(Editor’s Note: The Florida Keys & Key West lost a very good friend in July 2014 with the passing of Peter Anderson after a courageous battle with cancer. In recognition of his dedicated efforts to make the Keys and the Conch Republic a better place, and promote their offbeat spirit and character, we share this profile written four months before his death.)
“I came down to Key West on a Tuesday night in early April 1984 in my old Cadillac El Dorado with red leather seats, my clothes packed away and a couple grand in my pocket,” said Peter Anderson.
While this may sound like a relatively ordinary “moving to the Florida Keys” story, in reality there’s nothing ordinary about Peter OR his story.
“As the world’s first ‘fifth world’ country, we exist as a ‘state of mind’ and aspire only to bring more warmth, humor and respect to a planet we find in sore need of all three,” he explained.
The Conch Republic, the Keys’ quirky alter ego, was established in 1982 to protest the installation of a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint that stopped traffic at the top of the Overseas Highway — the only road in and out of the Keys.
Because the federal government was treating the island chain like a foreign country, local leaders decided it would become one.
They staged a ceremony seceding from the United States, raised a quickly-constructed Conch Republic flag, declared “war” on the mother country, carried it out by pelting federal agents with stale Cuban bread, and surrendered after 60 seconds.
Not surprisingly, the action attracted international attention. The first Conch Republic Independence Celebration, commemorating the gutsy secession, was organized in 1983.
“We celebrate our independence annually in a public and notorious manner,” said Peter.
The 10-day festival is held in April every year and consists of events including a “drag race” for drag queens, a naval parade and battle, and a bed race (yes, really!) along Key West’s Duval Street.
Peter himself was the driving force that ensured the Keys would continue to hold the fun-filled independence celebration.
In 1990, there was talk of the event’s eighth year being the last. Peter believed the Keys’ independence deserved annual commemoration, and came together with Key West movers and shakers to continue the wacky festival.
“I actually decided to take the job seriously, and now we’re here 25 years later,” Peter stated.
It’s safe to say that being secretary general of the Conch Republic is a one-of-a-kind job. Peter has far exceeded people’s expectations, working to have the republic recognized as its own nation and respected by members of the world community.
With a reminiscent chuckle, he said one of his favorite memories was “crashing” the Summit of the Americas in 1994. He fought to have the Conch Republic represented as an actual country of the Americas — and succeeded, gaining global attention and respect.
Peter has received praise from many world leaders for his diligence in advancing the “islands nation” over the years. The Conch Republic even issues citizen and diplomat passports, giving people the chance to gain “dual citizenship” as residents of their own country and honorary inhabitants of the republic.
More than his dedication and hard work, however, his undying love and admiration for the Conch Republic is what makes Peter Anderson so extraordinary.
“Every single day as secretary general is special, whether it’s greeting foreign ships or meeting the everyday people that want to join our tiny nation,” he said. “I love my job, I love this community, and I love the spirit that formed the Conch Republic, which is alive and well today.”