Four Generations of iconic key women: Matriarch Joan McCaughan takes life in stride…day by day

There is an elegant quiet grace about Joan McCaughan…a kind attention and sincerity of being that perhaps is simply the essence of the natural beauty an authentic woman carries within and confidently, effortlessly, expresses.

This monthly series of tribute stories on local women for Women’s History Month would be incomplete without an attempt to profile one of Key Biscayne’s most iconic women.

Joan was born and raised in Coral Gables after her parents moved down to Florida from New York to continue her father’s work in the south with Investors Diversified Services in the early 1950’s. One of his first projects was to collaborate with the Mackle Brothers to finance the building of the historic Key Biscayne homes.

Her career led her to Washington DC where she worked for a federal mortgage company. In 1978 she came back with her three young daughters--Melissa, Jamie, and Eileen--to join her parents on the island.

Her folks were empty nesters by then and had sold their home on South Greenway Drive for a condominium in the recently built Casa del Mar; a project her father helped finance.

“Looking back it was a wonderful place for the girls to grow up,” said Joan.

“They rode their bikes or walked to school, my brother lived on the key. We were surrounded by family and friends.”

The love and support of her community helped Joan get through the tragic car collision that took the life of her 15 year old daughter Eileen in December of 1988.

A drunk driver who had apparently just drank a bottle of vodka got in his car and thinking he was heading home, drove the wrong way right onto the causeway. He hit Eileen and her friends head on.

“The other two girls were injured and are fine today but Eileen was killed,” said Joan.

“They airlifted her to Jackson Memorial Trauma Center where she died. A friend of mine, Ann Faunce, drove me to Jackson but by the time I got there she had passed away.”

Thirty years later The Eileen McCaughan Memorial Scholarship Fund has raised approximately half a million dollars for about 200 scholarships.

The philanthropy flourishes as a living legacy to the young vibrant soccer player and International Baccalaureate Coral Gables High School freshman who was so well-loved that the services held at St. Agnes Catholic Church following her loss were inadequate to contain the number of mourners.

The Annual Eileen McCaughan Memorial Scholarship Pasta Dinner is a celebration-of-life island tradition every spring. This year’s date is Sunday, April 28.

“We have given scholarships in her name to so many deserving kids who qualify for assistance,” said Joan. “Some have become doctors, lawyers, you name it…and some we still here from which is wonderful.”

Daughters Melissa McCaughan White and Jamie McCaughan Tompkins are following their mother’s lead as the new generation of family women icons.

Melissa has been serving as executive director of the Key Biscayne Community Foundation for almost ten years, and Jamie joined the family real estate business. The stellar realtors work together at the Coldwell Banker Key Biscayne office with Joan’s life partner Carlos Mandiola.

Joan said it took her years to find joy again in life but she did.

“It took a long time to accept that it happened…five years for me at least, plain accepting. Then you incorporate it into your spirit, swallow, and keep going.”

“Life is difficult, honestly. And the sooner you accept that life is difficult, the easier it becomes,” said Joan.

“You go forward. Some days you don’t want to. But you go on and happiness does come back. We don’t forget Eileen ever, nobody ever does but the truth of the matter is you don’t become a victim.”

She said she feels so blessed and grateful that her daughters came back to the key after college to raise their families here. (Melissa attended Virginia Tech and Jamie the University of Notre Dame).

Joan, (or Jo-Jo as the grandkids call her) is grandmother to five. Melissa and Taylor’s three kids; Caitlyn, Avery, and Johnny, and Jamie and Will’s daughters; Bella and Tori.

She clearly instilled in her daughters a strength of determination to persevere and succeed notwithstanding life’s inevitable hardships.

“Honestly it just takes constant hard work. Some days it works out well, some days you put your head down and keep going. There is no way around hard work. Luck is being prepared and it comes your way if you are ready.”

As far as what is ahead for her, Joan said she doesn’t plan ahead so much.

“I go day by day, having my family and Carlos around me…one step at a time…and I enjoy the moment.”