KidsPort was in bad shape.
The popular Glazer Children's Museum exhibit was about to be closed two to three months for a repair job estimated at $100,000 or more — a lot of money for a nonprofit with an annual budget of $2.8 million.
Some 60,000 visitors would miss a chance to frolic in the waters of the kiddy-style Port Tampa Bay mockup.
Then along came Bob Stanley, an 83-year-old Navy veteran who served as a welder during the Korean War.
Stanley would save the day.
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KidsPort, visited by 1.4 million people during the museum's six years in operation, is all about water.
Some 1,800 gallons of it course through a 3,500-square-foot elevated pool, complete with toy boats, sea life, bridges and other fun features.
Kids delight in splashing around in it. But with all that commotion, water leaked out and ran down to the supports — 165 square metal tubes held up by rods made of ferrous metal, prone to rust.
And rust they did, forcing the museum to contemplate repairs it didn't want to make in an exhibit scheduled for replacement in another two years anyway.
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For the past six years, three days a week, Stanley has driven 28 miles from his home in Gulfport to arrive by 4 a.m. outside the berth of the SS American Victory Ship Mariners Memorial Museum on Channelside Drive. He walks up into a space formerly called "Cargo Hold 4," turns on the lights, brews coffee and dons his welder's mask.
The mask is adorned with the image of a flaming skull, chains in its mouth.
"Not my style," he said with a gruff laugh. "But it was cheap. And it works. So I bought it."
That's Stanley's outlook on life in a nutshell, shaped by an upbringing in Toledo, Ohio, and honed by five years in the Navy followed by a stint with the piledrivers union, welding all manner of things.
This outlook is how he saved the day.
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The Glazer Children's Museum is near and dear to the hearts of the Propeller Club — a group created to boost Port Tampa Bay.
"We were having problems with leaks and rusting and mildew and different things, and we were going to have to take the whole exhibit out," said club member Sandra Murman, a Hillsborough County commissioner. "And this wonderful man found this very simple fix for a very small amount of money."
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After Stanley showed up at the SS American Victory, Cargo Hold 4 got a new name — Stanleyville. He has filled the once-empty space with tools and equipment from his personal collection, like a drill press, band saw, belt sander, pipe bender and hydraulic press.
During a visit with his son Ryan in 2011, Stanley was asked if he'd like to help fix up the American Victory — a restored cargo ship that saw action in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and is similar to a ship he served aboard.
"All they had was this little bitty welding table set up," he recalled.
Stanley jumped at the chance to help and now dedicates hours of his time to the task.
Said Tom Procopio, the ship's operations manager: "This guy is amazing."
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When he first heard about the plight of the children's museum, Bill Kuzmick, president of the SS American Victory museum and member of the Propeller Club, offered help from seasoned volunteers like Stanley.
So a few months ago, Stanley visited the children's museum. He put on his knee pads, spent half an hour checking out the exhibit, went to lunch at Wendy's, then returned to Stanleyville.
He grabbed some tubing and other scraps around the shop, and in less than an hour fashioned a solution — an adjustable stainless steel device that would fit into the KidsPort footings and replace the rusting stands. The replacements would not rust.
The museum provided a welder and an argon tank to cut the stainless steel to Stanley's specifications, shelling out just $3,000.
Then Stanley went to work, welding together all the pieces. Each morning, after making the coffee back in his shop, he would fashion more assemblies.
"They needed 165," he said, pointing to boxes full of the new supports. "I got them all made."
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The KidsPort repair was a win-win for Stanley. He loves working with metal and helping kids.
"I'm glad we could save it and keep it going," he said. "I'm just glad I was able to help out. We have to do everything we can for the kids nowadays."
KidsPort never posed a safety threat, said museum officials, but now it can stay open as long as they had planned.
"KidsPort is a well-loved exhibit," said museum president and chief executive Jennifer Stancil, "so we are thrilled with the out-of-the-box thinking that will increase its longevity."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.