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January 31, 2013
By MEL TOADVINE ( , Lehigh Acres Citizen

A group of men in Lehigh Acres have met weekly for lunch just to have fun, kid each other and pull pranks on one another.

They call themselves Pucksters and like to kiddingly call one of them each week a Yiddish word that basically has come to denote a person who does a stupid thing.

From that word has come the "Pucksters" and it has stuck for the past three decades, said Steve Pinto, one of the original members.

Article Photos

Jim Fortana holds his trophy for being the biggest loser in selecting scores on football games and other pools each week.

Another member of many years, too, Jim Phebus, a former travel agency owner, says it was probably was not really a good thing but it's all in fun - as is the group.

"But we do have fun and we enjoy being with each other once a week having lunch and just talking about anything but business," he said.

When the Pucksters first began meeting in 1988, it mainly consisted of a couple of men in business who got together for a fun lunch, they were able to let off steam and the first rule of business was to talk no business.

No women were invited and it still holds: it's a male only group, and the wives like it that way.

Over the years, some of the original members have passed away or moved away, but a small group of them still meet weekly. And they sometimes take trips together to ball games and other sporting events.

Two of the original members of the Pucksters were Pinto and Leo Palladino, who passed away last year. Back in the late 1980s, they met every Wednesday at the Knights of Columbus, which was on Homestead Road. Now they meet on Tuesdays, Pinto said. Today, Pinto is retired from both the real estate business and a mortgage lending firm, both of which he owned.

In the following year after the first two Pucksters met, they invited Jack Williams to join them for their weekly poking fun lunches. He has since passed away but when he was a Puckster, he was in the ceilings installment business.

Ben Bell may have been the third or at least one of the early members. Bell, who was in the insurance business in Lehigh, has moved to North Carolina. But even after five years, he still comes back from time to time to meet with the Pucksters. He was back a few weeks ago and had lunch with his old Puckster friends.

They met for lunch at Maria's. But they have eaten and continue to eat at different restaurants around town.

And while not everyone could become a Puckster, other business people were invited to join.

"Everyone had to agree to a new member and nobody could join unless being asked," Pinto laughed.

"The wives say they are thankful for the Pucksters," Pinto said. "At least it took and still does take away the stress of life. We don't talk about politics and business, but we joke and poke fun at one another, all in good fun, and we pull jokes and pranks from time to time," Pinto said.

His wife, Bobbi said, "They're just a bunch of cranky old men."

If you're a Puckster, you can imagine almost anything happening to you.

Once, several years ago, they pulled a really good one on one of their fellow Pucksters. They had the local law enforcement even in on it. What happened is that they hid one of the member's cars, moved it to a bank on Homestead Road, and put a "for sale sign" on it, saying it had been repossessed.

"You can imagine how he felt when he came out of the restaurant and his car wasn't there. He said he knew it was supposed to be where he had parked it and decided to call the local police and they said they would get around to his complaint eventually. Then one of the Pucksters said he thought he had seen the car in the bank parking lot and they carried him there and he knew he had been pranked," Pinto said.

Even Pinto was the subject of a prank a few years ago. While the Pucksters had bought tickets to sit together at a ball game, Pinto went to his assigned area, but none of the Pucksters was there.

"I heard them on the other end of the stadium screaming and laughing, asking me why I was way over there," he laughed.

Where they will meet each Tuesday is selected by a revolving selection of members.

"We had our last meeting at the hospital cafeteria. We have been at the Majestic ... we've been all over the pace," Phebus said.

Who are the Pucksters today?

They include Ben Bell, Jim Fortana, Jim Phebus, Ken Thompson, Siggi Lorenz, Steve Conti, Tony Maniere, Tom Lalor and Wolf Pagels. Average age, according to Pinto, is men in their mid to late 60s, but Conti may be the oldest, but won't say how old he is.

Tony Maniere got a trophy at one of the last few meetings for the "Most Wins" in their football contests - but to the Pucksters, the most wins means the man who had the most losses in their football pools. They've been handing out the trophy annually for the past 15 years and even take the time to have the winner's name engraved on it.

"We're just a close-knit group of some very close friends from the business days now for many in to their retirement days," Pinto said.

He said of all the Pucksters, perhaps 10 have passed away over the years.

Whenever a Puckster passes away, his fellow Pucksters usually have sat together at funerals.

Tony Maniere said the group is a bunch of retired men today who have lunch together for $5 or $10. (Not all are retired, however.)

"It's only to put the meals on their credit cards so they can get more flier miles," he laughed.

"Most people maybe have never heard of us," Pinto said. "But we've been around longer than most clubs and organizations and we're still meeting and we don't miss many weeks, not unless it's a holiday or something else special," he said. And we've got a hockey puck as our official mascot."

Why? "Because pucks are happy things," he said.

"There will always be a bunch of Pucksters, even when we are gone. I think the group will go on and on and continue to enjoy themselves in a good way, and continuing to come up ways to prank one another. It's just a really fun group," Pinto said.



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