A Widely Felt Loss

Under The Hood

It’s not honestly fair when deaths of prominent people win more attention from the media when they die in a pandemic than does the average citizen. Yet, the greatest reason people hold for not taking the public health crisis seriously enough seems to be they don’t know anybody affected by the coronavirus.

For much of Southwest Florida, at least those who interface with government at all, there’s far fewer people who can now make such a claim. Gary Tibbetts, the field representative for U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, was a frequent attendee of public meetings, ceremonies and major events, as well as the liaison to Washington for many constituents in House District 16. Buchanan announced Friday morning that Tibbetts had died from COVID-19.

“I will never forget his uplifting spirit, sense of humor and sheer joy at helping others,” said Buchanan. The congressman and his wife offered sympathies and support to Tibbetts’ wife, Valerie, and to the rest of his family. It was a sentiment echoed in many a statement eulogizing the staffer, including one from Buchanan’s political opponent, Rep. Margaret Good.

It’s to be expected that our elected officials pause for grief and come together, even putting differences aside as necessary, to celebrate the life of a civil servant. The public should also expect a greater urgency than ever as our leaders address this crisis. It’s as close to a good thing as possible that come out of the loss of a respected figure who fell victim to this terrible plague.

On that front, it’s growing harder for people to claim this virus doesn’t exist or that it’s not that serious. Southwest Florida has suffered intense losses to drive that message in.

One of the first prominent figures in the country to die from the illness was Terrance McNally, the legendary playwright who became the first Sarasota County death during the pandemic. It may have been a specific slice of culture who knew McNally’s reputation before hearing the words “The Full Monty.” But those who recognized the name gasped as the price of this crisis became suddenly real.

In Manatee County, the coronavirus soon claimed the life of Gwen Brown, the county’s first black county commissioner. She served from 1994 until 2010, and backed out early of a comeback attempt in 2014, so it had been some years since the 68-year-old lived her life in local headlines. But her death would land her on the front page again.

Tibbetts won no Tony awards and didn’t appear on ballots. But he was to many residents the access point to Washington. In particular, the retired police officer served as a strong connection between local law enforcement and the federal government. Working up until he got sick, he stands out as a person still playing a critical role as far as the interface with the public at large. I’ve seen many typical citizens moved to comment on his death, in addition to community leaders.

In the national media, Tibbetts’ death earned notice for being the first Congressional staffer in the nation felled by this disease. And yes, his death is no more tragic than any among the 152 Manatee County and 113 Sarasota County residents who have died with COVID-19. Everyone of those people left people behind who cared for them and loved them.

That this pandemic has claimed so many that deaths turned into numbers instead of faces may be one of the most  incomprehensible costs of this global event. When a victim has made enough impacts for news around the world to take notice, the least we can do as members of society is take the toll of the virus spread seriously and to do all we can to prevent as many future tragedies as possible.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor of SRQ MEDIA.

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