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    Working in a neighborly way

    In his 80s, a retired car salesman turns handyman to keep busy and help others in his mobile-home park.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001

    [Times photo: Jill Sagers]
    Ron Petrie, left, and Bert Petrie stand in front of a deck he built for a neighbor in the Indian Rocks Travel Park in Largo.
    LARGO -- Ron Petrie has left his mark on this mobile-home park tucked off Walsingham Road in Largo.

    During a tour of Indian Rocks Travel Park, he pointed out what he has made for his neighbors: The signs hanging in front of mobile homes. Two sets of stairs on this street, three sets on that street. And a wooden deck and crushed-rock driveway for a mobile home less than a block from his own.

    Never mind that Petrie is 82 or that he receives help from his 91-year-old wife, Bert.

    "We have 60-year-olds he could run around in this park," said Cheryl Simons, one owner of his handiwork. "He's got good genes."

    "Yeah," Petrie says. "Calvin Klein."

    He is no comedian, and the folks in this youthful senior community don't need one. They have Petrie, a wiry man with a drill press and table saw in his shed.

    For the cost of materials and whatever people want to pay him, he will turn on his tools and make ramps, stairs, signs, or decks out of pressure-treated pine.

    "No matter what we ask of him, there is no job too big," said 70-year-old Marge Charest, taking a brief break from the park's pool. "I tell you, he's something else."

    It all started three years ago.

    Dolly Soellner, now 78, was having trouble navigating her stairs. Ron Petrieinstalled a set with lower risers. Typical mobile home stairs have about a 9-inch climb between them. His have a 7-inch climb.

    "I really appreciate them," Soellner said. "For anybody with bad legs or a bad back, it's the best thing."

    From there, word spread.

    "That's how most things happen in the park," Petrie said.

    In all, 15 sets of stairs are parked outside neighbors' doors. Another dozen or so have signs hanging out front announcing the names of the owners.

    Bert Petrie has accompanied her husband on the projects. She hands tools to him and gives him a few things he doesn't ask for.

    "I may say put it this way or that way just to put my 2 cents in," she said.

    Unable to keep pace with him, she fell behind as Petrie continued the tour and a champagne-colored station wagon whizzed by.

    "Those people, I built steps for them, too," Petrie said.

    He builds his stairs with a wider base and leaves more room for missteps. Most of the owners of the park's 175 mobile homes are older and appreciate the extra thought he puts into them.

    "I tell you, we couldn't do without him in the park," said Etta Wood, 82, unloading groceries from her car. "There's nobody around doing this work."

    The retired car salesman wouldn't think about sitting at home and doing nothing for the rest of his years. He has worked since he was 12 years old, first installing hardwood floors in New York. Other odd jobs followed: a paper route, mowing lawns, shoveling driveways.

    The Great Depression was in full swing when it was time for him to go to college. He couldn't afford it and instead went to work. Along the way, he asked questions of those around him to get his education.

    After a stint in the Army, he took on his first job in the parts and sales department of a Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Albany, N.Y. He stayed in that line of work for about 35 years until his retirement in 1981. He worked for two years part time as a security guardand finally called it quits in 1983.

    Petrie works at his leisure today and keeps abreast of changes in the building industry as a member of the Handyman Club of America and by reading magazines. His philosophy about making money is a little old-fashioned. He buys all his supplies from a local Home Depot because he owns stock in the company. Materials for a set of stairs cost about $100. Sometimes neighbors give him an extra $40 or $50 for his trouble. Sometimes more.

    "It works out beautifully," he said. "I do better."

    Still, he knows the overall deal is cheap. His payment system works because neighbors can't say he overcharged them for the work.

    Petrie, a native of Albany, credits his energy and his family background for his good health. It keeps his blood flowing, his muscles toned. In all his years, he has "never had a knife on me," he said. It doesn't hurt that he can rattle off family members who lived well into their 90s, including his great-grandmother, who lived for 99 years and 6 months.

    He figures with that record he will be around to build a lot more stairs.

    He turned a corner and his one-bedroom 12-foot by 34-foot mobile home came into view. It was different from all the rest. The wooden sign in front of his yard is old, tired. His metal stairs were creaky.

    "Gee," he said. "I do all of my customers' first."

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