> Tony Sasso, Executive Director and Man with a Plan
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Tony Sasso, Executive Director and Man with a Plan
Story by Dharma Mum Gayla Schaefer
Photos courtesy of Sean O'Hare and East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame and Museum
I have been doing the Hall of Fame profiles for a few months now and decided to back up this month and catch someone I missed at the start.
Tony Sasso is the man with the plan that I mentioned in my introduction to the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame and Museum profiles a few months back. When I did that story, I missed Tony and before I jump too far ahead, I think it best to stop and get to know the guy.
Sasso is the Executive Director of the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame and Museum in Cocoa Beach, an important sounding title to be sure – but he is also a pretty cool guy who happens to be on the Cocoa Beach City Commission, checks for human rights violations against seafarers for a living and, of course, is a lifelong surfer.
"I have surfed most of my life," he told me recently when I was checking in on the museum. "I grew up in the St. Pete Beach/Treasure Island area, but I used to come over here every weekend and camped at Jetty Park before it was Jetty Park. We would pull up in the dunes and sleep in our cars or on the beach."
As Sasso got older and started surfing more "formally," he traveled around the world for the sport.
"It's more than just a sport," he corrected me. "It's a lifestyle. It is one of the reasons I moved to Cocoa Beach. My family and I chose Cocoa Beach for many reasons, but one of those reasons was for the surf. I knew I could do it here almost all year round and it is the surf capital of the East Coast."
The Sassos moved to Cocoa Beach in 1999, and Tony is part of the Fourth Street North Crew – surfing the area around 4th Street as often as he can.
An inspector for the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), an international organization where he inspects ships for seafarer's rights issues –making sure foreign crew members are being paid and fed, being repatriated, getting medical attention, etc.—Sasso is committed to his job since he worked as a Marine Engineer on ships for many years.
"It's a tough business working on some of these ships," he explained. "They are flagged from somewhere else and managed from somewhere else. It's real easy to see seafarer abuse. I came ashore through the union I worked for and have been working for 20 years as an inspector."
Now in his second term and sixth year with the Cocoa Beach City Commission, Sasso is not planning on running for the seat again.
As one of the only Political Science majors left on Earth who didn't become a lawyer, I have to interject here and say that hopefully we locals won't let him get out of local politics all together! In all my years around these parts, I have met few who seemed like regular Joes who would actually give us beach bums the time of day if we didn't belong to one of those super fundraising organizations. This guy impressed the hell out of me, and I don't mind putting that in print!
Had to get that off my chest. Sorry. Now back to the story…
Once Tony and his wife, Athena, moved to the home of astronauts, Jeannie Dreams and Ron Jon, they met Sean O'Hare and got involved in the Cocoa Beach Surf Museum that Sean had started over at the Natural Art Surf Shop.
"Honestly, I have to give Sean so much credit," Tony said. "He started it. He got it going. When I got involved, we saw that we could take it to another level and we decided to switch positions."
Having talked at length with Sean about the move, I can say with certainty that these two guys made the management decision together. There seems to be nothing but mutual respect — just two smart guys looking out for history. Very cool.
So Tony became the director and Sean the curator of the all-volunteer effort.
"We started talking to some folks about the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame, which at that time had no facility," remembered Tony. "It was an organization that inducted Hall of Famers. We started talking to Cecil Lear, president of the Hall of Fame, and we put together a merger."
Around the time of the merger, Tony and Sean had been putting the word out that they wanted a bigger pad to call home for the budding cultural attraction.
"With what we were doing, we needed to expand. In the process, Ron Jon stepped up and said, ‘Here is what we can do for you.’ They opened their doors and even built it out for us."
Ron Jon Surf Shop donated a space inside their existing beach rental facility adjacent to the mega-store and gave it to the museum for basically nada.
"They gave us an extremely low-cost lease – basically free. They have been extremely generous and a lot of people don't realize that the space was built out by them. It was probably $50 to $60 thousand of work to take the old beat up storage room with no drywall, but they built it out and agreed to rent it to us for $1 a year for a five-year lease."
The guys at Ron Jon may be tough businesspeople, but they saw the importance of the two organizations started by O’Hare and Lear.
" Whenever we’ve needed help, Ron Jon has been the first to respond," said Sasso. It has been a mutually respectful and very good relationship."
Now Sasso, O'Hare and new volunteer coordinator, John Hughes, are re-organizing the volunteer structure of the museum and making such grand things as master plans and other whatnot needed to eventually grow into a first-class Hall of Fame and museum that gets its fair share of grants and financial support like the more traditional houses of cultural history.
The website is being improved and more historical accounts and records are being sought to help make sure the influence of the surf culture of the East Coast is not forgotten.
"There is a very significant historical aspect in what we are doing: how it affected American culture from the clothes we wear to the X Games and all the extreme sports that really developed from the early surfers like Dick Catri, Bruce Valluzzi and Greg Noll who took it to the extreme," he explained.
