|By Maggie Fitzroy, The Florida
Times-Union, JacksonvilleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 22, 2010--Every year, Sterling Joyce throws himself a big birthday party.
This year, about 500 people came to his bash Dec. 8 at the Casa Marina Hotel and Restaurant, and brought enough gifts to fill six trucks.
That delighted Joyce, because the party and the gifts are never really for him.
As longtime maitre d'hotel of the historic beachfront Casa Marina in Jacksonville Beach, Joyce is widely known and popular around the Beaches. But his parties benefit charity, and the toys that all the guests bring benefit children from needy families.
Joyce, of Jacksonville, has had several careers in his 61 years, but hospitality is "my forte," he said. "I enjoy making people happy. I like to treat people like I like to be treated."
His job gives him daily opportunities to do that, which is why he's so good at it.
It's also why the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce-Beaches Division gave him the Walter R. Murr Award Dec. 9 for outstanding service in the hospitality industry.
The award is given every year to someone who promotes Beaches business and helps make the community a better place, said Elaine Brown, chairwoman of the Beaches Department of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.
Joyce "is just the most giving person of his time, and making the Beaches a better place to do business and to live," Brown said. He "exemplifies" what the award is all about.
Murr was chairman of the Beaches Chamber of Commerce before it merged with the Jacksonville Chamber, and he was "an outstanding leader," very active in the community, including helping charities, Brown said.
"The award was given to Sterling because he is an outstanding business promoter for the Casa Marina, and the fact that he promotes helping others," she said.
Joyce said a family tragedy, which occurred when he was 12 years old and which brought him to the Beaches, inspires him to help others.
Born in Georgia, he moved with his family to Trenton, N.J. as a young child. One winter day when his father was at work and young Sterling was at home with his mother and two younger sisters, their home's furnace caught fire.
Joyce remembers it was Dec. 12, because it was close to his birthday, Dec. 14. He remembers flames shooting through the house, and his mother yelling for him to get out. He remembers opening the front door to more flames, which scorched the back of his hands and his hair.
He remembers running back inside, where smoke was so thick, he couldn't see anything. The fire department arrived in time to rescue him, but not his mother, Sarah, or his sisters, 10-year-old Brenda and 8-year-old Shirley, who all perished in the blaze.
He spent several days in the hospital, but it took six months for him to snap out of the emotional shock and grief.
"Some things you never forget," Joyce said. "I reckon that's why I'm in such a giving mood. Because I lost something very precious to me."
Young Sterling and his father, Sterling Sr., went back to live in Georgia to be with family. Soon after, the boy stayed with his grandparents when his father moved to Jacksonville to be with his sister and find a job.
Joyce came to Jacksonville often to visit his father, who worked in the hospitality industry. During summers, as a teen, he worked at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club as a dishwasher and cook. There, he met the Stockton family, who owned a lot of land in the area, including a ranch that was eventually transformed into Sawgrass Country Club. Joyce said he and Jimbo Stockton, who was his age, became such good friends, he was "my brother from another mother."
After graduating from high school in Georgia, Joyce enlisted in the Air Force, and traveled the world. After he got out, he moved to Dallas and worked as a bartender, then to Jacksonville, where he worked as a line tech for Beaches Cable, an early cable television company.
After that, he went into the medical field and sold medical supplies for Mediq PRN, where he won an employee of the year award twice.
To earn extra income, he started working for Max's Restaurant and Ballroom in Jacksonville Beach, an eclectic gourmet restaurant within the 5,500-square-foot Worth Antiques Mall. He realized he belonged in that business, and ended up working there for 18 years as maitre'd.
"I did my first wedding there, and I was scared too," said Joyce, who now helps run 100 weddings a year at the Casa Marina, where he began working six years ago after the antique mall and Max's closed.
He said people call him "the wedding guru."
The Casa Marina is also the site of so many Beaches special events that Joyce, who works more than 40 hours a week, said "the mayors of the Beaches call me mayor of the Beach."
Brown said he's more like the Beaches' ambassador. He's "low key, with the combination of a warm personality and drive."
Joyce loves to give tours of the Casa Marina, educating visitors about its history as they stroll its halls. It opened on June 6, 1925, and he has plenty of stories to tell, including tales about the silent movie stars who once stayed there when Jacksonville was the center of the booming movie industry before it moved to Hollywood.
For his birthday party this year, Joyce said he played off the hotel-as-haven-for-early-movie-greats as a theme. The event included a fashion show, and "people were all dressed up," he said. "Everybody came. That theme was fun."
The party benefited Beaches Emergency Assistance Ministry, which helps needy families with utility bills, rent, job-searches and food.
Beverly Davoli, Casa Marina director of catering, said Joyce deserves the Chamber of Commerce award. This year's party "brought six truckloads of toys for BEAM, and that's not including all the food people brought," she said.
Joyce has two children and five grandchildren. But he said the people he's come to know through his job are also "my family."
That includes the restaurant's many regular customers.
Roberta Bielecki and some of her friends have lunch there every Thursday when they meet to play cards. Last week, when they heard about Joyce's award, they congratulated him.
"People love him," Bielecki said. "All the women kiss and hug him. He's the star."
Maggie FitzRoy can also be reached at (904) 249-4947, ext. 6320.
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