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News Story
Updated: 12/28/2013 08:00:01AM

Notable passings of 2013

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PHOTO BY JEFF ROSLOW

Marcus Jordan tells people attending the kickoff event for Bartow's Relay of Life in October of his experience in since he's been diagnosed with cancer. Beside him are his then-fiance Kimberly Acorn and his son, Brandon.

PHOTO PROVIDED
Keyon Torres when he was named Homecoming King for the Bartow Youth Football League in 2012.

PHOTO BY JEFF ROSLOW

Hundreds of balloons fly into the sky Wednesday, June 19, night at the Pittas Complex in memory of Keyon Torres who died Tuesday night.

Paul E. White

Adm. James Gray

Orrin Hughitt "Hugh" Wright

Wofford H. Stidham

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Keep The Faith

This past year the Bartow Relay For Life honorary chairman Marcus Jordan died before the event in April, the first time that has happened in the 12 years it has been held.

Trying to hold on, Jordan died from pancreatic cancer on Feb. 8. He was 41.

And while his passing could have brought sadness to the annual event, his memory and attitude brought joy to those who remember what he was like and the spirit to fight harder in the fight against cancer.

“He always said he was going to get better and he would not stop … he wouldn’t give up,” said his wife, Kimberly Acorn, who married him shortly before he passed away. “He never became angry. It’s difficult to not get angry with God and this (disease) made him a more remarkable person.”

What made him a more remarkable person, in Kimberly’s mind, was the way he showed others how to live when he had the deadly disease. Unless you knew he had cancer you’d never think he did as he carried himself in public as if he wasn’t ill. When he was diagnosed about a year and a half ago, he was already at Stage 3.

“When he passed away he had already planted a seed in me and his loved ones to be strong and not give up hope,” she said. “He inspired so many people. He believed God chose him not to hurt him but to use him as an example to show the rest of the world.”

He called it Jordan Luck.

“He was always able to view the unthinkable,” his son Brandon, 18, said. “He always was able to find ways to make things work. If I had a problem or trouble in school and I didn’t know what to do or mom can’t help out or things are tight, he was always able to come up with what we needed. It was Jordan Luck, he’d say. If you’re a Jordan you have it.”

Brandon also said it wasn’t the infliction of the disease that made him the way he was. It was the way he was.

When Brandon was about 10, he and Marcus went into a convenience store and spotted a homeless man asking for money outside. Marcus bought him a sandwich, telling his son there’s no telling what a person may buy with the money but what he needed was food.

“He gobbled it up and then he handed him a 20 dollar bill. He said, ‘I don’t know what he’s going to with that money but I know I did the right thing. You’ve got to help people and don’t wait for those who ask for it, just offer it.”

And getting ill didn’t stop this.

When one of Kimberly’s friends got sick and it turned out the medical expenses were more than she could afford. Her friend decided to have a car wash to try to raise money. Though he was sick, Marcus helped.

“Mark went out in that weekend and spent the whole day in the heat and being sick just to help one of my friends,” she said.

Kimberly and Brandon manned a car that circled downtown Bartow during the Relay For Life in April and he was remembered at the luminaria ceremony. In the ceremony his words were remembered: Keep The Faith.

9-year-old dies in shower accident

Keyon Torres was a 9-year-old boy who made an impact on the people who got to know him. A standout on both the baseball and football fields, the rambunctious youth was remembered by the Bartow Dixie Youth Baseball League in a ceremony in June with hundreds of balloons launched in his memory.

Describing him as larger than life, former coach Neal Duncan said, “You try to have an impact on children’s lives when you coach youth sports. But he impacted you more than you impacted him.”

Keyon died June 18 when he fell in the shower and cut himself on glass that broke from the door, a police report shows. He was airlifted to Tampa General Hospital for emergency surgery, but the cut to an artery was too severe.

Duncan pointed out Keyon was in some ways just like any 9-year-old but what stood out was his attitude, plus he was the same person on the field as he was off the field.

