Bobby Finotti didn't go to funerals. His old friend Craig McCart, once a professional comedian, made note of that last week as he looked out over the standing room only crowd at Merl Faupel's mortuary. "He wouldn't be here if he didn't have to be,'' McCart said.
And the people laughed.
It figured this service would seem more like a party. Of course there was sadness, but mainly it became a celebration of a life, granted one shortened by too much smoke, too much drink. In his final days, as his longtime pal John Brasher picked his brain for the inevitable eulogy, Finotti said nobody should feel bad for him and added, "Hell, I've lived three lifetimes in this body.''
The people laughed at that, too. They knew.
Even after his generous heart stopped beating, Bobby Finotti inspired levity. His former posse, mostly gray now and grateful that they long ago quit trying to keep pace, recalled those days with fondness. They came not so much to remember him as the jovial ringleader, but because they knew what a difference he made in this community.
Without Finotti, there would be no West Pasco Sertoma Speech and Hearing Center, said McCart, who has run it the last 17 years. The success of that center, and the money the local Sertomans raised to run it, eventually helped convince administrators at All Children's Hospital to build a specialty care center in New Port Richey. It allowed families to receive top-rated medical treatment without making the long drive to the main facility in St. Petersburg.
Finotti and his wife, Dianne, devoted countless hours to Sertoma after moving from Largo in 1970. "He loved raising money for good causes,'' said McCart, who joined the club about the same time. "He naturally made it a party. Our club had a philosophy: If we were going to take on projects, we were going to have fun doing it. And man, we had fun.''
They started a barbecue to raise funds during the annual Chasco Fiesta. The first year the beef was so tough and tasteless, they dumped it in the Pithlachascotee River. "Even the fish wouldn't eat it,'' recalled Brasher, a widely known Realtor.
The Sertomans didn't let that failure get them down. And with Finotti pushing and the beer flowing, they made the barbecue so successful it earned a place in the Guinness World Records after one weekend in 1980 when they served more than 21,000 pounds of beef. That record held up for 16 years. Coupled with their annual Oktoberfest celebration, the Sertomans raised several hundred thousand dollars for their charity projects.
The key to luring All Children's Hospital came in 1981 when the Sertomans secured an old house that had been scheduled for demolition to make room for a shopping center. It became the headquarters for the Speech and Hearing Center, but not before club members devoted hundreds of hours remodeling. Finotti, who owned an electrical business, rewired the house and ramrodded volunteers for 32 straight weekends.
"He was relentless,'' Brasher said. "If you didn't show up, he'd get on you.''
But mostly he had fun. The West Pasco Sertoma meetings were notorious for their rowdiness, with late-comers often pelted by pancakes or rolls. At national conventions, "everybody wanted to know where we were going because they knew that's where the party was.''
The West Pasco Chamber of Commerce named Finotti its outstanding citizen in 1988, "but that made him uncomfortable,'' said Brasher. "He just liked to help people. He didn't do it for recognition.''
Dianne Finotti died in September 2009 at age 65. Her husband of 47 years spent most of his remaining time at Jilly's, a bar he owned on Main Street in New Port Richey. Even in declining health, he seldom missed a chance to cheer his beloved Florida State University football team and kept a TV room in his house that doubled as a shrine to the Seminoles.
On Jan. 6, as his ruined lungs kept him confined to a bed at a local rehabilitation home, Finotti wrapped himself in a Florida State blanket and watched the Seminoles beat Auburn for the national championship. Two days later, he went into the hospital in Trinity. His oldest of four daughters, Alison Hessler, handed him a Sports Illustrated that featured the Seminoles on the cover.
"He had a huge smile on his face,'' she noted. "He led a very rich life, and he was very happy at the end.''