Mention Bubsy Becker’s name inside the walls of Art Center Sarasota and you’ll hear nothing but resounding praise.
Without Becker, Art Center staffers say the downtown institution would fall apart.
A retired restaurant owner from Buffalo, N.Y., Becker, 81, has been the Art Center’s volunteer handyman for four years. The first day he showed up for “work,” he fixed the bathroom doors.
But the problem wasn’t that they wouldn’t close, it was that they were always open.
“There’s nothing worse than walking into a gallery and looking at johns,” Becker says. “I just made it so they close automatically. Problem solved.”
Becker — whose real name is Wilfred P. Becker, although he never goes by it — is somewhat of a character. Like any good talker, he possesses ample stories and sensible advice — like this bit of wisdom: “The secret to building is very simple. Keep it square; keep it level; and keep it plumb. There’s nothing else to it.”
A Rivo resident, Becker spent 10 years building houses for Habitat for Humanity, in Hernando County, until his supervisor told him he was too unsteady to be climbing up roofs.
In those days, Becker lived in Spring Hill in a home with a two-story addition, garage and boat dock, all of which he built himself. Like most handymen, he needed a large garage in which to store his extensive tool collection.
A self-described “scrounger,” Becker spent years rummaging though piles of second-hand tools and machinery at garage sales and flea markets.
Now that he lives in a maintenance-free condo, Becker bargain hunts for the Art Center, where he has repaired, revamped, repainted and resolved dozens of housekeeping problems.
“If you take a walk through this building, you’ll see every place Bubsy has been,” says Art Center Sarasota Executive Director Fayanne Hayes. “He always finds inexpensive, doable solutions.”
Take, for example, the Art Center’s back office: a makeshift assembly of cubicles that Becker created using white slatted doors he found at Used Stuff on Central Avenue.
And, then, there’s the donation box on rolling castor wheels in the front lobby. Becker spruced it up with a gold frame and a piece of Plexiglas in an effort to draw more attention to the organization’s cash contributions.
“I told Fayanne, ‘Put a $10 bill in there, facing out so everyone can see it,’” Becker says. “Wouldn’t you know? It started to collect money. It’s power of the mind, you see.”
Becker’s checklist of tasks is so long he has to write it down to remember it: Trim and remove palm trees. Pressure-wash sidewalks. Hide telephone wires in Hayes’ office. Build enclosure for air conditioner. Build hidden door in front gallery.
A born haggler, he says his favorite assignments require negotiating with supply companies and contractors, skills he honed during his time with Habitat for Humanity.
The next time you walk into the Art Center, look down at the pavers lining the front sidewalk. You’ll find the names of dozens of Art Center patrons carved into stone, including Becker and his wife, Jeanette.
Look closely and you’ll find the names of the construction workers who laid the brick for free, because Becker, a charmer, talked them into it.
“Every time I make a phone call for something I need, I tell ’em, ‘Don’t try and screw us,’” Becker says. “Free is the name of my game.”
DID YOU KNOW?
• Busby Becker was crowned this year’s Art Center Volunteer of the Year. He keeps the crown in his kitchen.
• Becker owned and operated a camp in the Adirondack Mountains.
• The Senior Friendship Center’s volunteer outreach program placed Becker at the Art Center.
• Becker, an avid outdoor adventurer, is determined to go skydiving.
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]yourobserver.com.