“When he was playing flag football, you’d have to say Keyon, what are you doing?” Duncan recalled. Instead of “tackling” his opponent by tearing off his flags, Keyon would really tackle him.

“He would level the kid, but he helped pick up back up,” Duncan said. “He never was intending to hurt someone as he was always the first one to help anyone. He’d talk to anyone. He was one of those kids who captured your attention.”

That attitude was also recalled by last year’s baseball coach for the Giants, John Maddox. He said there was a play at home plate last year that stands out.

“I don’t know if he was out or safe, but they just collided at home and he just got up from that,” Maddox said.

“When he got back to the dugout he said, ‘Coach, I wasn’t trying to play football out there.”

His mother, Belinda Torres, said sports was one of the great interests in his young life. But his family was also of great interest to him.

“Some kids come across and aren’t that lovable, but he was so lovable. He told me every day how much he loved me and how much he cared for his brothers and sister,” his mother, Belinda Torres, said. “That young little boy always said, ‘When I go into the Army, I’m going to take care of you.’ I said be the best you can, and that’s what he’s doing now. He’s being the best he can be with God right now.”

Friends, family recall gentle giant

In many respects, the Friday, June 21 weekly meeting of the Bartow Kiwanis Club was a somber gathering as they recalled one of its members, Paul E. White, 74, who had passed away June 18, and his funeral was just prior to the meeting.

While their mood was somber, their remembrances of his warmth and appreciation was spoken about.

“We went to Kiwanis together and sat at the same table,” said Russ Cannon, who was still stunned by the rather sudden passing of White. “He was really a nice guy to talk to. He joked a lot. I’m pleased to have known him.”

To John Keating, White was a “gentle giant.”

“He was very nice, easy going,” said Keating. “I will miss him greatly.”

Besides his family, perhaps the person who may have known White better than others was Ed Etheredge.

“Paul and I were classmates in 1957,” Etheredge said; the two attended Summerlin Institute, which later became Bartow High School. They were on the football squad. “Paul was the quarterback and I was his center. We were bound together by that football.”

However, Etheredge and White parted ways when they went to college; White to the University of Florida and Etheredge to Yale University. Not until each returned to Bartow and joined Kiwanis did they renew their friendship.

One of the things the two of them often talked about was Gators football. Although Etheredge was an Eli from Yale, his wife and many of her family were Gator alumni. White, he said, was intense in his passion.

“What we talked endlessly every Friday was Florida football,” he said. “Pre-season, intra-season, post-season, with a few week break, then we’d talk about who UF recruited. It was like we were 18-19 years old when it came to the Gators.”

White, who married young and became a father at age 20, played football at UF. He was later drafted in 1962 in the eighth round by the Buffalo Bills, then part of the American Football League, which would later merge with the NFL.

“He did not like playing in the NFL. He preferred the college game,” said Lyn Bryan, born while her father was a college student. She said there were two reasons he retired after just one season. “He had a neck injury and was concerned if he got hit the wrong way he might be paralyzed.”

The other reason was that the travel took him away from his family, to whom he was devoted.

“He never missed my kids’ sporting events,” said daughter Rae Wiggins. From the time they were little, he was always there, she added. Indeed, one of the key memories Bryan said she still cherishes is the week the two of them spent in Kentucky, where they had traveled to see Bryan’s daughter, Lesley, play a soccer match her senior year at the University of the Cumberlands.

Both daughters and son shared a common memory. Their father absolutely loved children and youth, and those children and youth adored him. Both said their friends always wanted to come over to their home because of their father. He had a rapport with them.

“All my friends growing up wanted to stay at my home,” said Wiggins.

“He had the gift of hospitality,” added Bryan.

“My friends would say, let’s go over to your house. Your dad is cool,” said son Mark.

