Published April 15. 2014 4:00AM Updated April 16. 2014 12:03AM
Waterford — Twenty-seven years after his death, Edwin "Cactus Jack" Evento is still inspiring others to do good deeds.
The onetime cowboy, welder and trailer court manager who settled in Waterford in the late 1950s and later became the longtime caretaker of the C Lazy Y Ranch on the Hartford Road, made such an impression that when he died in 1987, the people who knew him decided to honor him by giving back in his memory.
Funds raised in Evento's name initially were directed to Connecticut Hospice in Branford, where he spent the final days before his death from lung cancer.
But by the mid-1990s, the focus of fundraising had changed. About 15 years ago, when the Cactus Jack Foundation incorporated as a nonprofit, its mission statement read simply: "To aid individuals, families and other charities in southeastern Connecticut."
And that is exactly what Cactus Jack's friends have done.
They have given away hundreds of thousands of dollars in his name over the years - more than $308,000 from 2000 to 2012. A majority of the gifts have been from $500 to $5,000, and many have been given anonymously, with the recipients unaware of exactly who was helping them.
A New London woman who suffered a stroke and faced eviction was one of the most recent benefactors. The foundation heard about her plight and paid a month's rent.
They've helped to cover the cost of at-home ramps for people in wheelchairs and they've provided pre-paid gas cards or overnight expenses for families with sick children in Hartford or New Haven hospitals. They've filled empty oil tanks, purchased a gel seat that insurance wouldn't cover for a person with Lou Gehrig's disease, and even paid for a high school class ring for an ill student in Old Saybrook who otherwise wouldn't have gotten one.
"I guess our philosophy is that we're kind of like the anti-United Way," foundation secretary John Ryan said. "We make decisions and act immediately to help people in need without going through the bureaucracy. If we read something in The Day paper, we can meet that night and respond immediately."
"We usually hear word of mouth and we have a meeting and, if we think it's for real, we go for it," said Dan Pickett, president of the foundation and the person who initiated fundraising in memory of Evento.
"I have walked up and given money to people who have no idea who I am or why I'm there," said Pickett, who works for the state Department of Correction and who, like many of the other foundation supporters, met Evento when he was a teenager.
Edwin Dominic Evento grew up in Amityville, N.Y., and traveled around the country before settling in Waterford in 1957, according to his son, Nicholas Evento, a retired schoolteacher.
The elder Evento had met Morgan Chaney, owner of the sprawling C Lazy Y Ranch, in his rodeo days and was hired by Chaney as the ranch's caretaker. In its heyday, the Chaney ranch supported up to 250 horses as the riding academy for Connecticut College and as the supplier of artillery horses and mounts for the National Guard at Niantic, according to "An Illustrated History of the Town of Waterford" by Robert L. Bachman.
Evento, better known as Cactus Jack - a name that stuck with him from his rodeo days - also ran the men's basketball program through the town's Parks and Recreation Department.
"Everybody, guys my age, knew Cactus Jack Evento," said Ryan, 51. "He formed travel teams before there were travel teams. He ran basketball, baseball, and in the winter, he'd open the gym at the high school for games."
Nicholas Evento said his father "just loved sports."
"He would work all day and then drive down to the baseball field and be there until dark. He was always on the move," he said. "He had endless energy."
Pickett and Ryan both said that as a coach, Evento had a way that went beyond sports. He helped them build character and become contributing members of the community.
"He was a little, old, wiry guy with a handshake that would break the bones in your hand," Pickett said. "But if it was something to do with kids, he was in."
Nicholas Evento said his father never walked away from a challenge.
"If someone needed something done, he's the one they would call," he said. "He was a jack of all trades, he could do plumbing and electrical, and he knew people who knew people. He was an organizer, and he would spearhead projects.
"He didn't do any of it because he wanted to run for office or wanted recognition, there was no ulterior motive. He just loved the challenge of doing things."
His father wasn't perfect, Evento said, and he was known to be demanding. "Sometimes he didn't mince words, but people overlooked it, because they knew he was a force. They knew he could get things done."
Pickett, who was 27 when Evento died in 1987, said Cactus Jack was like a grandfather to him. After they met through youth sports, Evento offered Pickett a job at the ranch and the two became fast friends.
It was Pickett who initiated fundraising to benefit hospice after he witnessed firsthand the care that Evento received during his regular visits with him at the end of his life.
But then the focus of the fundraising changed, to benefit others in need in the community, the way Cactus Jack always had done.
The loosely formed group of men started fundraising - an annual golf tournament, creating the Waterford Athletic Hall of Fame, partnering with the Jack O'Keefe Memorial Strides for the Handicapped Road Race, and an assortment of other endeavors.
"We can pull a spaghetti dinner together like no one can," Ryan said.
And others have supported their cause. On a recent Friday night at Hot Rod Café in New London, Jim and Hillary Baude hosted a party to celebrate their daughter Ellie's first birthday, and to raise funds for two organizations that helped them when their infant was sick and hospitalized out of town. One of those organizations was the Cactus Jack Foundation, which provided funds for gasoline for the couple's twice-a-day trips to Hartford for seven weeks last year.
Jim Baude said they didn't even know who provided the help until the owner of the gas station told him it was the Cactus Jack Foundation.
Another fundraiser, Junk in the Trunk, is set for May 31 at Waterford Beach Park. Organizer Donna Vendetto said her intent is twofold - to raise both funds and awareness of the foundation.
Nicholas Evento said he and his mother and sisters have appreciated that others have honored his father by giving back to the community.
"My father had these sayings, and one of those sayings was, 'I like your style.' It's one of the things that he would say," Evento said. "He would like what they're doing, but he'd also like to be here and tell them how to do it."