Advocate for Hillsborough's homeless dies

Published February 1, 2006

TAMPA - John Darby - Brooksville native, Vietnam veteran, motorcycle rider, pool player, skilled carpenter, Bucs fan, world traveler and tireless advocate for the homeless - died this week after a heart attack.

He was 55.

Although he lived in Hernando County, Mr. Darby spent his days in Tampa. He was outgoing president of the board of directors for the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County. He also served on the board of the Florida Coalition for the Homeless.

In 2004, he left his job as human services director for the Salvation Army in Tampa to become director of homeless services for Tampa Community Health Centers.

"He was not a 40-hour-a-week person," said Charlie Bottoms, CEO of TCHC. "He was here all the time. He really cared for those who couldn't help themselves. Everybody on the street knows him by his first name."

Word of Mr. Darby's death sent surprise and grief throughout the social service community on Tuesday. E-mail announcements went out. Phones rang nonstop.

"John was a leader," said Rayme Nuckles, head of Hillsborough County's homeless coalition. "He did a lot of stuff behind the scenes that nobody was aware of. He was always out there educating the community. He had a passion for this."

And yet most people who knew him professionally didn't know the source of that passion. Long before he became a champion for the homeless, Mr. Darby was a soldier, a carpenter and an alcoholic.

After he tackled his addiction, he began traveling on mission trips, helping build churches all over the world - Africa, South America, Europe, Haiti.

Mr. Darby returned to college and, in his 40s, earned two degrees from the University of South Florida - a bachelor's in psychology and a master's in rehabilitation counseling.

He was married four times to three women.

His second marriage, to Vicki Briggs, produced two sons. The couple divorced after six years. They had little contact during the next 18 years, until she moved back to Brooksville from Kentucky in 2000. One day, he took her on a motorcycle ride.

"We had a conversation we should've had a long time ago," Vicki Briggs-Darby, who married Mr. Darby in 2002, said Tuesday. "John and I were soul mates. We've spent the last three years making up for lost time. The days were never long enough."

In those last, too-short days, the couple would play pool together, take trips to the east coast and spend long hours in their back yard, beside the fish pond he built for her. They were planning a trip to Ireland.

"He wasn't the guy who went to church on Sunday morning," Briggs-Darby said. "He had his own mission. His mission was the work he did. He believed he did God's work."

His wife said Mr. Darby had seen a doctor several weeks ago, complaining of chest pain and shortness of breath. Tests showed no major problems.

He didn't go to work Friday because of a headache and tightness in his chest. Briggs-Darby said she and her husband went for a long motorcycle ride through the back roads of Citrus County on Saturday, and he went for a quiet bike ride Sunday morning.

By Sunday afternoon, he felt ill again and agreed to head to the emergency room. He suffered a heart attack shortly after arriving. Doctors performed several procedures on him, but he died from complications Monday evening at Citrus Memorial Hospital.

Mr. Darby is survived by his three sons, Pasha, Seth and Ian, and a daughter, Valencie Waldron-Darby; six grandchildren, ages 7 months to 13; three brothers; one sister; his father; and his wife.

His body will be cremated, his wife said, and a celebration of his life will be held later this month.

Brady Dennis can be reached at 813 226-3386 or dennis@sptimes.com