Elaine Ekart-De Smedt, widow of Olivier De Smedt ’94, shares her experience visiting Admiral Farragut Academy for the first time.
I set foot on St. Petersburg, Florida soil for the first time on the seventh anniversary of my husband, Olivier De Smedt ‘94’s passing. Serendipity, fate, kismet, divine intervention? It could have been any one of those things or more, but thanks to many “signs”, I feel in my heart and soul that it has been my husband, Olivier, who has been shepherding and guiding me and setting up opportunities and setting my personal journey into motion.
Olivier arrived at Farragut in 1992 from Belgium to play basketball, 7 feet tall, and not speaking fluent English. Despite this, he quickly became acclimated to the U.S. and his new home at Farragut.
Visiting Admiral Farragut Academy was emotional to me. While married, Olivier and I had always wanted to come here for a reunion, but never made it back together. So here I was, alone, visiting Farragut for the first time; and yet I was not alone, as the memories Olivier shared with me about his time at Farragut were so evident and always present.
This trip came about via a three hour meeting with a stranger who serendipitously gifted me a free trip to St. Petersburg. The trip was for what I thought was a conference on how to build a small business, but it was really a conference on how to craft a speech to launch a movement and become a thought leader – something the palliative care doctor had briefly told me I needed to do after Olivier’s passing, but that I had never imagined could or would happen.
Saying yes to the gift of this thought leadership conference led to me crafting and delivering, for the very first time, a speech on the business I have been working on these last few years, led by Olivier’s end of life experience and death. It was powerful visiting Farragut, the place that brought my best friend, husband, and soul mate to America and eventually to me.
I was overwhelmed with the respect and kindness shown to me by everyone I met or interacted with from the school. The measures everyone went to, to help this widow connect with her husband’s alma mater and get to know him in a new way.
I experienced so many different emotions during my time there. My tour started off with a walk to the parade field. No sooner had we walked up than the band started playing the National Anthem while the color guard marched and practiced. It took my breath away to hear and see. I felt Olivier there so strongly and it felt like he orchestrated that just for me as a welcome to his first home away from home. I was blessed to see and walk so many of the places that Olivier walked – the science room he loved, to the dining hall, and to the dorm where it warmed my heart to hear they cared enough about him to special order a bed that would fit him.
I was overcome with emotion to be able to see and stand on the basketball court he played on. I shut my eyes and pictured the young boy in his basketball uniform, inhaling the scent of the gym, and was overwhelmed with sadness and joy at the same time. Sadness that no loved ones ever got to watch him play, and joy that he was able to fulfill his desire to come to America via this sport and this gymnasium. As I stood underneath the jersey above the water fountain just outside the court, which just happened to be his number – 53 – I again felt his presence and his smile at this very special place.
But the most touching part of the experience was being able to spend time talking to two of Olivier’s mentors from his time there; Coach Bob Fine and Calvin Brown. These two men positively touched Olivier in such a special way that he carried with him always. I thank Bob and Calvin for taking time out of their day to share stories and memories and give me the gift of knowing Olivier in an even more deep and intimate way. I am so thankful and grateful for their kindness in making a young boy feel seen, heard, accepted and loved and for the part they played in helping him grow into the amazing man he was.
My last stop on the tour was seeing the new performing arts center. I imagined Olivier whispering in my ear, “You will tell our story and spread our message on this stage someday”. It gave me chills, as public speaking is quickly becoming a large part of my new business; one I never imagined. The thought of doing it here, thanks to his shepherding and guidance, fills my heart and soul with so much warmth, love, and excitement, as this journey is not mine, but ours.
I am very thankful to Admiral Farragut Academy for this visit and for the chance to connect with my husband in an even deeper manner so I can more fully go out into the world and share the message of Live Like You Are Dying/Dying with Dignity. I am honored and humbled for the gift I was given on this trip to St. Petersburg, to explore our journey from our past, to the present, and to the future. If anyone would like to reach out and share memories of Olivier with me, hear more about our journey and what it will entail, or see/hear the video clip of our first message, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.