Mike Esmond walked into City Hall in Gulf Breeze, Fla., in November 2019 and cut a check for $4,300 to pay for 36 local residents whose gas and water bills were overdue and at risk of being disconnected.
This month, Mr. Esmond, 74, who owns a pool and spa construction company in Gulf Breeze, wrote another check for $7,600 to pay off the overdue balances for 114 residents to ensure they could heat their homes through the holidays.
It appears that his generosity — born of his own experience with hardship — may have inspired others to do the same, all for a community that has been hit especially hard by twin disasters: Hurricane Sally, which in September damaged the bridge that connects Gulf Breeze to Pensacola and still remains closed for repairs; and the coronavirus pandemic, which has strained the local economy and shuttered many area businesses.
“When he first came in, I thought this was incredibly generous,” said Joanne Oliver, the utility billing supervisor for Gulf Breeze, which has about 7,000 residents. “I’ve been in customer service more than 20 years, and this had never happened.”
Ms. Oliver said that in September, after the hurricane struck, a local company reached out to her offering similar help. That month, the company paid $42,000 to settle overdue balances for 252 Gulf Breeze residents. And Ms. Oliver said a local couple just volunteered $500 to settle another 14 overdue accounts.
In a phone interview on Friday, Mr. Esmond said he was inspired to donate money last year after he opened his own utility bill and saw the due date: Dec. 26. His memory flashed back to the winter of 1983, when he was broke and his own gas and water service was shut off over the holidays.
“I had three young girls at home at the time, and the temperature got down to 6 degrees, with ice and frost on the inside of the house,” said Mr. Esmond, speaking from his truck at a construction site. “I’ve lived that where I didn’t have a dollar in my pocket to care for my family, so I know what it’s like to really be broke and in need.”
“I wanted to see if I could help people that might be experiencing the same thing — where they couldn’t pay their bills and their utilities were going to be shut off around Christmas time.”
Mr. Esmond said he felt that this year could be even tougher for families in Gulf Breeze, especially because of the pandemic, but also because he had seen so many homes still waiting to have their roofs repaired from Hurricane Sally.
The past year was good for Mr. Esmond’s business, as he gained new clients who decided to take the money that they had saved for vacations and spend it instead on building new swimming pools at their homes.
He began working in pool construction in Doylestown, Pa., in 1968, shortly after returning from a tour in Vietnam. Mr. Esmond volunteered for the Army in 1966, and spent a year ferrying troops and supplies from a base in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, as the coxswain of a 75-foot landing craft.
Mr. Esmond moved to the Florida Panhandle in 1977, where he said people wanted to build pools year-round. His financial fortunes improved after he started his own company in 2010, and he said he now builds about 50 swimming pools a year.
“When people ask me what kind of year I had, I’m almost ashamed to tell them because it was such a good year when so many other people are suffering,” Mr. Esmond said. “And that’s why I want to share my prosperity with those who are less fortunate.”
Ms. Oliver said on Friday that the city was mailing cards to the 114 families helped by Mr. Esmond, notifying them that their overdue balances had been taken care of. Whether she will be sending the same kinds of cards again next year is largely dependent on how Gulf Breeze manages to bounce back economically, but Mr. Esmond said he would be there to help families who needed it in 2021.
“We’ll just have to see how things go,” Mr. Esmond said. “I’m 74 years old and I don’t even know if I’m even going to be here next year, but I can guarantee you one thing: If I am, I’ll do something to help people out.”