In the wee hours of Saturday, July 2nd, as residents and visitors were dreaming of their plans for the three-day holiday weekend, a man known as the very epitome of the small town spirit and generosity that is our Fort Myers Beach community breathed his last and left this earthly realm to soar amongst the stars. Many islanders and those close to Bruce Cermak woke Saturday morning with a profound feeling of loss and mourning as the news of Bruce’s passing reached them. Bruce – former owner of the Surf Club and a founding father of the Island Sand Paper – meant so many things to so many people it would take a lifetime to describe it all, but one common denominator flows through all the stories and tributes we’ve heard so far — love. Be it for his son, Kyle; for his friends; for his community, Bruce loved deeply and passionately, and every person he met was affected by it.
Nearly 46 years ago, a 17-year-old Bruce left his hometown of Chicago, Illinois and accompanied a friend whose relatives owned a restaurant on San Carlos Island on his first visit to our emerald shores. In an interview with Jo List in August 2012, Bruce described the first trip to the island that would become his home for the rest of his life.
“We drove from Route 41 down Gladiolus to McGregor. There was no Interstate then. The gladiolus farms had acres and acres of those flowers – they were incredible. Beautiful. We got to the bridge and had to wait because it had opened. There was lots of traffic. I saw the arches; we crossed the swing bridge. I had never seen anything like this place before.”
Cermak told Jo how he had traveled all over the United States on a competitive roller skating team as a teenager.
“I did freestyle, racing and pairs dancing. We traveled with a coach and a skating pro who was our choreographer. We competed regionally, statewide and nationally. I won a lot.” When asked how much was ‘a lot’, Cermak quietly mumbled, “I have over 90 trophies and gold medals.”
In other words, this was a worldly kid, but he was truly taken by Fort Myers Beach. Over the next sixteen years, Bruce split his time between Chicago and the beach until 1988, when he made the island his permanent home and began the process of becoming an island legend, holding court first at the original Surf Club site where the Mermaid is now and then across the street when he opened the beautiful new version of the Surf Club in 2009.
“I’ve been in the food and beverage industry since I was 21 years old – I started with my brother and sister-in-law in Illinois,” Bruce told us in 2014. “The original Surf Club opened in 1953, and I went to work there when I moved here full time in 1988.”
Cermak would go on to become a partner in the popular watering hole with his family, buying them out in 1997 and moving across the street to open the new Surf in 2009.
“I love the business – I love the social aspect of it,” he told us in 2014, shortly after health issues forced him to make the decision to sell his beloved Surf Club. “Fort Myers Beach has always been a place for boisterous celebrations – I have many, many fond memories.”
Memories of countless Shrimp Festivals, Fourth of July parades, Turkey Testicle Festivals, Cardboard Boat Races, fireworks fundraisers, benefits and events, people and all the colorful menagerie of life that has played out around Cermak over the years, and we got the distinct impression that he kind of figured it would always be so. But his health had other ideas. On Christmas Eve 2011, he suffered a heart attack, which began a series of health problems that led to the sale of the Surf in 2014. Early last month, Bruce entered the hospital once again and never came home, his big heart having given out for the last time.
Reflecting on the outpouring of love and concern he experienced during his medical struggles over the last five years of his life, Bruce said that only reflects what he considers to be the best aspects of our community.
“Any time there is a crisis or need, people on this island are very giving, and always come together for a cause,” Bruce told us in 2014.
Nobody knows that better than Cermak himself. He and his Surf Club crew have hosted dozens and dozens of fundraisers over the years. With no fanfare, Bruce has personally given a hand up to many in our community, and words of comfort, encouragement and support to any and all who were in need of it – regardless of social status or reputation.
“That’s the best part of the beach – the food bank, God’s Table, fundraisers,” he told us at one point. “There’s no social identification here. In the city, the brand of shirt and shoes matter. Not here. A lot of times, you have no idea who you are talking to. We’re all in flip flops.”
This attitude earned him the adoration of residents, islanders and business people from across the country. In 2014, the Greater Fort Myers Beach Area Chamber of Commerce honored Cermak with their highest award -The ‘Petro’ Award, established in 2013 in memory of Chamber founder D.J. ‘Petro’ Petrocelli, for Fort Myers Beach residents who ‘exemplify what the beach is all about’.
