Tracy Jackson’s advocacy for Siesta Key fueled by cancer battle, community love
By Hannah Wallace
“The thing that people don’t understand about Siesta Key life,” said Tracy Jackson from her home on Sandy Beach Avenue, “is that this is a small-town neighborhood. We all love each other. We all care for each other. And we care for our island.
“Maybe it’s the crystal sand that permeates everything.”
Jackson’s passion for the Key has recently found the spotlight. She began to gain attention last year as one of the leaders of Save Siesta Key, the latest push for Siesta’s incorporation. But Jackson’s public passion stems in part from her personal experiences with cancer — and the people who were there to help her through.
Jackson, now 52, first moved to Siesta eight years ago, but her roots here go back much earlier. Her father and stepmother fell in love on Siesta Key Beach. During periodic vacations to visit them, Jackson, who grew up with her mother and stepfather in Illinois, fell in love with the island’s tight-knit feel.
“It doesn’t matter if you live in Siesta Cove or Sandy Beach, this is a kind of Midwest community,” she said.
In her pre-Siesta life, Jackson was married and divorced before moving to Las Vegas to establish a successful career in the medical field. “As a Midwesterner who moved to a place where everything is legal, and you have a Midwestern work ethic, you can really rise to the top (in Vegas),” she said.
In 2014, a friend gave her a professional opportunity in Florida. She thought the cross-country migration could be incorporated into her two-year plan; the friend told her they couldn’t wait that long. Within three weeks, Jackson had established her new home on Siesta Key.
She took full advantage of the island lifestyle, taking walks and swimming daily in the gulf with her beloved dog Chancellor, whom she called “the first love of my life.”
In 2018, a mutual friend introduced her to a man who would become the second love of her life, Emmett Bonamarte. The burgeoning couple were soon commuting back and forth between Siesta Key and Bonamarte’s home in Naples.
“She’s the most loving, nicest person I’ve ever met,” said Bonamarte. “She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.”
But just as the relationship was blossoming, Chancellor was diagnosed with lung cancer. Three months later, Jackson learned that she herself had triple-positive breast cancer. It was the same diagnosis her mother had battled 10 years earlier.
Jackson had received the phone call from the doctor while she was in the car, on her way to visit Bonamarte. She walked into his house and immediately called her mother.
“Obviously, cancer is a humbling experience,” Jackson said. “But my mom is probably one of the most supporting forces in my whole life. I get all of my strength from her.”
Jackson then gave Bonamarte permission to take a step back from the relationship. “This isn’t what you bought into,” she told him. “We can reconvene when I’m all done with this. My mother is my playbook.”
He responded, “I’m not going anywhere. This is just a bump in the road.”
During more than a year of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Jackson’s innate positivity never wavered, said Bonamarte. In fact, she found herself in search of a new purpose.
“I was convinced if I got out and did something, I would feel better,” she said.
Jackson first helped to build and market an online platform highlighting Siesta Key businesses, which often suffered most during red tide outbreaks and other natural disasters. Then she learned about Save Our Siesta Sand 2, a Big Pass advocacy group. Whenever she was able to clear “the fog of chemo,” she sat down with other locals who were concerned about Siesta Key’s fate.
She spent two hours at the Siesta Key Oyster Bar listening to John Davidson, who told her about the push for Siesta Key’s incorporation in the ‘90s. The seeds for Save Siesta Key were sown.
She bounced ideas off of Mark Spiegel, president for the Siesta Key Coalition. A board began to take shape.
“We, like many others, had had the same experience: We had fallen in love with the island. We wanted to live here,” she said.
Chancellor finally lost his battle with cancer on Dec. 29, 2019 — less than a month before Jackson’s final radiation treatment. Her voice still cracks at his memory. “We went through cancer together,” she said.
Since then, it seems, no obstacle is insurmountable. Jackson led a Save Siesta Key march just two days before undergoing meniscus surgery on both knees. The day after surgery, she was one of the last people to speak at a vital town hall meeting.
“I went. I was miserable,” she laughed. “My pain was at an 11. But I wanted to thank people for showing up.”
The failure to advance incorporation to the state legislature (the result of a Jan. 4 Sarasota County Legislative Delegation vote) was just one more bump in Jackson’s journey, as far as she’s concerned. And while others say it’s Jackson’s innate positivity and resilience that fuel any cause she puts her mind to, she credits the ongoing outpouring of support from the community for keeping her as inspired as ever.
“I never wanted to be the face of this movement. It just kind of happened that way. It’s so moving and humbling,” she said. “I’ve had a great life story, and this is a highlight of it.”