There was an empty seat in the pew at the back of my church Sunday. It was where Eddie Card used to sit.
Thatís where I would see Eddie and his wonderful wife, Joan, nearly every week. He would always extend his hand and give mine a firm shake.
He would look me in the eye and ask how things were going. We would chat about the events of the week, often sports. Iíd try to see him afterward to tell him Iíd catch him next week.
Next week wonít come any more. Eddie died the day before Valentineís Day. He was 96. He and Joan were married 68 years.
If you never met Eddie, thatís unfortunate for you. I first encountered him while covering the basketball team at the University of South Florida for the Tampa Tribune.
It was in the mid-1970s, back when the team was known as the Golden Brahmans, not the Bulls as we call them today. They played at old Curtis Hixon Hall in downtown Tampa. Eddie and Jack Harris, now of 970-WFLA radio fame, handled the broadcasts.
"He was just a great guy to be with and work with," Harris said. "He wasnít a professional announcer, but that made it even better. He loved what he was doing, and that what was so much fun."
No, you wouldnít call Eddie a golden voice or anything like that. He got the radio job because he worked for Art Pepin, who ran the big Budweiser beer distributorship in Tampa and sponsored the games. Eddie was part of the deal.
There is a back story behind that, too, and for details we go to Joan and a night in Westport Central, N.Y., that changed each of their lives.
Eddie was working at the local high school when he showed up at her house one night. Joanís older sister, Polly, thought he was there to ask her to go dancing.
"But then he asked, ĎWhereís Joan?í " Joan said with a laugh. "He was about 10 years older than me, but everything was okay."
They went for an ice cream soda, and a love affair was born that lasted the ages.
All wasnít lost for Polly, though. She eventually met and married a young man named Art Pepin, and thatís how Eddie and Joan wound up in Tampa Ė working 19 years for the man everyone knew was Pep.
Eddie certainly knew his sports. He played baseball, football and basketball. He was the coach of a state championship basketball team, high school athletic director, and eventually became president of the Tampa Sports Club. He was a charter member of Tampaís Gold Shield Foundation.
But mostly, he was Joanís husband and a loving father.
"I donít know anybody who didnít like Eddie," Harris said.
We began to sense the end might near when Eddie stopped showing up at church. He had been admitted to Florida Hospital with kidney failure but didnít want visitors. Doctors wanted to do dialysis, but Joan said one treatment had "wiped him out" and he wanted no more.
"They told him they might give me a couple of years if he had dialysis, but he said he had been through enough," Joan said. "I told him it was his decision. The morning he died, he was supposed to go to hospice. He was just exhausted.
"Iím grateful the way he went, but I know the hard part is coming."
Thatís always true when a loved one dies, especially when they have been together as long as Eddie and Joan. But people surrounded her with love when she joined her daughter, Kim, in the pew seats Sunday.
They wonít forget a love story that spanned nearly seven decades. They wonít forget Eddie Card, gentleman and friend. That seat will always belong to him.