ST. PETERSBURG — When everyone on airplanes pulled out fluffy fiction to pass the time, Stuart Farnum pulled out computer manuals.
He studied technical things like data packet switching. He did things like rig a wireless network in his condo, even though he lived alone. He said, "I just want to know how the Internet works."
He was a technical man, in love with processes and numbers. And when he started to fall in love with a woman, she got a number, too.
"He gave me a card that said If you want to be my valentine, you'll have to take a number and stand in line," said Sally Carville.
Inside — the number 1.
• • •
Mr. Farnum grew up in Orlando. As a boy, asthma kept him from playing trumpet and joining sports teams. Instead, he turned to academics.
His stern grandfather helped raise him, and Mr. Farnum often felt he had to prove himself. He dreamed of going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but was nervous to ask his grandfather, sure he'd shoot it down. The answer surprised him.
"He felt proud enough of his grandson that he let him go," said Carville, 66.
Toting a trunk, he arrived in Boston alone. He signed up for every tutoring program, studying constantly. He earned an electrical engineering degree and started a career working on aircraft.
Along the way, he married and had two children, Valerie and Lincoln. He and his wife divorced but stayed friends. Mr. Farnum earned a master's degree and eventually retired to St. Petersburg.
At the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg, he met Carville. Once, to get close, he asked her to help fix his computer. She didn't realize he was a computer whiz. With her, Mr. Farnum lit up like never before.
"He was alone for many, many years," said his daughter, Valerie Farnum. "She was such an amazing match for him. You could see it in pictures. He always smiled, but when he met Sally, his smile just really changed."
They spent six years together before prostate cancer spread through his bones. He held on as long as he could, spending time with his family.
He taught his son to be a good father. He taught his daughter to stay curious and do what's right.
Mr. Farnum died Oct. 15. He was 83. Before he died, he gave Carville another card with something familiar inside — the number 1.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.