ST. PETERSBURG — Goliath Davis got the phone call at 7 a.m. Sunday. When he saw where the call was coming from, he got worried.
"I said, 'Don't let this be Sandi telling me Gary is dead,'" said Davis, the former St. Petersburg police chief and deputy mayor.
Sandi Bush had called 911 after discovering her husband, St. Petersburg codes compliance director Gary Bush, would not awaken. Then she called Davis, who several years ago appointed Bush to the one of the toughest city jobs there is.
Mr. Bush became the point man for dealing with problem properties, which in recent years has included hundreds of boarded-up homes.
A codes employee since he started as an investigator in 1994, Mr. Bush wasn't climbing his first job ladder. He had already served 25 years in the Air Force, including time in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait before and during the first Gulf War, where the master sergeant orchestrated deliveries of massive bladders of fuel to troops.
As he moved from inspector to supervisor, assistant director and director, Mr. Bush liked to drive the neighborhoods in a white sport utility vehicle — where, he said in 2011, "you get to know the people."
Authorities were unable on Sunday to revive Mr. Bush, who had suffered from congestive heart failure and was declared dead in a hospital. He was 59.
He had been winding up his duties in recent weeks, planning to take months of accumulated leave time prior to a targeted retirement in April, his wife said.
Codes inspectors search for violations and respond to complaints, issuing citations or working out a variety of ways to solve problems. Some might seem minor, such as a small business operating discreetly on residential property. But disregard for municipal codes can also escalate to health hazards and hundreds of boarded-up houses that attract squatters, theft and other criminal behavior.
Davis, as a deputy mayor tasked with improving Midtown, said he knew he wanted to promote the man with a disarming Kentucky drawl to take on a sometimes thankless job.
"He was very unassuming," Davis said. "He had people skills, leadership and a creative problem-solving ability to deliver bad news in a way that didn't shut people off. Those are things I really admired."
City Council member Leslie Curran worked with Mr. Bush on blight and related issues in a half-dozen neighborhoods.
"Gary had a great way of approaching people from different standpoints," Curran said. "He knew how to handle those that were really under stress, maybe in a mess financially and didn't know where to turn to or what to do; or he could deal with those who knew what they should do but maybe were just trying to skirt the law."
Born in Frankfort, Ky., Gary Donald Bush graduated from Trigg County High School in Cadiz, Ky. He attended Murray State University, then signed on with the Air Force.
In 1991, as missiles were streaking over Baghdad during the first Gulf War, his sister, Charlotte Walker, was pacing the floor when the phone rang. A man who identified himself as a general at MacDill Air Force Base was on the other end of the line.
"He said, 'Your brother wanted me to call. He said not to worry, he is not in Baghdad.' "
Mr. Bush had been in poor health in recent years and wanted to retire, and the fact that incoming Mayor Rick Kriseman campaigned in part on improving the codes department didn't help.
He was looking forward to a holiday party with co-workers Wednesday, said acting codes compliance director Dave Dickerson.
Mr. Bush and his wife had sold their home and bought a 40-foot motorhome, planning to drive it around the country after he retired.
He also planned to discuss a possible heart transplant with doctors soon, his wife said.
"I can tell you unequivocally he was a good man," Davis said.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.