Bettye Chaplin: Success grew from deep roots

rmccarthy@keynoter.comJuly 13, 2008 

Marathon’s Bettye Chaplin says her success in the real estate business can likely be traced back to the impact a famous scene in the classic 1939 movie “Gone With the Wind” had on her mother, Lida Bateman.

The scene revolves around a starving protagonist, Scarlett

O’ Hara, who pulls a carrot from the earth in search of food and proclaims, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

“My mother used to say, ‘Do you see carrots floating around anywhere.’ I said ‘No,’” Chaplin recalled. “She said, ‘Everybody has to have a place to live and every carrot has to have a place to grow.’ That movie, she said, changed her life.”

Chaplin said that belief led Lida and husband, Brooks, to build a 27-room home on a 30-acre lot known as Paraiso Estates in Marathon, which eventually became the Seascape Motel. They later bought another subdivision between 80th and 83rd streets.

“She built it because she had gone through the Depression and her attitude was I’m going to build a real nice house, but if times get tough I’m going to rent those apartments out,” she said. “My mother was the driving force and the reason our family was successful. She had good advisors and friends, but she understood the equation as a young woman.”

Chaplin and husband, Jim, who also grew up in a heavily real estate-influenced home, eventually paired to create Chaplin Real Estate. Jim’s parents Delbert and Celie Chaplin built the original Sea Dell Motel in Marathon.

But life in the Keys for Chaplin began just offshore of Marathon on Pigeon Key, an island used to house workers building and maintaining Flagler’s railroad and the Overseas Highway in the early and middle 1900s.

Brooks was appointed manager of the road and toll bridge district in Marathon in 1949, when she was just four years old. She recalls the days when “anything north of 37th Street was considered out of town.”

“The first building you see (on the island) used to be a mess hall, offices and kitchen. Early in the morning they’d ring a big bell and everyone would eat and then they’d put them on a bus and they’d go paint the Bahia Honda Bridge or work on the Seven Mile Bridge,” Chaplin said.

Chaplin said when she started first grade at Sue Moore School, on land now owned by the state Department of Transportation, there were just 75 students from the first through the eighth grade. Land that later became Stanley Switlik Elementary School was used as a ball field by workers and their families.

Chaplin was in just the fifth graduating class at Marathon High School in 1962, made up of 33 students. The first class in 1958 had 12 graduates, she said.

“MHS had almost a magic and a mystique...it was a great place,” Chaplin said, recalling basketball games played outside because the school had no gymnasium. “The MHS band had 120 members. If you weren’t in the band you were nobody.”

Chaplin also endured Hurricane Donna in 1960 — the last major hurricane to hit the Keys — while at Marathon High. She said students missed up to three weeks of class and were forced to come in on Saturdays to meet state attendance requirements.

“A lot of families just all of a sudden weren’t there. I’d venture to say a third of the students after Hurricane Donna were gone,” she said. “Almost like in the middle of the night and never came back again.”

Back then, Chaplin said, teachers “ruled the roost.” But it was longtime principal Katherine Gradick who Chaplin says influenced her and so many other students at Marathon High School.

“It is absolutely astonishing when you start talking about who’s who and who’s done what, Katherine Gradick always comes to the top. She was a perfect indication of the first pioneer, spirited people who formed the basis and the foundation for Marathon,” she said.

After college on the mainland, Bettye and Jim eventually married and moved back to the Keys. Jim opened what remains to this day Chaplin Real Estate, while Bettye ran a hair salon for 10 years before joining the firm as an agent.

“Jim and I invested in real estate every time we could scrape money together. He would either build on it or we’d trade it for something else,” she said. “I still feel real estate is the best investment. Things get out of hand sometimes, but they always come back to center.”

Chaplin says she still has faith in what has been a struggling real estate market of late, as evidenced by the family committing some $2 million to build Chappy’s, a Knights Key restaurant it’s taken more than 10 years to get the go ahead for. They plan on opening the open-air eatery early next year.

“If that’s not faith in the opportunity in the Keys, I don’t know what is. Because we could certainly take that money and do something else with it,” she said. “Down here you can work and have so much fun. People can make more other places; when they come here they understand they’ll be making a concession, but enjoy what they do.”

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