The museum folks noticed that there is a void from 1945-50 as to what was going on with surfing on the East Coast and that so much was never written down. I was amazed to hear about how this was related to World War II and how much more impractical and expensive it was to bring boards back to the East Coast from the Pacific Theater.
"There were so many more people and there weren't huge expanses of open beaches for guys who sort of vagabonded. If you look back historically West Coast versus East Coast, whether coming from the Pacific Theater or not, more East Coast guys were coming back to already-existing factory jobs and the guys on the West Coast weren’t."
It seems there is no real East Coast resource for historians looking into surfing to go to right now, which completely stinks. So the museum is talking about beginning an association with one of the colleges to create a better resource for researchers.
"What I want to do is look at someone who is willing to incorporate as part of their class structure to do research and share resources and make sure it is available to the museum," he said. "A lot of photographs, films and oral history needs preserving and we don't yet have the ability, but we can help somebody do that right now."
Another new focus for the man in charge is straightening out the management chart so that long-standing volunteers who have always just jumped in to help as needed are recognized by a title and their place in that structure. A high-dollar fundraiser is even in the works.
Now, don't get turned off by the dollars and cents of it all.
If the place is going to thrive – which it will - these are the things that have to happen so it can. It sounds boring and dull – but really it's very exciting and cool that these guys are making this for the rest of us!
My old buddy "Hutch" a.k.a. Richard Hutcherson, director of sales and marketing at the Holiday Inn Oceanfront Resort in Cocoa Beach, is going to be taking a more active role with museum publicity.
This is a good thing. I know Hutch well; he came from Busch Gardens and Discovery Cove and was a good friend to me in my fledgling days doing marketing and PR for the Brevard Zoo. I reminded the executive director at the Cocoa Beach Area Chamber of Commerce recently when she was talking about the chocolate and champagne event in Cocoa Village, that it was old Hutch who first shot the idea around the table at a CVB meeting years ago – get it? Cocoa – chocolate?
It was a great idea and I know it was his. I was there when he brought it up – but you know how people forget those things later. (At least most people…) The Holiday Inn has been great to the museum, Tony told me. They host the annual Waterman's Challenge each year, a family-friendly and really affordable event that Sasso said he has no plans of tampering with to make into a big income generator.
"We decided to keep Waterman's Challenge small and focused," he explained. "We're not looking for beer sponsors. Parents say this is one of the best events and they love bringing their kids because it is easily affordable to get together and do that."
Tony and I talked at length about the growing pains that a non-profit founded and run by volunteers has to go through. I was there while Brevard Zoo went through those tribulations, and I don't envy him the task. What I can say is that he definitely has his head screwed on right when it comes to making sure the people that made this place and love it don't get lost in the shuffle as the place gets bigger. As he told me about the plans for turning the annual anniversary event into a high-dollar fundraiser, he had concerns that some long-time volunteers might be priced out of the event.
"But in discussion with many of the volunteers, I found they were all for it because it helps the museum," he said. "We are still going to have the volunteer appreciation barbecue each year and a lot of other member events."
I can’t tell you how important the fact is that he wants to make sure the people at the foundation level get taken care of. The guy is good!
He named off a dozen or more volunteers who have made the place what it is today and who will continue to have a place on the ship forever. People like Melody DeCarlo, who pounds the pavement for goodies for the Waterman’s Challenge; Carl Hatch, who is known as the Surf Expo King; John and Marie Hughes and Kim and Andy Kelly, who have built a strong paddleboard presence; the Hall of Fame board: Cecil Lear, Bill Yerkes, Dick Catri, , Peter Pan, Sam Gornto, Mimi Munro, Joe Twombly, Jack Kirschenbaum, Sean O’Hare, and Harry Greenfield; and other Hall of Famers who also help.
It's still a family affair after all. Athena does the newsletter and some of the accounting, John Hughes does the volunteer coordination and his wife Marie is membership coordinator. Sean curates and, of course, his dad Pat is a Hall of Famer. Jeff Cranston is web coordinator and Matt Bellina co-chairs the Challenge, just to name a few others.
"We have met a lot of really good people out there in the community who have stepped up and helped us," he said smiling widely. "It has been fun. It’s hard work but it’s fun work. There are just great people that we get to work with: the folks out there that become resources and sponsors, the awesome volunteers and members, people who just go out and get things done."
"If we want something or need something they have just been a tremendous help," he said of the board members and Hall of Famers. "One board member is Jack Kirschenbaum. For non-profits, you really need an attorney and he is always there providing a wonderfully valuable service to us."
All in all, Tony said it's a great organization to be involved with, no doubts.
"It's a neat thing – kind of like being in a club," he laughed. "I look forward to doing things with everybody because it is so nice. We surf together. We party together. We put on events, exhibits and functions together. It's a real pleasure."
For more information on the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame and Museum, check their website at www.ecsurfinghallandmuseum.org
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