He was 4th generation Floridian, a hard-scrabble farm boy whose family made an honest living in the state’s cow country, a placid region located between the open, rolling fields of the panhandle above and the vast wetlands of the Everglades below. He grew up among the fading remnants of the Old South, where he was taught to cherish natural wonders and the region’s beautiful and vilified past. His was a world of shotgun shacks, spring-fed rivers, moss-laden live oaks and a unique backwoods culture that harbored a fading innocence now mourned by few. As the child of dyed-in-the-wool Baptists, he considered the words aimed at souls in rough-hewn church pews by high-pitched, piney-woods preachers, and his faith blossomed. He was vibrant and full of promise.
As a young man he played football, courted girls and dreamed big. A role in his father’s growing citrus business was his for the taking, but a wide world beckoned. He graduated from a local college, enlisted in the Naval Reserve, married and became an officer. He earned his wings, spent time on carriers and rose to the level of lieutenant. The young man who had lived most of his life in a sleepy southern town found himself commanding men and tracking Russian submarines in the seas around Iceland, Greenland and beyond. In that cold war, his squadron members would often line up enemy gun-ships masquerading as fishing craft and fly by them at low altitude, their collective prop wash sending the boats bobbing like bathtub toys. In later days he’d tell of deck hands throwing potatoes skyward in their anger.
Upon leaving the Navy he tried his hand at corporate jobs. He now had three children to support. Though successful, he longed to pursue a childhood dream of continuing his family’s farming tradition. So he packed up his loved ones and flew to Costa Rica, where he took the reigns of a 6,000-acre ranch nestled in a true wilderness. He learned the language, immersed himself and his family into the local culture and for seven years raised cattle and grew crops. These were his halcyon days, spawning memories of ragged mountain roads that disappeared into cloud, rice threshers jammed by writhing boa constrictors and quakes that made phone lines swing like jump-ropes and left spider veins in concrete walls. Drought, disease, and interest rates took their toll, and in his early forties he found himself back in Florida, selling real estate to thawing tourists. His dream faded, but his faith grew.
In his later years he doted on his grandkids and became even more gentle and unassuming. Those who knew him well marveled at his seemingly boundless intellect and quiet sense of reason. The restlessness of his youth was replaced by a palpable wisdom. He disdained the pursuit of material possessions and gave freely of his time and savings. His youngest child died in her sleep at 33, and he found her the next morning. He was never quite the same. His heart betrayed and nearly killed him, and strokes took his right arm and leg. Yet he remained hopeful and faithful, inspiring those around him. He continued to give his remaining children meaningful gifts — the kind you cannot see. He kept a clean room for his grandkids to visit, though it was often occupied by one of several homeless friends who needed a hot shower or a good meal. He offered himself up. His steadfast love for his God defined him.
He died quietly this past Thursday, having inspired hardened nurses and surgeons at several hospitals with his wit, relentless will to live and ultimate, fearless surrender. He suffered beautifully. He leaves behind the wife of his youth, a heart-broken daughter, a son-in-law he considered a son, a group of wounded grand-children, a brother who possesses many of his qualities, a cherished extended family, scores of true friends and a son who has lost his true north.
Goodbye, dad — you were more than we could have hoped for. My prayer is that you woke in a lush, sun-bathed land where God celebrated the arrival of His homesick farmer.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.