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Russ Koerner: Engaged citizen of Kenneth City

Published May 20, 2012

KENNETH CITY — Most weekend nights, Russ Koerner retreated to his command post, where he played computer war games against a half-dozen buddies who live in Australia and several European countries.

On other nights, he and his wife, Diana, often fished for snook.

Mr. Koerner also enjoyed cooking lavish dinners, reading history and politics and walking through his town, in which it seemed he knew everyone.

Apart from chronic back pain and other health problems, Mr. Koerner presented a picture of contented retirement.

But when the city faced a thorny issue on which he had an opinion, and he usually did, Mr. Koerner advocated for his position as if it were a full-time job. He spoke frequently at city meetings, armed with folders of research and a determination to speak his piece.

Mr. Koerner, who often said he could do more as a private citizen than if he had run for elected office, died Sunday at Northside Hospital, a result of congestive heart failure and other issues. He was 63.

"He was interested in what was happening with small-town politics," said Kenneth City Mayor Teresa Zemaitis. "As passionate as he could be about his positions, he had the ability to keep an open mind and listen to a different perspective."

He successfully fought reclaimed water, arguing that it was unsafe and not needed. He backed a referendum turning law enforcement over to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which he said would be better for the Kenneth City police officers who found work there. When voters blocked it, he pushed for vests and state benefits for the officers.

"He was passionate about running this place in a professional manner," said Kenneth City police Cpl. John Esposito.

Mr. Koerner was born in Brooklyn. He served three years in the Air Force and was stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. He pitched in for several more years with the Pearl River, N.Y., volunteer fire department, worked as a groundskeeper and fixed copiers in Nyack, N.Y.

From time to time, he also worked as a private detective, said Diana Koerner, his wife.

Back injuries from a head-on car crash lingered the rest of his life, but he did not complain. Mr. Koerner moved to Tampa in 1978 to be near his parents. The following year, he married Diana. Each had been married before.

Mr. Koerner was a bit of a performer who acted in several community theater productions, a prankster who fooled friends with funny voices on the phone, and a weekend gamer whose buddies knew him as Tracer.

Using a Gateway computer with a 32-inch screen and surround sound, he waged war against friends from several countries whom he never saw. "The helicopters come in and so forth," said Diana Koerner, 64. "You heard all the gunfire and the bombs going off."

Sunday morning, Mr. Koerner called his wife at church and told her he was having trouble breathing. Emergency workers raced to the scene but could not revive him. "The good Lord said, 'You don't need to suffer anymore, your time is now,' " his wife said.