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Activist Ansel Briggs dies at age 67

The frequent face at government meetings, friend of underdogs and 3-time superintendent candidate died of cancer Tuesday.

Published September 28, 2006

HOMOSASSA - During the 30 years he lived in Citrus County, Ansel Briggs got used to being called a radical.

He never denied it.

"Most people think a radical is just someone with long hair and a beard," Mr. Briggs, 67, liked to explain, grinning like a precocious boy.

"That's not true. It's actually a mathematical word. It means 'to the point.' "

And that's exactly what Mr. Briggs, who died Tuesday (Sept. 26, 2006), was. Though he sprouted the requisite beard, and some of the "wildest and bushiest" hair his wife had ever seen, his distaste for hollow convention wasn't skin deep.

Mr. Briggs was a born crusader. He stripped pretense from the most convoluted bureaucracies and fought tirelessly for the underdog.

Even when he received a grim cancer diagnosis in July, he couldn't relinquish his role as community educator and advocate. He openly shared his medical struggles, teaching others how to navigate one of America's most daunting bureaucracies: the health care system.

"He kept coming to coffee when he could, showing the guys, 'Yeah, I'm afraid; some days I have hope and others not,'" said Mr. Briggs' wife, Harriett Garrison. "He wanted to show those emotions, so men would start opening up more about health issues."

The inspiration for Mr. Briggs' life work came early. His childhood need to question authority got Mr. Briggs committed to a state-run reform school when he was 12 years old.

"There was a time when the system tried to eat me," he said of the experience.

But Mr. Briggs persevered, hitchhiking to Milwaukee in his early 20s to start a new life. It was there, in the midst of the socially conscious 1960s, that he became involved in activism and civil disobedience.

While working odd jobs, he counseled the homeless, protested the Vietnam War and talked kids down from bad acid trips.

He came to Homosassa in the late 1970s and started mullet fishing and blueberry farming. It wasn't long, though, before he began fighting.

When his mother, an Alzheimer's patient, was committed without his consent, Mr. Briggs toiled to reform the Baker Act. He was a reliable voice of dissent at most public meetings - School Board, County Commission - and gained unexpected supporters in his three failed campaigns to become superintendent of schools.

Current superintendent Sandra "Sam" Himmel said she and Mr. Briggs were "buddies" and that her father, former clerk of court Walt Connors, particularly admired his work.

"He always said to me that, 'If you weren't running, I'd vote for him,' " Himmel said. "I'm not sure that he didn't."

Though he made a name for himself politically, it was in the neighborhood, as a modern-day alderman and ombudsman, that Mr. Briggs was most appreciated.

Friends had a joke: Call 1-800-ANSEL. Whether it was to build new front steps for a widow or help facilitate a road vacation, Mr. Briggs was always ready to help.

And to offer advice.

He had a hunger for knowledge and constantly researched different philosophies, life strategies and therapies. When his cancer improved, he said, he planned to become a fruitarian.

Over his years in Citrus, Mr. Briggs handed out thousands of copies of the two books that underpinned his moral code: As a Man Thinketh by James Allen and Wisdom from the Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, an interpretation of the ancient Toltec faith.

Everyone he came into contact with got his nutrition advice. Mr. Briggs would print out online information about supplements, natural herbs and alternative remedies.

Unfortunately, there was one plant he misjudged, Garrison said.

Mr. Briggs could often be found rolling his own cigarettes, Bugler tobacco with white sage.

But even though Mr. Briggs knew the dangers of tobacco, Garrison said, he thought smoking the natural variety wouldn't be as harmful.

"If I had understood - if I had really understood - I never would have done it," Mr. Briggs said while driving to a recent radiation appointment. "I don't want this thing to kill me."

The "thing," advanced squamous cell cancer in the neck and lungs, came on suddenly.

After a series of earaches and continued throat swelling, Mr. Briggs went to his doctor for some tests. When the results came in, she asked him to give her a hug.

"It's never easy giving bad news to someone," said Dr. Carlene Wilson, "especially someone you like."

Though the prognosis was grim, Mr. Briggs went to war. He braved several surgeries, five-day-a-week radiation and continuous chemotherapy.

He tried to remain hopeful, even as his body weakened and his lungs filled with fluid.

While still under anesthesia for procedures, nurses told him, he would sing old gospel songs.

Support poured in. Mr. Briggs received so many get well cards, Garrison had to start stringing them together - double-sided - through the house.

"He is the one who is always taking care of everybody," said Ria Fortner, a friend. "Now we have to take care of him."

Though doctors told him there was little they could do for the cancer in his lungs, Mr. Briggs was determined to shrink the tumor in his throat.

He had big plans. When he was well enough to eat, he wanted to throw a huge Thanksgiving dinner for all his friends, showing how grateful he was to them.

"He used to cook that meal all the time, not only on the holiday," Garrison said. "I think he liked the idea of the word: giving thanks."

While Mr. Briggs never got to see through those plans, Garrison thinks she might put together the event her husband wanted.

He'd asked for no formal funeral.

"At those you have to act just so, sit real quiet and keep the babies quiet," Garrison said. "That's just not Ansel."

Instead, she wants to organize a more lively event, a communitywide potluck, where people can openly "eat, cry and talk."

She thinks that, wherever he is, Mr. Briggs would approve.

"I know he's in a beautiful place now where he can breathe fresh air," Garrison said. "With the biggest Thanksgiving dinner you could ever imagine."

[Last modified September 27, 2006, 22:56:46]

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