Otis Felder, a retired U.S. Marine, was already having a pretty good Veterans Day — even before he made his daily trek to the dog park at the Land O’ Lakes Recreational Complex, off Collier Parkway.
He’d started the day by catching up with some of his fellow Marines on Facebook, and was feeling pretty good about that.
Then, when he and his basset hound, Chopper, arrived at the dog park, his day got even better.
Patriotic balloons bobbed from the perimeter of the chain-link fence at the compound, and there was a big surprise waiting inside.
His friends, Judy Hudson and Leslie Friedel, of Wesley Chapel, shouted out greetings to Felder.
“What’s up?” Felder asked, as he entered the dog park’s gates.
Hudson encouraged him to check out the new bench there.
As he approached it, he realized that the bench was dedicated to him.
“In honor of Otis Felder,” it says. “Thank you for 20 years of service.”
Below those words there’s an image of a flapping American flag.
“Holy mackerel,” the 84-year-old Felder said. “I’m really impressed. Wow.
“I never expected anything like that.
“Well, who did this?” he asked.
Hudson was not forthcoming: “I guess, God,” she replied.
“It’s awesome,” said the veteran, whose 20 years in the Marine Corps included two tours of duty in Vietnam, and assignments in such places as California, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Virginia, Hawaii, North Carolina and Michigan.
Planning for the Nov. 11 surprise started a few months ago, Hudson said.
That’s when she began reaching out to see if she could persuade a company to donate a bench to honor Felder.
It took persistence, but the work paid off when Polly Products, a company based in Mulliken, Michigan, agreed to provide the bench.
Next, Tommy D’Iorio, a park site supervisor for the Pasco County parks, recreation and natural resources department, made sure his team assembled the bench for the big surprise.
They even wrapped it up, to make sure no one sat on it before Felder.
Hudson and Susan Bernardino, another one of Felder’s friends, chipped in to pay the shipping costs for the bench.
The parks department spruced up the dog park, too, in honor of Felder’s special day.
As a finishing touch, Hudson brought a chocolate sheet cake, decked out with frosting depicting an American flag.
The three friends and their dogs, enjoyed their time together — despite a light, persistent rain.
Hudson, who has known Felder for 10 years, was pleased to pay tribute to her friend.
“It’s my honor to do it for him,” she said.
People come and go to the dog park, as they move into and out of the area — but some who have moved away still make it a point to come back to see Felder, she said.
Even some who have lost their dog continue to drop by to chat with him, she added.
“He’s become a fixture,” Hudson said.
Friedel, a user of the dog park for four years, speaks fondly of Felder.
“I love Uncle Otis. He’s great. I love his stories,” she said.
She’s happy that he was honored.
“I freaking love it,” she said. “I think that’s awesome.”
Felder, who has been married 54 years to his wife, Janet, lives in Land O’ Lakes. Their son, Otis, is an attorney in California and their son, Dallas, is an architect in Chicago. A third son, Jason, is deceased.
Besides retiring from his military career, Felder worked for 21 years in the brewery industry, before retiring and doing some additional contract work in that field. He also was a chauffeur and an armored car driver, before he finally stopped working at the age of 72.
With such a full life, he has plenty of tales to share and he often shares them with his friends at the dog park.
Hudson said Felder is particularly fond of telling people: “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”
For her part, she thinks Felder is a special man, whose story is worth sharing.
Published November 18, 2020