That’s what keeps Jim LeBlanc schlepping out to Pass-a-Grille on St. Pete Beach every evening rain or shine to find someone to ring the bell that marks each day’s sunset and then record the event for posterity.
Almost every evening for the past 19 years, a volunteer from the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum has overseen the ritual established when the first “sunset bell” was hung and rung by members of the so-called Clapper Club.
The antique bell is attached to a post set in the seawall at the municipal building at Gulf Way and 10th Avenue currently occupied by the Paradise Grill.
Over the years, thousands of people from around the world have rung the bell at sunset and recorded their names in the Historical Museum’s “campanologist” guest books, which are now on their 19th volume.
On a recent evening, LeBlanc arrived at the beach about 15 minutes before the 5:37 p.m. sunset and scanned those around for a likely prospect. Most evenings a small crowd gathers in the area to witness nature’s majestic light show so there’s no shortage of bell ringers, he says.
He likes to select kids for the job, but this evening there were no children so he approached a couple seated at a table enjoying a plate full of cheesy fries and sipping beer. They turned out to be Sandra and Brian Davison of Belfast, Ireland, who were good sports about stepping up to the challenge.
“I’ll say it’s for our family,” Sandra said as she wrote answers to questions in the log about place of origin and for whom they were tolling the bell.
The Davisons listened attentively as LeBlanc explained the tradition and what they had to do at the exact moment the sun dipped below the horizon: ring the bell 15 times – five to remind the sea gulls to return to Shell Island, five to honor the guest ringers and five to honor the Clapper Club tradition.
“Ding dong, bring on Christmas,” Sandra chanted as she and Brian rang the bell. “It’s nice to carry on the tradition.”
LeBlanc says most folks he approaches are happy to go along. “People kind of like to do it.”
And he especially enjoys the kids’ reactions. “At first they’re shy,” he said. “Then they get into it and they don’t want to stop.”
LeBlanc’s business card, which he hands out liberally along with information on the evening ritual and the historical museum, states his title as Assistant Head Ding Dong. The Head Ding Dong is Jim Myers, a long-time resident and official keeper of the bell.
The bell itself is currently in its third incarnation. The first one, an old USA #3 school bell, was purchased in an antique store in 1997 by local resident Cleo Roberts, who donated it to the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum, according to the literature.
A semi-retired construction consultant who moved to Pass-a-Grille from Annapolis, MD, LeBlanc expanded the tradition a bit after he started his Ding Dong gig about four years ago. He set up a Facebook page and started posting photos of every bell ringer and every sunset. The page can be found on the site at Ding Dong Sunset at Pass a Grille.
LeBlanc says one of his most memorable experiences was having his parents come from Houston to celebrate his 70th birthday along with other relatives at the bell site. “They rang the bell,” he said. “Dad’s 91 and Mom’s 88.”
LeBlanc says he comes out in all kinds of weather and usually finds someone there to ring the bell.
But what if there’s no one around?
“If nobody’s here, I’ll just ring it,” he says.