It was that love of sports and children that led to White becoming an elementary school teacher in the late 1970s. He coupled that love by coaching and serving the community. When the family returned to Florida in the 1960s, first to Plant City, he was its recreation director for almost four years. In 1973 they returned to Bartow.

“He coached in Dixie League and girls softball,” said White’s wife, Saralyn. “When he taught at Frostproof, he was a coach with the high school football team.” She added he also served on the Bartow parks and recreation committee approximately 15-to-20 years.

Retired admiral will be missed

At a Bartow Kiwanis Club meeting, the members bade farewell to a comrade from their sister club in Winter Haven who frequently attended the Bartow club to maintain his perfect 50-year attendance record.

Unfortunately, the funeral service for 84-year-old retired reserve Adm. James Gray of Winter Haven, conflicted with the Bartow club’s regular meeting, so members quietly remembered him during their regular club meeting.

Gray, former owner and operator of Gray Truck Line in Auburndale, was a Kiwanian for 50 years, and maintained a perfect attendance record, according to Jim Myers, a Kiwanis District Foundation Trustee who informed the Bartow club of Gray’s death which came Aug. 9.

Gray’s late wife Betty Jo was a Bartow girl, Brian Hinton said. “Many of us could tell when Jim visited with us after he lost Betty Jo after her difficult illness, he seemed a bit more worn.”

The Grays were married for 63 years.

Gray was a native of Lake Alfred and lived most of his life in Polk County, graduating from Winter Haven High School before entering Georgia Institute of Technology. He was an ensign in the Navy, spent 31 years on active and reserve duty, retiring as a rear admiral.

Wright had a history of his own

Many knew Hugh Wright as one of the foremost historians of Polk County, as he was the co-editor with his wife of the Polk County Historic Association’s Quarterly and the editor of “An Historical Gazeteer of Polk County Florida.” In his 90 years, he had accomplished quite a bit more.

Among those accomplishments, he was among the engineers that made the original design for the five-inch 38 and the six-inch 47 guns for the U.S. Navy. He improved phosphate mining on Sand Mountain, something his father started, and in World War II he participated in a search and demolition mission, contributing to the seizure of enemy property and intelligence. For this, he was recognized for his “courage and coolness under very dangerous conditions.” It led to one of the proudest moments of his life: He and six other members of the battle were awarded Navy and Marine Corps Medal by Adm. Nimitz.

This was recalled at Wright’s funeral. Wright died Aug. 25 at the Lakeland Regional Medical Center.

The Summerlin Institute graduate, who moved to Bartow in 1925, was not shy about spreading word about his duties in the war. He told his stories of that and Polk County history wherever he could. He would make it come alive, remembers Lloyd Harris, president of the Historical Association.

“His narrative of the battles sounded like classified information,” he said. “He’d tell stories and it was like you were there.”

His wife of 67 years, Freddie, vividly recalled when the couple met when she was a nurse stationed in Pearl Harbor and he was a shipman in the U.S. Navy. However, he described it in greater detail.

She recalled that it was after the war and the nurses didn’t have a lot to do with so few wounded left. One day she went with some nurses aboard Menhaden on which he was stationed. During lunch, Hugh and Freddie met.

“It was interesting,” she recalled. “He got my telephone number.”

In a letter he wrote five years ago, Hugh wrote that at lunch time he sat next to a “cute little nurse, and we spent the afternoon roaming the ship.” He recalled taking her for a drink and getting her phone number. “Here good luck appeared again. One of my good friends had lived in Honolulu before the war. His friends had gotten him a car (very rare in Hawaii.) He had just been transferred and sold me the car. This made it easy to court my nurse.”

Ultimately she was discharged and went to San Francisco where he soon followed and Hugh and Freddie were married on Feb. 2, 1946.

Perhaps some of his interest in history rubbed off on their children or perhaps it’s just in the genes.

