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Man uses ingenuity to craft wife's memorial

Published Sep. 26, 2005

The staff at PTEC helps a student combine his wife's love of elephants and their fountain to create a unique urn.

Sandi Brookfield loved elephants.

For reasons unknown to her husband, Richard, the sight of the gray beasts made her smile.

On vacations, she collected elephant miniatures to display in a glass cabinet in her home.

"They had to have their trunks up facing east," Richard Brookfield said. "She said when you saw an elephant like that, it meant something good was going to happen."

In October, something bad happened to Sandi Brookfield.

One day, after her husband left their north Pasco home for classes at the Pinellas Technical Education Center near Largo, she became very sick. Two days later, Sandi Brookfield, 61, was dead of cirrhosis of the liver and heart failure.

Although Sandi Brookfield had been sick off and on for years, her death was a shock to her husband. Brookfield, 39, said he grieves for her every day.

At night, he said, he roams the back yard, a place she loved, until his eyes fill with tears. Her favorite song, Curtains, by Elton John, is the one on the stereo. "Her towel is still in the shower like she left it," Brookfield said. "She was everything to me."

After some deliberation, Brookfield came up with an unusual way to honor his wife's memory. It involved his friends at PTEC, along with Sandi Brookfield's love for elephants.

The idea came to Brookfield one night at his home in a rural area of Shady Hill. He said he stepped outside to a spot near a pond and fountain that he and Mrs. Brookfield had been building before her death.

"I was walking around crying, and it just popped into my head," Brookfield said.

Brookfield decided to use his technical skills and those of his friends at PTEC to make an urn for his wife's ashes. He would place the urn inside a hollowed-out ceramic elephant, if he could find one, and make the elephant the focal point of the pond. Water would flow from the elephant's trunk down a series of rocks into the pond below.

Locating the elephant turned out to be easy. Brookfield and his friend Matt Kenly were driving down U.S. 19 near Hudson when they spotted one in a pottery yard. For $75, the 100-pound elephant _ with its trunk up _ was theirs.

But building the urn was a job that would require lots of help from several PTEC departments.

At school the next day, Brookfield shared his vision with the PTEC staff.

The school got behind him 100 percent, said Don Bitting, an assistant administrator. "Everybody wanted a part in it. He got lots of advice and help," Bitting said.

"Everybody was supportive," Brookfield agreed. "I think they were actually touched."

Richard Baker, an instructor in the electrical wiring department, said, "Everybody really seemed to feel for him."

"We're just one big family with our students," Baker said.

The uneven dimensions of the elephant's insides made the design for the urn difficult. Brookfield got help with formulas and calculations from math instructor Ray Buchholz.

Back in the machine shop, Brookfield worked with department chairman Ron Berger and instructors Alex Ditinno and Robert Burkart.

"I remember when he told me he wanted to make an urn for his wife's ashes and asked me if he could work on it in class," Berger said. "I said, "Of course,' and told him I would help in any way I could. I was touched _ what else could I say?"

Together, Brookfield and the machinery staff chose stainless steel, which won't rust in water, as the material for the urn.

"This is the first time in 29 years of teaching that someone has come up with a project like this," Berger said.

Kenly is a welding student at PTEC. After the urn was made and the ashes were placed in it, Kenly took the urn to his instructor Jerry Galyen. Galyen said he was touched by the idea but had some concerns. "I called my boss to make sure we wouldn't be violating any law," he said.

Kenly and Brookfield worked on the urn for about three weeks, bringing it back and forth between technical departments at the school. "I kept telling myself, it's just an urn," Kenly said. "Then one day it just hit me that the person's ashes in the urn belonged to someone really close to me, and I just froze."

He said he put the urn away and left the classroom to slip into the office of a guidance counselor. "I told him "I just needed to sit in there for a little bit,' " Kenly said. "He understood."

In 1986, the Brookfields met at a hotel in Fort Lauderdale. She was there for a science fiction convention, he said. He said she liked to write science fiction stories and romance novels, some of which were published. He was playing drums in a band that had a monthlong gig in the lounge.

When they met, Brookfield lived with his parents in Pasco County. She lived in Homestead. After a few months of long drives back and forth, she packed up her things and moved north.

They married in 1990 at South of the Border, a tourist attraction on Interstate 95 in South Carolina.

For a while, the two ran a rabbit farm with 300 bunnies near Shady Hills. But a couple of years ago, the state took the farm for the Suncoast Parkway, a 42-mile limited-access toll road that eventually will run from northern Hillsborough County to U.S. 98 near the Citrus/Hernando county line.

Brookfield said his wife was never the same after they had to sell the farm. "She loved taking care of those rabbits," he said.

With the state money, the Brookfields bought a 1{-acre tract in Shady Hill where Brookfield now lives. There is an electric fence around the yard and with a "bad dog" sign on it. But the fence is turned off and Maxine, Brookfield's large, black, mixed-breed dog, is anything but menacing.

Brookfield adores the dog. "She's all I have left," he said.

It is winter now in Shady Hills. The leaves have forsaken the scrub oak that hangs over the partially built fountain and pond, and the flowers Mrs. Brookfield tended so carefully have died. Only their straight, brown stalks remain.

When spring comes and the countryside turns green again, Brookfield and Kenly will go back to work hauling in rocks and shrubbery to finish the project that will be Mrs. Brookfield's final resting place. Brookfield says her spirit will bring life to the water. As long as her ashes are there, he said, the fountain will thrive.

This Oct. 21, a year to the day after his wife died, Brookfield has planned a memorial service at the site of the completed project. He will play Curtains and turn on the fountain for the first time.

It will celebrate, he said, the couple's storybook life together.