Joe Alpine parked his car at the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce on Thursday morning, just as he has most every day for 15 years. We didn't go inside.
"It does feel weird,'' he said. "I have to admit.''
The day before, Alpine handed over his keys to Chip Wichmanowski, who recently retired as executive director of the Pasco Education Foundation but at 59 figured he still had some productive work years left in him. You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody critical of him replacing Alpine as president of the chamber, including Alpine.
"Chip will be great,'' he said. "High-energy guy.''
Alpine is sincere, but even if he didn't like the choice he probably wouldn't say so. In 15 years, with rare exception, he has worn the crown as the most positive man in western Pasco County. He's not likely to change now.
We walked across the Main Street bridge and I saw a homeless man on a cardboard box. Alpine saw "the most beautiful park and river in Pasco County.''
We walked past the deserted, run-down Hacienda Hotel, once the "pink palace'' but now a faded beige eyesore. "Promising,'' he said. "One day there will be businesses on the ground floor, people coming and going. It's going to be something.''
You might focus on vacant buildings. Alpine stopped in front of the Cheri Bloom storefront where, he said, the formal wear business is booming. Across the street, workers put the finishing touches on a new Estela's Mexican restaurant.
After years of economic depression, the region Alpine promoted — the U.S. 19 corridor from Holiday to the Hernando County line — feels awfully worn. But Alpine focuses on the positive, including new businesses in front of the mall and at Southgate and Trinity. "We've been through hell with this economy,'' he says, "but things are already looking up. I'm extremely optimistic.''
He doesn't have to say that anymore. He says it because he believes it. He chooses not to dwell on the negative and so, you may ask, where does such attitude originate?
• • •
At 14, Joe Alpine was already working hard. His grandparents ran the Michigander Motel on U.S. 41 in Bradenton and Joe crossed the highway to sort produce at an open-air stand. The owner taught him how to drive a truck and took him to the markets in Tampa to load fruits and vegetables.
His parents moved to the Cleveland area, and by the time he graduated high school in 1960, Joe was already working full-time for a supermarket. His career got interrupted four years later when the Army drafted him and sent him to Vietnam, where as part of the 560th Military Police Company, he guarded Gen. William Westmoreland's compound in Saigon. "I saluted him every morning when he came out,'' Alpine recalled.
In his last three months in Vietnam, Alpine was assigned as a gunner on a combat helicopter in Soc Trang. On Christmas Eve 1966, he fired an M-60 machine gun out the door of a Huey during a troop rescue. "I've never been so scared,'' he said. "Bullets were flying everywhere, and you could see the red tracers heading right for us. I'm still not sure how we got through that.''
He returned to Ohio and his old job with Fisher Foods. In May 1967, he married Barbara. Three years later, they had their first child, a daughter they named Shelly. "She changed everything,'' Alpine said. "She made me thankful for the little things.''
Shelly was born with cerebral palsy. She required constant care, couldn't walk or talk. "And yet when I'd come home from work, she would light up. She didn't have to talk for me to hear, 'Daddy's home!' She gave me such an appreciation for life.''
Shelly lived 14 years.
The Alpines had another daughter, Kara, and settled into a new life in Florida. Joe managed Winn-Dixie supermarkets in Pasco and Pinellas counties before taking a sales position with the Keebler cookie company. In eight years, he advanced to supervisor for 67 reps in Florida, Alabama and Georgia, earned $80,000 a year and plenty of perks. Then one day he got fired.
"Fifty years old and out of work,'' he recalled. "It frightened me.''
But as it turned out, it was just another of Joe Alpine's defining moments. He started his own management business and impressed board members at the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce as he chaired the annual Business Development Week. When the president's job came open in 1997, they hired him.
Fifteen years later, at age 70, he is grateful to leave on his own terms, with the admiration of his directors and so many others in the community. His health is good. He has new knees. He is deeply involved with his church and his grandchildren, Justin, 20, and Ayden, 9. Barbara plans to work a while longer in Pasco County's information technology department.
"It will take a while to get used to not going to the office,'' he said as he picked up his car at the chamber office. "But life could not be better.''
Not surprising from a man who has made a living being positive.