Last Updated: 8:17 p.m. with interview with Arlene Volpe.
What is it about Palm Coast that seems to exact such a heavy toll on its leading artists, all of them at the top of their form?
Three weeks ago marked the second anniversary of Richard Schreiner’s death, the 2012 Flagler County Artist of the Year, of a rare heart condition. Not much later JJ Graham, whose Hollingsworth Gallery gave Palm Coast its own artistic renaissance—and who was the 2009 Artist of the Year—went through his own bout of thyroid cancer. On July 25, Marylou Baiata, the owner of Nature Scapes in Bunnell, a patron of the arts, and Graham’s newest partner—his gallery has just moved to the gardens—died of cancer. Today, Linda Solomon, the 2004 Artist of the Year, is in surgery. She’s been battling cancer since January.
And on Tuesday, Tom Gargiulo, Flagler County’s leading arts patron was seriously injured when a woman driving in the area of Pine Lakes Parkway struck him as he rode his bicycle. He’s had at least two surgeries so far, with more coming. He’s being treated at Halifax hospital in Daytona Beach.
“Hey guys he is badly banged up but he is still talking,” Graham wrote on Arlene Volpe’s Facebook page this morning. Volpe is Gargiulo’s long-time companion. She could not be reached this morning, but Graham had spoken with her. “I talked to Arlene, she is handling it well. He has a long [road] to recovery, but we still have him!!!”
Banged up may be an understatement. The images Volpe posted show a sleeping Gargiulo in a neck brace, laved in tubes and wires like a character he would paint, in an otherworldly state and with an almost bemused expression.
In an interview early this afternoon, Graham went into more details about his conversation with Volpe. “They’re saying he’s going to be OK, he can’t have visitors right now. I guess they’re going to do another surgery tomorrow to replace a disc, he’s already had one.” His left arm is in a lot of pain from bone fragments that penetrated nerves and ligaments, he said. A neurosurgeon performed a surgery on that arm already. “They say he’s on some pain meds but other than that he’s talking everybody’s heads off. It could have been a lot worse. Arlene said they got him up in a chair today, too.”
Gargiulo is the founder of the Tom Gargiulo Foundation, the creator of the Artist of the Year award, and the purse behind the gift to Palm Coast of that stately leopard, by sculptor Paul Baliker, at the eastern entrance to Palm Coast of the Hammock Dunes bridge. His purse was also behind the Anthony Gargiulo sculptures of herons still rising above Waterfront Park in Palm Coast.
The latest exhibit that Gargiulo’s foundation was sponsoring, The Bicycle Plein Air Art Show and Poetry Competition, closed Wednesday at the Flagler County Art League. And Gargiulo of course is an artist in his own right—prolific, unpredictable and comfortable in numerous media. He loves the concept of bike and poetry shows because he’s an avid biker himself, and a backer of the city’s trail system.
“It unluckily happened, and luckily had someone who stayed with him and assist and call 911,” Ann DeLucia, president of the art league, said this afternoon. “Here at the art league he’s just been such a wonderful, wonderful partner I just hope that his ability to paint and all that sort of stuff isn’t affected we all wish him a speedy recovery, we wish him really well. He and Arlene have our prayers. We’re waiting for good news. I’ve been in contact with Arlene back and forth by email.” DeLucia noted how art league staffing hasn’t been spared the seeming curse of serious illnesses, particularly cancer. “But Tom’s tough. He’s going to do all right.”
According to a Flagler County Sheriff’s crash report, Gargiulo was riding his bike early Tuesday morning—before 6 a.m.—going south on Pine Lakes Parkway, on the eastern-shoulder bike path. A woman driving a Hyundai Sonata south on Pine Lakes Parkway was intending to make a left onto Wynnfield Drive. She stopped at the intersection to wait for a northbound car to pass, then made the turn, “and heard her vehicle strike something,” the report states. That was Gargiulo’s bike. She saw Gargiulo fall into the grass. The woman, whose name is redacted from the crash report (she is the wife of a former law enforcement officer, annd as such is exempt from having her identity disclosed) immediately pulled off the road and went to Gargiulo’s aid: she happens to be a nurse. She called 911 and Volpe both, and stayed with Gargiulo until and past them time when paramedics arrived, Graham said.
