CLEARWATER — Robert Housholder was the kind of firefighter who would battle a blaze past the point of exhaustion. Short in stature but tough in spirit, he lugged gear and hoses into burning buildings until fellow firefighters ordered him to take a break.
One morning nine years ago, his buddies did more than watch his back: They brought him back to life.
The experience put Mr. Housholder into an elite group — people who clinically died but were revived — and gave him an appreciation for life he never lost.
Mr. Housholder spent the next nine years looking after his grandchildren, eating healthy and taking care of his heart.
He grew up in Clearwater and joined the fire department in 1973. He was quiet and intelligent. A bit of a joker, his former partners say. On Lowell Nickerson's first day on the job, Mr. Housholder switched on the fire engine's lights and sirens as Nickerson was driving on a non-emergency call down Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.
"It scared the hell out of me," said Nickerson, 56, who worked with Mr. Housholder the next 19 years.
He met Cindy Gordon in 1990 at a Clearwater bar.
"I gave him the biggest brush-off ever," said Gordon, 53. He kept asking for her phone number. Finally, she gave it to him.
Gordon had sworn she would never marry again. All the same, she found herself committed to this calm man who treated her three children like his own.
Mr. Housholder was a firefighter and paramedic who did not seek an administrative position. He preferred responding to calls.
On Sept. 26, 2001, his unit and others were called to a small fire.
A little after 3 a.m., Mr. Housholder collapsed. Peers swarmed over him. They checked for a pulse and found none. His breathing had also stopped.
Another paramedic hooked up an external defibrillator and administered a shock to his heart. "They shocked him. They pushed every drug in that box to keep that man going," said Mark Love, who was driving the engine that day.
It worked. Mr. Housholder stirred, then awakened, to the delight of his fellow firefighters.
"When you go from somebody not breathing anymore and you can bring them back, that feeling was unbelievable," Love said.
Mr. Housholder was forced to retire because of the permanent defibrillator doctors had installed in his heart. He ate chicken and fish, swam and ran every day.
"Actually, he lived a great life," said stepdaughter Wavey Bates.
He kept the helmet he was wearing his last day on the job, as a reminder of his 28-year career and the day it ended.
On May 6, 21 years to the day after he had met Gordon, Mr. Housholder was diagnosed with brain cancer. At his request, Gordon finally married him the next day.
On Saturday, Mr. Housholder died for the second time. He was 62.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.