Epilogue: Jamie Hawkins-Gaar, 'the funniest guy in the room', died while on a run

Published February 10 2017
Updated February 10 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — When young Jamie Gaar began courting the woman who would become his wife, he tried to impress her by making oatmeal pancakes for her birthday.

"They were awful," she said recently.

He tried again, but made brownies this time.

"I don't know how you mess up brownies," she said. "But he did."

Alas, as the lovestruck are inclined to do, he kept trying. He devoured cooking videos on YouTube. He consumed columns from Mark Bittman, food writer for the New York Times. He asked chefs he bumped into why certain spices work well together on the palate while others clash.

And he got better.

"If you talked to anyone today who met him in recent years, they'd talk about what an incredible cook he is," said Katie Hawkins-Gaar, 31, his wife of eight years. "That was just something he put his mind to. Everything was like a puzzle for him to figure out."

Courtesy of Katie Hawkins-Gaar

Jamie Hawkins-Gaar's first attempts at cooking for his would-be wife did not go well ...

Courtesy of Katie Hawkins-Gaar

... She married him anyway.

That persistence in bettering himself at a variety of life skills came to define Mr. Hawkins-Gaar, who died Saturday in Safety Harbor during a run. He was 32. His cause of death has not yet been determined.

He taught himself carpentry and built a reliable bench and a headboard for his bed. He thrust himself on stage in front of crowds to learn the art of improvisational comedy. An aspiring director, he studied films by Wes Anderson, Edgar Wright, Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, and he launched his own production company to make short comedic films, several of which scored tens of thousands of views on the Internet.

When he and his wife moved from Atlanta to St. Petersburg two years ago, he took a job at Craft Kafe on Central Avenue. But it wasn't just a job.

"Coffee was another realm for him," said longtime friend Julian Modugno, 31, of Atlanta. He "got very passionate about it, and learned latte art," making designs with steamed milk. His warm, hearty personality earned him many friends. Several said he had a way of making them feel like they were the only person in the world.

"He's just always the funniest guy in the room," said Josie Caglianone, 26, of St. Petersburg. "But he had this amazing way of making you feel like you were hilarious also."

He left himself private notes in a journal, simple reminders to "Focus on doing your best no matter what," and, "If you fail, get over it."

"Shut up and write," was one such note. And he did, slaving over several nearly finished screenplays, his wife said.

About a hundred of Hawkins-Gaar's friends gathered Wednesday evening at Green Bench Brewing Co. to argue about which beer he liked best and to swap stories. They recalled his heartfelt relationship with a boy he befriended through Big Brothers, Big Sisters. They remembered his propensity to fall asleep in odd situations, and how they sometimes competed to see how many household items they could stack on his limp body.

"There was this one time he was playing a drunk, surly Santa at this Christmas party for this theater troupe we were in," Modugno said. "Jamie loves his beer. He ended up really getting into the part."

Santa wound up sick in the parking lot, his wife rubbing his back.

He was a feminist, his wife said, and put her needs first. He assumed her last name when they married. In a journal, he wrote: "Have you appreciated Katie today?"

The two had recently finished the application process for adoption, and not because they couldn't have children of their own. "Adoption just seemed like such the right fit for us," Mrs. Hawkins-Gaar said.

Courtesy of Katie Hawkins-Gaar

Jamie Hawkins-Gaar with his wife, Katie Hawkins-Gaar

Mr. Hawkins-Gaar had began reading about what it takes to be a multi-racial family, and preparing rebuttals for racist comments on social media.

He had also been running. As with most challenges, Mr. Hawkins-Gaar took it seriously. He would wake to an alarm at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. and set out for a long run with Caglianone, his training partner. As the sun rose, the two would run along Vinoy Park, over to Snell Isle, then back down to the Old Southeast.

Mr. Hawkins-Gaar had run several short races, but looked forward to a challenge. He pushed himself and, walking some, finished the St. Pete Beach Classic half marathon, his first, in January, in just over two hours. On Saturday morning, he woke early and gently kissed his wife on the forehead and told her he'd see her at Best Damn Race half marathon in Safety Harbor, where he aimed to beat his old time.

He collapsed short of the finish line.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (813) 310-6066.