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"What are neighbors for?' You name it

Gabriel Kober, 76, carries his 40-foot ladder with a light step. He doesn't even think about the pacemaker in his big chest.

He's going to climb up and trim a neighbor's palm tree. After that, he'll clean the gutters on several other neighbors' houses. Then he'll edge all the lawns on the block, both sides of the street.

"No, I don't take money for helping people," he says, chuckling at the idea. "What are neighbors for?"

Kober's block on Snell Isle has been blessed with his presence for 19 years. "Gabe is a jewel _ I don't know how we'd get along without him," says neighbor Jack Humphrey.

"He looks in on a 90-year-old man living alone across the street, fixes his breakfast every morning. Gabe is also a human watchdog. He logs the licenses of strange cars that park in front of people's houses, lists makes, colors, times they were here."

Kober nods genially. "I walk every night at 10, 2 and 6. I don't need much sleep."

He is a big old man, erect, with iron-gray hair cut short. On patrol, he carries a truly frightening club, which he never has had to use. (He asked me not to describe the club. It's just as well I don't.)

Patty Bridges lives across the street from Kober. She sees him dragging out vacationing neighbors' garbage cans, bringing them back at the end of the day, taking care of their yards, bagging their ripe fruit, weeding their driveways.

"Weeds don't dare grow on our block until Gabe goes on vacation," Bridges says.

That dread time comes two months every summer, when the Kobers visit their two sons in New Jersey.

"Gabe trims everything, fixes everything," says neighbor Eleanor Adelmann, "even those old windows with cranks. He worked two hours getting mine out and then installing a new window."

Since he is on his fourth pacemaker, Kober is trying to be a little cautious. When trimming palms, he now ropes the ladder to the upper trunk. But recently, having only one branch to trim, he didn't bother with the rope _ and the ladder slipped.

"I held on as it fell and went unconscious as it hit the ground. A man and his wife were pilling at me when I came to. I said, "Let me alone for a minute. I'll be all right.' They backed off, and I got up, picked up my ladder and walked away."

The incident took place on the grounds of the Nitram Lodge, a local social organization with about 500 members. What does the name mean? "The lodge was founded by a man named Martin," Kober explains. "Nitram is Martin spelled backwards."

His helping ways, Kober declares, started during his boyhood in a New Jersey farm community. "Pop always helped neighbors _ that's where I picked it up. All the farmers helped each other threshing and hay-baling."

At 19, when he married, Kober was working in a Sunoco station. Two years later, Sun Oil lent him the money for his own station in Pennsylvania, where he worked until retirement, except for the war years.

"We had our two boys then, and I didn't have to go. But Madeline and I decided it was the right thing to go into the Army in wartime."

Once in, Kober decided it was the right thing to become a paratrooper. He saw considerable combat in the Pacific, and he was wounded, but he came back to his family and gas station. Nineteen years ago, they retired to St. Petersburg.

By now, Madeline is used to her husband's taking care of the neighborhood. "Let him," she says, "as long as it makes him happy."