They called him “The Goober.”
He loved fast motorcycles, slow sips of Guinness, and serving as a guardian — at first, looking after inmates in Hillsborough County’s jails and later, helping children at Bryan Elementary School in Plant City.
Sgt. Gary Gobernik was a big man with an even bigger heart, a father of four young children and a devoted husband whose kindness working often difficult jobs would light up a room, those who knew him said.
But Sgt. Gobernik, 53, was alone in his room at South Florida Baptist Hospital in Plant City when he lost his battle with COVID-19 just before 2 a.m. Tuesday.
Sgt. Gobernik had received the vaccine and took the virus seriously, his coworkers said. He wore his mask and made sure his children did, too. His wife, Daisy Gonzalez-Gobernik, is a nurse at the Plant City hospital where he would fight for his life. Still, in mid-August, Gobernik fell ill with the Delta variant.
Public health authorities credit the vaccination with reducing the severity of COVID-19 in those who contract it anyway. But Sgt. Gobernik got sicker. He is one of more than 48,276 people to die from the coronavirus since it first hit Florida in March 2020.
At least 34 law enforcement officers have died from the coronavirus in Florida, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Sgt. Gobernik lived in Mulberry and spent 12 years with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office before moving in 2018 to Hillsborough County Public Schools and its Security and Emergency Management Department.
He was in the middle of his training to join the schools team in July 2018, doing crunches during a sweaty workout with other recruits, when he caught the attention of a reporter with WTVT, Ch. 13.
Asked why he wanted to leave his career at the Sheriff’s Office to tower over children in elementary school hallways, Gobernik replied that he wanted to “do what it takes to keep students safe.”
“It’s something that’s either here or it’s not and it’s here for me,” he said, pointing to his heart. “I have four children. That’s something that’s very, very close to my heart and after seeing a lot of things that go on, I kind of had an urge to get back into it. This was perfect to me.”
His spirit of service was infectious, and officers from Hillsborough Public Schools, the Sheriff’s Office, Plant City Police Department and throughout the Tampa Bay area set up a vigil after Gobernik was admitted to intensive care Aug. 31 and connected to a ventilator.
A large tent went up in the parking lot outside his window, decorated with blue LED lights and a giant banner proclaiming, “Keeping watch over Sgt. Gobernik, HCPS Strong.”
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As days passed, a rotation of acquaintances and strangers stood watch alongside Daisy and their four children. Eventually, an officer managed to get a walkie-talkie into Gobernik’s room so he could communicate with those outside.
Justin Childres, a close friend and a lieutenant with Osceola County Fire Rescue, remembered the last conversation the two of them had: “‘I told you to mind the nurses and doctors, and that we still had lots of golf, shooting, and good times left to enjoy.’”
Hillsborough Public Schools has reported 8,889 coronavirus cases in its schools since the school year began Aug. 2 among a community of 243,000 students, teachers, and other employees. One employee and 15 students were reported to have COVID-19 at Bryan Elementary.
At first, it appeared Gobernik was growing stronger in the hospital. He joked over the radio and was taken off his ventilator. But he suffered a relapse.
“A loving husband and father, and honorable public servant who protected the children of our community,” Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a statement on the passing of his friend. “My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends. Gary, you will be missed.”
Born: January 15, 1968
Died: Sept. 7, 2021
Survivors: wife Daisy Gonzalez-Gobernik; two sons and two daughters; mother Marianne Gobernik; father Ken Gobernik; sister Donna Gobernik.
Services: Sept. 18, Hopewell Baptist Church, l6001 S. County Road 39 in Plant City. Visitation begins at 10 a.m., followed by a service at 11 a.m.
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