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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
If you know someone who needs the mowing mailman's help, contact him at (727) 642-3971.
"Meet me at the Chick-fil-A," the caller tells the mailman. "I want to give you something."
He won't say what.
So the mailman agrees to meet the stranger at the Tyrone Boulevard store that afternoon, as soon as he finishes his route.
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Eric Wills has been getting a lot of calls from people he doesn't know - ever since that story came out about him mowing elderly folks' lawns. For two years, the 30-year-old letter carrier has been taking care of yards for residents along his 10-mile route.
He does it for free. He's just trying to help. A hand-painted sign on his homemade trailer says, "Lawns for the Lord."
When the article appeared in Floridian last month, Wills asked to have his cell phone number published - in case someone who read it needed to have his lawn cut.
Instead, the mailman has been bombarded by kindness, cards and checks.
The reaction, Wills says, has been "totally unexpected - amazing."
The story got picked up in papers across the country. Radio show hosts from Minnesota and Virginia interviewed the mowing mailman. A letter carriers' newsletter in California printed his tale.
Ninety people sent gas money - a total of $3,500.
Three people donated used riding mowers so the mailman wouldn't have to keep pushing his ancient model. A widow in Crystal River had her husband's prized MTD overhauled and a new battery installed. Wills says riding cuts his mowing time in half - and will let him cut twice as many yards.
A local lawyer wants to buy Wills any new mower he wants, whenever he needs it. A man in Lutz had a custom trailer built to haul the mailman's gear. A woman who sells plants told him to come pick out anything those old folks might need to pretty up their lawns; a commercial landscaper offered to help with the planting.
But the best gift of all, Wills says, has been the knowledge that he inspired other folks. So often, giving becomes exponential.
"A woman named Paula called and asked if I needed help," says Wills. "She came out on a Saturday and worked with me while we cleared a back yard, trimmed trees and bushes. She wrote down all the Saturdays I have off, planned her year around helping me."
Paula Dunlay Montlary, 49, is a paralegal who lives in St. Petersburg. She had been looking for a way to volunteer, she says, but wanted to do something on a personal level, so she'd know she really made a difference. "My passion is gardening and being outdoors, so when I saw Eric's story, I knew I wanted to help," she says. "He's fulfilling a need most people don't think about. I'm looking forward to getting out there with him again."
A man with a pressure-washing service offered to clean the elderly residents' sidewalks and driveways for free.
Dozens of people wrote to say thanks. For years, one man wrote, he had been thinking he should help look after his elderly neighbors. "Reading your story just might push me over the edge from thinking to doing."
Politicians also seemed moved. "I so appreciate your helpful spirit," wrote Mayor Rick Baker. "Thank you for making life better for those who need your help."
"We need more citizens like you," wrote state Sen. Mike Fasano from New Port Richey. "Many people see a problem, but few take the time or care to fix it."
Wills wrote more than 100 thank-you notes and is still getting calls. Like the one from that man who wants to meet him at Chick-fil-A.
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The man's name is Jake Knupp - Junky Jake from Midland, Va., he told Wills over the phone. Used to be a lineman for the power company. Now he and the wife winter in Gulfport.
At the fast food joint, Wills spots Knupp right off: He's the broad, jolly man wearing a white Chick-fil-A T-shirt. He doesn't work there. He's just a devotee.
"I read your story and my hat went off to you," Knupp says, thwacking the mailman on the back. "The Lord's blessed me good too. I have a wonderful wife, two wonderful children. And I've got 52 of these, here, for you."
He slaps a coupon booklet onto the table: a stack of free chicken sandwich combos. "You can eat 'em all in one day, or have one each week," Knupp says. "And they've got the best lemonade you'll ever taste."
A junk man now that he's retired from the power company, Knupp doesn't have much money. But he's rich in time. He and his wife travel to Chick-fil-A openings across Florida, camping out in the parking lot for 24 hours, as if waiting for tickets to a rock show. Instead, they're rewarded with coupons for free fast food.
"We give 'em away to the vets on the corner, to handicapped folks we see in the mall. Mostly, we give one at a time," Knupp says. "But look what you've done. I wanted you to have a whole year's worth. You deserve it."
The mailman thanks the junk man very much, shakes his hand. As he pockets the booklet of free meals, he smiles. Now he has something else to give.