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Lightning strike claims life of former U.S. diplomat living in Largo, authorities say

Jay Freres, 81, is the second lightning fatality in the state in 2015.
Published Jun. 20, 2015

LARGO — Jay Freres traveled the world as a U.S. diplomat, serving in some dangerous corners of the globe before retiring to Florida with his wife.

On Friday morning, the 81-year-old U.S. Army veteran died steps from his home when a bolt of lightning struck him as he strolled alone on Egret Drive, Largo police said.

Friends and family were left to grapple with the shock of the sudden — and statistically rare — way that the friendly, deeply religious man died. Mr. Freres was the eighth person to be killed in the United States by a lightning strike this year, according to the National Weather Service.

"The way my dad was, God decided to take him in a big, spectacular way," Anita Freres said by phone from her home in Vienna, Va. "He was such a loving person."

Largo Fire Rescue was called about 11:30 a.m. to the neighborhood of tidy homes and well-manicured lawns off Belcher Road and found Mr. Freres lying unresponsive on the ground near Sandpiper Drive. They pronounced him dead at the scene.

His Egret Drive neighbor Suzanne Stice remembers a loud clap of thunder, dark gray clouds and raindrops falling into her backyard pool. As she headed out for groceries, she saw a man sprawled on the sidewalk and another man in a pickup truck beside him, apparently calling 911. Stice noticed the big white sneakers and knew it was Mr. Freres, who lived six houses away with his wife, Maria, and routinely walked the neighborhood.

"It's very emotional," Stice said. "It's a person, a human being, that was struck by lightning. It's sad to see that."

Other neighbors gathered outside as police cars and fire trucks converged on the street. A woman who answered the door at the Freres home declined to comment to a reporter.

"Everybody knew Jay," said neighbor Michael Amyx. "He was one of the nicest guys you're ever going to meet."

A native of Peoria, Ill., Mr. Freres earned his bachelor's degree in foreign service from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and a master's in economics from Bradley University. He spent 3½ years in the Army, including a year at what was then called the Army Language School in Monterey, Calif., where he studied Persian. He met his wife, a native of Czechoslovakia, while on assignment in West Germany and they married on July 4, 1960.

Mr. Freres served in about 10 posts for the Foreign Service, including stints in Afghanistan, Guatemala, Lebanon, Egypt, Bangladesh, Nicaragua, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. His last assignment was general counsel in Bahrain, his family said. The couple raised four children along the way.

Anita Freres, who was born in Guatemala, said the job satisfied her father's sense of adventure and desire to serve his country while seeing the world. He knew at least seven languages and immersed himself in other cultures to be a better diplomat, prompting one Saudi official to remark that Mr. Freres seemed to know the Islamic faith better than Muslims, his daughter said.

"He was a dedicated servant, but he was always there for the family," Anita Freres said.

The family had to evacuate at least twice, once from Nicaragua and once before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Mr. Freres stayed for several months longer as essential personnel, according to his family, and was among the diplomats in Kabul when U.S. Ambassador Adolph "Spike" Dubs was kidnapped by Islamist insurgents and killed in an exchange of gunfire with Afghan police in February 1979.

Mr. Freres retired in 1991 and the couple moved to Pinellas County to be closer to his mother and sister. He served as a State Department liaison for U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa from 2002 to 2007, when he had a stroke.

The couple were active at nearby St. Catherine's of Siena Catholic Church and doted on their seven grandchildren, said daughter Monica Ludwig of Washington.

Ludwig said her father's faith — and her own — gave her comfort when she found out how he died.

"My first thought was we have a saint in heaven now because he's such a beautiful, devout man and he was taken in a holocaustic way," Ludwig said. "I trust that he's in heaven with our heavenly father."

Times staff writer Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com. Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com.

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