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His motto up to the end: 'I've got to ride'

Joe Bundy rode his orange Harley just three weeks before he died of liver cancer, carrying his 9-year-old son across the Gandy to Weedon Island.

By JAY CRIDLIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 16, 2002


Joe Bundy rode his orange Harley just three weeks before he died of liver cancer, carrying his 9-year-old son across the Gandy to Weedon Island.

GANDY -- Dozens of bikers recognized the orange Harley-Davidson when it pulled up in front of Kahuna's Bar & Grill last week.

It was a familiar sight outside the motorcycle hangout. But they didn't recognize the biker.

"Joe," they asked, "did you cut your hair?"

"Joe passed on," said the driver, Mike Bundy. "We came to say goodbye to everybody. This'll be the last time you see this motorcycle for a while."

Joe Bundy, Mike's brother, had died the night before, Aug. 7, after a two-year battle with liver cancer. He was 49.

The news shocked the grizzled bikers. Just three weeks before his death, Joe Bundy was riding with his 9-year-old son, Koleman, across the Gandy Bridge toward Weedon Island, his favorite ride.

"Joe pulled his strength together to ride," said Glenn Bonner, one of Joe's best friends. "He shouldn't have been riding, but at least once every couple of weeks, he'd go, 'I've got to ride my motorcycle.' "

Bonner met Bundy when they were about 14 -- Bonner went to Madison Junior High, Bundy to Monroe -- and they moved into an apartment with a group of friends at age 17. They used to ride dirt bikes in the woods, but Bundy couldn't wait until he could afford a Harley.

"He scraped his money together," Bonner said. "I remember coming home, and he's sitting on a Harley. I couldn't believe it."

Bundy worked when the opportunity arose, doing what he had to do to get by without punching a clock. He moved to Texas during the mid-1970s during a construction boom near Houston, but moved back to Tampa before long.

For a time, he worked as a short order cook in Maine. "Craziness," Bonner said of his friend's out-of-nowhere gigs. "Total craziness."

Bundy always had a taste for the food business. On one of many trips to Jamaica, he discovered a certain hot sauce and made arrangements to distribute it. For more than a decade he was a production manager for Jamaica Hell Fire Hot Sauce.

"We bottled the first bit of sauce up on the kitchen table with a hand ladle," says friend Dickey Matthews.

Bundy divorced years ago and raised his two children, Koleman and Josie, 12, on his own. Once, Bundy played an important role in a Christmas tradition at his son's school. Each year at the school, Santa would arrive in a different vehicle.

"They thought, 'Wow, that'd be really neat, Joe, if you bring your Harley,' " Bonner recalls. "So Joe actually went and borrowed a friend's that was solid red, and brought Santa Claus."

He laughs. "And it was real cold that Christmas, I mean real cold. And this guy had never been on a bike before, this Santa Claus. This guy was scared to death. He was hanging onto Joe, and almost yanked Joe off the motorcycle."

Koleman couldn't get enough of his dad's bike. "He would pick him up here at Ballast Point school every day," Bonner says.

Joe always brought Koleman along when he rode with the small motorcycle club he founded, the Port Tampa Rattlers.

"They'd go out there and hang out at the beach, sit on their bikes, just look at the water, talk for an hour, and get back on their motorcycles and drive back home," Bonner said.

Bundy's health had deteriorated during the past two years, and in March, a biopsy revealed he was suffering from liver cancer. Coincidentally, he went into intensive care the same night his mother passed away, seventeen days before he died.

His classic 1982 shovelhead Harley, which won several trophies in local motorcycle shows, is going into storage for the next few years. He has wished that it be presented to Koleman on his 16th birthday.

"It's not goodbye, see you later, you're gone," Bonner said of Bundy's death. "He'll always be in our hearts."

At his funeral at St. Patrick's Catholic Church, more than 20 bikers showed up on Harleys. Some didn't even know Bundy -- they just saw his obituary in the newspaper and said, "Hey, we need to ride for this guy."

Friends plan to gather once a year on his birthday, Oct. 10.

"We'll throw a big party for him," Bonner says, "and we'll honor him. And we'll all cry, because he was just a very extraordinary human being."

In addition to his daughter, Josie Page, and his son, Koleman Ross, Bundy's survivors include his children's mother, Sherri Gafford; his father, William, of Tampa; a sister, Patricia Scott, of Tampa; a brother, Donald Michael, of Panama City; several nieces and nephews; and one great-nephew.

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