Local man ‘holds’ Oldest City’s history

By Lauren Belcher | cbelcher@flagler.edu
Photos by Lauren Belcher

Jerry Kass, 96, is a retired Marine and long time Jewish resident of St. Augustine. He first visited the city in 1930, moved there in 1937 and has lived across the street from Flagler College, then Ponce de León Hotel, ever since.

Kass’ house has a large front porch. The mat at the door has a picture of a dustpan and a broom that says Schmootz, and he has a banner nailed into the door frame that says Shalom. Kass spends most of his time sitting on this porch.

“I sit on the porch and people drop by,” he said.

Kass has salt-and-pepper-colored hair, bright blue eyes and a mustache. His smile lights up the room and it’s hard to believe his kind voice was once a sports announcer for 60 years. Of all his awards, he said, being inducted into the St. Johns County Sports Hall of Fame in 1995 is the one that makes him giggle the most.

His son Barry, 65, took over his father’s job and is the current sports announcer for the town.

More impressive than that, Kass has been a member of the Kiwanis Club of St. Augustine for almost 65 years. According to the club’s website, “Kiwanians are volunteers changing the world through service to children and communities.” He still attends meetings every Tuesday.

“In a few months it will be my 65th year [at Kiwanis] and I have perfect attendance,” Kass said. “I tell them, ‘I’m a good member, and I don’t want to pay for meals I don’t eat,’ because you have to pay for them whether you eat them or not.”

One of the projects for which Kass volunteered was reading stories to second graders. Kass said it’s been so long since he’s been able to actively volunteer, that some of the children have graduated high school. As long as the volunteer work is not physically demanding, he said he still loves to give back to the community.

Kass said the governor of Florida once granted him the Governor’s Points of Light Award for his volunteer work.

According to a Florida government press release from June 2007, then Gov. Charlie Crist said, “Jerry’s leadership and enthusiasm for volunteering has enriched the lives of many in his community . . . His lifelong service to others is inspirational to all of us.”

Although Kass cannot do as much as he used to, he is a proud holder of the history of this city. He has journals full of notes and memories, as well as photo albums capturing time he spent in St. Augustine with his late wife of 67 years, Rita.

She passed away in 2009 and it is clear from the Kass’ journals how much he loved her. He spoke fondly of her, laughing as though he had a personal joke he wasn’t sharing.

“I never imagined that I could miss someone so much,” Kass said.

Kass and his wife moved into a house near Lake Maria Sanchez in 1937 after graduating from the University of Florida. Despite the amount of time that has passed, Kass is still a die-hard Gators fan.

“I just love the University of Florida and all that,” he said. “So I joined the alumni association.”

Also in the journals is a list of “What used to be here.” On that list was the Ponce de León Hotel.

“What’s interesting about that building [the Flagler’s Ponce Hall] is Kiwanis used to meet there,” he said. “We had to wear a coat and tie when we went to eat at the Ponce de León. I was inducted into Kiwanis at the Ponce de León Hotel.”

Also on his list was the YMCA center, where the Flagler tennis courts now reside. He said it was two stories tall and it had an outdoor swimming pool that was extremely cold because it was filled with well water straight from the ground.

Kass described how Lincolnville had a “colored” drug store called Iceberg and West King Street was called “New Augustine.” There were five grocery stores within five blocks and there was a skating ring on Master’s Drive, he said.

Vilano beach had a large casino and development hadn’t even started on Anastasia Island. What is now Martin Luther King Ave. was Central Ave. Kass also said no one needed a driver’s license to drive.

“But we didn’t have this traffic,” he said. It was mostly trolley and railroad transportation then, he recalled. “Little by little they [the city] get rid of all the Old St. Augustine feeling.”

Kass has no plans of leaving the city he has called home for over 70 years. With his timeless eyes, he will continue to sit on his porch and see a city that is long gone from the memories of most St. Augustine locals.

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