In the early days of January 1984, Pauline Shaver drove from her home in St. Petersburg to the state mental hospital in Fort Myers. She tiptoed past the empty front desk and down the hallway toward a room where Gene Campbell, 21, lay strapped in a large crib.
"Not soul was around,'' she recalled. "I felt God must have been with me.''
Shaver had tried more conventional methods to get custody of the young man who had been at the hospital for 16 years. But officials said he could never leave, that cerebral palsy had left him fragile and bedridden. In time, they said, he would die there.
He weighed just 35 pounds. He couldn't talk. But he had an advocate who kept pestering Shaver, pushing her to do something. Jimmy Campbell wanted his big brother.
And now here she was creeping down the corridor of a mental ward, hoping to avoid any contact. She carried a fresh set of clothes for Gene and when she found him, she asked him a simple question that would enrich both their lives: "You want to go home with me?''
He nodded. She carried him to a waiting car.
Shaver knew the state would come calling, and sure enough the phone rang early the next morning. "They demanded I bring Gene back,'' she said.
Shaver had already consulted an attorney who found the state had never declared Gene incompetent. She had spent time visiting Gene and had even convinced hospital officials a month earlier to allow him to visit his brother for Christmas.
Jimmy also was born with cerebral palsy and sent to the same state hospital at age 3. But his disability was less severe and he eventually moved into a group home. Shaver, a retired schoolteacher with a religious calling to help, had started a nonprofit home in 1979 she named the Angelus. She gained custody of Jimmy a year later.
"Right away,'' she said, "he started bugging me about Gene.''
They visited him often, but this marked the first time he was allowed to leave the hospital. Reunited with his brother, he rolled around with him on the floor and laughed. Gene was able to open his Christmas presents. "He was very pleasant,'' Shaver said, "and I thought, 'We can take care of him.' ''
By the time Gene arrived, Shaver's house was already getting too crowded. She dreamed about expanding to a country setting and in 1986 moved the Angelus onto 17 wooded acres in Hudson. Community leaders and celebrities over the years donated time, money and labor to build modern homes for 35 residents and a community center that provides day programs for other disabled people. Country music star Charlie Daniels adopted the nonprofit and since 1990 has attracted dozens of other well-known musicians for charity concerts.
Gene, the boy who could never leave the mental hospital, became a central figure in all the activities. Though he couldn't talk, he managed an almost melodic growl during sing-alongs with the stars. He posed for pictures with his heroes — Tampa Bay Buccaneers like Mike Alstott, pro wrestlers Bill Goldberg and the Undertaker.
Pauline's husband, Dave, held him in the swimming pool and taught him how to drive a tractor, hanging onto the seat of his pants as he drove around the Angelus compound. Gene made crafts and rode on horses and go-carts. He went fishing. He acted in the annual Christmas pageant. The Shavers took him on trips to Washington, D.C., and the North Carolina mountains. "He was always ready to go,'' Pauline said, "always upbeat.''
Gene's condition, however, required regular hospital visits and surgeries. His fragile lungs were always susceptible to bronchitis. Earlier this month he fell ill with pneumonia. On April 10, Pauline took Jimmy to see him at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point.
"Jimmy kept saying, 'Wake up, Gene, wake up,' '' she said. "But he didn't.''
Pauline took Jimmy over to Hudson Beach and pushed him along the boardwalk. "He's tired,'' she told him. "Just remember all the fun we had.''
The next day, Pauline, now 76, sat alone next to Gene. She talked to him, stroked his head, cleaned matter from beneath his eyes. At 11 a.m., machines sounded alerts and Gene's heart rate dropped. By coincidence, their priest from St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Hudson, Father Jose Tejada, happened to be outside the room. "We prayed together,'' Pauline said. "And then Gene passed away.''
He lived 51 years, far more than anyone expected, the final 30 in an atmosphere of freedom, surrounded by love. At a memorial service last week, the woman whose bravery and compassion allowed that to happen offered a simple yet effective eulogy.
"He taught us how to live,'' Pauline Shaver said. "He taught us to forget our problems.''