Treasure Coast Personalities

Country star comes home

Jake Owen searches the world for country music talent, participates in at least a dozen charity events every year and just raised more than $1.5 million for the Jake Owen Charity Foundation to help children. And that’s just his side job.

Throw in 53 concerts last year, five career studio albums, seven No. 1 singles, two top country music awards and weekly appearances on the music competition show, “Real Country” with Travis Tritt and Shania Twain.

Raised in Vero Beach, the 37-year-old Jake boasts to the world about his hometown, returning to it every December for visits with family and friends and performances for charity events.

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Jake Owen

The RESCUER

A self-named survivor whose own recovery is deeply-rooted in helping others — who share her pain — was moved to establish an organization nearly 10 years ago with just that purpose in mind.

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The TREASURE SALVAGER

Much like her famous father, diver and treasure hunter Mel Fisher, Taffi Fisher Abt has experienced monumental highs and heartbreaking lows, but her relentless perseverance and indomitable spirit continue to chart her course through life.

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The CAKE CREATOR

When she is not working 50 hours a week as a human resources manager and raising her teenage son, Maria Lopez Ruiz creates custom cakes for all occasions.

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The Parachutist

By Jerry Shaw
Skydiving is a thrilling sport for many adventurers. Dana Beach takes it a jump further with World War II escapades in the air.
He’s taken leaps over Normandy in northern France and the Netherlands with the Liberty Jump Team, a group of about 75 parachutists from around the country who pay tribute to the war heroes of battles in Europe. Most jumpers are veterans, but civilians also join after taking the team’s jump course.
Beach, who served in the Air Force for 25 years and has lived in Fort Pierce since 1979, has been to Holland and Belgium twice and three times to France. Next year, he will be visiting Normandy for the fourth time with the jump team in honor of D-Day’s 75th anniversary.
“We jump on two to six drops,” says Beach. “We jump on active drop zones used by the 82nd (Airborne Division) and the 101st.” They jump from 1,500 feet, using military static line parachutes, fixed cords attached to the aircraft and the jumper’s deployment bag. The team jumps from vintage C-47 aircraft, many of them that carried U.S. paratroopers for the D-Day landings.
“We wear World War Two uniforms that paratroopers wore,” Beach explains. However, it’s not necessarily a re-enactment as with some participants in dramatizing historic battles.
“Every jump is a real jump. We’re not re-enacting,” he notes. Liberty Jump Team includes vets all the way back to Vietnam.
“We usually have about 25 to 30 people for each event. Next year (in Normandy) there will probably be more.” Weather can be unpredictable. There could be six days of jumping if the weather in France holds out, as it did for the allied troops at the time.
Local residents get a thrill over watching the jumps. “People come from all over Europe.” They even use World War II equipment and vehicles left there from the war. That includes jeeps and tanks. Some of the residents hold bivouacs, temporary camps, during the events. “It’s a real sight to behold.”  Then there are those who still remember being liberated from occupation.

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“It’s heartening how appreciative the French people are to Americans, British and Canadians. They’re still appreciative for liberating them. They were occupied for four years.” Many of the grateful residents were growing up at the time of the war and welcome the group members into their homes. They tell stories of the trauma but also the comfort of overcoming German occupation, thanks to the Allied forces. Seeing these young men dressed in American uniforms helps bring back those pleasant memories. Another heartwarming aspect of the team’s exploits is meeting with vets both here and abroad during events. “About 13,000 paratroopers participated in D-Day. Vets become very important to the jump team because they can reveal details about battle.” On his visits to Belgium, Beach did not jump but toured World War II battlefields, including Battle of the Bulge sites. Two vets who were there joined him for the visit. “When you get to meet a World War Two veteran that fought in that battle, that’s an inspiration.” Beach joined Liberty Jump in 2016 after hearing about it from a friend who had earlier jumped over Normandy. The Air Force vet learned jumping at Fort Benning in Georgia, and he has also jumped at the post in recent years, such as during National Airborne Day, celebrated Aug. 16 each year. “I attended jump school 37 years ago. It’s a real honor to go back there and jump,” Beach says.

