ST. PETERSBURG — Weekdays, Gary Hester tossed off the bed covers at 5 a.m. and started his routine.
He made coffee for his wife Lori, another schoolteacher. On cold mornings, he turned on the bathroom heater for her.
He clipped a leash to Tess, his boxer, and walked his Jungle Prada neighborhood, enjoying the cool pre-dawn smells almost as much as she did.
He arrived at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School, his workplace the last two decades, with lesson plans that would teach basic skills to young adolescents with a range of disabilities. He brought them apples and took them on field trips, including an occasional visit to the Pinellas County Solid Waste plant, where they watched garbage turned into energy.
The special education teacher also coached his students in several sports and chaperoned them at the Special Olympics.
"I loved Gary Hester,'' said John Neel, Special Olympics program director for Pinellas. "He was always calm and they responded to him. He would say 'You know that's not appropriate behavior.' And they would say, 'Sorry, Mr. Hester,' and they would follow him around like a mother hen.''
He cultivated simple pleasures at home such as card games or taking his "pocket cruiser" sailboat around Boca Ciega Bay with his wife, after whom he named the Lorelei.
Mr. Hester and Lori, a third-grade teacher at Azalea Elementary, had much in common. The Knoxville native moved to Pinellas County 35 years ago to be closer to her.
They also shared a sadness. Their son, 24-year-old Jes Hester, a double mathematics and physics major at the University of South Florida, died seven years ago after consuming alcohol at a college party. His death was attributed to alcohol poisoning, Lori Hester said.
The couple grieved together and separately. Sometimes he retreated to the garage. Other times they sat in the back yard and looked at stars.
In the next few years, they were planning to retire, travel the United States and spend time at a cabin in Maggie Valley, N.C.
But Mr. Hester also was contending with his own health issues, a congenital heart arrhythmia that last year had claimed the life of his brother. He decided against a defibrillator after an episode four years ago, but changed his mind after noticing a lack of energy earlier this month.
He died Dec. 14 at Northside Hospital, before planned surgery to install a defibrillator could occur. Mr. Hester was 65.
Staff at Morgan Fitzgerald invited students to share their thoughts about Mr. Hester. They wrote each attribute or memory on a slip of paper, and tied each of those to a balloon.
Then they released the balloons outside and watched a favorite teacher drift away.
Staff writer Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.