomplishing her goal.
“When she wants to talk to you, she wants to talk to you no matter what,” Hinst said with a laugh.
One week after the book signing of St. Petersburg: Past and Present, Deese’s husband passed away. Despite Judge’s rapidly declining health, Deese had never thought of them ever being apart.
“Then one day he went and laid down and never woke up which I guess I can be grateful that he went so peacefully,” Deese said.
The deadline looming for her next book, Lexington, Kentucky: Past and Present, Deese finished the pages of a book about the place where she and Judge had once spent a chapter of their lives together.
Deese pulls out a brown envelope filled with colorful vintage postcards of St. Petersburg. She holds up a small card from Sunken Gardens circa 1950. The card depicts an illustrated pinup model smiling with pin curls, perched on a ladder in the trees holding a bunch of bananas. Some of the cards have messages on them to a loved one or friend.
“Postcards are history. They are pictures worth a million words that you can’t say otherwise,” Deese said.