The secretaries arrived with empty stomachs. That's the way their boss, Jack Fessler, wanted it. They walked into the office to find a spread of pastries and orange juice mixed with champagne.
Fessler, 64, long ago established a reputation for kindness. Mental toughness, too. His 6-foot-6 presence dominates the room even though it is contained within a wheelchair. He is one of those bosses who expects hard work from employees. But he also tells them to go home promptly at 5 p.m.
So the nine women at Fessler Agency Inc., an insurance office on McMullen-Booth Road, could have expected special treatment on Secretaries Day. But they were overwhelmed to read the scrolled proclamations Fessler handed them.
"You are in for a unique shopping experience beginning now and continuing until noon," they began.
Each was accompanied by a tiny black purse, with a wad of cash equal to a week's salary inside.
Stunned, Susan Beaulieu looked at her boss. "Jack, you didn't do this again, did you?"
A black Hummer limousine pulled up outside the office.
Such striking generosity is nothing new for Fessler, who became a paraplegic after a near-fatal accident 43 years ago. He rejected bitterness as well as handouts, forging a life based on hard work, a quality he likes to reward.
As his employees left his office that late April morning, Fessler glowed with pleasure.
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Feb. 3, 1962, was an important day for Jack Fessler. One month shy of his 21st birthday, he was making $4.05 an hour in construction in Naperville, Ill. After his shift, Fessler planned to buy an engagement ring for his high school sweetheart, Elaine Schmelzel.
Fessler was in a 30-foot ditch closing a storm sewer pipe when a bulldozer operator started filling the hole. Someone yelled a warning. Too late. A piece of clay the size of a refrigerator broke Fessler's back in three places.
Several days later, Fessler woke up from a drug-induced coma to be told he had almost bled to death. He would survive, the doctor told him, but he likely would never walk again.
Other disabled patients offered little comfort. They advised him to enjoy the visits from his girlfriend because she was bound to move on.
I don't think I want to spend the rest of my life like this, Fessler recalls thinking.
He went from 236 pounds to 127 pounds. In rehab, he made lamps and wove rugs. He hated the routine, but feeling sorry for himself, becoming a "poor, pitiful Paul," was never an option.
"Here's life and here's what happened to you," Fessler said. "You can sit back and think about it all you want, but it won't change anything."
Fessler and Elaine Schmelzel didn't know what their future held. But they were determined that they were going to get through it together. They were married in December 1962.
During their honeymoon, they discovered Florida. They moved to Clearwater the following year. There was no snow to slow Fessler's wheelchair. Nor was there a job for him right away.
"We were really young, and that probably helped," Elaine Fessler said recently. "But we never thought about what we didn't have, we thought of how we were going to get what we wanted."
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At the Citrus Park mall last month, Clare Wright was stressed out. With 20 minutes left in her shopping spree, $91 remained in the gift purse. Her bags already bulged with lotions, clothes and a real luxury, two sets of bedsheets with a 400-thread count.
Wright handed her heavy load to a colleague who was finished shopping. Then she rushed into Victoria's Secret. On her mind was the other part of Jack Fessler's proclamation:
"Whereas the monies awarded you for this shopping spree are to be spent ONLY on you-you-just YOU . . . not spouses, children, grandchildren, parents, siblings or other citizens not employed herein. Understand the rules? Purchases must be for YOUR benefit."
Wright flew out of Victoria's Secret with $1.16 left in her purse _ and a black teddy.
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Fessler always loved working outdoors. But once he was paralyzed, he had to focus on what he could do. And he certainly could do more than glue seashells to a vase, one of his first jobs in Florida.
"I never wanted charity," he said. "I want opportunity."
In 1964, Fessler showed up in George Locascio's office. Locascio was an executive at Abilities Inc., Clearwater, a printing and direct mail business run mostly by people with disabilities.
Locascio, a polio victim, didn't know what to do with the young man with no high school diploma. But Locascio hired him anyway.
"I saw something in the way he presented himself," Locascio said. "And he said he really wanted to work and he was willing to do anything to learn. Now I grew up during the Depression, you've got to understand, and that's the kind of people we looked for."
Fessler went to business school to learn bookkeeping and accounting. Then he moved to a St. Petersburg insurance company. In 1984, he started his own insurance business.
All these years later, his business successful, Fessler declares that he still loves to come to work. He enjoys mentoring his employees and vows to make them mentally tough.
He isn't tolerant of excuses. Once he had two agents who were making excuses for subpar sales. He took them outside the office and pointed to the cars whizzing by.
"I just asked them if the people traveling outside out there had quit buying insurance," Fessler said.
The two agents soon found another place to work.
Fessler has been married to Elaine for 42 years. They have two adult children and four grandchildren.
When Fessler isn't chasing grandkids, he works out at the YMCA.
"I don't see myself retiring; I see myself slowing down," he said. "I started this business, I grew it and now I want to run it."
The shopping spree was over.
Karen Scarfone bought cropped blue jeans, pantsuits and Davidoff Echo perfume. Susan Beaulieu bought a tennis bracelet and earrings and splurged for an $80 bottle of Chanel. Pregnant with her second child, Rhonda Weixlbaum made a beeline to the maternity store.
Afterward, the limo took the women back to the office, where Greek salads and wine were waiting.
A couple of men work for Fessler, too. He didn't leave them out of the festivities.
The next day he took his two male assistants to buy fishing gear. He wanted them to be well equipped when they board his boat, Jackhammer.
Fessler's employees don't always know what to make of their boss. But many of them keep a photocopy of a cartoon Fessler passes out like candy.
The cartoon shows a frog, plucked from a pond by a large bird. Its legs dangle from the bird's beak. Although its head is one swallow away from becoming lunch, the frog fights for its life, clutching the bird's neck.
Don't EVER give up.