GOODLAND — Stan Gober loved Sundays in Goodland.
“I appreciate all of the people who come to our place, especially for the Sunday show every week,” the owner of the iconic Stan’s Idle Hour restaurant said in his 2006 autobiography, “Stan: An American Story.”
So it is fitting that in death, Stan — founder of the annual Mullet Festival and originator of the quirky “Buzzard Lope” song and dance — would want to spend one last Sunday at the place he loved most, surrounded by people who are having a good time. After his burial, friends and family members are hosting a party.
“After all, when anybody has had as great a life as I’ve had, it calls for a celebration, not sadness,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Stan, 86, passed away about 10:30 p.m. Monday at NCH Downtown Naples Hospital. He had been suffering from throat cancer, but the cause of death was congestive heart failure, said his son Russ Gober.
“We were getting ready to send him to hospice, but he never made it there,” he said, adding Gober’s sons were there when he passed away.
In Goodland Tuesday, Stan's was closed - now that season's over, the restaurant is only open weekends.
But in front of the restaurant, an American flag flies at half-staff, reminding those who pass by to mourn.
On his first trip to Goodland in 1958, Stan bought bait from Herb Robinson, who owned the property that is now Stan’s Idle Hour, according to Stan’s memoir.
“I fell in love when I crossed that bridge,” he said of the old swing bridge, which is how people got to Goodland and Marco Island in 1958. “I had such a funny feeling in my heart that I’d been here before.
“Later, crossing over the bridge heading home, I looked around and said a prayer that I would say every time I crossed that bridge going back home to Miami: ‘Lord, please let me come back here again.’”
He came back, permanently, in 1969, purchasing a 10-room motel from Robinson. Stan’s family lived in two of the rooms and rented out the other eight.
To help make ends meet, Stan went to work for the phone company in Naples. Eventually, the couple purchased the restaurant across the street from the motel, which would become Stan’s Idle Hour.
Stan hosted the first Mullet Festival in 1985, at the suggestion of his next door neighbor, to help the mullet fishermen. The event was so successful, they decided to do it the next year, which led to the year after that, which led to Sundays at Stan’s.
For one of the festivals, Stan wrote “The Buzzard Lope Song,” which he would perform in a suit of buzzard feathers. Contestants for the Buzzard Lope Queen do the dance mentioned in the song, and the audience selects the best dancer to be the queen of the festival.
“Going down the highway feeling fine/ Doing 55 and right on time/ Looks up ahead and saw something in the highway, looks dead/ A bunch of buzzards standing around/ They all step back with a lot of hope/ Start doing the Buzzard Lope/ Flap your wings up and down/ Take a few steps back/ Go ‘round and ‘round,” the lyrics say.
“He has a way of making people laugh,” said Bonnie Kay Ambrose, who knew Stan for 25 years. “His jokes, he could spit them out one after another. He made everyone feel very special. When you talked to him, he gave you his undivided attention. He was always present in everything he did.”
Jeff Avery, owner of Hurricane Cycles who rode his motorcycle to Stan’s on the weekends, said Stan treated everyone equally and fairly.
“He treated everyone like they were small town, good people,” he said.
Ambrose said Stan advertised with her when she worked for a local radio station.
“He was good about giving people a break. I was young, I had never sold radio time, but he gave me a chance,” she said. “I am going to miss everything about him.”
The Mullet Festival brought national notoriety to Stan and The Buzzard Lope, and was featured on CNN and TBS television stations. But Russ Gober said his dad would prefer to be remembered “as a caring person who gave a lot back to the community.”
Stan worked tirelessly for the causes he believed in, friends said. He donated his restaurant for fundraisers and gave money to charity.
“I was on welfare as a little kid until I was about 12 years old. And we were given stuff. I just want to give back, I guess. I feel like the good Lord put me in a place where I can do that,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Kathleen Hughes-Scheetz, director of nursing for Accu-Care Nursing Service in Naples, said Stan was “One of the greatest humanitarians around.”
“He allowed anybody who needed help to hold fundraisers there. Not only did he do that, but he gave out of his own pocket,” she said. “He’s an icon in the community. So many people are going to miss him.”
Stan is survived by his girlfriend, Lynn Espejo; his four children — Rebecca, Russ, Steve and Jay; 11 grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.
Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, was a friend of Stan’s and said, even though they didn’t share the same politics, they got along.
“Stan was a good friend and a great guy. I’ll miss him,” Boehner said in a statement Tuesday.
The celebration of Stan’s life will start at noon Sunday at Stan’s Idle Hour, 221 Goodland Drive W. Per his wishes, Stan’s casket will be on the stage at the restaurant. At 2:30 p.m., the casket will be moved to the Marco Island Cemetery, 489 W. Elkham Circle, for burial next to his wife, Faye.
After the burial, all are invited back to Stan’s Idle Hour for a party, Russ Gober said.
“Not to mourn, just to have fun,” he said.