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A life on the sea ends prematurely

A lifelong fisherman who'd help a stranger in the middle of the night, James Richards had ''a passion for life.''

By JANET LEISER
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 5, 2002


SUNSET PARK -- One night three months ago, James Richards was too excited about a morning fishing trip to even sleep.

"He was like a little kid the night before Christmas. He was up half the night, making sandwiches, putting drinks in the cooler," said longtime companion Sherry Campbell.

It had been a few months since Mr. Richards, 48, had last been on the water, since he learned he was dying of pancreatic cancer. The free-spirited man needed to be back on a boat, where he belonged. He needed to cast a few lines.

Mr. Richards, a tugboat captain, had been at home on the water since he was a boy growing up in South Tampa.

"He was on the water all his life," said Bart DePury, a former classmate at Plant High School. "It didn't seem like you could show up at his house that he didn't have a fishing pole in his hand."

At a Wednesday memorial service, DePury and other friends and relatives traded memories of Mr. Richards.

He died March 29, seven months after he was airlifted off a ship in the Gulf of Mexico and taken to a New Orleans hospital with severe abdominal pain.

The prognosis was bleak from the start. In October he returned home to Sunset Park from Panama City, where he'd lived for about 10 years. He wanted a second opinion. And a chance to tell his childhood friends goodbye.

"The guys have kept friends all these years," said his mother, Gerry Richards. "They've all been there for him."

Mr. Richards was a Grateful Dead fan, a "regular guy" who liked to joke and refused to take life too seriously or to even consider an office job.

One year, he flew to Costa Rica three times on fishing vacations.

He'd buy a plane ticket or take off in a car on a whim, Campbell said. His destinations were always near water and warmth. He hated cold.

He often missed flights. He didn't pay close attention to the time.

A few years ago, he stopped at a convenience store on a cold winter night. He noticed a homeless man trying to stay warm. He and Campbell spent half the night finding shelter for the man. Richards was adamant it was too cold to leave him outside.

"He'd meet someone one day and be building a wheelchair ramp for their grandmother the next day," Campbell said.

His favorite catch: snook.

He'd tell about the time he threw three casts and caught three snook. He'd joke that he didn't need bait, all he had to do was wipe the hook with his finger.

"You never knew what was going to happen next when you were dealing with Jim," Campbell said. "He had a passion for life."

In addition to Campbell and his mother, he leaves a brother, Steve; and sisters, Susan Savelli and Patricia Lane.

- City Times chronicles the lives of the famous and not-so-famous. To suggest an obituary, e-mail citytimes@sptimes.com or call 226-3382.

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