“I went with them when they interviewed Frank Garcia when he was doing a book on Bone Valley,” daughter Barbara Fite recalls. She was young and her parents were the co-editors of the Quarterly. She said sometimes she’d go with them but sitting on this interview got her interested in hunting for fossils.

She spent years in Bone Valley near Fort Meade looking for fossils. Last year she had a fossil named for her. The Rhizosmildon fiteae is the bone of a saber-tooth tiger jaw she found in Fort Meade in 1990.

What stood out the most to people was the kind of man he was, Freddie said. When the children were young, one of his daughters wanted a horse. So he went out and built a barn for her, Freddie said.

They recalled he could talk about anything to anybody at anytime.

“He always took more than a casual interest in anything you wanted to talk about,” Harris remembers.

And what he knew drew some astonishment from his daughter.

“When we were growing up in Bartow, the root beer stand (on U.S. 17) had a contest where on the local radio station if you identified the song in the first few notes you could win a root beer,” Fite said. “They (mom and dad) always knew the song and we won a lot of root beers.”

Esteemed area lawyer passes away

On Aug. 29, Wofford Stidham made dinner for his family, and afterward he commented to his wife Betty Faye how blessed they were. He went to bed and never woke up.

Never feeling ill, Stidham, a long-time attorney in Bartow, died in his sleep that evening.

“All his friends said we hope we can go like that,” his son Jeff Stidham said.

“We were (on the farm in south Georgia) two weeks ago and dad was on the tractor doing his thing,” Jeff said.

Wofford Hampton Stidham, 83, died of heart failure. He moved to Bartow in 1935 and was a fourth generation Bartowan. He graduated from Summerlin Institute in 1948 and the University of Florida in 1952. He fought for two years in the Korean War and was accepted to the UF law school in 1954. He and his wife, Betty Faye, were married for 53 years.

For 30 years, he was with Holland and Knight and worked in what is now the Records Building across the street from the Post Office. At that time people like Stephen Grimes (future Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice), Spessard Holland (former Florida governor), Henry Kittleson and Chesterfield Smith worked there. In 1987, his son Jon — and now his grandson — worked in the law firm he started called Stidham and Stidham. He was a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers and in Bartow he was past president of the Kiwanis Club, chairman of the Bartow Memorial Hospital Board and an elder in the Presbyterian Church.

And while he was a lawyer with not only high credentials and a multitude of high regard from among his peers, his personality as a historian, writer, hunter and cook stood out.

“He liked to hunt and fish,” said Dabney Conner. “When he got out of the public, legal eye, he was as much a good old country boy as people ever saw.”

The pair have been friends since high school and were in the legal profession together for many years. In his younger years, Conner remembers an incident where they were frog hunting in a swamp where the Girls Youth Villa is now on State Road 60.

“We were in knee-deep water and a water snake wrapped itself around his leg and you should have seen the jig he did,” Conner said chuckling as he could see the incident in his mind.”

Professionally, Conner said, there were few that were better or more efficient than Wofford. In his early years on the bench, Conner said his colleague spent a lot of time being a trial lawyer. But later he worked more with appeals.

“He loved to write,” Conner said. “He was a word nut. He’d write, re-write and re-write and it would drive his secretary crazy.”

“He’d keep (the briefs) until the minute it had to go out the door, to the great frustration of the secretary,” attorney Don Wilson said. “He only finished it when there was no time left.”

Conner said recalls Stidham had a “brilliant legal mind who would analyze everything.”

At the funeral, the eulogy was delivered by U.S. District Judge Steve Merryday, who started out as a young lawyer working for Wofford.

He always had political opinions and how the law affects people. And he showed what a knowledgeable historian he was.

That ability to express his opinion and be clear is something S.L. Frisbie, retired publisher of The Polk County Democrat, remembers.

“Wofford was outspoken on the causes and issues he embraced. You never doubted where he stood. I had great respect for him, even on those rare occasions on which we were on opposite sides of an issue. I always enjoyed our conversations more when we were in agreement,” Frisbie said.


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