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Married 62 years, Charlie and Helen Bridges died three days apart

Charles and Helen Bridges, both 83, eloped while he was a young recruit in the Air Force. He later co-owned six Outback restaurants.
Charles and Helen Bridges, both 83, eloped while he was a young recruit in the Air Force. He later co-owned six Outback restaurants.
Published Dec. 29, 2013

PALM HARBOR — For Charlie Bridges, the past several years had borne little resemblance to the previous 75. The former corporate executive turned Outback Steakhouse entrepreneur had spent a comfortable retirement either hosting golf tournaments or working on his game.

Now he practiced putting on artificial turf in his room at an assisted living center for Alzheimer's patients. He recognized his wife and daughters during visits but did not know their names.

Mr. Bridges and his wife were North Carolina natives (she was born in Shelby in 1930; he was born four months later in Forest City) who met at a beach party more than 62 years ago.

Helen Hoyle was a dazzling blond with an eye for fashion who was on her way to a college degree in home economics. Charles Bridges was a rugged Air Force recruit who made eye contact and remembered people's names.

By the time the couple realized they wanted to spend their lives together, they also had a decision to make. Mr. Bridges was stationed in England, and had to go back there. Charles and Helen decided to bypass the frills and timelines of a formal wedding. They eloped Dec. 27, 1951, and lived for the remainder of his term at the Lakenheath Air Force Base as husband and wife.

Mr. Bridges would go on to earn a business degree, then got a job in sales at the Scott Paper Co. They had two daughters. The family moved 10 times in 22 years as Mr. Bridges worked his way up to vice president.

In the early 1980s he left Scott Paper, started a military food brokerage company, and moved his family to the Countryside area.

For a time, Mrs. Bridges had her own interior decorating business, with several of her projects featured in the Tampa Bay Builders Association's Parade of Homes. She was the quieter of the two.

At home, she kept the routines on a schedule.

"It was what a normal family should be like," said daughter Karen Bridges, 51. "Dinner on the table at 6:30. Like Leave It to Beaver."

Away from work, Mr. Bridges threw himself into golf, belonging to at least three country clubs and serving on the board of the charity that runs the annual PGA tournament at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club.

In 1992 he invested in a start-up called Outback Steakhouse. Mr. Bridges would co-own six Outback restaurants in California and served on the restaurant's board of directors until 2006.

His wife cared for him the first four years of his Alzheimer's disease. When that was no longer possible she moved him to Arden Courts, where she visited daily and put up family photos to help him remember.

In March 2012 Mrs. Bridges was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She underwent major surgery and moved to assisted living. Staffers at Stratford Court noted her diligence for having her hair and makeup in perfect shape. They gave her a nickname: "the princess."

Daughters Karen and Linda took her shopping, to Arden Courts to visit her husband, or to Carrabba's.

The cancer returned in November, this time in her liver. Early this month, due to low hemoglobin levels, she was checked into Mease Countryside Hospital for a blood transfusion.

On Dec. 8, she had been in Room 3042 when the family got a phone call from Arden Courts: Mr. Bridges had fallen and broken his hip.

By chance, he was checked into Room 4042 at Mease Countryside — one floor above his wife.

A staffer wheeled Mr. Bridges to his wife's room Dec. 13. "They were both kind of out of it," Karen Bridges recalled.

The visit would be their last.

Around midday Dec. 15, Mrs. Bridges had applied her lipstick and was ready to be discharged from the hospital. Instead, she began to weaken quickly.

Mrs. Bridges died at 6:09 p.m. Dec. 15. She was 83.

Her husband, meanwhile, had developed a serious infection. He was also refusing physical therapy after his hip surgery.

Doctors laid out possible treatments and likely outcomes for family members. Even the most optimistic scenarios predicted no more than a year of life, and only if the antibiotics worked amid his end-stage Alzheimer's.

The family wondered if the events themselves bespoke Mr. Bridges' will.

"Mom goes to the hospital. Dad breaks his hip," his daughter said. "There were too many coincidences."

Reluctantly, she and her sister consented for Mr. Bridges to be moved to a hospice center.

Mr. Bridges died at 6:15 p.m. Dec. 18 — three days after his wife. He was 83.

"We had always thought my dad would pass away first from Alzheimer's," Karen Bridges said.

When Mrs. Bridges was diagnosed, she said: "It was like, 'Who's going to go first?' And then they went together."

Working quickly, a relative arranged for side-by-side plots in a Baptist church cemetery in Ruth, N.C. Mr. Bridges was laid out in a casket holding his golf putter. His wife wore an outfit from Talbots, her favorite clothing store, with a purple Coach purse draped on her arm. She held her pink lipstick in one hand; in the other, her Talbots charge card.

They were buried Friday — their 62nd anniversary.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

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