PUNTA GORDA — They beetle out in golf carts to greet you in the parking lot, take you wherever you want to go, give newbies a free tour, keep an eye on the Village itself, even snap a picture of you and the family.

They have warm personalities, twinkling eyes and the firm conviction that they’ve got the sweetest gig in the world.

Whether you need a cart ride, take one anyway. Spend a few minutes talking with these first folks you meet at Fishermen’s Village, and your visit will be enriched.

Many were first responders before they retired, so every member of the security team has more than a few stories to tell and is prepared to take excellent care of you.

And security manager Jeff Keegan is about as square-shouldered, good-hearted a boss as they could ask for.

He doesn’t talk much about his 24 years as a Connecticut state trooper, saying simply, “You do what you have to do.”

He does that here, too, but the last three years at Fishermen’s Village have been a quieter life for Keegan and his wife, Lucy. He’s grown a salt-and-pepper beard that he didn’t have in the force, and she works at The Sand Pebble.

“This is just what I was hoping for,” he chuckled. “How can you not love this place?”

Jeff now manages 27 uniformed staff, including those manning the front gate, a dozen cart drivers and the security officers who walk the mall. He walks the property himself, making sure things are safe and everybody’s enjoying themselves.

He smiles more these days but still takes his job seriously.

A genial crew of cart drivers wearing tropical shirts works three overlapping shifts, between 9:30 a.m. and 10 p.m. You’ll usually see two of them at a time, coming and going, trading gentle gibes as they pass each other. To summon one, just call 941-456-3883 from anywhere on the Village property.

As driver Ace Hart says, “We’re not just cart drivers.”

Among them are:

• An officially commended Massachusetts fire department lieutenant who took up the bagpipes just before retiring.

• A retired nurse who farmed 120 acres in southern Indiana and now bakes Christmas cookies for the security crew.

• An East St. Louis chief deputy coroner who ran a joint called Ace’s Cow Shed Lounge in the 1960s, commissioned a conversation-piece still from a Prohibition-era manufacturer for the Illinois mob, encountered crime scenes that he’d rather forget, and now pilots a Charlotte County Sheriff’s patrol boat, his 44-foot yacht What-A-Pair and, once a week, a Fishermen’s Village golf cart.

Though it sounds like the pseudonym of a Mississippi gambler, Ace Hart’s name is as real as his Uncle Acel, for whom he was named. It seems to suit him.

When Ace and his wife, Patti, retired, it wasn’t long before she was singing the old retirement refrain, “If you don’t find something to do, we’re going to kill each other.”

“This was the best thing I ever did,” he said. “Fishermen’s Village isn’t like a job. It’s a family, from management down to us cart drivers and groundskeepers.”

After serving 26 years as chief deputy coroner for the notoriously violent St. Clair County, Illinois, he finds cart driver a far pleasanter job.

“Every day was death,” he recalled. “A chief deputy is the same as the coroner, except he’s the one on the scene, sometimes at 2 in the morning. My partner and I handled a case where 11 children died in an East St. Louis apartment fire while the mother was out partying.”

The beginning of the end of his career came in 2006, with an even worse case that made nationwide news. He left the dinner table one night to confirm a full-term stillborn baby. Soon the case became a horrific tabloid drama of a woman who’d cut out her friend’s unborn child, left her to die and also killed the mother’s three children.

“I had children and grandchildren, now I even have great-grandchildren,” Ace murmured. “I just couldn’t do it anymore and started the wheels of retirement.”

Those wheels carried him to Fishermen’s Village, where, he says, “I love it. And I don’t look back.”

Prairie Piercefield is one of three women piloting Village golf carts—no challenge for a girl who once drove a tractor on her Indiana farm.

A retired nurse from southern Indiana, she and her husband at first bought a house out in the Punta Gorda Ranchettes.

For a while, she filled retirement with painting her own and about 20 other people’s houses, inside and out. But it wasn’t quite enough for someone who’d been used to constant close contact with people. Moving to the isolated Ranchettes made it so hard to meet neighbors that Piercefield resorted to tooling around in a golf cart.

It turned out to be valuable experience.

When she mentioned to a friend that she needed something more to do, she learned that an extra cart driver was needed for the busy Fishermen’s Village Christmas season.

As other opportunities arose, Piercefield kept on chirping, “I’ll do it,” and has been driving a cart three days a week ever since.

Don Hussey had a 37-year career as a firefighter in Rockland, Massachusetts, where his father had been a police officer. He was instead drawn to firefighting because, as he put it, “I liked being outdoors, and you have to be a little crazy to run into a burning building.”

He won a Massachusetts state Medal of Valor for saving a wheelchair-bound woman from the second floor of a burning building.

“Any one of us would’ve done it. I just happened to be there,” he said.

He doesn’t run into burning buildings anymore, but his three years’ cart driving have gotten him out of the house and given him plenty of time outdoors. And he’s part of a security team well prepared to help anyone and handle any situation.

“As a firefighter, it’s always in your blood,” he said.

According to Jeff Keegan, “We all try to make this a friendly, safe place for people who come to visit and expect to have fun. We deal with shoplifters, get an Uber or taxi for folks who’ve had too much to drink, handle medical issues. We dispatch the fire and police departments, and we’re trained in CPR. We’ve used our AED defibrillator a few times.”

They might have saved a life or two. But, just as important, they’ve made the day brighter for thousands.


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