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Car dealer manager lives on roof to raise money for families of fallen officers

CLEARWATER — Jim Surrett doesn't like to be cooped up. The general manager of Lokey Nissan and Volkswagen on U.S. 19 walks the car lots daily, zipping in and out of his office building. He calls himself hyperactive.

But for a good cause, he's staying put for 30 days, eating, sleeping and working in a highly confined area: Lokey's rooftop.

Surrett's vigil is Lokey Charities Roof Raiser, a monthlong fundraiser for the families of three slain St. Petersburg policemen. After Sgt. Thomas Baitinger and Officers Jeffrey Yaslowitz and David Crawford were killed in the line of duty in January and February, the auto dealership was moved to act.

"A woman in accounting's husband is a St. Petersburg police officer who was good friends with Officer Yaslowitz," said Surrett. "We sold shirts to raise money, but wanted to make a bigger impact."

So, for each car sold in April, Lokey is contributing $500 in the name of the person who buys the car. Donations of any amount are also welcome.

Surrett's stint on the roof began April 4 (slightly delayed due to tornadoes at the beginning of April) and will end May 2. The goal is to raise $150,000 in a month for the officers' widows and children. So far, they've raised slightly over $50,000.

"This isn't about selling cars," said Surrett, 43, of Indian Rocks Beach. "We're urging people, even if they don't buy a car here, to request their dealership make a donation to the fund."

Though Surrett is confined, he isn't lounging. He uses a cell phone and laptop to do his work with the sky overhead and the roof underfoot.

It's hot. The highest recorded temperature on the gravel and asphalt roof so far is 124 degrees — enough to destroy several pairs of flip-flops already, Surrett said.

Fortunately, he has a canopy and an umbrella to shield him from sun and rain. Chairs and a table are his workspace. He has a portable toilet. An orange net barrier runs along the roof's perimeter — a reminder of where not to walk when he gets antsy.

At night, Surrett climbs onto a mattress cut to fit into a 12-foot by 4-foot air-conditioned booth that's draped with the fallen officers' names.

"The only time I feel sorry for him is at night," said dealership employee Jane Williams of Largo.

But Surrett has found ways to have fun. He can smoke cigars on the roof without offending anyone. His family came up to the roof to celebrate his birthday with a cake and candles earlier this month. But he gets the biggest kick out of using a slingshot to lob water balloons at Lokey employees on the ground. He can even shoot them 130 yards into the dealership next door.

And he uses a bullhorn to stay in touch with his staff during work hours, bellowing, "Hey, did we make that deal?"

Being perched on the roof has given him a unique perspective on his business. He's studying the layout of the car lot and has new insights into the ways customers and staff interact on the property.

Once a day, Surrett comes down. He goes home at 6:30 a.m. to drive his daughters — Sophia, 9, and Jodi, 7 — to Country Day School in Largo. Then he showers and heads back to his rooftop office.

He said he misses his family and air conditioning, but he wanted to make the sacrifice to help the officers' families and to show his daughters that everyone can find a way to help people in need.

Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m., the dealership will host a picnic for St. Petersburg police officers and their families. Surrett said members of the public are welcome to stop by, too.

Anyone can watch the rooftop day or night on a webcam at www.LokeyRoofRaiser.com.

"Words can't express how proud I am of my husband for what he's doing," said Debi Surrett. "We miss him, but we're 100 percent behind him."

Times photojournalist Doug Clifford contributed to this report.

>>Fast facts

How to help

Donations of any amount can be made through any Chase Bank to the Lokey Charities Fallen Officers' Fund, account 3949933097. To view a tally of funds raised or to follow Surrett via webcam, go online to www.LokeyRoofRaiser.com

Car dealer manager lives on roof to raise money for families of fallen officers 04/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 15, 2011 9:07pm]

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