BY T MICHELE WALKER – Walk into Parsley-Baldwin Realty on any lovely Boca Grande day, and you’ll be greeted by a cheerful gentleman with a sunny smile. That gentleman is John Brandenberger, real estate agent and one of the original developers of the Boca Grande Club.
It’s hard to imagine John anywhere but here in Boca Grande, but he was born and raised in Evansville, Indiana. “A hometown boy,” as John describes himself.
“My family had a small grocery store business. My grandfather and my father had it. They looked at me to take over, and I said, ‘No thank you.’”
John knew early on that running a grocery store wasn’t for him, but that didn’t stop his parents from exposing him early to the joys of being in a family business. “I was sacking groceries at 9 years old. It was a mom-and-pop kind of deal. Of course, those days are gone when the neighborhood groceries were so vital to the community. The big box stores came in and killed that as an industry.”
John’s parents kept him busy at the store throughout his childhood. “Oh yes, I was sitting in the back of the store doing something. My parents just dragged me along. My dad worked the back and my mom worked the front, and I was just there getting in trouble,” John laughed.
A true blue hometown boy, John attended The University of Evansville. “I got a degree in education and was an avid athlete in high school and college, so I thought maybe I would be a football coach. I did that for a while but I found that my calling was more in management and marketing, which is how I ended up down here.”
John ended up in Memphis for four years when the opportunity to work in Florida presented itself. “I came to Florida in 1974. A friend of mine lured me down here to the Keys to the Ocean Reef Club which is in Key Largo where I worked for five years.”
For John Brandenberger, Florida was love at first sight. After working in Key Largo for five years, he was given the opportunity to work in Boca Grande.
“They transferred me over here to help get the Boca Grande Club started. So that’s how I got here. I built the restaurant and got it running and then stayed on as manager for a few years. I got involved in the construction and development side and did that until the early 1990s.”
That was back in 1979, and as John describes, “It was very laid back, much more so than where I came from. When we started the club construction, most resorts had nice landscaping. Our whole goal was kind of like being barefoot; ‘barefoot elegance’ I guess you would call it. Instead of putting down sod, we raked the sand so we didn’t have to mow the grass. We wanted to use the natural vegetation.”
It might be hard to believe today, but fitting into the community was an issue for the Boca Grande Club. “Just to fit into the community was a big challenge back then. The GICIA was just getting started and we were coming in. We had 60 acres that we purchased at the North End and the townspeople were a little bit concerned about how we were going to ruin their island,” John laughed. “It was a challenge being accepted in the community, but we were able to do that.”
John and his team faced other challenges. “The season ended at Easter. Winter folks went home. Maybe a few people in Arcadia, Wauchula and the center of the state would come down for a weekend, but not much. The other goal was to try to extend that season a little longer so that we could get people in our restaurant and support our rentals.”
From challenges come great opportunities and this was no exception. “That’s when we started the big tarpon tournament, ‘The World’s Richest’ at the time, and we were very successful with that. People loved it and we did that for four or five years until we turned it over to the Chamber of Commerce. People didn’t understand how wonderful it is here in May, June, and early July. It’s quiet and the fish are out of control. You can catch a lot of fish, and both backwater and tarpon.”
When asked what he loves most about Boca Grande, John answered with a laugh, “Well, I can give you the Chamber of Commerce answer and say, ‘What’s not to love?’ I think the people that I’ve met through the years stand out more than anything. When you’re involved with a higher-end resort like Ocean Reef or like Boca Grande Club or like Boca Grande itself, you meet such interesting and knowledgeable people. I can’t tell you how impressed I’ve been or how blessed I’ve been, I should say, with the folks that I’ve met and have been my mentors. They have guided me, we’ve laughed and we have cried. Their experiences and their tutelage over the years, it’s just been wonderful for me and I cherish that. I really do.”
John’s move to Boca Grande has not only provided him with work that he loves, but it’s also where he met his wife, Ann. Ann and John have two children, a son who lives in Englewood and a daughter who lives in Texas. Ann, a retired educator, taught psychology and in the last few years of her career was in charge of a higher-level learning program.
The Brandenbergers are an adventurous family who enjoys boating, swimming, and fishing. “My wife and kids, we like to travel and we’re avid boaters. We have hooked up with the Boston Whaler group and we go with them on different excursions. A couple of them have been to Bimini, three times in our boat. We enjoy it and we love to be on the water. The water over there is just spectacular.”
Bimini isn’t their only destination. “We will go up to Anna Maria Island and we’re going to Key West in July. We’ll go over to The Ocean Reef in Key Largo by water, so wherever we can and whenever we’ve got the time, we get everybody together and we try to have a little trip.”
John has a few bucket list trips in mind for their future. “We’re planning on an extended stay in the Bahamas. We’ll take the boat over and stay for a couple of months and just go through the islands. That’s our dream and we could pull that off within the next couple of years.”
Besides boating and travel, John loves to fish and hunt. “I enjoy anything outdoors, mostly bird hunting. I have Labradors. We train our dogs and hunt ducks. We go to Okeechobee and hunt over there and go out for excursions in the midwest, Texas, and different places. My son does most of the shooting.”
With the recent real estate boom, John and Parsley-Baldwin Realty have their hands full. “Boca Grande is still a small town. Even though Parsley-Baldwin is a boutique-type real estate company, we serve people and sell homes, but we take care of people. We’re not structured like a big corporation. We can have a lot of flexibility and we can do a lot of things in the community. If something changes we change with it. We don’t have to check with a big corporation to see if we can do things. What’s so good about a small business like this, is that it still can reach out to international clients, but our key thing is the community.”
For John, it’s all about lending a helping hand. It makes him feel good that he can help with real estate, or point people in a good direction.
“My best advice is that if you don’t have a plan, then don’t keep it, because this could go on or it could die tomorrow,” he said. “In 1999, I was asked by the owner at that time to come here, which I did. I’ve been here ever since, managing and selling and that type of thing. It’s been a very good home and we were blessed again to have good people in leadership here, like Michelle Finley and Jim Benson. They’re great to work with.”
Most people’s lives tend to go full circle, and John’s story is no exception. After starting at the age of nine packing groceries, John now finds great joy in working with the Helping Hand organization, where he delivers groceries to people in need.
“I am supposedly semi-retired,” John began with a chuckle. “But as the real estate market grew, I came back and am spending more time working because I just enjoy it so much. Then I got involved with The Helping Hand program. That’s one of the things that I enjoy. The Lighthouse Methodist Church has sponsored, or they’ve kind of adopted Englewood Helping Hand as one of their outreach programs. They collect food from the residents or renters before they go home.”
It was at a meeting when they asked for a volunteer to transport the food to Englewood, and John raised his hand.
“I go there every day, so every Tuesday I go by Jane’s because she collects the food around town and takes it to her house. I go to her house, we put it in my truck and off I go to the Helping Hand place in Englewood.”
John is impressed with The Helping Hand organization and the service they provide to those in need. “You don’t realize what all is involved in feeding people and how many people are really in need of food, especially young folks and especially during the COVID situation. The people of Boca Grande and the church have been very generous. We’ll have the blue barrel out at Parsley Baldwin. It’ll be the only barrel. They’ve collected all the rest of them for the summer, but we will still take food over whenever we have it. If anybody wants to drop anything off here, we will take care of it.”
John is modest about his contribution to the organization. “My part is very small, but I get to interact with the folks here and I interact with the folks at the Helping Hand office. I truly enjoy that.”
For more information on making a food donation, contact Lighthouse Methodist Church at (941) 964-2479 or Englewood Helping Hand at (941) 474-5864.