By Robert Nolin, Sun Sentinel - March 18, 2014
In more than four decades of married life, Tom Shirley, a former state game warden, explored the Everglades — and more distant locales — with his wife Naomi at his side.
Saturday, the couple embarked on their final adventure together. They died separately at the same hospital, 15 minutes apart, unknown to each other.
Tom Shirley, 83, was taken to the Cleveland Clinic with heart problems Saturday afternoon. Naomi Shirley, 75, succumbed to a heart attack herself after being summoned from their Southwest Ranches home for what doctors said may be a last visit with her husband.
"On her way to the hospital, she passed away with a heart attack," said their son, Troy. His father had died about 15 minutes earlier.
"It's profoundly sad, but except for being so sad it's truly romantic," friend Barbara Jean Powell said.
"Dad didn't know that she had passed, and she didn't know that he had passed," Troy Shirley said. "I don't understand it, but it's beautiful."
Tom Shirley was widely known among Everglades supporters, both in government and private circles. For 30 years, from 1955 through 1985, he worked in the Everglades as a game warden for the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, which later became the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"Tom was passionate about Everglades restoration," Powell said.
"He had been involved in Everglades issues for decades, every aspect of them," said Jorge Gutierrez, past president of the Everglades Coordinating Council. "He was exploring God's creation."
Tom Shirley was born in Texas and moved to South Florida at age 3. He discovered the Everglades as a young man when he drove there in his first car. He later owned a camp north of Alligator Alley.
"He fell in love with the Everglades," Troy Shirley said. "He spent a lot of time there, him and mom both."
Naomi Shirley was born in West Virginia and later moved to Hialeah. The couple met at the drug store where Naomi worked. They married in 1969, and Naomi Shirley worked as a nurse until her retirement.
During his years as a game warden, Tom Shirley witnessed the transition of the Everglades from wild and woolly exploitation to restoration of environmental damage. "He saw a great deal of that transformation," said Chuck Collins, the FWC's South Florida regional director. "They didn't realize the value of the wetlands back then."
After leaving the game commission, Tom Shirley wrote a book about his experiences, "Everglades Patrol."
"His life was just a book of its own," said Freddy Fisikelli, another former president of the Everglades Coordinating Council. "He was out in the glades probably just before anybody."
During his retirement, Tom Shirley operated an airboat tour business, offered transportation services to the Everglades for government and environmental groups, and worked with movie producers filming in the Everglades. Besides spending time at their camp, the Shirleys enjoyed wilderness treks in the Amazon and Africa.
"Him and his wife, they went everywhere together," Fisikelli said.
About a year ago Tom Shirley underwent open heart surgery, followed by a lengthy rehabilitation. On Saturday, he felt weak and was taken by ambulance to the Cleveland Clinic in Weston. His wife, who her son said had trouble getting around, stayed home and kept in touch with the hospital. Later that night the hospital called to say Tom Shirley was close to death.
Naomi Shirley tried to drive to the clinic but was felled by a heart attack herself. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital and died within 15 minutes of her husband.
"It must have been such a surprise to him to get to the other side and see her waiting for him," Powell said.
Collins is arranging an FWC honor guard to attend the couple's memorial service. "He was truly a legend," he said.
The couple are survived by four children: Tommy, of DeLand; Troy, of Ocala; Melanie Davis, of Fort Lauderdale; and Ray, of Marble Falls, Texas; and eight living grandchildren. A memorial service will be from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Fred Hunter's Funeral Home, 2401 S. University Drive, Davie. The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Friday at the funeral home, followed by interment at Ridgelawn Cemetery in Clewiston.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Florida Wildlife Federation.
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