ST. PETERSBURG — How often was Gene Gell was in the water? In a boat? With a fishing pole?
"A lot," laughed his wife, Sharlene.
Mr. Gell loved everything about the Gulf of Mexico — reeling in huge tarpon off St. Pete Beach, snagging grouper off Cedar Key. He was also a skin diver and expert spear fisherman.
He was athletic and adventurous all his life, but he also waged battles against diabetes and asthma. Mr. Gell's body eventually tired, and he died Wednesday. He was 77.
He grew up in Michigan and served in the Army during the Korean War. Eventually, he moved to St. Petersburg to help his family operate a marine shop, repairing boats and motors. The lifestyle hooked him.
"We always had a boat," said his wife. "Weather permitting, he was out whenever he could."
While the sea's freedom was fulfilling, he yearned for a job with security. He joined the St. Petersburg Fire Department, where he served for 13 years and became a lieutenant.
He drove a pumper truck and led men into burning buildings. He took more than 11 courses, studying forcible entry and defensive driving and radiological monitoring. As a certified scuba and first aid instructor, he helped teach more than 60 firefighters how to dive.
In 1968, St. Petersburg's mayor named him Firefighter of the Year. He posed for a photo kissing Mrs. Gell, holding keys to the city.
It was a bright point. But along the way, his diabetes began to rear its head.
"I had one serious episode at home and it left me helpless," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1976. "I figured, God, that one came on completely unexpected. What would have happened if it came while I was on duty?"
To protect himself and colleagues, he stopped working with the fire department. Mr. Gell then fought a publicized battle to receive his pension, which he eventually won. He started a steady career in the insurance industry, where his friendly nature and ease with people helped him succeed.
His spare time went to the water, competing in fishing tournaments and spending time with his family. Mr. Gell's two sons, Ralph and Kurt, were his best friends. Ralph Gell died in 2007 after a battle with cancer.
Their father encouraged them to find passions in life. But equally important, he said, was security.
"He influenced the kids to make sure that they tried to get into something that would provide pensions for later in life," said his wife.
Both went on to become police officers. And, of course, fishermen.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.