A One-of-a-Kind Life

How will you be remembered? What do you want people to say about you when you’re gone?
I recently lost a longtime friend, a man with a larger-than-life personality and a heart, soul and mind to match.
I met Byron Donzis more than 25 years ago through my friend, Martha, who was working as his assistant. I liked him from the start. Their relationship was clearly professional, but it was no surprise some years later when Martha called to say they were getting married. My only question was what took so long?
Martha and I had been friends since we were 8 years old. We had gone to the same college. She’d been a bridesmaid in my wedding. I loved her like a sister, wanted nothing for her but the best. That is what she found in Byron, and he found in her _ their one best match.
Much has been written about Byron. He was an inventor, an entrepreneur, the most creative, innovative thinker and doer I ever rode a mule with. (That would be his prized Kawasaki.)
Others could tell you about his accomplishments; his invention of the flak jacket, a protective vest widely used in the NFL; his work with the Sunshine Kids Foundation, helping fulfill wishes of children battling cancer; all the fortunes he made or lost; all the dreams he dreamed, big and small, to make the world a better place.
But those are not the things I’ll remember him for. I will tell you two stories, maybe three.
Once, on my way to visit Martha and Byron at their home in the Texas Hill Country, I got as far as San Antonio, before I heard that the Guadalupe River had flooded and turned their ranch into an island prison.
When I called to say I was going back to California, Byron wouldn’t hear of it. He knew how much Martha and I were looking forward to the visit.
“Girl,” he said, “give me 15 minutes and I’ll call you back.”
Fifteen minutes later he called back with a plan. Next thing I knew, I was in a helicopter the size of a phone booth, flying over flood waters and landing in a soggy orchard _ where I spotted Martha and Byron waving flashlights in the rain.
During that visit, Byron mentioned a memorial service he’d attended for a friend.
“People talked a lot about the things he did,” he said. “I just wanted to hear somebody say he had made them happy.”
Years later, when they heard I had lost my job, Byron and Martha called right away.
“We’re not going to let you lose your health insurance,” Byron said. “We’re going to cover it for you.”
I couldn’t allow them to do that. But I will never forget they offered. Sometimes, just the offer of kindness is enough.
One last story. Four years ago, after Byron was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he and Martha moved back to Landrum, S.C., (where she and I grew up) to be closer to her family.
I visited them there whenever I was in town, dreading each time to see the steady, relentless decline in Byron’s health. But there were always little sparks of shining clarity _ like pieces of a broken mirror reflecting bits of the same brilliance, same wit, same chuckle in his laugh, same light in his eyes _ the same old one-of-a-kind Byron.
In August, the last time I was in Landrum, I’d promised to stop by to see him, but had to fly back sooner than expected.
I thought of that promise last week when Martha called to tell me that Byron had suffered a stroke and died.
There’s a lot I could say about him, but I will just say this:
He was smart, he was funny and he was good.
He loved life, his wife, his dogs and cats, lively conversation and figuring stuff out.
And, yes, he made a lot of people happy _ including me.


  1. I just don’t know why I love your columns so much. You always make me cry.

    My condolences to your friend on her loss.

  2. Barb Sowder says

    Sharon, I love your column. It is always heart-warming in a special sort of way. My cocker spaniel/border collie friend and I visit the care facility a mile and a half from our home every Saturday – many of our favorite people have memory issues but every smile we get from them tells us we have connected in some way. Those who can touch Dolly and pet her seem to light up with just that simple touch. We know at some point these people gave joy to others and we feel this is our way of repaying them for all they did in their better days.
    Thank you for the pleasure you bring others. Barb

  3. Marge Baldwin says

    Dear Sharon: Thanks again for a beautiful reminder how important it is to let family and friends know how much we love them and how much they mean to us. I so enjoy your column and learn something new each week. Thank you.! Blessings to you and yours, Marge

  4. Lora Buhrman says

    That was so beautifully written. And very true. Thanks again.

  5. Jeannette Buck says

    Dear Sharon, you have done it again. You have made me smile and made me cry. My husband died of Alzheimers– he had a fine natural engineering mind and could fix anything and sometimes built his own engines. Watching his mind melt away was pure torture. But, he, too gave so much to all of us and he, too, made his friends, his neighbors, his children and grandchildren and me- very happy. Thank you–

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