Tim Dutka, wearing his Home Depot apron and a winning smile, heads out on the circuit in his powered wheelchair, delivering returned items to the various departments. At the paint counter, he presses a button on a machine, and a resonant voice asks, "Can you please take it out of my basket?''
"Sure, Timmy,'' the attendant says, removing the supplies from the bucket and placing it back in his basket. "Here you go, buddy.''
If he sees a bewildered customer on his route through the store, he pushes another button. "What can I help you find today?''
The 42-year-old employee with cerebral palsy is known by regulars as the go-to guy when they can't find an item. He has had a lot of experience: Last Friday marked his 20th anniversary as an employee of the Carrollwood Home Depot.
"I've only been at this store for two months,'' manager Jim Burgett said, "and sometimes I've got to rely on him to show me where something's at.''
With each new milestone, Tim's mother recalled the devastating prediction doctors made when he was an infant: that he would never be able to do anything.
"He was stillborn,'' Marney Dutka said. "They resuscitated him and said there was extensive brain damage; it would be in our best interests if we just put him in an institution and leave it at that.
"I wish they could see him today.''
The proud mom called the media to celebrate the anniversary, just as she did 15 years ago, when the Times marked his fifth year on the job.
Tim had set his sights on working at Home Depot when he was a boy accompanying his father, John, on shopping trips. "He didn't want to work at any other place,'' John said. "Home Depot was just a very, very friendly store.''
Tim had no resume, so he, his mother and a job coach from the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation arrived for the Home Depot interview armed with about 100 letters of recommendation from doctors, neighbors and friends.
"We were sitting at a round table — I'll never forget it, 'cause I cried big-time that day,'' Marney said. Tim handed the letters to the human resources director, and he quietly read a number of them. "He finally put them all back in the manila envelope and said, 'Tim, I have no choice, I will lose all these people as customers if I don't give you a job today.' ''
Tim works four hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the job that was created for him. Though people who have gotten to know him can understand much of what he says, the machine, called a DynaVox, leaves no doubt. His speech therapist types in the phrases, and icons on the buttons that direct Tim to the appropriate one.
"He takes pride in working for Home Depot, which is something that you would like to instill in everybody that works for Home Depot,'' Burgett said. He noted that Tim is very conscientious. Burgett tells of the time Tim's mother was visiting him on break, and Tim reminded her that break was over; he had to go back to work.
He has become so well-known by the customers that Burgett calls him "the face of the Carrollwood Home Depot.'' People are always calling out to him at the mall or grocery, Marney said. "We have no idea who these people are.''
And he's popular with what Burgett calls his "extended family'' at Home Depot.
"He's sweet. He's a nice guy. He's happy,'' said Brenda Pace, a Home Depot colleague for 10 years. "It's really nice when you have somebody like that working here. You think your day's rough, and he comes in here every day with a smile.''
In his off hours, Tim does physical and speech therapy, and he bowls once a week under a program sponsored by Special Olympics. He loves to buy clothes and shoes with the money he makes. He paid for his specialized van with his earnings, and though he can't drive it, the vehicle's title is in his name.
Sometimes, friends take him out to eat. One of his favorite places is Hooters.
"He wants to find a wife,'' Marney said. "He's skipping the girlfriend stuff; he doesn't need that. He doesn't have time, he says. So he's looking for a wife and he knows that she is in Hawaii'' — he has seen the island paradise in movies. "His biggest dream in the world is to go to Hawaii and find that wife and bring her back here.''
To celebrate Tim's anniversary, Home Depot threw him a party in the break room. The company supplied sandwiches, chips and drinks, and Marney and John brought in two large cakes, one declaring, "20 Years and Still Rolling.'' Burgett read a handwritten card from Home Depot CEO Frank Blake, congratulating Tim and signed, "Frank.''
Tim, with fresh crewcut and familiar grin, pushes a button on his DynaVox: "Thanks so much for the opportunity.'' He presses another button: "I am looking forward to working 20 more years.'' The crowd cheers. A final button: "Time for cake.''
His brothers, joining the celebration, said they expected no less from Tim.
"For all the challenges he's gone through, he always comes out with a winning attitude and a really sharp smile that just impresses anyone,'' said younger brother Brent, 37.
"He's probably taught us more than we've taught him,'' says older brother Sean, 45. "Something as simple as patience.'' He recalls when they were kids, and Tim would ask Sean to help him put on his shoes. "Sure, Timmy,'' Sean would say, and sometimes he'd get distracted and forget. "He would sit there for 20 minutes and not ask again, just sit there and wait.''
Marney said that when Tim was born "we just prayed that he would live, and John always said, 'If he weaves baskets, that's going to be fine with me. He will do something in his life.' ''
Contact Philip Morgan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.