HUDSON — When his first wife died in 1993 from cancer, Rod Taylor suddenly found himself in the same world as his hospice clients.
Like many who lose loved ones, the father of three — ages 6 to 14 — was at a loss for what to do next.
Looking back on how his family made it through that difficult time, and his 22-year career as head of Hernando-Pasco Hospice, he said he did what most people do: He focused on his children and threw himself into his work.
Today, the man whom many credit as the visionary behind the $65-million nonprofit corporation will hand over the reins to board member and former Brooksville Regional Hospital chief executive Tom Barb.
"When my wife passed away, the board let me do what I had to do, and I did what I could manage," Taylor said. "But the agency mostly took care of everything. To me, that's the message of hospice.
"As I've made the rounds in the last few weeks, saying goodbye, that has come back to me," he continued, sitting in his mostly empty office. "If you can't take care of your own, you can't take care of the guy on the street."
Taylor, now 62, took the position in 1986. At the time, the 2-year-old organization had 25 patients and 17 on staff. He was the second executive director and had a budget of about $400,000.
With a background in public administration, he had come to Florida in 1974 and worked for the city manager's office in St. Petersburg. A few years later, he headed to Pasco for a short stint as assistant county administrator. From there, he went to what's now the Harbor Behavioral Health Care.
Several years later, the hospice job became available. Taylor's boss was on the board, and suggested that he apply.
At the helm of the fledging group that provides services to dying residents and their families, Taylor faced opposition by many in the medical community. The idea of hospice was a new one, and most physicians and other medical officials passed it off as "touchy-feely alternative medicine," Taylor said.
But with the support of a few Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point officials, and some key financial donations, he was able to make it grow year after year.
From a tiny organization that started out in a rented bank building office on U.S. 19, Hernando-Pasco Hospice has grown into an agency that provides care from 21 locations in Hernando, Pasco and Citrus counties, including main offices on Majestic Drive in Hudson, nine hospice care centers and houses, pharmacy and medical equipment locations, and a thrift store. Hospice employs 950 people, has 1,200 volunteers and serves about 1,100 current patients.
Taylor has also encouraged donations to hospice, in the same manner that universities keep in touch with alumni. He said that many clients, who either don't have family or live far from other family members, end up leaving their estates to the agency.
"But we don't go around tooting our own horn," he said. "Our clients are usually very satisfied with our services, and they let other people know that. And I think what also has helped is the growing number of attorneys and accountants who encourage their clients to donate."
Taylor was also the brains behind creations such as the Children's Assistance Program, which provides bereavement services to more than 700 grieving children and offers palliative care to sick children. When his wife died, he set up an endowment fund to aid the program's camps with personal assets in memory of her.
His children took part in that program when their mother died. Robin Kocher, a spokeswoman with the agency who has worked with Taylor for 15 years, recalled the difficult time.
"I remember him walking into the office not long after, his two youngest children clinging to him," Kocher said. "When they were done (with the camp), he talked about how, as a parent, he was prepared to answer all the questions his children had. But then he wondered about the others who didn't work in this field."
From his personal experience, the agency added a session to the children's program where parents sit down and talk with counselors. Kocher said it's the mix of financial know-how and compassion that has made Taylor such an unusual boss.
"He's a visionary beyond anyone I've ever worked with," Kocher said. "My job here has been, personally, very rewarding. Professionally, it's been very challenging. Every year, we're working on something new."
She pointed to a partnership Taylor helped launch between Hernando-Pasco Hospice and Haven Hospice in Gainesville. The hope is to create an entirely new hospice in Marion County, using the best parts of both organizations. No two hospices have entered into such a venture, she said.
While proud of many accomplishments, Taylor said he takes most pleasure in knowing that the needs of the community have been met, and will continue to be with his successor in charge.
Barb's hospital administration background will serve hospice well, he said. The board searched for more than a year to fill Taylor's big shoes.
Though he plans to stay on through the end of the year for a smooth transition, Taylor, now remarried, said he looks forward to spending more time with his wife, Linda, at their homes in Florida and North Carolina.
"I can walk away and say that I've done something right for 22 years," he said. "And I can look back and have the satisfaction of knowing that I've helped to do some good in the community."
Times news researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Chandra Broadwater can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432.