TAMPA — In his first run-in with death 45 years ago, Arch Deal remembers spinning toward the ground at 120 mph, his useless parachutes trailing behind him, wondering how much it would hurt when he finally hit.
Friends and emergency responders launched a search for a body in the area around Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, now part of Legoland. Instead, they found Mr. Deal alive. In fact, he told a Tampa Tribune reporter years later, he was cracking jokes to cheer up a worried ambulance crew.
That was Mr. Deal, friends and family said — charismatic, vibrant, seemingly invincible.
It was a more down-to-earth accident that finally claimed his life Friday.
Eating dinner Friday night, Mr. Deal choked on a piece of filet mignon, said his fiancé, Ruby Drash, who was with him. They tried the Heimlich maneuver with no success. Mr. Deal was 88.
“It’s so hard to comprehend,” Drash, 88, said Saturday morning. “He was just a good man. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known.”
The news comes with a sad twist: One of Mr. Deal’s daughters, Karen Deal, met a similar fate a decade ago.
During a family dinner in 2010, she choked on a piece of food. Deal, a Tampa musician who was married to Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin, died after a month in a coma.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Drash said .
Mr. Deal came to the Tampa Bay area from his home state of North Carolina in the 1950s. He first worked for WTVT, Ch. 13 but gained a big following as news anchor at WFLA, Ch. 8, where he worked almost 20 years.
"He was the ultimate anchor,” said Jack Jarvis, who worked with Mr. Deal directing news, weather and sports from the WFLA control room. Mr. Deal had no ego, Jarvis said, and was always professional and dependable.
“We never had an argument or misunderstanding all the years we worked together."
Mr. Deal also served as a mentor to a young Tony Zappone, who worked at the station in high school, looking out for him and helping him fix mistakes in scripts.
“I was a little kid, but he helped me and guided me,” said Zappone, now 72.
Mr. Deal also had a full life outside of work.
Jarvis remembered when he and a colleague taught Mr. Deal how to water ski. The next thing he knew, Mr. Deal had moved to a house on the water and bought several boats. They’d travel together to Cypress Gardens, known as the “Water Ski Capital of the World.”
And there was skydiving. Jarvis said he was with Mr. Deal when he did 40 jumps in one day on his 40th birthday, celebrating middle age from 2,800 feet up.
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During the jump that nearly took his life, Jarvis was working in the TV station’s control room. He was tasked with calling Mr. Deal’s wife at the time. Mr. Deal suffered a broken pelvis, broken neck and cracked ribs, but three months later, he was back at work.
“He lived life to the fullest,” Jarvis said.
After his WFLA career, Mr. Deal worked for a couple years at WTSP, Ch. 10, then moved to radio in the 1980s, working as a traffic reporter. He was also part of the Q Morning Zoo on WRBQ, 104.7 FM. Later, in semi-retirement, he recorded voice-overs from a home studio.
He continued skydiving through it all, turning it into a professional gig. He did promotions for Miller Brewing Co., dropping into sports stadiums and cruise ships. At 70, he had another accident and broke both his legs.
Still, he kept it up, writing an autobiography titled Corporate Fall Guy: The Ups and Downs of a TV Anchor/Skydiver. But even daredevils have their limits. Zappone said his friend gave up the sport in recent years.
Still, his life was never boring, said Drash, who met Mr. Deal on a dating app seven years ago.
He wrote another book that Drash hopes she can publish in his honor. And he and Drash were planning to get married. He popped the question about two months ago, she said.
One of his favorite things to do was greet folks at Brunchies restaurant in Carrollwood. That’s where his daughter, 64-year-old Diane Deal, saw him last weekend. He was doing great, she said — vibrant as ever.
“He was larger than life," she said.
"He was supposed to live forever.”
Date of birth: Oct. 5, 1931
Date of death: March 13, 2020
Survivors: daughters Diane and Michelle Deal; son Doug Deal
Funeral service plans pending