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Cancer returns, so water skiing legend throws party

OLDSMAR

Friends gathered Sunday for Hal Elgin's wake. Elgin, a 74-year-old daredevil and water skiing legend, was there. He told them not to be sad.

"I feel remarkably well," he said. "I am happy as hell."

Elgin once hang-glided over and under the Sunshine Skyway in one day. One month ago, a doctor told him he would likely be dead by the Fourth of July.

"He said he was going to leave some money behind so we could have a party," said Patty Frisco, who skied with Elgin on the Aquamaniacs Ski Club in the 1950s and 60s.

"I said, 'Why wait till you're dead? Why not throw the party now so you can enjoy it too?' "

So Elgin, a former St. Petersburg fire fighter, made up invitations:

"Thanks to the recurrence of Hal's Lymphoma cancer, he's having a going-away party …"

Dom Forte, who runs a Pinellas County boat dealership, said Elgin's exploits over the past 50 years have made him an icon among Florida water skiers.

"He's the godfather," said Forte, one of several dozen guests who gathered at Tower Lake to eulogize their friend in his presence. Elgin brought scrapbooks with old black and white pictures. A TV played a video of his water-skiing tricks.

"He'll give you advice when you ask for it," Forte said. "He'll give you advice when you don't ask for it. He's quite a guy."

Elgin moved to Florida from Ohio in 1953 and opened a ski school in St. Pete Beach. Starting the business was one of his daring stunts.

"I knew nothing about water skiing," he said. "But neither did anybody else, so it didn't matter."

Elgin spent much of his life behind powerboats, a marionette on a horizontal string. He skied backward, forward, barefoot, in pyramids and off jumps.

In 1964, when New York City hosted the World's Fair, Elgin and nine others thought it would be fun to ski there instead of fly.

"It took us 17 days," he said. "There were times when the waves were so big that we couldn't see the boat."

Just because something's never been done doesn't mean it can't be done, he said.

In 1975, Elgin was testing a new hang glider off St. Pete Beach when his gear malfunctioned and he fell 350 feet to the hard-as-concrete water below.

"I broke my neck," he said. "I was in ICU for 15 days."

He was a regular at the emergency room.

"I nearly died once with the fire department," he said. "I had a couple of close calls when I was racing those big offshore powerboats. You can't let fear stand in the way."

Frisco said her old friend is "like a cat with nine lives."

"Nine lives?" Elgin said. "I had already used up No. 10 by 1968. I've got to be on number 14 or 15 by now."

Elgin has been married and divorced, remarried and divorced again. He didn't say whether he counts those experiences among his 15 lives.

"The places I've been, the things I have done … it would take most men 10 lifetimes," he said. "I have no regrets."

In recent weeks, he said, a morphine patch has helped him cope.

• • •

During his first bout with lymphoma, in 2006, Elgin was ready to let go of the rope.

"I didn't want to do the chemotherapy," he said. "But my daughter talked me into it."

The cancer stayed away for two years. This spring, Elgin felt a lump in his leg. The doctor confirmed what Elgin already knew. He brought copies of the doctor's report to show his friends.

"I don't know what any of it means. But I know it is not good," he said. It appealed to his sense of humor that he didn't understand his own death warrant.

Elgin said he is ready to go. He had one last piece of advice to the next generation.

"Do it while you are young," he said. "You are not going to get another chance once you are old."

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8808.

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Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of it. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson at mike@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2924.

Cancer returns, so water skiing legend throws party 05/23/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 24, 2010 11:58am]
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