You will be redirected to the page you want to view in  seconds.

The Wisdom Project: Southwest Florida good fit for woman who loves shells

Jan. 13, 2013
The Wisdom Project: Anna Marie Nyquist
The Wisdom Project: Anna Marie Nyquist: Nyquist, a conchologist, says learning is key to a rich life. Video by
Anna Marie Nyquist is a conchologist "well into her 80s." She says a craving to learn and a supportive partner has helped her live a full life. / Special to

About this project

We live in a time where the border between thriving and surviving feels tenuous. For many, this is not the first time the future has felt uncertain.
About a quarter of the population in Southwest Florida is 65 years and older. That’s almost a quarter-million people who can speak from their experience. Many have survived poverty, illness or worse. This is the third story in “The Wisdom Project,” a monthly feature in The News-Press highlighting the stories of people thriving in the later stages of life. They are people who love life and have learned to appreciate it, despite valleys they have faced.
They have wisdom to share. Here is today’s dose.


A cream-colored sea serpent curled atop Anna Marie Nyquist’s curio cabinet in her Shell Point apartment.

OK, for accuracy’s sake, it was not a snake. It just looked like one to the untrained observer. Nyquist, a conchologist since the 1970s, filled in the details: it was an egg casing that could hold 15,000 baby lightning whelks, common local seashells.

She can also tell you how shells move, how they eat and why Southwest Florida has been considered the third-best shelling destination in the world.

Put simply, it’s hot.

“Like anything else,” she said. “You just want to know more and the more you know, the more you read and the more you know again and it just mushrooms into something so amazing.”

Wondering why has been key to Anna Marie’s rich life. Her advice is to be curious about the world and find a partner who buoys your passions. Her husband, George Nyquist, who died at age 90 in 2008, supported her shell-collecting habit.

“These days, they would consider me a nerd,” she said. “To live a good life or a full life, you have to keep learning.”

Anna Marie is well into her 80s but because journalists are nosy, this reporter asked for a more specific number.

“Just say old enough,” she said.

She and her husband were married 61 years.

“I got married at 12,” she joked.

Their story is less lurid and starts in a Baltimore County, Md. town.

On Easter Sunday of 1946, Anna Marie and George, a handsome World War II veteran, joined for a blind date. He brought her a corsage of white roses. Both were dating other people at the time.

But George won her mother’s approval.

Engaged three months later, they married that October.

They later took on another daunting project: starting an automotive supply business together. Anna Marie did everything from mixing paint to cleaning the toilets.

Her husband moonlighted on the side, a discovery she made only after a neighbor stuck a page from the Baltimore Sun in their mailbox. On it, she saw her husband crashing a cymbal to herald a department store sale.

(Page 2 of 2)

He went on to be featured in ads for Cape Coral homes and The Watergate Hotel with a woman who was not Anna Marie. (Yes, the Watergate.)

When their daughter and son were young, she broached the idea of family camping trips to her husband.

“Are you crazy? I spent five and a half years in the Army and you want me to sleep in a tent?” she recalled him saying.

But he came around. Over 15 years, the family visited every state in the country, apart from Alaska and Hawaii. On one such adventure, they discovered the shelling and fishing in Southwest Florida.

Her passion for collecting shells started after buying her daughter a shell identification book.

“The next thing you know, your family’s way down the beach, and you’re here picking up shells,” she said.

After their son took over the business in 1979, they bought a house on Fort Myers Beach. They spent days lingering in area bays.

“At low tide, we’d shell collect and when the tides were over, we’d fish,” she said. “That was the deal.”

Trips to the Bahamas or Costa Rica were planned around the full or new moon, when it was better for shelling.

In the early 1990s, she and her neighbor stopped by the preview center of The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel Island.

Inside, they met founding director R. Tucker Abbott.

Her friend introduced her, saying: “She knows everything about shells.”

Known as Mr. Seashell, Abbott was considered an international authority and had published the guide, “American Sea Shells.”

He suggested Anna Marie become a docent. Abbott died two weeks before the museum’s opening.

From 1995 to 2008, Anna Marie dedicated 12,000 hours to developing the museum’s group education program. She stopped volunteering once her husband became sick and died later that year.

In 2009, Anna Marie moved to Shell Point Retirement Community in south Fort Myers, where she’s a stalwart volunteer. She dedicates more than 600 hours a year to helping in the train room, the thrift store and the library.

Anna Marie is a leader among the roughly half of Shell Point’s 2,300 residents who volunteer in the community, said Melody Desilets, Shell Point’s volunteer coordinator.

Fort Myers resident Peg Bisignani laughs about wanting to be like Anna Marie when she grows up. She is 72 years old.

Her friend always seems to be a few steps ahead. They’ll visit museums and Peg will sit and rest, while Anna Marie is still engrossed in reading the exhibits.

“It’s just something that’s inside of her that has an interest in so many things and still at her age wants to learn and wants to travel, as much as she possibly can,” Bisignani said.

Thinking about life and the harbor view apartment that she loves, Anna Marie can’t complain.

But she doesn’t want to stick around too long.

“As far as living to 100, I hope I don’t,” she chuckled. “No matter how lucky you are and well you seem to be, you’re just old.”

Connect with this reporter: Janine Zeitlin News-Press (Facebook) @Janinezeitlin (Twitter).

Local Deals

Flip, shop and save on specials from your favorite retailers on Marco Island


Marco beach cam


Find local restaurants, read
and submit reviews

Celebrating the best of South Lee and North Naples


Reader Photos

Get the Hurricane Hub app

Sign up to save 50-90% off SWFL dining, shopping, spas, activities and more. Every day.