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Pasco family, friends gathers to honor man who died saving a drowning boy

TRINITY

The young boy pulled at his mother's arm in the back of a room filled with balloons. In front of them were tables of photographs showing a man with a pink wig, a man in a Packers jersey, a man holding his daughter.

"I want him to still be alive," said Caden Wolfe, an 8-year-old boy who had witnessed the last moments of Brian Kowalski's life.

The boy's mother, Cindy, brushed her blond hair from her forehead and paused, just for a moment.

"I know, honey," she said.

Kowalski, 39, a Trinity man who owned a landscaping business, drowned near the Florida Keys on Aug. 12. He was on a trip with his daughter, Erin, some friends and their children when circumstances changed rapidly.

Jonathan Weirs, 7, and Caden were swimming behind the boat holding on to a tow rope. Caden got out of the water first, but a strong current took Jonathan. Kowalski didn't hesitate and, in what may have been his last moments, fought to bring the boy to safety. Rescue workers found the man floating in the water two days later.

Kowalski's memorial, at Seven Springs Golf and Country Club, was full of chatter and the colors of Kowalski's favorite football team ­— the Green Bay Packers.

Michelle Andrews, his longtime partner and mother of his daughter, said the couple had discussed the eventuality of his death "as couples sometimes do."

"I don't want it to be formal," she said he told her. "No stuffiness. Just laughing and joking and everyone having a good time."

Andrews had set up a projector. Images of Kowalski's past flashed in the back of the room. His remains, in a brass urn, sat on a table next to flowers and more photographs.

Sean Andrews, 18, says Kowalski, who raised him from a young age, was "the only father I ever had." When he heard of the drowning, he felt heavy and afraid.

"You want it to be quick and painless," he said.

The way Kowalski died did not surprise people, Sean Andrews said. It inspired them.

"It's just so characteristic of him to go out of his way to make sure others are out of harm's way," he said. "He cared about the well-being of people. I'm going into medicine because of him."

Around the room, friends and family described Kowalski as a calm, gentle man who cared more for his daughter than for himself. He loved the outdoors — fishing and watching his daughter race BMX bicycles — and golfed with an 18 handicap.

"For me, it was his love of life," his friend, Aaron Watkins, said about what he'll remember most. "You just saw that compassionate side come through."

A couple who lived near Kowalski, Gary and Oscar Vitacco-Robles, remembered his work ethic.

"He cut our lawn for 11 years and he was always so cool with us," Gary Vitacco-Robles said. "He was a gentle, calming spirit ­— accepted everywhere. My image of him is always carrying around his child. He's a hero. It came so naturally to him."

One of Kowalski's friends set up a donation site for Erin at gofundme.com/A-Heros-Daughter, and Michelle Andrews said she plans to open a trust account.

In 2003, Kowalski saved an infant from drowning. That girl is now 11 and thriving, according to her mother, Humera Munir. In a message, Munir told Andrews that while the two mothers hadn't met, they are bonded forever through Kowalski.

At a podium with a microphone, one of Kowalski's dearest friends eulogized him, but told the crowd to remember the good times.

"This is a celebration folks, but we're going to shed some tears," said David Gentry, 45, from Oldsmar. "Every tear we shed is actually going to be a kiss that goes off to Brian. So cry, cry a bunch."

Contact Jon Silman at (727) 869-6229, jsilman@tampabay.com or jonsilman1 on Twitter.

Pasco family, friends gathers to honor man who died saving a drowning boy 08/24/13 [Last modified: Saturday, August 24, 2013 10:10pm]
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