Local News

Former eatery owner now helps veterans

—The moment Rick Rafferty steps into a room, it seems to brighten up just a bit.

This may be due to the ever-present smile or perhaps the hearty and infectious laughter which usually accompanies his greeting anyone in his proximity. Whatever the case, it is clear that Rafferty is not easily forgotten.

The former owner of the popular Sebring restaurant, Duffers Sports Grille, Rafferty now spends a significant portion of his time at the Avon Park Veterans of Foreign Wars club. Elected as quartermaster last July, Rafferty is responsible for all business and accounting functions.

He began volunteering about three years ago and enjoys the relaxed atmosphere.

For those who frequented Duffers, it comes as no surprise to find him volunteering his time to support military veterans.

“Rick donates his time to all Post-sponsored events and is always there if help is needed,” Marie Culp said

Post commander, David Baker, talked about how well Rafferty interacts with everyone he meets, taking as much time as needed to understand the situation before offering possible solutions. “If there is someone who needs help, Rick will be there,” Baker said.

A firm believer in meeting the challenges that life puts in our path, Rafferty said: “The one thing that I always encourage others to do is focus on the positive, and then focus on the needy.”

Often accompanied by his wife, Diane, he regularly visits with veterans on all major holidays, and upon request, either in their home, at hospitals or in hospice care.

A few months ago, the son of a veteran approached Rafferty, requesting a visit to his father at the Royal Care Nursing Home in Avon Park.

The veteran, Kenneth Cassidy, was a life member at the post and had been a regular patron of Duffers.

Rafferty went to see him at the facility and said “he was really thankful for the visit. His eyes and face just lit up when I walked in.”

They talked and reminisced about the times when Cassidy would bring family and friends to the restaurant.

Rafferty smiled as he talked about learning something himself that day. “We don’t often realize how much we can influence others by our actions. What may seem insignificant to you, can be really important to others. This guy was really taken by the fact that we went to visit him in person.”

The son, Lydell Cassidy, has a great deal of respect for Rafferty.

“He’s a really amazing guy. He works hard at the VFW to take care of everything and makes everyone around him feel important.”

Cassidy has been a member of the Avon Park VFW for about six years now, and his father was a lifetime member.

“Dad was really proud of his time in the service and enjoyed the social atmosphere of the VFW. He knew Rick for years going to Duffers and considered him a friend,” he said.

In addition to the visits, Rafferty organizes a major fundraiser every November to honor the Marine Corps birthday and Veterans Day on Nov. 10 and 11, respectively. The event is supported by donations from many local merchants and private citizens, with tickets or prize items raffled off, and proceeds are used to purchase gifts for veterans in Highlands County.

He is currently spearheading a major renovation project at the VFW, hoping to have it completed by fall. Any assistance or donations for either the Post or to benefit veterans directly are always welcome, he said.

Born and raised in Miami, Rafferty holds an accounting degree and a master of science in finance.

Entering the Marine Corps from 1966 to 1970, he spent 28 months in Vietnam with the military police in Hue City and Đà Nẵng.

Coming off tour, he spent his last year with the Corps in North Carolina. He was on recovery duty for corpsmen who were declared absent without leave. Traveling with another Marine, sometimes overseas, Rafferty said, “As soon as we picked up the guy, we’d place him in handcuffs to re-establish military custody. After that, we’d have a pretty good talk with them before taking them to the airport and boarding a flight back to the States. We’d sit on either side of him, maintaining control.”

After his discharge, Rafferty worked for Ryder Systems as a manager in acquisitions. During his years in sales-related activities, Rafferty discovered he had a knack for relating to people.

On a business trip to this area, he discovered Duffers was up for sale and decided to give it a try.

“I’ve always been a self-starter, highly motivated and I wanted to open my own business,” he said.

Owning a restaurant with full menu takes on an art form all of its own, but by offering high quality food for reasonable prices, Duffers flourished for almost two decades in an industry known for turnover.

Sauces were prepared from scratch, meats were aged for weeks. “I knew what was right, and I’m a stickler for doing things right,” he said.

Rafferty lives in Sebring with his wife.

They have four cats and Rafferty laughs, talking about how he believes the felines often line up on the windowsill, like they’re Marines at attention, ready for inspection.