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An interesting life

Highlands Today
Published:   |   Updated: April 1, 2013 at 09:18 AM

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SEBRING -

Walking into the warehouse that John Sbiegay uses for his workshop and office, it is evident this retired General Motors technical writer-engineer has lived an interesting life.

Plaques, photographs and newspaper clippings document the accomplishments of the collector, animal advocate, veteran and past master of the Flushing Masonic Lodge.

In his 72 years, Sbiebay has amassed everything, from real estate and highly detailed model cars to art and antique vehicles. But his prized possession is his vintage, four-colored 1930 Packard.

Nature photographs that Sbiegay took while kayaking down the Shiawassee River with the paddling group he founded in Fenton, Mich., reveal his deep appreciation of wildlife.

Dozens of framed newspaper articles tell the saga of the volunteer work that Sbiegay and his wife, Linda, have done for the animals they love.

For 15 years, they operated “Adopt-a-Pet,” an animal rescue and adoption organization.

The Michigan facility was staffed by volunteers who fostered pets until they could find them permanent homes. They also had several animals, including a blind, angora bunny they took to assisted living facilities.

“All my animals have stories,” reminisced Linda, who blushed while remembering her embarrassment when a set of six puppies made a mess of her home just before a television film crew arrived to do a story on Adopt-a-Pet.

After moving to Sebring, John became president of the Highlands County Humane Society, serving for seven years.

John was born Georg Hans Günter Sbiegaÿ in 1941, in Kassel, Germany. His family immigrated to the U.S. after losing everything during WWII. It was a difficult transition for a 10-year-old who wore lederhosen and didn’t speak English.

The couple met on a blind date while he was serving in the U.S. Air Force at Fairford in Gloucester, England.

They were married on Aug. 8, 1964.

“Eight times eight is 64…she wanted to make it easy for me to remember our anniversary,” John said teasingly, reaching out his hand to Linda.

The couple came to Highlands County 15 years ago after his mother broke an arm and leg in a car accident. A devoted son, Sbiegay cared for his mother and step-father, both of whom had heart attacks and strokes, until they passed away.

In work pants and a tan shirt bearing a Masonic emblem, his Air Force cap pulled down over his bright blue eyes, Sbiegay said he spends much of his time now rebuilding early model automobiles and motorcycles.

The frame of an orange custom chopper and another Harley ready to ride are the first things visitors notice when they enter his office.

A roadster and a BMW motorcycle with a side car are two of his most recent acquisitions.

For Linda, her enjoyment comes from the memories of all the animals they have helped, her current pets (a dog, two cats, several birds and a duck), flying her Quick Silver plane, and her involvement with the Highlands County Orchid Society.

A board member for the past four years, she has been involved with the club for more than 10 years.

“We just had the Orchid Show at the Ag Center,” she said of the club that meets the fourth Monday of each month at the Jack Stroup Civic Center.

The Sbiegays also stay busy maintaining their eight-bedroom house on Mini Ranch Road, their land, the three double-wide trailers they rent out and their commercial holdings.

“I’m property rich and cash poor,” said Sbiegay with a shrug.

But for his wife, the frustration is evident. The downturn in Florida’s real estate market has forced them to drastically reduce the value on some of their properties.

“I really want to downsize,” said John.

Though they love the tranquility of their home, which often has deer, bobcat and even a bear that wanders across their five acres, they feel a strong desire to travel. Their wish list includes everything from Alberta, Canada, to to the Great Wall of China.

“I want to be unencumbered and be able to see all the beauty that God has provided,” said Linda, and John nodded in agreement.

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