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For activist, dying is no deterrent to crusading

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003


Bob Gilder's heart is weak. Diabetes has wrecked his kidneys. He is blind in his left eye. When I see him, he is seated in a wheelchair at his dining room table. A hospice nurse is spooning food into his mouth. Everything about the man seems smaller, as if death is claiming space in his body inch by inch.

But Gilder is not yet ready to go. The clue is in the slight noise coming from somewhere behind him. It's the noise of a fax machine in motion. The clue is in Gilder's voice and how strong it gets, momentarily, when he directs the women around him to divide up the work. The nurses who normally take Gilder's vital signs are preparing to call every black preacher in Tampa they can find, every black doctor, every black lawyer.

Gilder, 72, and one of Tampa's civil rights icons, is turning the fact of his dying into a public service.

Once he organized civil rights demonstrations and conducted voter registration drives. Now the fax machine is sending out invitations to a gathering at 6 p.m. Feb. 25 at Tampa's Beulah Baptist Church, where Gilder intends to talk about LifeCare Hospice and the good it can do, and could do, if only black families took advantage of it.

They don't. Only about 8 percent of LifeCare's patients are black. Gilder is part of that small percentage. He has been getting hospice care at home since May. He doesn't know what he and his wife would have done without it. For he can't turn over in bed without help. He can't stand on his own.

The hospice nurses and caregivers are with him day and night. "Last night," he says, "I must have gotten up 10 times, and must have called for help twice as much, and each time (the nurse) came to my bedside with a smile."

His nurse, Venoris Rodriguez, has a different memory about the evening, and about Gilder's near obsession with the event at Beulah Baptist.

"He was having difficulty breathing. When I calmed him down, he started talking about the rally and he wanted me to get him out of bed," she says.

Even though her shift ended with the dawn, she was so moved by Gilder's persistence that she returned to his home at mid morning to help him with making the calls.

The rally really is all Gilder can talk about. When I try to ask his thoughts about his impending death, he manages every time to turn the subject back to hospice. "I decided," he says, "that if the good Lord was to come and get me, I would not want to go without sharing the hospice message."

I think of other times, other messages that Bob Gilder delivered across the bay area.

He was the president of Tampa's NAACP and there to take the calls in the middle of the night from people who needed help. He fixed up houses in poor neighborhoods for people who didn't have a nickel. He sat down in boardrooms and talked with executives who had never had to face a black man before.

He was there for the fight over Tampa General Hospital when the hospital went private and black people feared they were losing the hospital they had looked on as theirs. He was there to calm the fears and frustrations in St. Petersburg when a white cop shot a black man.

He is the only man I've ever met willing to talk about race riots -- where, as he says, people are upset for the right reasons but want to express themselves in the wrong way -- with a light touch, if only to relieve the anxiety that surrounds the subject. To his nurses in the dining room, he points out his missing front teeth. "How do you think I lost them?" he says. "By catching bricks."

This may sound like Gilder's obituary. That's wrong. This is notice to the world that he isn't done yet. "I still want to find a way, as sick as I am, to do good for others," he says.

-- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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