OBITUARY: Dennis Oller remembered …

December 15, 2022
By Marcy Shortuse

There are many people who love Boca Grande. There are a lucky few who are from Boca Grande. But there are some people who are Boca Grande. Dennis Oller was one of those people. 

His love of the island began when he moved here at the age of 9, in 1966, and it continued until the day he died, December 10. 2022, in Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

Dennis was born on May 27, 1957, but surprisingly, not in Florida. His family is from Peoria, Ill.

He was born to Jack and Mabel Oller, the sixth baby of six. 

When the family – including Dennis and his five brothers and sisters – packed up and moved to Boca Grande, it was at the urging of their good friends Ray and Eileen Maus, who built the Laff-a-Lott (later known as South Beach Bar & Grille). Dennis’ mom worked there, while his dad worked for Griffin Builders.

The family stayed at The Anchor Inn, then bought the Palmetto Inn not long after they moved here. When Jack and Mabel retired to Georgia they sold the Palmetto to Bev Furtado.

Dennis met the Joiner family right after the Ollers moved to the island and became close friends with Wayne, in particular. The late Isabelle Joiner adopted him as another son, and when Dennis’ parents moved away to retire in Ellijay, Ga., sometime about 1978, Dennis stayed behind and started living full time at Whidden’s Marina. 

As the boys got older they worked together on projects like building the Boca Grande Club and Sea Oats. Dennis worked from time to to time as a salmon fishing guide at Kiklukh Lodge in remote Cordova, Alaska and Wayne joined him one year. Other years Lamar Joiner Jr. and Travis Joiner went with him.

Dennis did odd jobs for numerous property owners on the island but his favorite “jobs” were fishing and boating. He was a tarpon tournament judge for almost every competition and sailed boats around the world, delivering them to people. 

Dennis was a very private person, but he loved the island kids (he never had any of his own). He spent a lot of time teaching the local children how to fish … among other things. “Don’t tell your mom,” was one thing you heard him say frequently if you were a Boca Grande youngster in those days.

Candy Brooks was his friend and neighbor. 

“He never shut his car door, from the day I started living here,” she said. “He would just leave it wide open, keys in the car. At first I was afraid to go in his car or touch it to close it up, but one day I finally said, ‘Hey, Dennis. Your car door is open.”

“Well, shut it,” he said.

And she continued to shut that car door until Dennis went to his sister’s house just before the hurricane.

Candy recalled that all of the dogs from Whidden’s used to hang out with Dennis, especially a little black dog named Coco that was owned by Melissa Joiner Steyer. Coco passed away suddenly, not too long before the hurricane.

“Losing Coco broke his heart,” Candy said.

Reggie Norman is a former manager at Gasparilla Island State Park who now lives out of the area. He recalled much time spent with Dennis and said he was his “little brother.”

“He was my fishing buddy for so long,” Reggie said. “He’s going to be missed by a lot of people. Any time I needed anything done, he was the first one to step up. He and Baldy (Rinaldi, who has also passed away) were some of my closest friends. They helped with every tournament, every party I had.”

Sid Lewis was one of Dennis’ very best friends and they fished together for more than 35 years.

“My kids loved him, I loved him,” Sid said. “This doesn’t even seem real yet.”

Dennis’ sister Carol Leach said that Dennis was a true baby of the family. He was treated a little bit differently than the rest of the kids, as the last baby often is. That attitude seemed to be reflected in how he lived his entire life. 

“He was never married, had no kids, he did what he wanted,” Carol said. “One day I was a little frustrated with him and asked him why he was living that way. He said something I will always remember. He said, ‘I don’t do anything that makes me unhappy.’ And it was true … he never did. Sometimes he’d just jump on a boat and sail it to Belize. Or the Bahamas. He did whatever he wanted.”

His family said one thing that stood out about Dennis was his honesty – the type of honesty that is rare in this day and age. It came with his credo of just being himself: If he liked you, he liked you. If he didn’t, you knew it. 

Good or bad, you always knew where you stood with Dennis Oller.

Melissa Joiner Steyer, usually a woman of few words, wanted to find them on this occasion but they escaped her. He was her brother from another mother, she said. He was family. He was so very loved. 

“I was thinking about how I always say ‘love you’  when hanging up the phone. There are very few that say it back, but Dennis always did. He would say, ‘Love You Lil Sis.’”

Just a few days before Dennis passed away he knew that it was the end. After his first heart attack years ago he claimed he was not ready for any type of “do not rescusitate” measures. This time was different. He started making phone calls from the ambulance, telling people he loved him. When his sister came to the hospital he waved a wrist at her with a red band. A DNR band. 

He never went home after the hurricane – instead, he stayed with his sister Pam in Englewood. The storm ruined his apartment. His Coco was gone. He had been disheartened by changes in Boca Grande for some time. 

He was ready to go. So he made his arrangements, wrapped up his affairs and told his people that he loved them.

Then he left our island to join many of his friends, family and more than a few dogs in the next world.

Dennis was preceeded in death by his parents, Jack and Mabel Oller of Ellijay, Ga.; his sister, Barbara Camano of Boca Grande; and another sister, Phyllis Moss, of Englewood.

He is survived by two sisters, Pam DeBrun of Englewood and Carol Leach of Ellijay, Ga.; a brother, Richard Oller, of Chillicothe, Ill.; and numerous nieces and nephews. 

A celebration of his life will be held at a later time. 

The family wants to thank Dennis’ island family for all of the love they gave him. They know who they are. They are the ones who made this island Dennis’ safe place, the place where he felt most secure and happy since his first years of life.