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Over Coffee

Some Life Changes Are Just Meant to Be
Nov 20, 2008 - 8:19:18 AM

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Sitting with a steaming latte at Panera Bread in Riverview, Jack Eckert talked excitedly about the things he’s discovering as he re-examines his life. Lately, the 56-year-old Ruskin resident has been closing doors on things he’s outgrown and seeking new paths to follow. And, as he trains for a new position he feels he’s spent his whole life preparing for, he’s also delving into his past, reconnecting with people who meant a lot to him in his youth.
Jack Eckert of Ruskin is turning his passion for volunteering into a brand new career. Penny Fletcter Photo

“This is such an exciting, emotional time,” he said as we sat in a booth near two large families that were laughing and talking as they ate late breakfasts. Because he seemed amazed I could hear him over all the noise, I explained that after raising five children and a granddaughter who’s now 11, I could interview and write in New York City’s Grand Central Station without missing a beat. But for the sake of his concentration, we changed booths and his story began to unfold.

Now it was my turn to be amazed, as I have been so many times lately by the evolution and creativity of the many South County residents with whom I’ve shared countless cups of coffee in dozens of local coffee shops, cafes and restaurants. Recently, I’ve  listened to many fascinating tales about resident’s “past” lives and how they’ve progressed, fallen, gotten up, gone into new fields, and more times than not, soared to heights they’d never dreamed possible.

Jack’s story began with growing up in Baltimore, the oldest of three children, where he helped raise his siblings so his single mom, a nurse, could work. His early jobs took him from life-guarding to swimming pool management to math teacher and sports coach, and eventually the basketball and track teams he coached won top positions in State Finals.

After teaching and coaching in both public and private schools, he worked in outside sales and relationship-building for large packaging companies, which took him from Maryland to Illinois to Atlanta and finally Florida, where he and his wife, Fran, who works for Oracle software company, decided to stay.

At first, they set up housekeeping in Tampa and became heavily involved in church work along with their jobs. During this period, Jack was selling packaging products traveling from Naples to Jacksonville and passing through South County often.
“We were very involved in church. Fran had a position on the board and I was doing work with charitable organizations and through what appeared to be a series of coincidences, I discovered, and started attending, Calvary Lutheran Church (in Apollo Beach),” he said. “The people there were doing just the kind of charitable work we were into, and wanted to become more involved with. I started attending there on Sundays and it wasn’t long before Fran was accompanying me on the 40-mile drive down here every week. Then we moved.”

After becoming Ruskin residents in 2005, the couple became even more active in the church –“my wife sings and acts”- he said; and he and his golfing buddy, the late Jeff Carter, and several others began a Bible study group at SaVa café during the week.

“Our pastor, Jack Palzer, is very inspirational,” he said. “I ended up working on a men’s barbecue, working on the church’s Christmas in July (a program to benefit the local Mary & Martha House shelter), and got on the HUD task force to examine the possibility of low-income senior housing on our new church property.”
Even while he was involved with all these pursuits, he said it seemed like voices from the past were calling to him.

“I started looking up people I went to high school and college with, people I hadn’t seen in 30 years. I’d be going through a box of pictures and see a face and just pick up the phone and dial until I located them,” he said.

Many of the old friends he contacted – especially from when he was working in private, religious schools– held jobs in the private sector working with nonprofit companies and churches. “I was beginning to feel I should be doing something with nonprofits myself,” he said.

Staying aware and seeking a sign, he began to attend groups like the Association of Fundraising Professionals that trains people to work in organizations like the Red Cross, United Way and for denominational causes.

Right about that time he found out that the couple who had taken him under their wing as a child was now living in Sun City Center.

“My mother worked all the time and these people were like the parents I never had,” he said. “Their son Doug was my best friend and I’d go over there and they’d always ask if I wanted to stay for dinner. His dad was my scoutmaster.”

It took him awhile to decide if he should call first or just surprise them. Then one day he  went unannounced to the home of Sun City Center residents Howard “Kit” and Dottie Carstens.

“They couldn’t believe it. They were so surprised. I told them how much the things they had done meant to me - playing with their dog, eating the best tollhouse cookies ever, just being able to be there with them,” he said. “I told them if they ever needed anything at all I would be here for them like they were there for me. This whole thing is very emotional for me,” he said.

Shortly after finding his childhood mentors, Jack’s company downsized and he received a layoff slip.

“Right away I enrolled in a program at USF that teaches nonprofit management,” he said. “I knew by then that this was exactly where I was supposed to be.”
The program offers eight courses and to graduate, a person must take six of those courses in two years. But because of the downsizing, Jack has the time to take them all in three months.

“I’ve never been happier,” he said. “I know I’m doing what I should be doing.” He says he is very fortunate his wife backs his decision. “We’ve always just seen a need and filled it when possible. But never in any official position. Now though, I’m thinking along the lines of getting into nonprofit work because it’s what I love to do most. I’ve loved to volunteer since I was an Eagle Scout. To think I could do some of the same things in a paid position seems like a dream job.”

Jack now has only one more class to go and is updating his resume. The man who moved from Baltimore to Kankakee, Ill., to Atlanta to Tampa says he has found a home in Ruskin.

He credits Pastor Palzer and the members of Calvary Lutheran Church for the sense of “place” he feels here. And having his childhood mentors as friends makes this new juncture in his life especially sweet..

*Perhaps you have something you’d like to share. Or maybe you’d rather tell the community about your favorite charity or cause: or sound off about something you think needs change. That’s what “Over Coffee” is about. It really doesn’t matter whether we actually drink any coffee or not (although I probably will). It’s what you have to say that’s important. E-mail me any time and suggest a meeting place. No matter what’s going on, I’m usually available to share just one more cup.

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