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Every now and again I love to write about an unsung hero who enriches us. I’m lucky enough to be blessed with this space to share their stories.
Don Totland, 73, is a humble man who had a humble job. After 25 years with the Flying Tigers in Queens, he relocated to South Florida to care for his parents. He found a job as a community gatekeeper for nine years in one neighborhood preceding 12 years in ours.
Don transcended his job description. Coming here from Ozone Park, Queens, and being highly gregarious, he quickly earned the sobriquet, ”Guardian of the Gates of Oz.” Everyone who passed through his gate at Vizcaya in Delray Beach was better for the experience.
The gateman put his stamp on his gatehouse and on each entrant that he ushered in. Everyone was warmly welcomed. Be they resident, guest, or service provider, you were important to Don and he let you know it. He knew your name from your first time through and never forgot it. He even befriended the birds and the squirrels when business was slow.
Like an eternal flame burning bright at our gatehouse, Don was always there and always would be. However, just a few weeks ago he wasn’t at his post. We learned he needed a hip replacement and that he’d be out a little while to recuperate.
Then, suddenly, the news struck like a Florida lightning bolt. Don, who lives in Boynton Beach, would not be returning. His pre-op docs discovered undiagnosed cancer had crept in and poisoned his body like a silent viper. There would be no operation and no return.
Our community was shocked and saddened. What could we do? The real question was what would we do? Everyone wanted to do something special, so we created “A Celebration Of Don” to express our esteem together.
The celebration was held in our clubhouse, which was decorated with donated balloons and abundant Mets memorabilia to evoke Don’s beloved home team. Willing residents chipped in to set up and cleanup along with the enthusiastic staff. For safety, everyone was required to mask up.
To set the tone for his special experience, Don was chauffeured from his home in a gleaming white Bentley with a four-man motorcycle escort. Over 200 residents cheered his arrival. Tables groaned under the weight of shrimp and snack platters accompanied by desserts and a beautiful Mets cake provided by the community and Don’s former employer who joined the love-fest.
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A greeting line snaked around the clubhouse so all Don’s friends could pass and personally say their farewells. Although this was not meant as a fundraiser, many residents enhanced their good wishes with a kiss of cash. A successful GoFundMe account was created and Don received over 300 cards from well-wishers as well. I asked him what he was going to do with all the money that he received. His answer was classic Don: “I’m going to use it to do mitzvahs,” this deeply religious Catholic man replied.
The community presented a plaque that will hang in Don’s gatehouse as an eternal flame.
The takeaway is that this humble man had no idea of the loving congregation that he had generated. Don was just being Don giving everything and expecting nothing. He told me that our effort would help him face his fate with peace and acceptance. We’re happy that we were able to return a little of the gift he’s given us that will comfort him as he faces his unexpected next chapter.
Steve West is a social justice advocate and entrepreneur living in Delray Beach.