Even though James Ponce retired from the hotel business 30 years ago, he still shows up to The Breakers in Palm Beach every Tuesday to conduct a riveting walking tour for guests. Ponce, who turned 95 in July, is the official historian of the Florida resort and a living legend in the Palm Beach community.
The nonagenarian, who grew up in St. Augustine, can trace his ancestry back to Juan Ponce de Leon’s brother. He also is a descendent of the Solano family, one of the earliest Spanish settlers to come to America. Ponce’s passion for history began in high school, when he read about the day Andrew Jackson’s American forces took possession of the fort at St. Augustine. Ponce memorized all of the events of that battle and, after school, he re-enacted the entire victory.
Ponce began his career in the hotel industry while still in high school, working for the St. George Hotel during the summer between his junior and senior year. After finishing school, Ponce served with the United States Navy in World War II, but knew that he would eventually return to a career in hospitality.
“I was born and raised in a funeral home,” says Ponce, whose father worked as an undertaker in St. Augustine. “But after World War II, I didn’t want to go back to that business.”
After a few stints with hotels in New York, and service in the Korean War, Ponce was hired as a room clerk for The Breakers in 1952. He continued his career in Palm Beach as executive assistant manager for The Colony for 10 years and then moved on to become the manager of the Brazilian Court for five years. In 1977, Ponce returned to The Breakers as one of the hotel’s assistant managers until he retired in 1982.
“When I retired, I was temporarily going to fill in for the activities director when she went on a long sabbatical,” says Ponce. While she was out, he was asked to take over the hotel tour for a few weeks. “The general manager [liked] my tours, and my six weeks turned into 30 years.”
Ponce peppers his tours with history of the hotel and the Palm Beach area, particularly facts relating to Henry Flagler, the railroad tycoon and hotel developer who built the first rendition of The Breakers in 1896. Flagler played a huge role in Ponce’s hometown of St. Augustine and greatly contributed to the success and growth of Palm Beach as a resort destination. To this day, Ponce has a fascination with Flagler and often does a rousing impersonation of the Florida icon.
“It’s unbelievable that Flagler built a hotel with as many accommodations as we have today out here in the middle of the wilderness,” he says.
Ponce doesn’t take his duties as the resort historian lightly. Giving tours of the hotel remains one of the highlights of his post-career life.
“I have a garden, but how much time can you really spend in the garden? I don’t play golf or tennis and I hate fishing,” Ponce says. “Even though I’m 95, I still look forward to doing the tour of The Breakers. I always say if I can light a little spark in someone, I’ve accomplished something.”
To celebrate the man who continues to live and breathe the history of The Breakers, the staff held a big party for Ponce’s 95th birthday. Ponce says he plans to give walking tours of the resort as long as his health allows and hopes to reach another milestone with the property.
“The people at The Breakers treat me like a prince,” Ponce says. “My 80th birthday was celebrated in the Gold Room, my 90th was held in the Magnolia Room. I don’t know what they’re going to do for my 100th birthday. All I have to do is get there.”