DADE CITY — The day after his mother died, James Walmer got up at 5:45 a.m., as he does each day of the school year, and two hours later drove to Pasco High, just like always.
The 17-year-old senior didn't tell anyone what happened, not at first. Sticking to routine gave him a sense of comfort.
"There was still class," he said. "Nobody was in a bad mood."
After school let out, James went to his job as an assistant at Rx-Care Pharmacy on Clinton Avenue. With his bosses' permission, he called the office of Circuit Judge William Sestak.
Would the judge let James' dad out of jail to attend the funeral?
The answer came back: No.
Life had granted James few favors, and on that bleak Friday, it seemed that his luck would not change.
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James smiles now when he remembers little things about his mom. All of 5 feet tall, she was so small that she didn't have a nail on her pinky. Loved him like a puppy, he says. Drove him to school every day, until he got his learner's permit at 15, when she would accompany him on the drive. They lived mostly on monthly disability checks of $1,100 after her fall at her produce packing job, but she always had food for him. His voice still shakes when he talks about her.
Hours before she died, Jody apologized to her son.
James had just told her he got accepted at Stetson University. She was elated.
"Then it became this whole big, awkward thing," he recalled. "She said, 'I love you, you're a good son, and if I ever did anything to hurt you, I'm sorry.' "
The apology was for a broken family, for an absent father and parents that often fought, for a lonely son uprooted again and again, following his mother as she moved from city to city, from state to state, in search of peace and a livelihood.
Harold Walmer used to stay out all night and never tell his family where he went, James said. Drank a lot. His record includes convictions for forgery, trespassing and a multitude of traffic offenses. Whenever Harold did come home, the fights with Jody would start. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
"They've been fighting since I was 8 or 9," James said. "I was always around, so forever, she always had this guilt complex."
But his father changed after Jody was diagnosed with hepatitis C, a liver-crippling infection, in 2003, James said.
"He stepped up," James said. "He quit drinking. He quit fighting with her. He started working extra hours."
When Jody's condition worsened in October, Harold drove her to the doctor. He got arrested on the way, charged with driving without a valid license and ordered to 60 days in jail.
Harold didn't want to go. The family sensed Jody wasn't going to get better, and Harold wanted to risk contempt of court so he could stay out of jail and be with his wife.
His family told him to obey the law.
She'll be fine, James told his father. She'll be here when you get out of jail.
In late October, Jody developed pneumonia and her condition worsened rapidly. Jody's sister, Judy Norris, flew in from South Carolina to help. On Nov. 9, James and his aunt called Sestak's office, pleading that his dad be let out to see his mom while she was still alive. Sestak refused.
Jody died one week later.
A twist of fate
The next day, James went to school and then to work. It was a Friday. The funeral would be on Sunday.
James called Sestak's office, this time to ask permission for Harold to attend his wife's funeral.
"I didn't think it was fair for him to miss the funeral," James said. "It would have been a real injustice." The answer came back as before: No.
Hours later, James made one last call to the courthouse, and this time, fate intervened.
Sestak had left early for vacation. James' call went to the office of Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper.
Sestak told the Times he doesn't recall the case. Tepper did.
"I never spoke to him directly," she recalled. "My office spoke to him, and I researched his dad's case."
Tepper gave Harold a two-week furlough, enough to attend his wife's funeral and spend Thanksgiving with his family. She asked only to see a copy of Jody's death certificate.
"The irony is — and it was after the fact that I found out — (James) works at the pharmacy I get my prescriptions from," she said.
James remembers how he felt about Tepper's decision.
"I wanted to go to her office,'' he said, "and give her a kiss."
The whole package
On Jan. 24, James drove to Pinellas County, to the downtown headquarters of the St. Petersburg Times, one among 10 finalists to be interviewed for the Barnes Scholarship, established in 1999 to help college-bound seniors who had overcome significant obstacles in their lives and maintained high academic standards.
Aided by Katie McCoulf, Pasco High's guidance counselor, he had applied for the scholarship back in September. On the big day, Lucile Rom, the school's career resource specialist, bought him a new tie and gave him gas money for the trip.
Eight high-ranking executives of the newspaper sat before him in the big room in St. Petersburg. None of them knew anything of what had happened to James since Nov. 15.
When the panelists asked about his mother, James started to cry.
And, as if that wasn't bad enough, he blurted something toward the end he felt he shouldn't have.
"I do not want this scholarship out of pity," he told the panelists. "I want to know that I won because of my achievements. I don't like handouts."
He was mortified as soon as the words left his mouth, at how ungracious it sounded.
"I wish I had phrased that differently," he later said. "But it was something I needed to say."
Nobody thought twice.
"It didn't bother me," said Tim Nickens, the Times' deputy editor of editorials, a Barnes panelist. "I had to think about all of that in context. He had been dealing with very adult issues that a much older man would have a tough time with."
James was competing with others who outshone his 3.5 unweighted grade point average. But his poise and confidence, backed by his remarkable life story, carried the day.
"It was the whole package," Nickens said.
On Tuesday, James, now 18, was at the Milan Ballroom of the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center in St. Petersburg.
He was seated at the front of the room. Next to him sat retired Times chairman Andrew Barnes, the namesake of the $60,000 scholarship that would now pay for James to pursue law at Eckerd College, rather than Stetson University.
Is that Judge Tepper?
About two weeks ago, a woman came into Rx-Care Pharmacy to fill a prescription.
"What's your last name?" he asked, as he always does.
"Tepper," she said.
James' eyes lit up.
"Judge Tepper?" he asked.
"Yes," she said.
He didn't try to kiss her. He just said:
"It's so great to meet you. Thank you so much. I'm James Walmer."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4613.