BY JACK SHORT – This is probably the first time one of our profiles has admitted so readily they were part of a cult. That news will no doubt come as a surprise to so many who know Gary Cross as an enthusiastic part of the Boca Grande community, through his volunteer work or even his work at the Barnichol, where he’s the general manager.
To be fair, it’s sort of a barbecue-centered cult, which is pretty innocuous, but how else are we supposed to bring the readers in?
Before becoming swept up by the charismatic recruiters dispatched by the Holy Order of the Green Egg, Gary was an unassuming guy from Muskegon, Mich. He didn’t say too much about the area, but I asked a friend, Jason, who also grew up there to describe it.
“It’s a rust-belt, tourist town,” he said, “with a doomed manufacturing center, trying to reinvent itself using microbreweries.”
Gary probably missed the microbrewery boom. He grew up there with his father, Gary, who worked for 27 years as a prison guard until he retired, and trained in wrestling and Jiu Jitsu.
“You couldn’t get a lot past him,” Gary said.
Gary stayed in Muskegon through high school. While in school he worked with the Youth Volunteer Corps helping replant causeways, participating in community builds and helping kids at a special needs camp.
“I like helping people,” he said.
When he finished high school, he spent some time in college studying to become a physical therapist assistant, but decided to curtail his academic pursuits after some experience in the field.
“It wasn’t me,” he said. “It wasn’t where I saw myself.”
He said that, instead, he would rather work with his hands, to design and build things.
As a kid, he’d helped his dad fix up an old Jeep, something he hopes to repeat with his 3-year-old daughter, Alaina.
Alaina’s mom, Nichole, moved with Gary to Florida 10 years ago. Gary was working at a Herman Miller furniture factory in Muskegon. He called himself a “factory rat.”
“It was nice because it was hands on,” he said. But Nichole’s parents had some rental properties here and they decided to take a chance on the Sunshine State.
They weren’t dating at the time – they were just friends. They dated people in Florida, Gary said, and lived together as roommates before they decided to date each other.
“We hung out together,” he said, “laughed, and had a great time.”
Gary worked at first as a cook at Marker 17, later renamed the Tiki Bar, at Stump Pass. One of the Marker 17 waitresses’ husband needed help where he worked at Mike Douglas Plumbing, and so Gary went to work there. He stuck with plumbing until the downturn forced his boss to let him go.
He went to work for the Gasparilla Marina, washing boats and doing small repairs. He drove the forklift occasionally, he said, but tried to minimize his forklift duties. He seemed to recall the experience with some amount of shell shock, so I didn’t press the issue.
He had also started work at the Barnichol by then as general help, in 2009. He did basic grunt work, but he was also “messing around” with their sticker production, which began as a small service for printing marine letters, and has blossomed into a full enterprise, now that he’s the GM.
He enjoys his work at the hardware store, and said he appreciates the opportunity to interact with people more frequently and more meaningfully than he could at the marina.
After the owner purchased a few new machines, they now print logos and letters on everything from cups and cutting boards, to mounted bottle openers and canvases.
Gary said he can work at the hardware store and still have some time and energy to spend meaningful time with his family at the end of the day.
“I’m happy and my family’s happy,” he said, “and I get to spend a lot of time with them.”
He’ll need some energy to contend with Alaina, whom he referred to as the “king of the house.” She is an active fisherman, loves golf cart rides, and trips to the Tampa Aquarium.
She used to spend mornings with him at the store but is now enrolled at a daycare program on the island. Gary is excited to enroll her at The Island School.
“I’d like her to be a part of Boca Grande,” he said. “It’s just different out here. We all work together.”
And Gary’s put his money where his mouth is, volunteering with a youth group at the Boca Grande United Methodist Church, and participating in community theater. He said he also tries to be involved with chamber activities such as the World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament.
He and Nichole have moved out of her parents’ rental house and bought their own, but he said they may move again – not far, mind you – just into a larger house. He’d like to have another kid.
In the meantime, he grills, he said, probably four nights a week on his Green Egg. He cooks meat and vegetables, uses the smoker to make ribs or pork butt, and cooks homemade pizzas and more.
“Any excuse I can find to use that thing …” he said.