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Two of Ave Maria's Strongest Boosters, Don and Mary Stuller, Bid Farewell

Dahstuller1-200on and Mary Stuller were among Ave Maria's first residents. They opened one of the town center's first businesses. Their love of the town and "never say die" spirit carried them through the economic downturn and stagnant development that were part of Ave Maria's early years and forced them to close their business.

But when Mary was fired in May from her job as a popular art teacher at the Rhodora Donahue Academy, for reasons she says are still not clear, the couple decided it was time to move on.

As they loaded up their moving trailer both said they were overwhelmed by the support shown by residents and declared that they still thought Ave Maria is a special place. But they couldn't completely suppress a note of bitterness. "Don and I leave Ave Maria because we have to, not because we want to," Mary said.

The Stullers' involvement with Ave Maria began shortly after Tom Monaghan announced plans to move Ave Maria University from Michigan to southwest Florida. They joined the Ave Maria University Founders Club in 2003, as the university was settling in to a temporary campus in Naples. The site of what would become the town of Ave Maria was still tomato fields then, but a few years later Don got an inside view of what it would become when, as a project manager for a large plumbing company, he had the responsibility for supervising the plumbing installation at some of the buildings on the AMU campus and in the town center.

"It was during the course of construction, when I was coming out daily, that we decided we wanted to live in Ave Maria," he said, and they started thinking about opening a business in town.

"We thought that with everything so new, there wouldn't be much need for a plumber so we decided to open a Qwik Pack and Ship," Don said, and the store opened in February, 2008, about six months after residents began moving into the town.

The fast growth that had been envisioned for Ave Maria did not happen then, however, and the town couldn't support the business. The Stullers scrambled, like other shop owners at the time, to keep the doors open. "We tried to diversify," said Mary, "We offered dry cleaning services, printing, began selling religious-oriented objects." It wasn't enough, and the Qwik Pak and Ship closed in 2011.

It didn't deter their desire to stay in Ave Maria, though. "Whatever happens we're going to stay here," Don said at the time. "I always want to live here. If they ever put a cemetery in town I want to be buried here."

ahstuller2-strings400Part of their passion from the town stemmed from the fact that they were deeply embedded in the fabric of the young community. Mary organized several community musical endeavors in part, she said, to provide playing opportunities for their son, Julian, a talented pianist and trumpet player. She founded a town band, a town orchestra and a youth strings program that drew budding young violinists from Immokalee as well as Ave Maria. (left, Mary, with cello, and the strings group)

Don was instrumental in the founding of the Donahue Academy football team in 2009 and was its assistant head coach as well as the leader of a booster club for the school's athletics.

ahstuller3Head Donahue Football Coach Rich Scanlon said he was indispensable and committed to the Donahue athletics program. "Don took care of everything that needed to be taken care of, from charging the battery for filming, to setting up the field prior to games," he remembers. "He made sure we had enough ice and water for the players. He once said to me 'you just worry about coaching and scoring points and I'll take care of everything else.' He attended every Donahue Basketball game and helped with concessions or the score table. He attended every Ave Maria home athletic event that he possibly could. He was a visible member of our community who was a positive role model to our youth. Our youth will suffer the most because of this loss." (right, Don coaching)

And as with so many of the Stullers' endeavors, the two of them worked together. "Mary took care of all our camera issues, filming for games and team pictures," Coach Scanlon said. "She found people to film each of our games and she trained them so we could make league required film exchange. She does all the little things that never gets noticed but helps a program reach excellence."

Mary was hired four years ago by then Headmaster Dan Guernsey to start an art program at Donahue, which quickly became a hit with both students and parents. Don, meantime, set up his own plumbing business in the town of Ave Maria.

Things seemed more secure for them than ever early in 2016, but the feeling was short-lived. In May, the board of the Donahue Academy decided to fire her and two others in an effort to cut costs. It was an action that triggered turmoil at the K-12 Catholic School that continues and includes a lawsuit by a former Donahue board member alleging that three of the five Donahue board members improperly made financial decisions because they have a conflict of interest in that they also serve on the board of Ave Maria University, a separately-chartered institution.

Now, they're heading north, where Mary will be developing an art program similar to the one she started at Donahue at a k-8 Catholic school at a parish in Ohio. And again, Don will be working by her side. He's accepted a job as the facilities manager for the parish school, church and rectory.

"We were always a team, Mary and I," said Don. "Kind of like a power couple. But without the money."

The Stullers both say they're discouraged by the turn of events at Donahue, but will always love the town, the community and their friends. "Ave Maria still has this amazing attraction for people. It's still unique," Mary said. "There's this beautiful church in the middle of the town. It's a place that offers Catholics so much, but so many of the non-Catholics moving to town also appreciate the environment. We want to leave on a positive note, and we want people to come here and say, 'What can we do to make it better?'"

ahstuller4The scores who turned out to wish them farewell Sunday offered their best, and all spoke about how their departure is a loss for the community.

Rene Beckner, who opened a jewelry store with her husband, Alan, just a few doors down from the Stullers' Qwik Pack and Ship, was friends with them before they all moved out to Ave Maria. "I am going to miss them like crazy. I know they will make a significant impact in Ohio. But I pray they will only be there for a short time and will come back to their Ave Maria hometown someday." (left, the Stullers with Pastor Fr. Cory Mayer at the farewell event)

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