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After serving four years in the Air Force, Beach went back to join the pararescue reserve unit for 21 years. The unit was assigned to combat search and rescue, and that included supporting the space shuttle during flights in case of any emergencies. Beach was stationed in Homestead until Hurricane Andrew caused massive devastation in 1992, then he was assigned to Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County.
During those years, Beach, a native of Worcester, Massachusetts, came to Fort Pierce to work with the St. Lucie County Fire District for 35 years. He handled duties with fire rescue as well as with the pararescue reserve unit — including deployments to Kuwait in the first Gulf War and Turkey, Bosnia, Croatia and Albania from 1997 to 1999.
Aside from his jumping maneuvers with the team, Beach enjoys jumping at fields in Palatka, Dunnellon, and even Dallas. He also participates in jumping events at the Stuart Air Show.
Meeting other vets, whether with the jump team or on his own individual exercises, is part of the enjoyment. Friends span through the decades. Beach is impressed with many of them, including one 71-year-old Vietnam vet, an amputee, who continues to jump. Beach and friends didn’t even know he lost a leg until they saw him adjusting his artificial limb before a jump.
Memorabilia graces the living room of his home. He’s an avid reader of World War II books and research on 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions. He likes to talk history and battles, such as the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Market Garden in the occupied Netherlands, portrayed in the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far.
“I enjoy reading about it. It’s fascinating and enlightening to me, so when I go over there, I get a feel for it.”

Dana Beach

DANA BEACH
Age: 63
Lives in: Fort Pierce
Occupation: Retired; U.S. Air Force, St. Lucie County Fire District
Family: Daughter, Jessica Childs
Education: Barry University, Miami; two associate degrees and a bachelor’s degree
What inspires me: “Being able to go to these events and do the World War Two military style jumps and honor the veterans, and that includes all vets in all wars.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “I graduated U.S. Army Special Forces SCUBA School 1981. I was a military diver in pararescue for 21 years.”

 


The Riding Survivor


 

By Kerry Firth
Destiny altered paths for a woman diagnosed with cancer and an injured horse. They both needed  each other. “Our bond was instantaneous,” says Laurie Blakelock-Rodriguez. “I’m honestly not sure who rescued who.”
When faced with a dreaded diagnosis, some people turn to unconventional ways to cope, and that was the case for Blakelock-Rodriguez. After a routine mammogram showed irregularities and a biopsy was suspicious, she opted for a double mastectomy after discussing the options with her surgeon. The surgery uncovered a small cancerous tumor
in her right breast with positive lymph nodes that were also removed.
It was during her path to recovery that she decided she needed a distraction and a new reason to get up and fight.
“When you are faced with cancer, your life suddenly becomes measured in the time before and after the disease,” says the Vero Beach realtor. “I had gone through the surgery and chemotherapy when my husband took me on a cruise. We watched the movie about the famous racehorse Secretariat and a light bulb went off. I knew then and there I would rescue a horse and focus my energy on his caring and training. Somehow in my heart, I knew that the right horse would help me through the upcoming radiation and give me a new purpose in life.”
As a former hunter rider at shows, she knew that thoroughbred horses made good jumpers. She was looking for a horse that had the heart and stamina to jump but was also calm enough to respect her reentry into casual riding after decades of absence.
She heard about Pure Thoughts Horse Rescue in Loxahatchee that took in retired racehorses. Filled with anticipation, she and her husband drove down to scout out prospects.
“We opened the gates and this little brown gelding nickered at us,” she remembers. “He was very friendly. It was almost like he chose me. I wasn’t convinced that he was big enough, but the owner pointed out that he was standing in a ditch. So sure enough, when he followed us up to higher ground, he was the perfect height.”
His name was New Fandan, known to those in the barn as Danny, and he had quite an illustrious career on the track before injuring his ankle and retiring. He was bred in Brazil where he raced as a 3- and 4-year-old, then went to Gulfstream as a 5-year-old. He also raced at Belmont and Santa Anita and, in 2009, won the John Henry Stakes as a 20-1 longshot where he rallied from last place to first, catapulting himself into the spotlight as a 6-year-old.