Gargiulo was initially transported to Florida Hospital Flagler before being taken to Halifax. At Florida Hospital, he told police that as he approached the intersection on his bike, he slowed down. The road appeared to be clear. He entered the intersection to cross Wynnfield. “As he got about halfway through he observed [the Hyundai] approaching him quickly,” the report states, “and he attempted to steer to the left to avoid her. [The Hyundai] then struck him and his bicycle, causing him to be thrown into the grass on the south side of Wynfield Drive.”
“It’s a big scare. Arlene said they’re really grateful, they’re not holding anybody at fault,” Graham said. “She thinks the lady was blinded by another car when she was turning.”
But the report also notes that Gargiulo “did not have any required lights or any reflective clothing and entered the roadway of Wynnfield Drive without first stopping at the bike path/sidewalk’s stop sign, to ensure that the road would be clear for him to cross the entire width of it.” He was not wearing a helmet. The report makes note of photograph and video entered into evidence.
Graham reflected a sentiment many artists and others have felt about Gargiulo when he heard of the crash. “Oh my God, man, he’s like a father to me,” Graham said. “I never get tired of hearing his stories no matter how many times he tells me. I would not have had the success that the gallery had without Tom. Tom is—I love him.”
Update: Mid-evening Thursday, Volpe reached FlaglerLive by phone and provided an update.
Gargiulo, she said, was in good spirits despite long surgeries and heavy blows to his upper back and shoulder areas. “He never lost consciousness,” Volpe said of the morning of the accident. Now, “he speaks well, he speaks fine, not at all garbled. I don’t think he’s had any brain damage because of the way he’s able to respond. I’m just concerned about that left side. According to the doctor he’s going to have to have extensive therapy,” likely in Daytona, day after day, once he gets out of the hospital, which may not be for 10 more days. He’s currently still in intensive care. But he’s been talking.
“I have to laugh,” Volpe said. “The nurse said, ‘I couldn’t believe he came out of the anesthetic room talking a blue streak.’ She said you don’t usually see that happening. I said that’s my Tom.”
Volpe got a call at 6 a.m. Tuesday “from the woman that was in the car that hit Tom, she said he’d had a bicycle accident, and she had already called 911.” There’s been nothing but gratefulness from Volpe toward the driver, because of the way the driver took care of Gargiulo immediately after the wreck. “I just think she was pretty wonderful,” Volpe said. “I feel for the person that hit him because she was beside herself. These things happen. It was an accident. I just wanted to relieve her of feeling helpless.”
On the way to Wynnfield Drive that morning, Volpe saw a man laying in the ground with a bike over him, and thought it Gargiulo. It wasn’t: it was another man who’d had a mechanical accident—his chain had broken. He assured her he was fine. She went on and arrived at the scene. “I couldn’t believe my eyes, there were so many rescue vehicles there, they had blocked off half the street, and they wouldn’t let me go to him was because the ground in that area was so dark compared to all the lighting” elsewhere, Volpe recalled. She’d just spoken to him on the phone. “When I spoke with him on the phone at the accident he said he couldn’t feel anything.” That had worried her.
At 8 a.m. Wednesday Gargiulo went in for a surgery that lasted close to four hours. He’s unable to lift his arms or move his fingers, he has a neck brace on, and will be going back in for surgery Friday morning. “He’s pretty swollen and banged up but he’s doing very well. I just want to thank all the people that sent prayers and support. It’s just remarkable.”
For Gargiulo, the early morning bike ride followed by a swim has been a routine since he moved to Palm Coast in 1994. He goes out anywhere from 3 to 5 o’clock in the morning, riding for at least an hour. “There’s no excuse for him not having a helmet and all the other things, but he’s very cognizant of all that’s around him,” Volpe said. He’s always been very health conscious, which is what, Volpe thinks, has kept him strong through the ordeal. “He’s in good shape.”
You would never think he is 76.
And Volpe’s state of mind through all this? “I’m good,” she said. “It was just stressful. I’m OK. I’m definitely OK. I haven’t even stopped to think about it. My attention has been all focused on Tom.”