In a matter of weeks, death strikes Seminole family four times

LARGO — Long-married spouses pass away within weeks of each other. Siblings die inexplicably on the same night in different cities. The world is full of stories about people who cannot bear the separation brought by death, people who fall off into the dark like mountain climbers tied together by the same rope.

What is most unusual about the deaths that visited the Kozlowski family in the final weeks of 2012 was how many human beings were bound together. Between Dec. 19 and Jan. 4, four members of the family, all of them from Seminole, died in different places of natural causes, surviving relatives say.

Jeanette Kozlowski, 95, passed away on New Year's Eve. Her daughter-in-law, Delores Kozlowski, died 12 days earlier. Two of Jeannette's sons, Ronald and Donald Kozlowski — identical, 72-year-old twins — died on Jan. 1 and 4, respectively.

A joint funeral service for the twins and their mother will be held this week. Delores' funeral took place just after Christmas.

"It's as odd to us as it is to you," said Cheryl Scimeca, Ronald's 45-year-old daughter, who lives in Colorado. "This is crazy."

Delores, 69, went first. Her husband, Donald, woke one night and found the bed empty where she had been. He called her name. She was in the bathroom, dead of an apparent heart attack, according to Donald's surviving brother, George Kozlowski, 64, of Largo.

It'll be hard for me to live without her, Donald told George in the last weeks of December. To another relative, he said, She wants me to be with her. They had been married for 45 years.

Jeanette Kozlowski died Dec. 31. Before moving to Florida late in life, she had raised her boys in a blue-collar household on the south side of Chicago. She worked at the Westinghouse Corp. Her late husband, Walter, had worked for International Harvester. He died in 1981. Relatives said Jeanette had anticipated her imminent death, which was the only one of the four that could be called expected.

About seven hours later, George Kozlowski said, his brother Donald was hospitalized with the symptoms of what would later be diagnosed a stroke. George remembers his brother, a deadpan humorist, eyeing him from his hospital bed and saying, "Just pull the (expletive) plug and get it over with."

George called Ronald, Donald's identical twin, to let him know about their brother. No one answered. In the morning, as Donald remained in critical condition, he called again. Nothing.

George and his wife, Judy Kozlowski, drove to Ronald's home that morning. It was a misty, cool New Year's Day. When nobody answered the door, they wandered around the sides of the house, peeking through the windows. Judy saw Ronald's feet jutting from behind a wall.

Ronald had last been seen the previous night, George and Judy said, when he had visited an American Legion hall to have a few beers before heading home. George believes that, given the known time-frame, Donald must have had the stroke that would eventually end his life at about the same time that Ronald died of a heart attack.

"I'm not superstitious," he said. "But it's amazing how similar identical twins can be."

Donald passed away at Largo Medical Center on Jan. 4.

Ronald and Donald Kozlowski had moved to Florida as young family men. For about a decade they owned and operated a restaurant on Seminole Boulevard called Dutch's Kitchen.

Ronald's son, a 47-year-old Gainesville lawyer also named Ronald Kozlowski, said the twins ran the kitchen together, rising at 5:30 a.m. to begin prep for the morning, coming home in the late afternoon for lunch, and returning at 4:30 to prepare for the dinner rush.

The genetically and physically indistinguishable pair spent tens of thousands of hours like that, preparing food side by side. Eventually, Donald took a maintenance job in Pinellas County and Ronald became part-owner of a motel in Sarasota.

Ronald was a little more reserved than Donald, George said, but shared his twin brother's penchant for plainspoken jokes. Their mother was also wry, leaving detailed instructions that her sons were not to "go overboard" on her funeral.

Looking back, there was something about the rapid loss of the women that seemed to pull the twins toward death, their relatives said.

Delores took care of Donald and "did a little bit of everything for everyone," George said. Michael Kozlowski, George's son, said his grandmother "was the matriarch of this entire family."

George said his family was staggered by the rapid loss of four relatives. But there was a neatness and finality about the quick succession of deaths that seemed to be part of the natural order of things, he said.

And there is something else.

"It's every parent's dream to not outlive their children," George Kozlowski said.

For Jeanette Kozlowski, that was fulfilled. Barely.

Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157.

In a matter of weeks, death strikes Seminole family four times 01/06/13 [Last modified: Monday, January 7, 2013 12:19am]

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