SUN CITY CENTER — Deputy Rob Thornton cruises around a quiet neighborhood, and somebody waves from across the street. He walks out of a pizza joint, and a couple of white-haired women stop him to chat. A man stops by his office "just to visit," he tells Thornton with a handshake.
This, the ebullient deputy says, is what he'll miss most.
"It's a little like being a rock star," Thornton said.
After seven years as Sun City Center's well-known and well-liked community resource deputy, the 41-year-old is shipping out.
He's not going far — just across town to Ruskin — but his meaner gig in street crimes will be worlds away, no doubt.
In the manicured-lawn land of Sun City Center, folks thank Thornton for the safety reminder when he writes them speeding tickets. They complain when they think he's not ticketing enough.
Conflicts break out in dog parks and on golf cart paths. Neighbors fight over landscaping and littering.
More serious stuff happens too, of course. Scammers come to town, burglars steal prescription drugs and, before Thornton caught up to him, a naked man ran around doing things little old ladies certainly didn't want to see.
But here, in a part of the county known for a low crime rate and a fleet of security volunteers, Thornton spends much of his time with the residents.
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Some complain a lot. Most don't.
All have taught Thornton a thing or two, including:
Retirement means more than shuffleboard.
Punctuality is close to godliness.
Patience comes gradually.
Life is short.
And also, leaves from a neighbor's tree should be raked up before they blow all over tarnation.
"Excuse me, how did you handle that one?" asked Deputy Chris Girard, who will replace Thornton and who spent the last couple of weeks shadowing him.
Thornton laughed. "You try to explain that this is not the end of the world," he said.
Speaking of the end, though, this community is closer to that point than others. People call it Heaven's Waiting Room or the Geeze.
The nicknames get fewer chuckles out of Thornton when he remembers funeral notices that have landed on his desk. He has made, and lost, real friends here.
Now Thornton spends more time with his family and tries not to fight with his girlfriend over silly things. He doesn't slam the door. He doesn't rush.
"It's been a delight to see him mature," said Martha Finley, 77, chief of the volunteer security center. "He seems to always be there when we need him."
Any advice for Thornton? "Get married," she blurted, laughing. "Oh, don't tell him I said that."
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Thornton said he's ready for the excitement of the street crimes unit, where he'll work more unpredictable shifts and catch more bad guys.
In the last year in Sun City Center, Thornton said he made maybe one arrest every four to six months. It's one of four places in Sheriff's Office District Four with its own community resource deputy.
"I'm going to sneak back on my days off," Thornton said.
Deputy Girard, Thornton's replacement, said he's looking forward to his new gig, too. He has been attending community meetings and shaking hands and smiling a lot.
"Is this the new guy?" asked Ronnie Reder, 74, finishing a slice of pizza as Girard and Thornton headed for the restaurant door one recent lunchtime.
"Yep, this is Chris," Thornton said. Reder and friend Anne McGuire, 74, giggled and shook his hand.
"We'll teach Chris a few things," McGuire said. "And he'll probably teach us a few things, too."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or [email protected]