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CARING HEART IS A GONZMART TRADITION

At 6 years old, his mother sent him off to Sacred Heart Catholic School with a $20 bill to pay the tuition.

At school, Sister Mary John said she was raising money for poor Central American children. So he reached in his pocket and gave her the $20. Three weeks later, the Tampa school called his mother wanting to know why she hadn't paid the tuition.

"My mother got mad and said, 'What did you do with the money? Did you lose the money?' I told her I gave the money to Sister Mary John for the poor children and my mother started crying."

Today, Richard Gonzmart often donates time and money to Catholic schools.

Turn the page in Gonzmart's photo album, and you find another seminal moment that helped shape the charitable outlook of the Columbia Restaurant's fourth-generation president.

At 13, he and his friendLee Pallardydecided to raise homing pigeons on Davis Islands. They bought some from their buddyMarty. Later, they learned Marty had leukemia.

"When you're 13 years old and they say leukemia, that doesn't mean anything to you. He looked like me - healthy. But he died a year later.

"It wasn't until I was in my 40s did I let it be known how that impacted my life."

Now he holds two annual fundraisers for Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute.

At 34, he got in the car and jetted down the highway, unaware that state trooper Jeffrey D. Young was traveling in the other direction. The trooper turned around.

"People look at them as villains when they get a ticket, but I deserved it. A week later, he got shot and killed. He was 27 years old, making $18,000 a year. He was married and had a 1-year-old baby."

Today, Gonzmart serves on an advisory council for the Florida Highway Patrol.

At 41, his mother gave University of South Florida scholarships to a disadvantaged brother and sister.

"Their mother wanted to get on her knees and kiss my mother's feet. My mother said, 'No, this is the right thing to do. Your children deserve it.'"

Today, Gonzmart endows eight USF scholarships.

To understand why the Columbia Restaurant conducts its charitable Community Harvest every year, you have to understand how each snapshot created an indelible impression.

The influence of the episodes and the example set by his parents have convinced him to give - even in this faltering economy.

So all this month, 5 percent of all guests' lunch and dinner checks at each Columbia go to the charity of their choice. In 11 years, the program has netted $923,000 for various charities.

On Sunday, the restaurant cuts prices to celebrate its anniversary, including chicken and yellow rice for $2.95 and coffee for a nickel.

"It's my belief that if you worry about yourself, you're going to have worries. When you worry about others, you'll be supported."

Like his chivalrous hero Don Quixote, Gonzmart strives to help others. He sounds like a man tilting at windmills when he says he wants to live long enough for Moffitt to find a cure.

Unlike Quixote, however, he shows no signs of eventually growing melancholy.

"I'm going to die trying to do the right thing."

Not surprisingly, Gonzmart ends every e-mail this way: "Live every day with passion."

That's all I'm saying.

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