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Civic leader's death leaves a large void

James S. Young Jr. could have owned this town.

He already owned a heart as big as his gregarious personality.

I can't call myself one of James' closest buds. He was more acquaintance than friend. Yet every time I saw him, he put his arm around me — like he did with so many others — and filled my head with platitudes.

I needed him writing my job evaluations because he swore he loved every column. He made me feel like I was the successful businessman, the beloved civic leader, the driving force behind too many charitable efforts to name.

James was all those things. In the wake of his April 25 death, I know the community will remember him for all of those good deeds. I'll remember him for someone I admired for setting the right example.

James owned an insurance company and a business that manages homeowners and condominium associations, but I first got to know him as the proprietor of the Golden Corral in Brandon. On occasion, I would see him at the restaurant. More often, he would be at some charity fundraiser or civic event, providing food through his Brass Bell catering operation.

In 2005, he became Brandon's honorary mayor, raising a record $75,001 to win the annual charity fundraising contest.

"The community has always been there for me as far as the business side," he told me during a 2006 interview. "Once I was asked about running for honorary mayor, I went full force with it because it was my turn to give, in a big way, to the community that has supported me so well."

James always seemed to be giving of his time and money. He has served as president of the Royal Krewe of Privateers and was an active member of Brandon Rotary '86. His board memberships included the Presidents' Roundtable, the Brandon Chamber of Commerce, the Campo YMCA and the Brandon Foundation.

On a chilly evening in December 2006, I set out to write a story about the Brandon Kiwanis Club raising money by caroling at various restaurants. I knew James was a former Brandon Kiwanis president, but I didn't expect to find him with the small group, wearing a Santa Claus hat and his big, contagious smile.

Not only did he sing, but instead of letting me tag along as a reporter, he persuaded me to join in. His enthusiasm proved irresistible to me and the diners, whom he successfully cajoled for donations. You have to know that it takes a lot of moxie to stand on a stage in front of Friday night revelers at O'Brien's Irish Pub and sing. James had no qualms, and you know what, he did a damn good rendition of Elvis' Blue Christmas.

You knew if a community icon could shamelessly croon carols in front of strangers, you could, too. We had so much fun that night.

"You can never give enough when you're as blessed as we are," he said that night.

James also had a private side. During the 2006 interview, I asked about his wife and two young children, but he didn't want their names in the story. He protected their privacy and didn't foist his public pursuits upon them.

My heart goes out to them.

The last time I saw James was in the entertainment tent at the Nativity Catholic Church's Novemberfest, another of his causes. Because the Times was one of the sponsors, he introduced me to the crowd. Of course, the parents and relatives in attendance wanted to see champion baton twirlers instead of a columnist.

James acted like I deserved a standing ovation.

Sadly, sheriff's deputies found James' body in a rural part of Riverview last week. They ruled his death a suicide. Now, I'm going through a guilt-ridden assessment.

How many times did I stand and applaud him? How many times did I tell him that I admired his leadership and generosity? Did I write enough about him? Did we, as a community, tell him how much we appreciated him?

Would it have mattered?

"His death is a tragedy, there's no disguising that," Nativity Catholic Church pastor Father Arthur Proulx said during James' funeral Wednesday. "It is a death that leaves many unanswered questions, most of which will never be answered in this life.

"But what is it that, with all these questions, gives us hope and strength and courage? What we know for certain is that God is both compassionate and merciful to us, to James' family and to James himself."

The unanswerable questions illustrate the sadness and confusion so many of James' friends and family members must feel. This is a good man gone too soon and I, for one, just wish I had one more chance to look him in the eye and tell him he made a real difference in the lives of so many people, including mine.

I take it back. James S. Young Jr. couldn't have owned this town. He did own this town.

I'm just not sure if he realized it.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section. He can be reached at hooper@sptimes.com or 226-3406.

Civic leader's death leaves a large void 05/01/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 2, 2008 1:57pm]
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