Bradenton trio hoping Saturday's sale will keep program going

vmannix@bradenton.comNovember 27, 2013 

CORTEZ

The deep sea fishing pole must have been at least twice Al Cini's size as he held it admiringly in the cramped storage bay.

"Just look at that," the 5-foot-7 angler said, rolling it over in his calloused hands. "Nice."

Joe DeFrancesco looked up from the fishing reel he was fixing.

"You can catch whales with that baby," he said.

"Or sharks," said Al Saunders, sitting nearby.

Cini laughed as he carefully replaced the towering fishing pole.

"Nothing wrong with that rod," he said.

No, there wasn't.

The same also goes for hundreds of other shiny rods bundled and stacked around the storage bay. They were propped up in laundry baskets, garbage cans and plastic detergent drums.

All around, too, were soup pots and buckets and boxes spilling over with reels for the rods.

"They're all ready to go," said Cini, a bit wistfully.

The trio of native Michiganders have repaired thousands of donated rods and reels for years and given them to needy children, including those at area Title 1 elementary schools. But their grassroots program, "Al's Free Rods for Kids," may be nearing an end.

Age is catching up.

"Just can't do it anymore," said Saunders, who's 88.

Cini is 82.

DeFrancesco, the youngster, is 75.

"I call one 'Grandpa' and the other one, 'Pop,' " he joked.

They'll all be in the parking lot at Ace's Lounge, 4343 Palma Sola Blvd., from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday selling all that precious gear.

"If we can sell these and make enough to pay the rent, we'll get more poles, buy more parts, sit here and be busy," Cini said. "But if someday someone wants to take it over?"

Whatever happens, count Shirin Gibson among those who hope they continue their noble endeavor a bit longer.

"I'd love to see them again," said the principal at Tillman Elementary School.

So would Kathy Redmond.

"Those men are awesome," said the principal at Blackburn Elementary School.

"Their mission is so touching," said Ace's owner Renee Bennett.

Such love warms the hearts of Saunders and Cini, boyhood pals who are "Yoopers," natives of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, as well as DeFrancesco, who grew up south of the Mackinac Bridge that connects the U.P. and Michigan.

"They call us 'trolls' because we grew up under the bridge," he kidded.

The fixing fishing rods undertaking started with Saunders, a Purdue University-educated engineer, whose reputation spread around Iron Mountain, his and Cini's hometown.

"Somebody would come to my house and say, 'Can you fix my fishing rod for me?' I'd do it. Pretty soon, two, three kids would come at a time with their fishing rods to fix," he said.

Saunders ended up collecting rods and reels and, with Cini's help, started giving them to children in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

It continued when they retired to Florida 30 years ago.

"We have a route for all the tackle shops from Tampa to Venice that'd save (discarded) rods for us," Saunders said. "Once a season, we'd take the big van and we'd make a trip and collect all of them."

Groups like the Anna Maria Island Privateers helped, too.

"They'd go up and down the island, knock on doors, say, 'We'll be back in a month. Get your old fishing rods ready,'" Cini said. "Bring in over 100-200 at a crack."

The trio spends hours in the storage bay, repairing poles, applying epoxy to them and making old reels hum like new.

"See this," DeFrancesco said, holding a deep sea reel. "It wasn't working when we got it and now it's like brand new. Al (Cini) took it apart, shined it up on the grinder, cleaned it all up and put this baby back together. Works like a charm. Just beautiful."

It certainly is in the eyes of children like those at Tillman and Blackburn, who have benefited from the men's kindness and expertise.

Saunders, Cini and DeFrancesco don't just bring reels and leave them, understand. They take the time to match kids -- 25 to 50 at a time -- with the right size rods and reels, too.

"They spend time mentoring these children who don't have access to those things," Tillman's Gibson said. "Fishing is something they all want to do, rather than hang out on the streets. It raises their self-esteem."

Redmond agreed.

"These kids come from families who do not have that at the top of their priority list," the Blackburn principal said. "They help these kids have that experience and get them to understand how giving back to the community makes such a difference. They're role models, doing something that matters."

Sadly, their own days of fishing are mostly behind them.

Heading 80 miles out of Longboat Pass and fishing all night was a regular thing.

No more.

"The last fish I caught -- a 58-pound black grouper -- almost killed me," Saunders said. "By the time I landed him, I was done."

Hopefully, they're not done fixing donated fishing rods and giving them away to appreciative youngsters who will use them.

Cini hopes so, too.

"I got two new hips, two new shoulders, two new knees, had two strokes, colon cancer, open heart surgery and I'm still here," he said. "Why? To do this."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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