BY SUE ERWIN – If you are a regular commuter to Boca Grande on the weekends, you’re sure to have met Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority toll worker Ron Bogner.
Ron has been working the booths at the bridge since 2011.
Originally from Yucca Valley California, a town just north of Palm Springs, Ron was a master mechanic and business owner from the time he was a young man.
Before moving to Florida with his better half, Janie, he owned an automotive truck and repair shop in California for 27 years.
Ron and Janie have been together for 45 years. They moved to Florida more than a decade ago because they were ready for a change of scenery.
“We lived in the desert for close to 30 years and I thought if we’re going to make a move, we might as well move to the complete opposite of the spectrum, so we ended up in Florida,” he said.
Janie had a friend who lived in Englewood, and after visiting and exploring southwest Florida, Ron and Janie decided to make this their home.
Ron is an avid fisherman, so when he discovered this area he immediately wanted to make the move.
“I didn’t want to move to someplace where I couldn’t fish whenever I felt like it,” he said.
Before working at GIBA, Ron had been self-employed for his entire career. He and his brother shared a hobby of working on cars throughout high school. After graduating, he took a few advanced automotive courses and eventually opened up a shop with his brother and his father.
They leased an existing gas station that was available and added a repair center and ran that business for about 10 years.
Then his father became ill and passed away, and his brother pursued a diesel-trucking career.
The lease eventually came up for renewal on the gas station property, and the owners decided to sell the place.
“So there was a three-month gap where I had to decide if I wanted to buy that place or go somewhere else. And we decided we wanted a change,” Ron said.
Janie’s parents had moved down to the desert valley to a small town that had about 5,000 residents.
“So we went down there without jobs and literally just what we could carry, with the intention that we would live in our camper for a while until we decided our next move.”
At first, Ron wanted to build a new building and start a new business from scratch.
Three days later he walked into a local auto repair shop, and the owner told him the shop was for sale.
Ron inquired about the cost, and it was a very reasonable price, so he went home and discussed it with Janie.
“We were looking forward to taking some time off and traveling, but it was a good opportunity and a cheap price, so we decided to buy it,” he said.
The very next day Ron went to work at the shop.
He installed additional bay doors and a separate semi/trailer bay. It was the largest repair shop in the area.
“We did everything – if it had wheels on it, we could fix it,” Ron said.
He hired five mechanics to help with the work, and they also repaired boat motors.
“My main automotive customers wanted air conditioning. Back in those days, cars came out without air, and if you wanted it you had to install it – and nobody else did that in the area.”
So he ended up doing air conditioning work for the three car dealers in town, aside from his regular customers.
He also offered Ryder rental trucks as an additional service to customers.
Janie worked in the office and did the paperwork and customer service.
“The town was so small that you could walk into a bank and make a deal in one day. But it’s really grown. Now there are close to 40,000 people who live there,” he said.
He sold that shop after 27 years and they moved to Englewood in 2003. He took a couple of years off after relocating to Florida to focus on local fishing. He mostly enjoys intercoastal fishing in his Cobia center-console boat.
“I stay around the islands and usually don’t really go too far out. I’d like to be able to swim back to shore if something bad happened.” He said.
He has caught his share of redfish, snook and trout – and had a close call with a big one that he tried to reel in for nearly 75 minutes, but it snapped the line and got away.
“It pulled me around the boat for more than an hour. It took all the line. I couldn’t keep up with it. I had a friend with me, and we switched on and off trying to get it close to the boat, but we were wiped out. We never did get to see it,” he said.
After a few years, it seemed like Ron had too much time on his hands, so he decided to look for a part-time job. He saw an advertisement in the classified section of a local newspaper for the toll worker position and decided to apply.
“It really is an interesting job. There’s a lot more to it than most people would think. It’s not an easy job; there’s a lot of paperwork involved. And greeting and counting money from more than 800 people every day can be draining,” Ron said.
Working the booth allows him the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. He’s spoken with visitors from France, Germany and many other countries.
“I think I must know every person who works at The Inn by now,” Ron said.
“Then there are the dogs. We keep small, medium and large dog biscuits in all of the booths for them.”
The toll workers also act as the first friendly greeters of the island, welcoming guests and answering any questions they might have about Boca Grande.
People also often ask him questions about such things as the beach conditions and if there is any red tide in the area.
One customer wanted her toll money refunded after a jellyfish stung her child, who had been in the water for less than ten minutes.
“That’s when your customer service skills have to kick in. You have to know how to handle people,” Ron said.
When Ron is not working, he enjoys golfing, boating and fishing. He used to enter a lot of bass fishing tournaments when he lived in California.
Over the years, he has owned several campers and recreational vehicles, and the family would often travel around the west coast.
“We lived 120 miles away from the Colorado River, and we used to drive out to the river every Friday afternoon after work and play by the river all weekend. We’d spend time fishing and waterskiing. Then on Sunday evening we’d pack up and drive back home. We did that for years while the kids were growing up. It was a lot of fun,” Ron said.
Ron’s mother still lives in Los Angeles. “She still lives in the same house that she bought in 1953 – the same house I grew up in. She just turned 92 this year,” Ron said.
One son, Danny, lives in Yucca Valley, Calif. and his other son, Scott, lives in Englewood.
“Scott lived in Ohio for a while, but he moved down here because he didn’t like the snow. Danny actually owns two houses: one in California and one in Portland, Oregon.”
Ron has four grandchildren: Harrison, Emily, Andrew and Sarah, all of whom he enjoys visiting whenever he gets the chance.
Look for Ron’s friendly face in the bridge toll booths on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and be sure to say hello.