If I look familiar, you may have read James Combs’ Pulitzer-worthy profile about me in Style’s October issue. If not, I’ll share that I was raised in Maitland and later lived in Orlando. But in 1992 when I learned that most accidents happen within two miles of home, I convinced my wife we’d be safer by moving 30 miles north.
In some ways, coming to Lake County was like coming home. My lasting memories of youth included playing in orange groves, hiking through forests, swimming in creeks, sailing on lakes, and going to bed with an open book, as well as an open window (just to hear the lullaby of a train whistle’s high and lonesome call sailing across the night).
Similar memories met me in Lake County. Once again, I saw a downtown hardware store and people riding bicycles. There was a two-man railroad crew who would park their one-car locomotive in the center of Mount Dora so they could step off and grab a morning coffee from a village restaurant. I never knew a postman until ours knocked on the door to welcome us to his route. A nearby grove reminded me orange blossoms are more enchanting than the fragrance of any perfume. In the wake of Orlando, Lake County was refreshingly simple, friendly, and casual.
Twenty-two years later, things have changed — but not that much. What remains the same is a strong sense of community created by ordinary people in ordinary situations.
For instance, on any given day each table and booth at Mount Dora Pizza is filled with landscapers, lawyers, soccer moms, seniors, work crews, mechanics, salesmen, politicians, firefighters, cops, kids, and families. Behind the counter, a half-dozen cooks race through orders while floor servers dodge around customers and each other, and a lone cashier juggles a ringing phone, cash, credit cards, and carry-out orders.
In this small restaurant in a nearly vacant strip mall in this small American town, this scene has been replayed each day for more than 30 years. It reminds me of George Bailey’s building and loan in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” His may not be the largest or most profitable business, but it’s an integral part of Bedford Falls. While here, I think of the thousands of people that have been touched by its presence. I think of the customers, employees and their families that are connected to this place. Ultimately, I picture manager Joe Folgore as Mount Dora’s own good ol’ George Bailey — the richest man in town.
Recently at the Bay Street Theatre in Eustis, it seemed performers in the children’s theatre production of “Annie Jr.” rivaled the number of family members filling every seat. But what made this amateur musical memorable was watching kids of every color and size and ability working together. Regardless of his or her range of talent or the color of his or her skin, every child on that stage had committed itself to memorizing every line and lyric. Most likely, the children accomplished this with the help of caring family members who are also of every color, size, and ability. And after those kids had rehearsed each dance step on stage and again at home, the lights went up as they fought the butterflies and sang and danced for themselves and their families and their fellow performers. So on this one weekend in a small theatre in this small American town, they were in the spotlight — most unaware that their larger role was in their contribution to that much-valued sense of community.
And so it goes: Ordinary people in ordinary situations collectively creating a sense of public good. And they are not alone. Throughout Lake County, caregivers aid those in need, neighbors help neighbors, and teachers, coaches, and mentors are pitching in, too. Citizens donate their time to assist food banks, churches, and charities. For the benefit of the public, volunteers devote time to an endless calendar of festivals, events, and activities. Goodness surrounds us and chances are you’re a part of it.
It was nice to meet you. See you next month.