ST. PETERSBURG — The last few days of her partner's life, Diane White sat by her hospital bed, waiting.
For more than half of the 25 years they had been together as a couple, Peggy Ogle, the woman in the bed, had cancer. After 17 surgeries and hundreds of chemotherapy treatments, she was finally slipping, her body shutting down. The decorated Christmas tree Ms. Ogle had wanted took up a corner of the room. The music she had requested played, but no one knew if she could hear it.
Between one group of friends leaving and the next arriving, White's mind flashed to their meeting in 1984 in Colorado, when White directed a facility for people with disabilities. Ms. Ogle excelled at helping states relocate residents from large institutions with high bed counts to community placements, where they would presumably receive better care. The trend repeated itself in several states, often by court order. When it came time for states to orchestrate the complex transitions, Ms. Ogle was the person they called.
Even as an able-bodied cheerleader at Hialeah High School in Miami, Ms. Ogle had always empathized with people with disabilities. She created a sort of buddy system, matching other cheerleaders and football players with disabled kids.
After earning a master's degree in special education at Florida State University, she worked for the state of Florida, helping to implement a new law that helped people with developmental disabilities. Trying to talk to those no one else could reach was a special challenge.
"Peg said there is a key to everybody," said White, 48. "And when we find that key we can unlock their world for the rest of their lives."
She sat with previously unresponsive people in their rooms and tried to see the world as they did.
"She would observe them to see what they were thinking or feeling," said Mark Groutage, an associate at Community Support Networks, a company Ms. Ogle founded. "What are they seeing? What intrigues them about that spot on the wall they are staring at?" She called it "seeing with the third eye," and when she talked about it she closed her eyes and placed her fist in the middle of her forehead because that's where the third eye sits.
In 1990, Ms. Ogle started Community Support Networks, where 25 employees now serve more than 800 disabled clients.
"She taught me to listen to what people's hopes and dreams are. Peg was about giving everyone expression," said former employee Grace-Anne Alfiero, who left CSN in 1995 to found Creative Clay, an arts organization on Central Avenue that serves people with disabilities. She calls Ms. Ogle her inspiration and a mentor.
Ms. Ogle and White shared a home with their dogs Karma, a rescued Australian shepherd, and Nick, a Labrador-golden retriever mix. They traveled the world and had unintended adventures, such as getting their passports stolen on the South Seas island of Tonga. They suspected their genial hosts, who had served them a powerful drink at the end of the evening. It took three weeks and the political connections of White's father to get them out of the country.
In Hawaii they escaped a rumbling volcano that singed their shoes, only to stumble onto a marijuana field guarded by men with assault rifles. If Ms. Ogle could survive all that, perhaps she could keep cancerous tumors at bay, her friends hoped.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. The prognosis was hopeful then. A well-concealed liver cancer emerged in 2001.
Surgeries and expensive treatments in Germany only went so far, and in March doctors found scores of tumors on her liver.
"Don't waste a moment you are given in this life," she told friends at a Nov. 15 fundraising dinner for her treatment. "There is so much beauty and love to be shared."
Ms. Ogle slept most of the past week, waking up Wednesday when Nick and Karma hopped onto her hospital bed. It had been weeks since she had seen them, and they nuzzled her all over. She smiled "as big as you can smile, with all of her teeth," White said.
Ms. Ogle opened her eyes one more time — on Thursday — and mouthed the words "I love you" to White, who urged her to stop fighting. Ms. Ogle died about five minutes later, at 1:50 p.m., White said. She was 59.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]