Sunday, December 17, 2017
Politics

Presidential hugger just likes to lift people up

FORT PIERCE — After talking to MSNBC and Inside Edition, while waiting to be miked for Wolf Blitzer, Scott Van Duzer, 46, tried to fit in two slices of pepperoni pizza and a Gatorade on Monday during what had become the busiest day of his life.

"I've had over 300 calls already from all over the world, and it hasn't even been 24 hours yet," he said between bites.

"I'm just overwhelmed. I'm a big softie. I'm crying now."

Van Duzer, owner of Big Apple Pizza, had no idea President Barack Obama and his 60-member entourage would stop by his Fort Pierce restaurant Sunday.

When his manager called him he was hitting balls on the driving range and had 18 minutes to race to work. Dogs sniffed his car, the Secret Service patted him down, and he got there just in time to greet the president, who was making an unplanned campaign stop during a weekend bus tour of the Sunshine State.

"He gave me a handshake and started to feel my muscles. He was so real and enthusiastic it just overcame me."

Van Duzer said he didn't ask for permission; the Secret Service didn't know it was coming. They had put away all the restaurant's knives and scissors. But you can't confiscate a bear hug.

"I'm not the kind of guy who gets caught up in the moment, but he was so warm and so genuine I just had to hug him."

Van Duzer, who bench presses 350 pounds, didn't just hug Obama, he lifted the leader of the free world knee high.

"The Secret Service all had their hands on their guns, and I'm thinking 'That wasn't so smart,' " said Big Apple Pizza manager Jimmy "Fish" Fisher, 58, "but it's worked out to be great for everyone."

"I'm calling it the Presidential," Van Duzer said Monday. Soon, everyone wanted one.

Except maybe the people Van Duzer says want to boycott him for doing what Charlie Crist once did.

"There's no middle line anymore, and that's exactly what's wrong with our country right now," he told POLITICO.

Van Duzer was born in New York but moved to Florida when he was 7. He played baseball and football at Fort Pierce High and, at 15, started working at the strip mall pizza place near his home. He did everything from mopping floors to rolling dough. In 1992, at 24, he bought the place.

"I'm just a small businessman. I don't look to others for help, and I try to give back as much as I can," Van Duzer said. "I know I'm better off than I was four years ago. I believed Obama was the right guy at the right time to be our president then, and I know he is now, too. . . . He just has more work to do."

Van Duzer registered as a Republican because he liked Ronald Reagan, but for him it has never been about the party. It has always been about the person. If Mitt Romney came to his restaurant, he said he might hug him, too, "but I bet he wouldn't be as warm as Obama."

He and his wife, Dawn, have three sons, ages 24, 21, and 17. His middle son, Jordan, is usually making pies in the pizzeria's kitchen, but just missed Sunday's presidential stop. "I wasn't surprised when I saw my dad picked up the president," Jordan said. "He's a real excitable guy. He hugs everybody."

Obama even squeezed back, Van Duzer said. Then the president thanked the pizza guy. "This is an example of somebody who's doing well, but he's also giving back, and so we just want to say how proud we are of him. I'm still wondering how he got these biceps, but what we know is that the guy's got a big heart along with big pecs," Obama said.

Big Apple Pizza has six employees, six booths, 12 long tables and a trophy case full of awards for the owner's good deeds. Beneath it hangs a framed pencil sketch of the 6-year-old boy who captured Van Duzer's heart, and, four years ago, inspired him to start a foundation. Every month the restaurant hosts a fundraiser for a local family in crisis: kids with terminal illnesses, moms battling breast cancer, families who have lost homes to a fire.

"Scott is the most warm-hearted, tender guy you'll ever meet," said Wendy Dwyer, secretary of the foundation. "He gives a hundred percent of his earnings one day a month, has raised $600,000 and helped 45 families so far."

In June, Van Duzer took four local teens on a 1,148-mile bike ride from Fort Pierce to Washington, where they met with Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, who honored them for collecting 1,383 pints of blood. "She got a hug," Van Duzer said, "but not the Presidential."

Tim Tebow and Don Shula have visited the restaurant and been bear-hugged, but their feet never left the ground.

Though Van Duzer was amazed at all the attention, he is most grateful for the help pouring in for his foundation. "We've gotten thousands of dollars in gifts and pledges already. . . . People as far away as Australia, Sweden, Germany and the UK have called."

By 2:30 p.m. Monday, satellite trucks filled the parking lot outside the restaurant. Inside, journalists outnumbered customers. Van Duzer gulped his Gatorade, sat through his interview with Wolf Blitzer, consulted with his manager about the next day's food order and took a call from his wife, who was looking for his khakis to pack for a 5 p.m. flight to New York. Anderson Cooper wanted him on the set first thing in the morning.

"Okay, I gotta go," he called over his shoulder. "Thanks everyone for all you've done."

"Wait, wait," called Nicole Rodriguez. "I want one of those presidential hugs." Van Duzer obliged. The local reporter's feet dangled high off the ground. That gave the manager an idea.

"Hey," Fisher said, "We should put 'The Presidential' on the menu. One big pie plus a hug."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

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