Michelle Delaney, South Lake Tablet
Dr. Gene Cantwell has been an active member of the community and knows more about Clermont then most.
Dr. Cantwell recently celebrated his 91st birthday, 79 of those years in Clermont. Family and friends dropped by his home to celebrate his big day and reminisce.
TABLET: Dr. Cantwell. Where was your original hometown?
Dr. Cantwell: My first 12 years were spent in Dietrich, IL, a small farming community where my Dad had the general store. My family moved to Clermont in the spring of 1940.
TABLET: Clermont was a small, sleepy town 79 years ago. How did the family discover it?
Gene: The family came to Florida and originally went to Winter Haven where they had friends. They drove around central Florida looking for a good place to open a general store and settled on Clermont.
TABLET: Tell me about the business your family opened and operated.
Dr. Cantwell: My parents, Amy and Ross, opened the Cantwell’s Department Store at 761 Montrose St. in downtown Clermont. The store was on the south side of Montrose, west of Hanks and east of the Village Barbershop. After the store closed in 1965, space was divided into two storefronts.
TABLET: Sounds like the family loved and stayed in Clermont. Can you tell me about your family:
Gene: I had two younger siblings, Bob and Shirley, both deceased. After 36 years of marriage, I lost my wife, Jackie, to cancer. We had two children, Ken and Kathy, both now happily married. Several years after Jackie died I married Mary Ann. We will celebrate our 25th anniversary in December. Mary Ann’s children, Kristin and Kurt, have given us seven wonderful grandchildren.
TABLET: I remember your practice in Downtown Clermont. How long ago was that?
Gene: I opened my optometric practice in 1950 and, for many years, was Clermont’s only eye doctor. I retired in 1993 and Jim Davis took over my practice.
TABLET: Where was your office located?
Gene: My first office was upstairs on the south side of Montrose between 7th and 8th streets. After two years, I built an office on the north side of the road, and then in 1987 built my final office building at 609 W. Montrose. I was always able to walk to work. When I first started practicing, Montrose was the only commercial area in Clermont. Publix was on the southeast corner of Montrose and 7th. When Publix built a store and moved outside of the downtown area, that was the beginning of the demise of the town center.
TABLET: You will always be remembered as not only Clermont’s eye doctor but an athlete. Every Sunday morning, I remember a group of locals running around Lake Minneola (you, Dennis Horton, George Forbes, Nick Jones, Bill Delaney to name a few). It was sort of like the parkrun of 35 years ago.
Gene: When knee problems made running and playing tennis too painful, I switched to bicycling for cardiovascular exercise and began to play senior softball and basketball. I continued to play both until I hit 80 and had to have both knees replaced. My basketball team won their third national championship my final year of playing, so I retired with a bang.
Besides sports, I also enjoyed the challenge of backpacking. I met Mary Ann while backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. The summer before we married, I went to Africa and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. After we were married, Mary Ann and I trekked for a month in the Himalayas, in a remote region of northern India, and the following year trekked the Peruvian Andes.
(note from Mary Ann – all his amazing physical accomplishments and he had polio as a child, and is an 18+ year breast cancer survivor)
TABLET: You have always been an active member of the community. Can you elaborate?
Gene: I joined Kiwanis in 1950 and had 65 years of perfect attendance until recent illness made it impossible to get to meetings regularly. As a young businessman, I was a member of the JCs, served on the board of Cooper Memorial Library, and the hospital board. I have been a member of First United Methodist Church of Clermont for 78+ years, and served the church in many capacities, from ushering, to teaching Sunday School, and serving as treasurer, and chairing the administrative board (to name just a few).
TABLET: You’ve been a resident of Clermont for more than 79 years. Any comments on the community’s growing population?
Gene: I once told Mary Ann when she complained about a vehicle making a turn without using the turn signal, “You need to understand that Clermont used to be a small town. When you saw a car, you not only knew who it belonged to, but where they were going. So, turn signals weren’t necessary.” The rapid growth in recent years has given me cause for concern and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t complain about the traffic situation. Clermont has changed tremendously from when I was a kid, but it is still a wonderful place to live.