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Brooksville claims its hometown hero, Dr. Paul Farmer

Dr. Paul Farmer, center, his mother, Ginny, left, and daughter Catherine were on hand Saturday when he received the 2008 Great Brooksvillian Award.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Dr. Paul Farmer, center, his mother, Ginny, left, and daughter Catherine were on hand Saturday when he received the 2008 Great Brooksvillian Award.

BROOKSVILLE — There are lots of places Dr. Paul Farmer could call home:

It could be Cambridge, Mass., where he received doctorate degrees in medicine and anthropology from Harvard University and where he still teaches part of the year.

Or Boston, where 21 years ago he helped found the health care organization, Partners In Health.

Or Haiti, where his organization built a health network that serves more than 1-million patients a year, and where he helped change the treatment of AIDS patients in poor countries.

Or Peru or Serbia, where he did the same for people infected with drug-resistant tuberculosis — that is, insist they get the same expensive drugs as rich patients.

Or Rwanda, the headquarters of Partners' fight against AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, and the country where Farmer lives with his wife and three children.

But, no, said Farmer, who came to Brooksville Saturday to accept the town's 2008 Great Brooksvillian lifetime citizenship award.

"You can only have one hometown,'' said Farmer, a 1978 graduate of Hernando High. "And this is mine.''

Farmer hasn't visited the town since the death of his father in 1984, and Julia Jinkens, who nominated him, said she didn't think he would come this time.

"I thought maybe his mom would come over and accept it for him,'' Jinkens said of the award.

Instead, he not only accepted in person, but he was accompanied by his mother, Ginny, who now lives in Seminole County, his daughter, Catherine, one of his sisters, and two brothers.

And he didn't just stop in to pick up a plaque.

Starting at 9:30 a.m., he met old high school friends at a flower shop owned by one of them, Tricia Bechtelheimer.

Then he rode in the city's annual Christmas parade with his daughter. For most of the afternoon, he signed copies of an acclaimed book about his work, Mountains Beyond Mountains, at the public library in Brooksville.

"In 50 years, I've almost never seen a book signing in Brooksville. And now we get a crowd that goes across the parking lot and down the driveway,'' Jinkens said.

Then came the Great Brooksvillian presentation at City Hall, and, in the evening, a $100-per-ticket fundraiser across the street that raised about $50,000 for Partners in Health.

"Here he is, trotting across the globe, saving lives, and he makes time to come back to sleepy old Brooksville,'' Jinkens said.

He was honored to, he told the crowd at City Hall, where he fondly remembered the unusual childhood that has become a famous part of his story; his family of eight lived first in a bus parked at a campground and then moved to a houseboat docked in the gulf.

Having since spent time in violence-plagued countries, he said, he appreciated "beautiful, safe and wonderful Brooksville.''

He thanked the teacher of the gifted program who encouraged him to apply to Duke University for his undergraduate work, which allowed him to move on to Harvard. He thanked the choir director at Hernando High who volunteered to drive him home every night from practice.

He said he was grateful to his parents for "having the good sense to move here,'' he said, "though it might have been nice if they had acquired a house rather than a boat.''

Brooksville claims its hometown hero, Dr. Paul Farmer 12/13/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 18, 2008 2:29pm]
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