Every once in a while things will happen in my life that will put my brain in lockdown or snap me back to reality. The recent death of Jerry Lofstrom, and the ensuing funeral service, hit me like a giant tree falling to earth, exploding like a bomb.
My wife, Karen, and I made a rare venture last week into this messed up world to show our respect to Jerry and his family at services held January 8, at the old First Baptist Church on North Palmer Street. Jerry’s coffin was covered with an American flag and surrounded by flowers and photo collections from Jerry’s life. The church’s oversized projector showed more photos accompanied by songs chosen by the family. Jerry’s wife Marti courageously greeted all who attended with a smile and words of appreciation for their being there. Their son Jeremy sat in the front row with his mother, his wife Heather, and other family members. Jeremy was devastated. Throughout the very touching ceremony the beloved son sat with his head down, undoubtedly overwhelmed by it all. Who could blame him. Jerry was special.
Pastor Brian Stowe led the service with a professional and softened style that helped ease the pain of such an event. Amongst the songs and prayers, he introduced three speakers, City Commissioner Mike Sparkman, City Manager Bill McDaniel and Plant City Police Chief James Bradford, who shared their various experiences each had with Jerry. Then, close to the end of the service, Stowe asked for comments from those present that might personalize their memories of Jerry. Several people responded, but regretfully I chose not to be among them.
Normally my hand would have been first in the air. But, as I sat there considering what I could say about my longtime friend, the words just wouldn’t come. Two years ago, without warning, my writing and speaking skills disappeared, and while I didn’t understand it, I wondered if it would ever return. The day after the funeral, worrying over the sadness most obviously felt by Marti, Jeremy and the family, the sound of that giant tree-fall began filling my brain. This obit story is my way of snapping back to life.
Jerry and I first met in February of 1999, when I became the reporter for The Courier, Plant City’s local paper that was in continuous operation for over 100 years. I was proud to be a part of that lineage. Jerry, who was my age, was quick to offer his service as a tour guide, introducing me to men and women around town that he felt I should get to know. Several weeks later I stopped by The Whistle Stop Café for a light lunch and conversation. Jerry and Marti were quickly building the business into a must see and enjoy location for locals and visitors alike. The café would soon become an iconic landmark in a small town incorporated in 1885 and named after the railroad magnate Henry B. Plant.
While Jerry and I were talking that day he asked Marti to come over and say hello. She, as always, was gracious, sweet and personable. Once Marti left our table to look after other customers, I quietly asked Jerry, “Why didn’t you tell me you were married to a movie star?” Marti’s resemblance to Halle Berry is striking. Jerry’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. He said Marti was the greatest gift in his life. We agreed that he couldn’t possibly deserve her as a lifetime mate. She, in my opinion, is why Jerry was always so quick to smile. He knew his life was blessed. And he knew how it was so.
Oftentimes Jerry would call me to the restaurant to discuss happenings around town that might make a good story in The Courier. We would spend the time talking about city government, businesses around town, the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Merchants Association, and persons in the news. Eventually I convinced him that some of his story ideas could only be written by him. That is when he began sending opinion pieces to The Courier and Tampa Tribune.
Eventually it became obvious that Jerry’s writing style was frank and unafraid of stirring the waters. His opinion regarding the city’s Mid-Town project left him impatient and confused about its future. He once called Plant City Stadium on Park Road a ‘white elephant,’ disregarding a history that included a 10-year spring training home of the Cincinnati Reds, which brought major league players from both leagues from 1988 through 1997 to the city. The stadium also encouraged the International Softball Association to select Plant City as its world home base, and it was a two-year home for a weather-soaked team in the United States women’s professional softball league. One day Jerry will have his way. The city will demolish the stadium. But this particular white elephant had a wonderful life.
On a side light, a generous grant by state, federal and city coffers made renovations of the former train station on South Palmer Street, the erection of a city parking lot and train observation platform, and the extension of McCall Park, all within a block of the Whistle Stop, a reality. It made for a perfect location for mid-day casual dining. The Whistle Stop was just the right place for it. Jerry and Marti were just the right owners to make it all work. The café is now well known throughout the county and beyond. It is a large part of the family’s legacy, and we can all say ‘thank you’ for their effort.
Within the café’s main dining area Jerry placed a sign that read, “If you are looking for fast food you are in the wrong place. Please come back when you have more time.”
Prior to my retirement in 2013 someone told me to be careful with Jerry. “He wants to take your job.” Actually, Jerry’s writing style was better suited for the New York Times. He and I laughed about that truth many times. Jerry loved Plant City and the people in it. Well, most of them. He knew a lot of people, thus he knew a lot of secrets, which he kept to himself for the most part, but I’ll never tell.
Jerry will definitely be missed by me and all who knew him well.