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Laurie Blakelock-Rodriguez and Danny spend quiet time
at the stable now that they are no longer competing in events.

After 31 starts, his injury forced his retirement and he was sent to Pure Thoughts Horse Rescue. It was there that his new life, after his own health diagnosis, began as a therapy horse.
“I needed him, he needed me, and the rest is history,” Blakelock-Rodriguez explains. “During those first two years of recovery, I would spend time with Danny, and just for a few hours my cancer concerns would fade away. He had a way of making me forget about the disease, and the two of us could just drift away to another world on our trail rides.”
While Danny was born a racehorse, he quickly became a willing and accomplished jumper. On the trail he would jump avines instead of walking down them, and he quickly learned to jump fences with inches to spare. One day while riding Danny, Blakelock-Rodriguez fell and broke her pelvis in three places. As she recovered she decided to let a professional trainer work with Danny and unleash his full potential.

Over the years Danny has had several trainers and riders and has become a major contender on the hunting circuit.
“I love watching him clear the fences,” Blakelock-Rodriguez says. “He’s got such fluidity and grace. It’s like he’s dancing on the turf and sailing through the air.” Danny is now recognized as the number-one thoroughbred and local hunter in the Horse Shows in the Park circuit where he has been awarded “champion” at just about every show.
“I still ride, but I leave the competition and training to the younger riders,” she says. “I just love watching them perform. I compare it to watching my children in sports when they were young. It’s so rewarding.”
Blakelock-Rodriguez credits Danny to literally saving her life. The surgery may have removed the cancer, but Danny removed her pain and suffering.
“Horse lovers will understand the connection between a horse and his owner,” she says. “Danny knows instinctively when I’ve had a bad day and he always greets me with a friendly whinny. Now instead of thinking of my life before and after cancer, I think of it as before and after Danny. Honestly, you never know what life’s challenges will uncover.
“I never would have rescued Danny if I didn’t have breast cancer and I never would have experienced his unconditional love. My husband is a cardiologist, and he believes that getting Danny was better than any medicine that could have been prescribed. It’s funny how some of life’s darkest moments can open up some of the brightest future.”

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Competing in the Horse Shows in the Park circuit, Danny earned a multitude of ribbons.

When Blakelock-Rodriguez isn’t riding or visiting Danny at the stable, she sells real estate for Coldwell Banker Paradise. Not surprisingly, she says, “I specialize in equestrian properties. Having been in the horse circle for the past ten years, I know where the horse lovers live and who’s coming and going.”
Danny, however, is currently the one needing rehabilitation. He’s been lame for about two months and the veterinarians haven’t determined a cause yet.
“I pray that he will pull through this,” says the teary-eyed rider. “We’re not sure what the cause is, but we are just loving and nurturing him as he heals. He knows that no matter what, I will take care of him. If it turns out he can’t jump anymore, that’s OK. We’ve been inseparable for nine years now and we’re in it for life. Maybe it will be just the two of us again, walking through the pasture and counting our blessings.”

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Younger riders, like Olivia Jacobs took over the competitions, prior to his ankle injury.

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LAURIE BLAKELOCK-RODRIGUEZ
Age: 61
Lives in: Vero Beach
Occupation: Realtor for Coldwell Banker Paradise
Family: Husband, Dr. Victor Rodriguez-Viera; daughter, Katie Klapsa; son, Christopher Klapsa; two grandchildren
Education: Bachelor’s in liberal studies from Barry University, Miami; associate of science degree in nursing, Edison College at University of Kentucky; broker license in real estate, 2009
What inspires me: “Faith, hope and love.”
What most people don’t know about me: “I love sports. My two favorite teams are the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.”

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