ST. PETERSBURG — Rex Estelle faced a hard choice in 1981 when he was involuntarily confined to what was then Horizon Hospital on U.S. 19.
Which, he asked himself, would he rather do: live or die?
He was 43 years old. He had worked in a mattress factory and an oil refinery. He had slept in the woods and in prison cells, burned through an inheritance and three marriages.
Now he had been Baker Acted after a suicide attempt by drug overdose. Mr. Estelle may not have known it then, but his life was changing for the better.
He grew up in Lansing, Mich., the son of two hard-drinking parents. The last sustained period of cheerfulness in Mr. Estelle's younger years seems to have been time served with the Army in Germany, from which he was discharged honorably.
"After that, his life seemed to go completely in the toilet," said sister Nellie Estelle, 68, a lawyer. "From my own memory he was convicted at last five times, usually of property crimes to support his drug and drinking habit."
The lows kept getting lower. Several months into Mr. Estelle's first prison term, his mother fatally shot herself. He was later arrested for what a newspaper called "safe cracking."
"It was just a bunch of drunks who stole a safe from the back of a bar," said wife Patti Estelle, 70. "They took it into the woods and beat on it until they finally got it open."
They met in 1981, the same year Mr. Estelle got sober and started working at First Baptist Church. He became head custodian at the church, serving there for 29 years. During that time, he reached out to other addicts and alcoholics, often in a blunt way.
"He changed the lives of countless numbers of men and women, bringing them off the street and putting them on a path that was excellent," said Austin Ganly, a pastor at the church on Gandy Boulevard.
Patti Estelle recalled standing in line to vote in a recent primary when a panhandler approached them, reeking of alcohol. Mr. Estelle gently grasped the man's shoulders, looked him in the eye and said, "I have a solution for a guy like you."
Stop drinking and get support, he advised.
Rex and Patti Estelle married in 1990. In recent years, he suffered from lung cancer, a possible consequence of hepatitis C, his wife said.
She held his hand the last night of his life, telling him to let go and let God welcome him. Mr. Estelle died Dec. 18, at home. He was 72.
At his funeral service Dec. 22 at First Baptist Church, Nelli Estelle listened to many testimonials about her brother helping addicts and alcoholics.
The stories reminded her of an original painting Mr. Estelle sent her in 1983.
"It was a burned-out stump of a tree," Nellie Estelle said. "It was ragged around the edge, maybe it had been hit by lightning."
In the middle of the stump grew a flower. "Because he was getting sober then, I just attach a lot of meaning to it," she said.