As he weaved between tables in the large wooden-paneled recreational room, Robert "Bobby" Nelson greeted each of his guests with a hug. Many of the women kissed his cheek. He stopped to jokingly rub the head of one balding male guest.
Nelson had just turned 55 and celebrated with "oldies" rock 'n' roll tunes, meatball subs and more than fifty of his friends at the Timber Pines Community Association lodge.
Some friends are from ceramics classes. Others live next door. Though many of them do not know one another, they all came out to celebrate the birthday of the friend they call "Bobby."
As an adult with Down syndrome, Nelson not only reached the average life expectancy for people with the syndrome, but has lived in his home independently for the past six years.
But it has not been without a little help from his friends.
"I'm getting old too," Nelson's sister, Gale McGovney, 65, said to the crowd at the party, between tears and a chuckle. "Thank you for taking such good care of him."
Thirty years ago, Nelson moved into the Pine Grove Village of Timber Pines with both his parents, Robert and Lucile Nelson.
Robert and Bobby Nelson were best buddies, McGovney said. Robert Nelson taught his son how to golf when they moved to Timber Pines and between their games and family vacations, the whole family stayed close.
"Bobby was never excluded from anything," McGovney said. "No one was ever ashamed that he had Down syndrome, which 55 years ago was unusual."
Robert Nelson always believed that his son would outlive him, said McGovney. So after Lucile Nelson died in 2001, the conversation began about what Bobby Nelson should do if Robert Nelson was to die.
Although McGovney and her sister, Roberta Touve, 72, had different ideas on what was best, McGovney said Robert Nelson felt his son could function on his own.
In the end, they asked Bobby Nelson to make the final decision to either live in his home or move in with one of his sisters.
He wanted to stay.
Today, Nelson keeps a strict schedule. Water aerobics twice a week. Ceramics once a week. He has even bowled every Sunday for the past 30 years.
Though he is visited by an in-home support coach a few times a week, Nelson is usually on his own.
His house, decorated with photos, Chicago Cubs and Navy memorabilia, is always dusted, vacuumed and mopped. Nelson has been routinely cleaning the house since before his parents deaths, but now also cooks for himself.
Nelson refused the idea of a roommate and even though his sisters keep in touch every day, they live in different villages.
His neighbors, on the other hand, see Nelson regularly.
Every morning, he begins his walk around his village with his ears plugged into his portable CD player. As he walks the neighborhood seven times, he dances to YMCA by the Village People, his favorite song.
At a cloth covered round table, about seven of Nelson's neighbors remember trips to Pine Island and parties under their carports.
"Sometimes we check up on him, but mostly he actually checks up on us," said a neighbor, Bev Berger, 69.
Nelson is a regular at village activities. He bakes deserts for beach picnics and neighbors make sure that he gets to and from the events safely.
"He's a wonderful guy. When you're getting older it's really heartwarming to see some one enjoy life," Liz Bennett, 78, said.
But the transition to an independent life came with challenges McGovney said.
Adjusting to sleeping in his parent's former room took time and when Nelson first came home after his father's death he slept with all the house lights on.
But his independence still amazed his sister.
"It was a surprise that he was so comfortable," McGovney said. "He's resilient."
After the party, McGovney said many of Nelson's birthday cards read the same message: "You are a great neighbor and you make me smile."
A day later, Nelson sat on the corner of his plush living room couch. A scrapbook of photos and mementos of sporting events and trips to the Midwest rest in the Florida room, while his bowling trophies line the inside of his bedroom shelf.
"Do you like living here?" McGovney asked.
"I love living here," he said. "The memories."
Laura Herrera can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6114.