As news of his passing made its way across the town and the world, letters and tributes came pouring in and sprouted all over social media. We have listed a few of those heartfelt comments here, as we feel the story of what Bruce Cermak meant to the people of Fort Myers Beach is best told by those who experienced it:
“Soon after moving to the island, I stopped in the Surf Club for a bite,” said resident Eric Huntsman. “I sat second stool in at the bar and asked the man setting to my left if he came in often. ‘ Yes,’ he replied. ‘Any recommendations?’ I asked. He replied, ‘Blue Cheese Burger with applewood bacon is one of my favorites.’ I said, ‘Thanks, I’m Eric.’ He shook my hand saying, ‘I’m Bruce, this is my place, let me buy you a drink.’ We became friends and I became a Surf Club Regular. I’ll miss Bruce and I miss those burgers too.”
Mike Von Plinsky told us that Bruce was among the first 5 people he met when he moved to the island in 2004 and bought the Shamrock Irish Pub.
“He became a great mentor and friend, always happy to answer questions and offer advice … with that constant Bruce smile!” Mike said. “He never failed to say ‘Hi’ no matter where we ran into each other over the years. Like so many others, I will sorely miss him!”
Others remembered when Bruce offered them support as they were going through tough times.
“I knew Bruce for over 25 years and he was the ‘Epitome of Class’,” said Bobbie Joe Langston. “He did many, many good things for me and my family, and never asked or would take anything back for it. R.I.P., my friend…see you on the other side.”
My own story about Bruce runs in this vein. Shortly after Hurricane Charley wiped out my business in Time Square, I was a bit of a ‘wild child’, and found myself in the Surf Club one night staring at the prospect of my 30’s with great trepidation. Bruce told me then that he knew I’d find my way in this world, and – five years later when I became Associate Editor of the Island Sand Paper – he said, ‘See – look what you’ve accomplished now’. He never once failed to believe in me, which gave me the confidence I needed to succeed, and – like so many others – I will never forget that.
“He always had a kind word to say,” said Barbie Marquette-Johnson. “The last time I saw Bruce was a couple months ago at the Dixie Fish Company and we were talking about my Mom. He gave me a hug and told me how sorry he was for my loss and what a wonderful, loving woman she was and he said he was so happy to have had her for a friend. He’s dancing with Mom in heaven now! I know I was very blessed to know him as my friend!”
Shari Herzog told us that her favorite quote is one she first heard from Bruce:
“He once told me: ‘Every problem can be put into perspective over a glass of good wine’. To this day I find this to be so true!”
Elizabeth D’Onofrio summed up what we’ve heard from just about everyone – that Bruce loved and was loved by all he met.
“There wasn’t a person on the beach that Bruce did not have the same respect for as we all did for him,” she said. “You don’t find many people like him anywhere and now he is gone. Bruce will always be just a thought away for me.”
Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker first met Bruce back when he was a charter fishing boat captain many years ago.
“I remember that Bruce used to charter my boat once a month to take his employees fishing,” Kiker said. “Everyone I know says that Bruce was their best friend – we were lucky to have him!”
The most heartfelt tribute we received came from the mother of his adopted son, Kyle. Andrea Dimsdale told us how Bruce took over the role as Kyle’s father even before he was born.
“I was never really close to my own family, so it’s always been Bruce,” she told us. “He was my guiding light for over half my life, he saw me at my worst, he saw me at my best – he loved and believed in me when I didn’t deserve it and when I didn’t love in and believe in myself. He is also the reason I never gave up, he inspired me to take setbacks and use them to go forward. Without Bruce, I would not be where I am today.”
“God put him in our lives,” Andrea continued. “I owe my life to him, and Kyle and I will love and cherish him until the end of our days. May the four winds blow him safely home.”
Godspeed, old friend.
Along with his much-loved son, Kyle, Bruce is survived by siblings George (Susan) Cermak, Sheri (Harold) Hardy, Scott (Kathy) VanSelow, Doug (Norma) VanSelow and Judy VanSelow and numerous nieces and nephews. Family members have planned a Celebration of Life for Bruce scheduled for Saturday, July 30th at Junkanoo from 1-3pm. For those unable to attend, Bruce’s friends are working on another celebration to be held later this summer – watch the Sand Paper for details.
Keri Hendry Weeg