ST. PETERSBURG — The motorcycle was a gift to himself, a symbol of survival, a new start. Jim Wagenman bought it in 2003, a couple of years after his wife died, while he was a single dad struggling to raise her two teenagers and their young daughter.
He drove it to work at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School, where all the kids thought he was the coolest science teacher ever. He drove it home to eat pizza with his daughter Giana, who is now 16. For the last couple of weeks, he rode that 1999 Kawasaki to the new bar he just opened on Fourth Street — the bar he had always dreamed of owning.
On Friday night, Wagenman, 46, was coming home from JWags Saloon when his bike hit a curb near 1400 62nd Ave. NE. The motorcycle tipped on its right side then flipped over and tumbled down an embankment before coming to rest in a retention pond, police said.
Wagenman, who was not wearing a helmet, was thrown from the bike and later taken to Bayfront Medical Center, authorities said. He died early Saturday morning while Giana was worrying, over Twitter, why her dad hadn't come home.
"I jus keep calling & calling my dad waiting for him to answer…
"I swear to god, my dad better not be hurt
"My aunt jus texted me saying she gotta come get me there's a family emergency
"Last night, my father got into a motorcycle accident & passed away. I don't know what to do anymore.
"Why did god take away both my parents?"
By morning, students and friends, bar patrons and neighbors all were mourning the sarcastic Long Islander who made them laugh, who bought them beers and threw their kids into the pool.
"You were the best teacher I have ever had … when you weren't being funny you were teaching," one student posted on Facebook. "You could tell when I was having a bad day and you always got me through it. One day I will see you again and you will be teasing me in Heaven."
Wagenman never meant to be a teacher. But in the last decade, he helped hundreds of middle-schoolers — kids who wouldn't open up to other adults. And kids who, like his own, had lost a parent.
"You were my favorite teacher, the only reason I wanted to go back to middle school," one student posted. "You taught me so much in three years, other than just science."
Wagenman was a truck driver in 2001 when his wife, Lisa, got a cold. She died within a couple of days, at age 40, the day before Valentine's Day — leaving Wagenman to take care of her daughter Ashley, who was 15, son David, who was 12, and their daughter Giana, who had just started kindergarten.
Wagenman went back to school to earn his teaching certificate. He took a 33 percent pay cut and a job that allowed him to be around for his kids. He sold their house near 22nd Avenue N and moved south to Broadwater, where he quickly became everyone's favorite neighbor.
"He was the guy who would do anything for anyone, little things, like fixing your lawn mower or hanging a bike rack," said Tracy Nicholl, whose family lived next door for nine years. "He was very generous. A strong, opinionated man with a great sense of humor. He loved his kids more than anything and was just a great, great dad."
Nicholl's daughter Kara, 15, said all the kids called him Mr. Jim.
"He related really well to teenagers, especially," she said on Saturday afternoon, sniffling. "I mean, you could talk to him about anything, about issues or questions or whatever, and he'd always help you sort stuff out. He was better than any guidance counselor. I just can't believe he's gone. He can't be."
Wagenman remarried in 2009, but divorced two years later. He could never find anyone like Lisa.
His second marriage gave him a son, Jimmy. As soon as the boy was big enough to see over the steering wheel, Wagenman bought him a little battery-operated Jeep.
"He'd be out there all the time, walking around with his son, looking so proud," Nicholl said. "He was strict, and didn't take any nonsense. But he was always there for his kids — and everyone else's."
At Thurgood Marshall, his students remembered him hip-checking them in the hall, asking about their grades and making science make sense. He spent his planning period teaching students how to speak in a New York accent for the school play, Guys and Dolls. He always played in the student-faculty volleyball game but never let the kids win.
"If he liked you, he made fun of you," said Kara Nicholl. "He wouldn't really ever compliment you, but he'd let you know, in his own way, when he was proud."
He had a soft spot for kids who had lost parents, counseling one girl right after her dad died. When another student, whose dad wasn't in her life, made the high school volleyball team, he went to cheer her at her game.
Many of the first people who came to check out his new bar were parents of his students, or parents of other kids at school. He often worked the car line at Thurgood Marshall and seemed to know everyone, even the kids he didn't have in class.
"I keep calling my dad, wanting him to pick up the phone. But he's not going to. He can't," Giana posted Saturday night on Facebook. "RIP, Daddy. I (heart) you so much."
The grand opening of JWags Saloon was scheduled for next weekend. Instead, friends are trying to figure out how to honor the man who had been through so much, who had given up so much to be with his kids and had helped so many others, who had finally been able to build that bar he had always wanted to open.
For two weeks, he had lived his dream.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.