VALRICO — Patrick Albert spent his last years here, raised his kids here and had countless close friends here. He loved his life here, but his heart remained in his native New Orleans.
"He grew up on boats," his wife, Sylvia, said. "Sailboats and motorboats. Every Sunday his family would go to church, grab some chicken for lunch and go out on the boat. He loved New Orleans so much. He got here and said, 'Where's the water?' He couldn't imagine living with no water around."
It took Hurricane Katrina to get Mr. Albert to leave New Orleans. In the seven years since, he never really had the chance to start his life over.
"It was a hit-or-miss thing on our street, and our house was one of the hits," Sylvia Albert said. "We didn't want to leave. We had never left for a hurricane before. But we kept waiting for Katrina to turn and finally he said, 'It didn't turn. We have to leave.' "
The Alberts and their four sons fled Louisiana and stayed with friends, first in Tennessee and then in Arkansas. When Mr. Albert's lifelong friend Neil Smith told them about a four-bedroom home for sale on his street in Valrico, the family moved here.
Mr. Albert, a contractor by profession, spent much of the next year back in New Orleans, rebuilding the storm-damaged home. By the time he was finished, the rest of the family was settled in here, the kids were in school and Sylvia Albert was teaching at Booker Elementary. Instead of moving back home, they decided to stay here.
"Staying here was best for the kids," Sylvia Albert said. "I had a job here, but he didn't have a job in New Orleans. We sold the house. I never even went in after he was done, but I saw pictures and it was beautiful."
It seemed like the start of a new life for Mr. Albert. But last February, Mr. Albert started getting headaches, then occasionally acting strangely. He'd sit watching a TV with just a blue screen — no picture or sound. He'd smoke a cigarette until someone reminded him that he quit years ago.
It turned out he had a brain tumor. On Jan. 2, he passed away from complications of his cancer. He was 51.
He didn't have many years in this area, and he was sick for a lot of the time he lived here. But he made an impact on the community nonetheless.
He worked as the director of maintenance for St. Stephen Catholic Church and School, and he volunteered there in his free time whenever he was needed.
He was an expert seafood cook, and cooked each year at the church's Spring Jubilee. The jubilee had always been a money-loser, Sylvia Albert said, but after he elevated the quality of the cooking, it turned into a major fundraiser for the church.
He was so beloved by the parishioners that during his illness they came to his home to stay with him five days a week while his wife was at work and bring him food every evening. And at the 2012 Spring Jubilee, church members hosted a benefit to raise money for his medical bills.
Mr. Albert was astounded by the affection the church members showed him.
"I have sitters and I'm not that interesting of a guy to sit with," Mr. Albert told a Times reporter in March. "Really, the outpouring of support from the church is overwhelming."
The reaction was a typical expression of Mr. Albert's selflessness. "He gives of himself tirelessly and then he wonders why people like him so much," Smith said at the time.
Mr. Albert was at home, with his wife by his bedside, when he passed away. "It was actually kind of beautiful," she said. "He slipped into a coma. His breathing was the most peaceful — it was shallow, but it was the most peaceful it had been in days. It was the first time I had seen peace on his face in months, because he had been in constant pain for 10 months."
Besides his wife, Mr. Albert is survived by his four sons, Nathan, Kevin, Brian and Jason.
Marty Clear writes life stories about area residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at [email protected]