Thursday, June 21, 2018
News Roundup

Daredevil restaurateur had a family connection to Amelia Earhart

PLANT CITY — By all outward appearances, David Layman lived the life of the consummate adrenaline junkie.

He raced everything from go-carts to airplanes. He went to Australia to dive the Great Barrier Reef. Back home, he turned the heads of neighbors — and sometimes police — as he zipped around Plant City in a red Ferrari.

Though his family's wealth meant he did not really need a paycheck, Mr. Layman threw himself into several careers, no two of them very much alike. He had been a cop and a firefighter, an information specialist and a manager at a "cowboy theme park."

The owner of Earhart's Runway Grill came from an adventurous line.

His great-grandfather, lawyer David T. Layman, was an early supporter and friend of Amelia Earhart, whose handwritten correspondence decorates a wall of the restaurant on the second floor of Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.

His father, Paul Layman Jr., launched himself off ski ramps and raced vintage planes, which he landed wherever it occurred to him.

Mr. Layman, who followed in their adventurous footsteps, died Feb. 14 at Melech Hospice House of small-cell carcinoma. He was 53.

Everyone at the airport knew Mr. Layman, from pilots to mechanics to his fellow "hangar rats," whom he saw while tending to the Piper Archer he kept at the airport.

He was the first to greet customers at Earhart's, where you can wash down a Tower Burger with a beer or watch commercial jets unloading passengers just below.

Though he had grown up hearing about Earhart, a frequent guest at his great-grandfather's home in the Hamptons, his interest increased as he became an adult.

So he decorated part of the restaurant with Vogue-worthy portraits of the aviator and news stories about her still-unsolved disappearance, along with copies of letters from Earhart and polar explorer Richard Byrd, whom David T. Layman and his wife, Sally, had also helped.

Born in New York, Mr. Layman grew up dividing his time between a waterfront home in Westhampton Beach, where his father kept World War II fighter planes in the back yard (one of which, a Pitts S-1C Little Stinker, now resides in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum), and Palm Beach.

His diverse resume included study at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, stints as a police officer in Daytona Beach and a firefighter in Palm Beach County, and going back to school to sharpen his computer skills.

In lengthy chunks of time between jobs, he raced at Daytona International Speedway, hung out at air shows and took diving trips around the world.

Mr. Layman married and divorced twice before meeting Romina Hernandez, a native of Venezuela, on an Internet dating site.

At first, she wondered about the daredevil streak that seemed to run in the family. But she was drawn to a quiet side that seemed to run deeper.

Especially, she liked the way he talked to his mother on the phone.

They married in Las Vegas and settled in Plant City. Mr. Layman gave his time to the Child Abuse Council and the South Florida Baptist Hospital Foundation, the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce and the Boy Scouts.

He opened Earhart's in April 2010, with Romina as head chef. He called the restaurant his "legacy," perhaps because it combined many aspects of a wide-ranging personality into a single endeavor.

"He was a daredevil about so many things," said Teresa Corbett, the airport's property manager. "But he was as calm and dedicated to (the restaurant) and to Romina as he could be. This is what he wanted."

Then, in July, he discovered a lump under his arm. Doctors diagnosed small-cell carcinoma, an aggressive cancer that had already spread to the bone.

"He said, 'How long?' " recalled Romina, 40. "They said, 'If I were you, I would get my affairs in order.' "

As his health deteriorated, she broached a difficult issue: How would he want his cremated remains to be interred? In recent years, companies have expanded the idea of a final resting place dramatically for adventuresome types like her husband.

Would he want his ashes encased in an underwater cemetery or even blasted into space?

"He said, 'Let's not get too complicated. You keep the ashes,' " his wife said.

To her, that sounded like the real Mr. Layman — measured, and grounded.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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