He enters hundreds of people’s lives every day for about five seconds. They see the shuffling feet of the man who’s older but spryer than most, his faded jeans cut slim, black cap shading deeply crow-footed eyes on a walk in the sun. But it’s the outstretched hand they see first.
That man you saw walking and waving on Winter Park’s Lakemont Avenue is “Lakemont Jack” Goettel. If you didn’t see him today, Jack says hello.
He’s probably waved at you before and you didn’t know it. He’s the man in tennis shoes taking those remarkably spritely steps as cars blur by.
“I’m 86 years old, but I feel like I’m 16,” he says, one of his favorite refrains. His daughter Linda Moltz reminds him he just turned 87. A few minutes later, he says it again.
“Everybody knows who he is,” Moltz said. “People will ask about him, and I’ll tell them ‘That’s my dad.’
Underneath the overlapping oaks south of Winter Park Memorial Hospital and on down to Fleet Peeples Park’s frolicking dogs, he’s strolled that route every day for nearly five years.
The dogs say hi. A man on a bicycle passes the other way, arm outstretched, and a quick smile broadens. Cars honk. Jack waves. Then everybody goes about their day.
“It’s something people don’t see very often anymore,” Moltz said. “In this day and age it’s rare. They tell me he makes their day.”
Jack’s life may be a trail of those memorable moments. For half a decade they’ve formed on just one street in Winter Park. Before that it was an apartment in Dunedin, where he’d walk near the beach, hand still outstretched along a highway so wide and fast that not many had time to raise their hand for the stranger on the sidewalk.
Go back further, decades ago on Long Island, N.Y., and Jack becomes more of who he remembers, of the family man he was, eager to help at home, but ever more eager to be on the move.
Jack doesn’t remember much of his day now. Those five seconds that people will remember all day may leave Jack as quickly as they pass by. If her father tells you a story once, Moltz said, he’ll tell you 10 times.
Before hopping out of the passenger seat of his daughter’s car at her home on Lakemont, he leans in as if to confide a secret: “I’m 86 years old, but I feel like I’m 16.”
He loves telling stories of life on the road. Most pop out suddenly, in sound bites only a few seconds long; Every so often a stranger, seeing Jack walking along all alone, pulls a U-turn, sidles up alongside the sidewalk, and asks Jack if he needs a ride, he says.
“I’ll say no. But there may come a time when I say yes.”
Many of Jack’s stories, like this one, are told in present tense as if they’d just happened today. Usually they happened months or years ago, Moltz said. The time when he had to say “yes” to a ride already came a few months back.
On a hot day last summer, a couple saw him walking on Lakemont. But by the time they noticed, he was half an hour past his home, still walking north. The strangers offered him a drink and, naturally polite, Jack said yes. Then the woman who was just getting to know Jack called the police.
Commuters expecting their daily wave started noticing something in the past few weeks. Nobody was saying hello anymore. Jack wasn’t there.
Moltz knew this moment was coming years ago, after she had to take her dad to the hospital when a van hit him as he crossed an intersection.
“I really worried about him,” she said.
A longtime teacher at Eastbrook Elementary School, she retired early to take care of him. For Moltz it was an odd moment. Jack had always been the caretaker.
Moltz remembers Jack the teacher, the man who made everything OK. During the Cuban missile crisis, when talks of a coming nuclear war frightened his young daughter, Jack was there.
“My fondest memories were of him explaining to me how we were going to be alright,” she said. “He explained the world to me.”
She remembers dad, a machine tool maker by trade, who would pile the family into the Vista Cruiser wagon and wind north into the rolling hills of upstate New York.
“We would go for a drive every weekend,” she said. To her aunt and uncle’s house. Her grandmother’s. They were always on the move somewhere. Jack always led the way, just like 70 years ago in those uncertain moments crashing through waves on the way to islands near Japan, taking marines to shore during WWII.
The man who would survive a world war unscathed had gradually become his daughter’s biggest worry when his footsteps went too far again, putting him halfway around Lake Baldwin when another kind stranger noticed before it was too late.
“It really speaks well of our community,” Michael Slaymaker said about the phone calls from strangers that kept Jack out of harm’s way. Slaymaker is sitting in a chair with a warming faux fireplace crackling a few feet away inside Easter Seals of Florida’s Day Break facility in Winter Park. He’s the vice president for development here, helping grow a program that keeps residents like Jack safe.
If you were wondering where Jack had gone during your morning commute, it’s here, five days a week.
It wasn’t an easy transition, Moltz said. Ever independent, Jack had gradually come to terms with what he couldn’t do. When a near miss behind the wheel a few years ago made him realize he wasn’t a teenager anymore, he gave up his keys on his own. But his feet were his independence.
“I have to walk,” he said. “I hear my legs talking to each other. They say, ‘If he doesn’t use us, he’s gonna lose us.’”
Now he walks in a garden, in between brain-building sessions that work to rekindle memories and fight the dementia that’s trying to take them away. A shameless singer when he was younger, every once in a while his voice turns singsong when he’s talking to his daughter, but he was never a poet. Now poetry sessions at Easter Seals call out to a long lost past while introducing him to something new.
“With poetry, there’s something about it,” Slaymaker said. “It can bring back memories they haven’t thought about in 20 years.”
Moltz asks Jack what he used to do for a living.
“Didn’t you make tools?” she asks.
“I did some grinding,” he replies. “I did some things.”
When he doesn’t remember, she tells stories for him. There were the times he’d be in line at the grocery store and somebody in front of him couldn’t afford to pay. He’d pay for them.
“He was always nice like that,” she said. “He made decent money but it wasn’t important. He just wanted people to be happy.”
That’s what he’s saying with that outstretched hand, Jack said. It’s a wish.
“I’m glad to see you alive. I wish them health and happiness. They don’t know that, but that’s my wish for them.”
He wishes he could spread that goodwill more often. Walking past the sliding front doors at Day Break, his eyes catch the light outside. Instinct kicks in, and he turns left for a stroll. But it’s not the weekend just yet. Today he’ll make do sauntering through the garden. Maybe Barbara, one of the most energetic seniors here, will find him and take him for another dance around the gathering room floor.
“I don’t have to worry about him anymore,” his daughter said. “Easter Seals, they’ve been a blessing.”
Tomorrow he’ll be Lakemont Jack again, just like it was yesterday. He’ll raise his hand to strangers who know him a little bit better than most, fleet feet shuffling him toward a rising sun. And if you miss him this time, don’t worry. Jack says hello.