ST. PETERSBURG — When Carl Atkinson visited a longtime friend in Atlanta not long ago, he had a baby boy in his arms.
Actually, Mr. Atkinson and his wife, Delores, had an SUV full of foster kids. But it was the infant that caught the friend's attention. Both of the boy's arms and both of his legs were broken. It was these kinds of foster children — bruised, disabled or abused — that Mr. Atkinson and his wife sought to take into their home.
"The child was absolutely the happiest baby I have ever seen in my entire life," said the friend, Nathaniel Bronner, 43. "It taught me that whatever you undergo, if you are surrounded by love, it almost mends any sort of brokenness in your life."
Mr. Atkinson, who cared for about 50 foster children over the last decade of his life, died May 6. He had suffered a heart attack three weeks earlier. He was 52.
At the south St. Petersburg home he shared with his wife, dozens of photos of those children line the entrance hall. Some of the kids stayed only a short time, others longer. All were loved by the couple.
Most recently, the couple has cared for three foster children who range in age from 14 months to 17 years.
Mr. Atkinson and his wife met in 1992 at the Home Shopping Network. He was a new hire. She was his trainer. He had never been married. She had three kids.
They adopted a child, Alex, now 10, then took in foster children. For six years they lived at the Salvation Army Children's Village on Ninth Avenue N.
Mr. Atkinson kept a neat house, and was quick to pull sheets off beds or wash dishes immediately after dinner.
"He couldn't just sit," his wife said.
Two years ago they signed up with Help a Child, which places foster children who have medical issues. These issues ran the gamut, from the complications of a premature birth to the broken bones of abuse.
In most cases, the agency sought to eventually reunite the children with their parents. Mr. Atkinson didn't get in the way — unless he thought the parents still weren't ready.
"He had a very gentle quality about him," said Alma Taylor, a social worker for Help a Child. "He was very respectful of the biological parents, and sometimes these are the parents that may be responsible for some of the children's injuries."
A man with a deep belly laugh, Mr. Atkinson seldom missed an episode of Frasier. He grilled tender ribs and helped himself to what he cooked, perhaps contributing to the heart problem that ended his life, his wife said.
In his spare time, he volunteered with Head Start and helped launch African-American Voters Research and Education.
"He was well respected in the community," said longtime educator Vyrle Davis, a retired area superintendent.
Mr. Atkinson grew up in South Carolina, the son of a Head Start director and a teacher. For the past several years he drove a school bus, greeting friends with a beep and a wave.
Following her husband's death, Delores Atkinson asked the children in her care if they wanted to be moved to another foster home.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.