The large crowd that showed up Saturday, Feb. 13, for Will Mendo's viewing and funeral at Cape May Convention Hall reflected the tremendous impact he had on the community.
High school classmates, lifeguards, teachers and coaches, students and players, filled the available seats, stood along the wall and spilled out onto the lobby. Hundreds more watched the ceremonies online.
Some had known him for decades, having grown up with Will and the Mendo family on or near Idaho Avenue. Will and his buddies had experienced adventures and created memories togeher, surfing on Poverty Beach, skiing in Colorado, downing a beer or five at the Rusty Nail, sitting in his living room to bet on football, or simply just hanging out.
They had all gathered to bid farewell to a friend.
"Fill not your heart with pain and sorrow,
but remember me in every tomorrow.
Remember the joy, the laughter, the smiles,
I've only gone to rest a little while. ..."
— Poem by Joey Beighley on Will's prayer card
Off to the side of the hall, a photo tribute played on a giant video screen accompanied by music featuring songs such as Israel Kamakawiwo'ole´s version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven," and Bob Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door."
One of the pictures featured a teenager clad in a black football uniform with the No. 44, his long, brown hair sticking out the back of his helmet, celebrating with the teammates that were wiping tears from their eyes Saturday.
Will, who passed away Feb. 4 at age 56, was a standout football player at Lower Cape May Regional High School under coach Bill Garrison. The 1983 graduate, along with running back David Craig, quarterback Bob Chadwick, wide receivers Bob Bonner and Ed Sherretta Jr., and others, helped the Caper Tigers post a 5-2-1 record his senior season. Will, a speedy defensive back, helped Lower secure its biggest win of their senior season by recovering a fumble that clinched a 16-14 upset over rival Middle Township.
Others were there to remember their fellow lifeguard.
A few weeks after graduating, Will began his 23-year tenure as a member of the Cape May Beach Patrol. He spent his days watching over swimmers and boogey-board riders from his stand on Broadway Avenue. In the evenings, he competed for Cape May in events such as the Beschen-Callahan Memorials, Cape May County Championships, Dutch Hoffman's, Margate Memorials and the South Jersey Championships.
Will's speed and aggressiveness served him well as a member of Cape May's surf dash relay, where competitors sprint and porpoise dive to flags in chest-high surf, then high-step their way to the beach.
He was instrumental in helping Cape May win six championships in an eight-year span from 1986-93 at the Beschen-Callahan's in North Wildwood.
"Wheels" Mendo was honored as the "Fastest Man" at the Beschen-Callahan's in 1988 and was honored as Cape May's Lifeguard of the Year that same year.
"Will was our anchor, and it didn't matter what place we were in for the first three legs of the relay," said Cape May lifeguard Garr Kerr, who was the team's swimmer in many of those competitions. "There could be two or three guys ahead of him and you always knew he was going to find a way to win."
He also relied on that speed to excel in the North Wildwood Flag Football League and the Cape May County Softball League in his 20s and 30s.
The Middle Township football team got another taste of it in the early 1990s.
Will served as an English teacher at Middle from 1991 until he retired in 2016 while also coaching various sports. He was an assistant football coach under Frank Riggitano for years and even became a player/coach for one week.
"We were getting ready to play a team that ran the option (offense)," Riggitano said. "We didn't have anyone on the team fast enough to run it for our scout team in practice, so Will volunteered to put on the gear and do it. I wasn't too thrilled about the idea at first because of the potential for injury, but Will said, 'They have to catch me if they want to hit me.' The defense never even laid a hand on him the entire practice."
He was best known as Middle's golf coach.
Will had big Footjoys to fill. He took over in 2006 from the late Paul Yerk. Paul, who passed away last month at age 77, won 350 matches while leading the Panthers to Cape-Atlantic League championships in 1975 and 1985.
Will proved up to the challenge. He registered 171 career victories that included a 91-match winning streak at one point while earning three straight sectional championships in 2010-12.
Beyond the wins and losses, however, Will taught his players how to respect the game and their opponents. He treated everyone the same, whether they were single-digit handicaps or were picking up a club for the first time.
"Never look down on your opponent, but make them look up to you," Will often said.
"Although my leaving causes pain and grief,
my going has eased my hurt and given me relief.
So dry your eyes and remember me
not as I am now, but as I used to be. ..."
A Cape May lifeguard boat was just below the video screen, along with a pirate uniform complete with a flowing white shirt, red sash and an eye patch.
Will wore the outfit for nearly 30 years as the town's swashbuckling, "Captain Kidd."
According to various reports, the real Captain Kidd visited the Cape May area in the late 1690s and buried some treasure in and around Cape May Point. That was back in the day when ships could navigate the waves and tides near Sunset Beach without running aground like the S.S. Atlantus did in 1926.
Other than Cape May Diamonds, no treasure has been found, but it never stopped Will and his predecessor, the late Mr. Magee, from looking. Each summer, Will would don the costume and ride in a float as Captain Kidd in the Fourth of July parade, then lead children on the Congress Beach Treasure Hunt.
Next to Will's casket was a bowl and a picture of him. Upon entering the hall, visitors were asked to grab some pieces of seashells and deposit them as a remembrance of his love of the ocean.
By the end of the ceremony, the bowl was full.
No matter their relationship with Will, everyone at Convention Hall and elsewhere was his friend.
And that is something to be treasured forever.
"Because I will remember you all and look on with a smile,
Understand, in your hearts, I've one gone to rest a little while.
As long as I have the love of each of you,
I can live my life in the hearts of all of you."
David Weinberg's columns can also be found on his Dave Weinberg Extra Points Facebook page and blog, as well as on 973ESPN.com. His podcast, Dave Weinberg's Tequila and Touchdowns, can be heard on Anchor, Facebook and Twitter. You can also hear him 5:10 p.m. every Tuesday at Newstalk 1400-AM WOND and WONDRadio.com on Off the Press with Scott Cronick. His Weinberg Wednesday segment airs at 6:15 p.m. weekly on 97.3-FM ESPN.