Edward K. Pearson died alone. He will not be interred that way.
Pearson, 80, died Aug. 30 in Naples. His obituary in the Naples Daily News on Sept. 29 gave his name and age and the fact that he would be interred at Sarasota National Cemetery on Tuesday. It then noted, “This Veteran has no immediate family. All are welcome to attend.”
Over the weekend, news of Pearson’s funeral invitation swept across social media. Tweets from politicians and even a CNN news anchor encouraged people to show up for Pearson’s interment to honor his military service.
What few people knew is that this is the second time Pearson has been the subject of a social media campaign.
Pearson grew up on a Pennsylvania farm and served in the U.S. Army from 1962 to 1964, when he was honorably discharged. Records indicate he worked for the Marriott hotel chain. He told friends he was divorced and had no children.
Patricia Thrasher of the Collier County Tax Collector’s office met Pearson in 2017, after Hurricane Irma severely damaged the mobile home he was living in and he fell behind on his taxes and utilities.
They met because “I deal with all the mobile home titles and payments and research,” Thrasher explained. To apply for help from a program called Rebuild Florida, Pearson needed proof he owned the mobile home, something he did not possess.
“He was a sweet gentleman,” Thrasher said. Monday She agreed to help him, and he began dropping by her office nearly every day, charming everyone he met.
When Thrasher dug into the records of Pearson’s purchase, she discovered that he’d been the victim of a crime. The person who sold him the mobile home did not, in fact, own it, she said.
Meanwhile, she said, Pearson was still living in the damaged mobile home – even though the blue tarp covering its roof didn’t do anything to stop rain from pouring into the kitchen like a waterfall.
“He really shouldn’t have been living in it,” Thrasher said.
She posted about his plight on Facebook, encouraging people to help. The post attracted a lot of attention around Naples. One man volunteered to seal the roof for Pearson. Others offered him a place to stay temporarily (he said no to that).
So many people donated money, Thrasher said, that he was able to pay off his taxes and utilities and still had $1,600 left over.
Meanwhile the Facebook post attracted the attention of a Naples law firm, which handled his case for free and got him the ownership papers he needed.
“He seemed like a very honest, hard-working man,” attorney Cary Goggin recalled. “He had a very grateful attitude” for all the assistance.
Rebuild Florida decided that what Pearson needed was a new place to live. He was on the verge of moving when the two-time cancer survivor died
“When we left the courthouse he was talking about the new mobile home,” Goggin said. “He was very optimistic about what a change it would be for him.”
Before Pearson died, Thrasher printed out the Facebook post and the hundreds of responses it generated and gave it to him. He read it with tears in his eyes, she said.
“At least he knew everybody loved him,” she said.
When she got word he had died, she contacted Legacy Options, a family-owned Naples funeral home that provides free services for indigent veterans. Once funeral director Michael Hoyt verified that Edwards had an honorable discharge, the company handled his cremation and now is overseeing his interment in the Sarasota veteran’s cemetery. The funeral home submitted the obituary to the local paper, and it took off from there.
Democratic former Congresswoman Gwen Graham urged the residents of Sarasota, where the funeral is being held, to show up for Pearson.
“We can be his family,” Graham tweeted.
CNN anchor Jake Tapper echoed Graham’s call Sunday, and his tweet quickly went viral. As of Sunday evening, it had been retweeted some 3,100 times ― including by Republican Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz.
If you’d like to attend, the service begins at 12:30 p.m.. The cemetery address is 9810 State Road 72, Sarasota.
Even for those who can’t attend, Thrasher has a message she posted on her Facebook page: “Please honor Ed, by being kind to your neighbors. A smile can go a long way.”
Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this story.