On his third week in the hospital, David Alfonso started thinking about his obituary.
His body was beginning to shut down after 25 years with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. If the journalist died suddenly, his wife told him, she wouldn’t be able to tell his story as well as she knew he could.
Back home, the collection of friends he shared emails and Thursday lunches with for years started to visit. When former co-workers Tom Keyser and Mike O’Keeffe stopped by, Mr. Alfonso told them he had a story to tell. He just needed to work up the energy.
When he did, on oxygen from a hospital bed in his Largo living room, Mr. Alfonso started writing on a yellow legal pad. He took breaks to watch Pardon the Interruption on ESPN, The Paul Finebaum Show and the Olympics.
A week after their first visit, O’Keefe and Keyser stopped by again. Mr. Alfonso, known to his friends as Fonz, had filled five or six pages with the story of his life. Keyser read it and asked a few questions, then took it home to copy edit and type it up.
A day later, Keyser emailed Mr. Alfonso a final draft.
“I thought, ‘That’s my David,’” Janice Alfonso said after she read it. “He’s so frank. He has wit. It’s David.”
It was ready just in time.
The next day, at 73, Mr. Alfonso died from leukemia.
This is what he wrote:
Alfonso, David Alfred, a fine writer and mostly decent human, moved on August 6, 2021 at his and his wife’s lovely abode on McKay Creek in Largo. He is survived by his mom, Grace; wife of 35 years, Janice; and the wonderful children, Phil and Jenny.
The end was a little rough, but, hey, no one gets out alive, nor always on their own terms. Still, he claimed one final assignment for himself, writing his obituary. And so, he (I) will now change to the first person.
I acknowledge that I didn’t always make my deadlines, but, in grim retrospect, I apparently made this one. I was born March 7, 1948, the only child of Grace Alfonso, a bank teller, and Alfred Alfonso, a janitor and life-long scrapper (15-3 as a pro) until his early demise at 63. Their first home was a basement apartment where dad cleaned. Humility would always be in our make-up. I rode my trike through the wooden hallways later in the day. Think a benevolent Danny in The Shining. Al and Grace sacrificed mightily for me, always, so that I might inch ahead in life, “make it,” if you will. And to a significant degree I did, although a determined, under-achiever side would interfere.
I was a Latino in South Tampa when such things still mattered, but I always held my head high. My educational and cultural pipeline was Mitchell, Wilson and Plant. A couple of highlights: President of Wilson Junior High. Starting fullback on the 1965 Plant Panthers’ first playoff team. Member of Plant Hall of Fame (faculty-elected).
When it came to the ladies, I was a prodigious over-achiever, culminating with marriage to my Queen of Hearts, Janice Harwell. The University of Florida was my destiny. But while I was interested in everything, I piddled through with a degree in philosophy. Really, philosophy. Not what you were expecting, right? I worked as a “housing counselor” and then, a couple of years later (it was the Watergate influence), I decided that maybe I could be a newspaper writer. And darned if it didn’t happen.
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From a volunteer at the USF Oracle to reporting gigs at the Clearwater Sun and my hometown paper The Tampa Tribune, I was a happy camper. It was the heyday of print, and I witnessed the best of Sports World. I covered a ton of big-time college football games and had a front-row seat to the last golden era of boxing, the 1980s and Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran. I saw the drama up close and mingled with THE best writers, of which I was occasionally genuinely included.
In the early 1980s I set aside my single-man ways and hooked up with single-mom Jan (we married in 1986) and her two youngsters. She was a first-grade teacher, as good as there ever was. Devoted doesn’t begin to describe her. I was “Daddy Dave” to Phil and Jenny. They’re great people — sweet, kind and thoughtful — and will be fine.
When the bottom dropped out of my writing career, after a 20 year extremely enjoyable run, I somehow transitioned to an algebra teacher at my alma mater Plant High. I spent 10 years walking two blocks to work and teaching algebra to the utes.
Teachers should be paid double.
I retired in 2008 and lived large in Largo. We lived on McKay Creek, a mile south of West Bay. If I’d had a kayak, knew how to kayak and liked to kayak, I could have been in the intracoastal and open Gulf in about 15 minutes. But since I didn’t, I often sat on the backyard deck and drank in the spectacular view.
Now it’s time to say goodbye. A 25-year duel with chronic lymphocytic leukemia has come crashing down with a vengeance, and I do mean a vengeance. Once a two-time finisher at St. Anthony’s Triathlon, I am bed-ridden and don’t care for it a bit, even as the wonderful care of Hospice tries to take the edge off the inevitable.
Funny how we get a taste for that Old-Time Religion when times get tough. I am saved by Christ, I do believe. The pain-killers will wear off before long. While I am invigorated by the act of writing (yes, even this), I know what follows and don’t welcome it.
It was a great ride, with lots of laughs and tenderness. In keeping with the tradition of obits, I ask you to make a donation to a worthy cause. They’re everywhere. (Clearwater Audubon Society perhaps?)
Finally, buy a Sunday newspaper and enjoy it over a cheese omelette, crispy hash browns, thick bacon, fresh Florida OJ, and a large café con leche.
And remember: Kindness is free. Sprinkle that stuff everywhere.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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