LAKELAND, Fla.

Richard Douglas, a retired Lakeland electrician, embraced adventure at every turn throughout his 70 years.

He hiked mountains, hitchhiked across the country and sat at the edge of canyons, peering into the abyss below.

In late May, the uncompromising determination that fueled his life took hold again, leading him to the top of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius volcano, the same one that buried the Roman city of Pompeii in the year 79.

It would be his last adventure.

Forty minutes after Douglas hiked a half mile down from the volcano’s 4,200-foot ledge, he was fighting for his life in an Italian hospital. Seventeen days later, on June 9, he died of heart failure.

“It was a steep path, but he was determined to get to the top,” said Valerie Douglas, his wife of 23 years. “It would be just like him to let that be the last thing he ever did.”

Douglas, who’d lived in Polk County since 1951, was half of D&D Electric, which he owned with his late brother, Donald. A Vietnam veteran, he took a year to hitchhike across the country, carrying only his backpack, after returning from Southeast Asia. He cleaned restrooms at truck stops and did other chores along the way for pocket money and food.

While visiting Acadia National Park in Maine, he hiked a mountain to capture a better view of Mount Cadillac. When he hadn’t returned after seven hours, a search team was ready to head out when Douglas came strolling up.

“It seems he got caught up in the view and nature,” Valerie Douglas said, “and didn’t see what all the fuss was about.”

He sat on the cliffs of the Mongollon Rim in Arizona, affording him a breath-taking view of the valley below. And he traveled along the back roads of Guatemala so he could witness the country beyond the travel brochures.

Douglas’ lifelong passion for archaeology and astronomy spilled into his travels, his wife said, prompting him to seek out the roads less traveled.

“We would flip a coin to decide where we were going to go, whether it would be east or west,” Valerie Douglas said.

Twenty years ago, they traveled to Italy, igniting a love affair with the country that never waned.

“I was retiring after 42 years with Publix,” she said, “and I wanted the whole family to go to Italy with us. We had been there only a few days when we decided to go to Mount Vesuvius.”

The path was steep, but Douglas remained undaunted. Joined by his two stepsons, he conquered the climb.

“He had to make it up there, and he did make it,” his wife said.

Moments after completing the climb, Douglas posed for a photo and stepped into a waiting bus. Almost immediately, he grew weak and began to vomit.

“We knew we had to get him to a hospital,” she said.

Douglas had slipped into a coma by the time they’d gotten to the hospital, and he came around only once. On the 12th day, he opened his eyes, Valerie Douglas said. When the doctor told him his wife was with him, a tear fell from his eye, and he was gone again.

Finally, after 17 days, his heart gave out.

Valerie Douglas said she wasn’t surprised by the gravity of her husband’s condition. He’d been diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2003, she said, and was told then he had about five years left.

“He was going to make any years he had left count,” she said.

Upon learning his diagnosis, Douglas, who had been adopted by his stepfather when he was young, again initiated a search for his birth father. Unlike the earlier efforts, this time he discovered a sister and two brothers he’d never known, and the bond was instant.

“Richard was so much like our father,” said Pat Stanley, his half-sister, of Pasadena, Maryland. “He was a Merchant Marine and traveled the world. It was just in his blood to do that, and Richard was just like him.”

Valerie Douglas said her husband’s life ended the way he would have wanted — wrapped in adventure.

“Twenty years ago, we began our love affair with Italy in Sorrento,” she said, recalling their first trip to the Italian city, “and 20 years later, our love affair ended in Sorrento.”



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