TAMPA — He never dreamed that he would live in America. But once he came here, Rodolfo Gari lived the American Dream.
Mr. Gari emigrated from Cuba in 1969 with no money and no possessions. He had 19 children and a third-grade education. He spoke barely a word of English.
But he had an engaging personality, a keen business mind and a passion for hard work. Within a year after his first step on American soil, he owned a pharmacy. By the time he reluctantly retired, he had owned and operated a jewelry store, a clothing store and two car dealerships.
Mr. Gari passed away Feb. 16 from complications of a stroke. He was 85.
He had grown up poor in Cuba. He quit school after third grade to work on his family's chicken farm.
But he saved his money, and by the 1960s, even though he had been married three times and was supporting 19 children, he had bought and sold a succession of successful businesses in Havana. The specifics of a business didn't matter. Whether it was a pawn shop or a jewelry store, Mr. Gari could make it profitable. He figured if he worked hard and watched expenses, his business would succeed.
When Fidel Castro took over, Mr. Gari lost everything. But he even found opportunity in Communism.
"When Castro took over, everyone wanted to get out, " said his son Rudy. "So my father made a business out of helping people get out."
He helped arrange transportation and paperwork for countless Cuban families. Finally, in 1969, he left for America himself, taking his wife, Maria, and seven of their eight children with him. The eighth child was a 15-year-old son who had to join the Cuban army.
It was a tough decision for Mr. Gari to leave the 11 children he had from previous marriages, but he thought it was better to make a good life immediately for some of his children than to wait and take a chance on getting all of them out later.
Besides, his son said, he didn't think he'd stay in the United States forever. Cuba was his home, and it was where he wanted to live.
"We never would have left Cuba if Castro hadn't taken over, his son said. "And even when we came, we thought we would be here for just a short time and then go back."
Mr. Gari and his family settled first in Connecticut. A year later he became half-owner of a pharmacy. His partner put up the money, and Mr. Gari ran the pharmacy.
"He got up early and came home late," his son said. "But for him it wasn't work. It was what he loved."
In the 1970s, the Gari family came to Tampa. Mr. Gari opened a jewelry store on Seventh Avenue called El Arte. He later bought two used car dealerships on Nebraska Avenue. His wife worked with him in his businesses.
He loved business so much that he couldn't slow down, even when he was well past normal retirement age. He and his wife opened a clothing store on Columbus Drive — though most of the "customers" were friends and relatives who came to socialize — and didn't give it up until they were carjacked at gunpoint outside their business.
Their son persuaded them to close the store. But not long after that, Rudy Gari found his father buying and selling watches in the parking lot outside of La Teresita.
"He just couldn't stop," Mr. Gari's son said.
In recent years, Mr. Gari worked for his son, maintaining vending machines in commercial properties that Rudy Gari owned.
A stroke finally led him to stop working just a few months ago.
Mr. Gari had supported his children from his previous marriages, and over the years many of them came from Cuba to live near him in Tampa. He had given them the best life he could, and they gave him the kind of death he said he wanted.
"My father wanted two things," Rudy Gari said. "He wanted to die at home, and he wanted to die whole, without amputations. And that's what he did. We all gathered together, and he died in his home surrounded by his family. It was very touching for all of us."
Besides his son Rudy, Mr. Gari is survived by his wife, their children Pedro, Michael, Gerardo, Lazaro, George, Lisa, Susie, children from his previous two marriages, a host of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, three brothers and one sister.
Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at email@example.com.