Surfer, artist, tennis pro, hippie philosopher prepares to die with no regrets
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Gar Webb has been packing up his art studio in Cocoa Beach whenever he finds the strength, so he can move permanently to his little apartment by the Cocoa Beach pier.
He wants to die surrounded by light.
Just a few months ago, the 69-year-old former tennis pro, avid surfer and accomplished artist was training for an attempt to play on the tennis senior circuit when he was diagnosed with MDS or myelodysplastic syndrome — a deadly blood cancer, which in the past was known as preleukemia.
But Gar (short for Garfield) says he has zero regrets, zero secrets, zero guilt and is looking forward to the next part of his journey to what he refers to as "the great unknown."
And, well, after spending a morning with him, it's easy to understand why. His life sounds like the script of a movie.
"Nah, man, I'm not afraid. I've lived a great life," he said, while revealing more than 50 years of his beautiful and sometimes haunting surrealistic paintings, as well as his surf-themed sculptures and displays he refers to as "surferamics."
He's the kind of guy who can rattle off one story after another in captivating fashion. He's the kind of guy you can shoot the breeze with over a couple of cold ones. He's the kind of guy who makes you wonder whether you're doing enough with your life.
Gar grew up in Fort Lauderdale and says he and his brother were among the first surfers down in South Florida. A gifted athlete, Gar was a dominating pitcher in Little League until he stopped growing. A teacher suggested he try tennis and one of the best coaches in the area just happened to be the father of a high school classmate by the name of Chris Evert.
Gar paid for training by raking the clay courts and cleaning out the rest rooms at the facility, now known as Jimmy Evert Tennis Center. When he wasn't surfing or playing tennis, Gar was painting, something he'd done since winning an art contest in the second grade. The prize? A year's worth of milkshakes.
But by the time Gar graduated from high school in 1970, he'd decided to give surfing a shot and moved to Hawaii to start a professional surfing career. This was before the big sponsorships and media attention, though, and there wasn't much money to be made. Not that money was ever important to him.
"I went backpacking at Diamondhead and I was looking for the truth of life," he said, adding that he read numerous books by philosopher-poet Hermann Hesse about the authenticity of life.
"But sometimes life just throws you a curveball."
This particular curveball came in the form of calm waters and flat surf one afternoon in 1973. With no surfing to be done, a friend invited him back to his place to watch the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Chris Evert was on the TV. When the prize money was announced, Gar was stunned.
"I didn't know people could make that much money playing tennis," he said, adding that it didn't hurt to see players like Bjorn Borg with long blonde hair like himself.
"I had been searching for answers and I said I would go back to Fort Lauderdale and play tennis. Little did I know that my life would then evolve around that little yellow tennis ball."
He played in 100 professional matches over 50 tournaments and traveled all over the world. After his playing career was done, Gar went on to teach tennis to thousands of children. He ran tennis programs for counties and cities and had camps of up to 800 kids at a time.
He found it rewarding to offer the opportunity to play tennis to children who might not otherwise ever be exposed to the sport.
And all the while, Gar continued exploring the meaning of life and painted.
He'd already lived a full life and traveled all over the world when he started experiencing back pain about two months ago. He tried stretching it out but it lingered and worsened to the point where he called for an ambulance. That's when the diagnosis was made.
"So for the last six weeks I've been going to doctor's appointments, researching MDS and preparing my house to die," Gar said.
"I moved up around the pier at the beach, I got a little apartment so when I die I can be in light. I don't want to sit here in this darkness."
So, everything is worked out and taken care of for the self-styled surfing, tennis-playing hippie artist to continue his voyage of discovery except for one pretty significant detail.
"I'm surrounded by 50 years of art and I don't know what to do with it," he said.
He's not kidding. Walking through his studio is to traverse a maze of canvases, many displaying some of his favorite themes to paint: piano keys, distorted figures and clocks without hands.
"I've never been married, never had any kids and my friends were books," he said.
"My life has been some surrealistic fantasy story. But I don't know what to do with the art."
He joked about burning it but thankfully he recently made friends with local writer Sara Stern, who has offered to help him. His wish is for the artwork to be auctioned off and the proceeds donated to a charity.
Stern arranged for a meetingThursday afternoon with the American Cancer Society, Gar's lawyer and a gallery owner where a deal was reached. The artwork will be shown in a Florida gallery with proceeds going to the American Cancer Society.
More details will follow in the weeks to come. Meanwhile, anyone interested in purchasing art right now should e-mail email@example.com.
Gar was happy to see this last detail taken care ofand to know that that his art would bring others joy in the future.
"I've got no reason to feel sorry for myself," Webb said with a shrug. "I've had a wonderful life."
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