PASS-A-GRILLE — The stench of dead fish pierced nostrils, but Jim LeBlanc stood with his tote bag, ready to do his duty.
He does it nearly every night at sunset and has for more than eight years.
LeBlanc, 74, is one of the Keepers of the Bell, a club that has been ringing the bell at Paradise Grille in Pass-a-Grille at sunset since 1997. There have been ringers before LeBlanc, but he’s the leader now.
LeBlanc walks over from his nearby home in his Birkenstocks. His first stop is the lock box mounted onto the side of the restaurant, which holds the lanyard used to ring the bell. He makes his way toward the bell and strikes up a conversation with two families.
LeBlanc asks guests to ring the bell most nights — it’s become so popular that it’s listed at the top of the things to do in Pass-a-Grille website. People can call ahead and request to participate. When he doesn’t have someone lined up, he arrives early to find a helper. One recent night, Vivian George, 3, and Arabella Berger, 6, did the job together.
New friends Vivian and Arabella played as the sun slid lower and lower in the sky. LeBlanc waited, talking to their parents.
“Okay, guys. Let’s go. Showtime,” LeBlanc said to the girls.
He coached them on where to stand, and what part of the lanyard to hold, and reminded them to ring the bell 15 times: five for the seagulls of Shell Island, five for the ringer and five for the tradition itself.
The sun slipped lower and lower.
“See the green flash! That’s lucky!” LeBlanc exclaimed as the sun fell out of sight and the elusive green flash graced the sky.
Vivian and Arabella rang the bell. LeBlanc stepped back, took a photo and applauded the girls. His smile stretched from ear to ear.
“You are officially a campanologist,” he told them.
Campanology is the art of bell-ringing. All those who ring at Paradise Grille get the title from LeBlanc.
There’s a record of every campanologist at the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum, just down the road from the restaurant. Every person who rings signs their name, place of residency and the date. Many leave a little note about why they rang.
Vivian rang because she loves sunsets. Others ring in memory of a lost loved one.
LeBlanc does it because he loves the sense of duty. He enjoys the happiness that he sees on kids’ faces when they have a moment in the spotlight. And he is single, so it’s a great way to meet women, he said with a chuckle.
“It’s probably just a lazy man’s way of enjoying the evening,” he jokes.
He lived in Washington, D.C., before moving to Pass-a-Grille in 2012. He was retired when he moved to Florida, though he continues to work as a construction project manager around town.
The bell tradition predates LeBlanc. Cleo Robertson found the bell at an antique shop, and she gifted it to the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum. The museum mounted the bell at what is now Paradise Grille in 1997, and it has been there ever since.
LeBlanc has even rung it before evacuating for a hurricane. He couldn’t wait until sunset that time, but he made sure to do it before leaving town.
He’s been doing his duty in some capacity his whole life. He did it in an Army uniform when he was drafted and sent to Vietnam in 1968. He did it in jeans during the 40-plus years he spent working construction.
Now, he does it in his sandals at sunset.