Remembering some of the extraordinary Orlando thinkers, doers and innovators we lost in 2019

Wendy Chioji in Utah
Wendy Chioji in Utah

They're gone, but certainly not forgotten. Here we pay tribute to a few of the remarkable residents Orlando lost in 2019. Rest in power, y'all.

Wendy Chioji, journalist and athlete

In October, the brother of longtime Central Florida news anchor Wendy Chioji shared news of her passing following an 18-year battle with breast cancer.

"My beautiful, strong, defiant, bad-ass sister, Wendy Chioji, lost her fight with cancer tonight. From climbing mountains, to participating in triathlons, to traveling the world, she lived every day to the fullest. She never let her disease stop her from doing the things that she wanted to do. She is my hero, and I miss her already," wrote Alan Chiogioji.

It is not difficult for anyone who knew Chioji, only 57 when she died, to describe her, as she was a particularly open and deeply kind woman who rose to success in the extremely competitive and sometimes hostile local media environment of the 1980s and '90s. Remembrances of her continue to appear on social media.

Chioji shared details of her first cancer diagnosis on April 30, 2001, on the air with viewers and through a series of WESH News 2 blog posts. In 2013, she shared on her personal blog that she had been diagnosed with a fast-growing cancer of the thymus gland.

Born in Oxnard, California, Chioji grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, and attended college at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. She moved to Orlando from Savannah, Georgia, in 1988, joining WESH as an evening reporter. Some of her biggest stories over two decades at the station included the space shuttle Columbia disaster, the pope's visit to Cuba, the Atlanta Olympics bombing, the Salt Lake City Olympics, political conventions and presidential visits.

Chioji's team-reported series, "A Heroin Emergency," won an Emmy award, and her coverage of the Shuttle Columbia disaster won the DuPont Columbia award. While she was at the height of her fame, she could still be spotted leading fitness classes around town.

While she lived in Central Florida, she served as an officer of the board of Canine Companions for Independence, an agency that trains and provides service dogs for the disabled, as well as the advisory boards of the Hope and Help Center, a AIDS service organization, and the Ripple Effect, an agency that helps homeless people.

She retired from television and left Central Florida in 2008 to move to Utah for a new life focused on physical fitness and athletics. She particularly enjoyed cycling and mountain climbing, and completed numerous Ironman distance triathlons. In 2014, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro just weeks after undergoing chemotherapy and documented the journey in a film called Conquering Kilimanjaro.

On her "Live Fearlessly" blog, Chioji wrote detailed updates on her life and health, revealing in 2013 that she had cancer of the thymus gland. In August, she said her doctor had suggested that "hospice is always a reasonable option," but reacted by writing, "I remain unafraid to die, but not now. I’m not ready. I haven’t finished fighting with all the weapons available to me, and I have too many things to do and places to go. Still, it took me a good twenty minutes to get my shit together enough to say, ‘No hospice. I’m not ready for that.'"

This writer knew her personally from a visit to WPRK-FM at Rollins College in 2005, where she participated in on-air game shows and even took a tour of a studio bathroom while on the air. She often made friends during her media visits, following up with personal messages years later.

"Wendy would not want us to be sad, because she was a fighter and a happy person," said WESH anchor Amy Sweezey on Tuesday morning. "She had pie for breakfast all the time and she bragged about the fact that she would eat pie for breakfast 'because you only live once,' and she said that a lot." – Dave Plotkin

Richard Sherfey, musician

At only age 40, Richard Sherfey is a light snuffed far too soon. He first started making a mark on Orlando in the early 2000s as a touring Athens artist, building a distinguished reputation with his soulful merge of country, gospel and rock. Eventually, he relocated here, becoming a card-carrying member of the local scene in both music and craft beer with Redlight Redlight.

Even though his business work with the latter would actually lessen his musical footprint, Sherfey had started making more live appearances again a few years ago with his band, All God's Children. Then, late last year, he emailed me the tracks for a new record (Oh's, Ah's, and Sha-La's) that he was about to release, his first in almost a decade.

I last saw Sherfey at the 2018 Folk Yeah fest, and it was the first time in a long time I saw him performing. It was good. I told him so afterwards as we shook hands. I didn't know it would be the last time. We seldom do, I guess. There's really little anyone can say that ever makes these things better. But at least he left us with a heart-swelling soundtrack to accompany his memory. Thanks for the songs, Richard. – Bao Le-Huu

Jackie Dowd, attorney
In the land of the litigious, attorney Jackie Dowd stood out. She intentionally navigated her considerable skill toward those who would benefit most.

Culminating decades of advocating for Central Florida’s homeless and disadvantaged, Dowd died in 2019 from lung cancer at age 67.

Her mission to represent the less fortunate was a nearly all-encompassing passion. Dowd left lucrative corporate posts and revered state’s attorney jobs to help clients who couldn’t pay her. She never married or had children, focusing nearly all of her energy and attention outward.

Dowd, an adopted single child, moved to St. Petersburg when she was 4. She left Florida to get a degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., but returned for a stint as a journalist. At 32, she enrolled in law school at the University of Florida and graduated with honors.

After representing General Motors for a beat, Dowd undertook prosecuting consumer fraud for the Orlando Economic Crimes Unit of the Florida Attorney General’s Office.

Dowd left the attorney general’s office for nonprofit Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida and a gig at the Florida A&M College of Law housing clinic teaching students about the cases homeless people face, like landlord-tenant suits, and what that battle is like when you have nothing. In 2006, she started Legal Advocacy at Work, one of the few legal nonprofits for the homeless in the nation and the first of its kind in the state.

In 2008, she joined forces with IDignity, an Orlando nonprofit that helps people without identification documents get basic things like housing or veteran’s benefits.

Most people, attorneys or otherwise, take for granted how vital it is to have an ID. While other lawyers were blinded by dollar signs, Dowd paid attention to those so often overlooked. – Solomon Gustavo

Lou Frey, political commentator
Former Congressman Louis Frey Jr., known as “Lou,” was an old-school Republican, even when he chaired the Florida Federation of Young Republicans. Long before the divisive political kayfabe of the present day, Frey was a voice of moderation, a fiscal conservative who crossed the aisle to accomplish practical outcomes like funding Florida’s space program and creating safety standards for mobile homes.

In the early 1970s, Congressman Frey appealed to President Richard Nixon to keep Orlando’s McCoy Air Force Base from closing, convincing the feds to sell it to the City Beautiful for $1. He championed its transition from a commercial airport to today’s Orlando International Airport (still abbreviated as MCO). Frey also established a high school internship program in Washington, and in 1969 advocated to reform the draft, expand student loan programs, and allow 18-year-olds to vote.

Frey represented Florida's 5th and 9th congressional districts from 1969 to 1979, before attempting an unsuccessful run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1978, and another in 1980 for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate. Despite his long-ago losses, he leveraged his political experiences into a decades-long career of talking politics and promoting civic engagement.

For two decades, Frey was a Central Florida radio fixture, though he was nothing like his bombastic conservative contemporaries on AM radio. Instead, he chose to share his thoughts on public radio station WMFE, appearing frequently on the weekly political program “Intersection,” opposite his Democratic counterpoint Dick Batchelor, a former state representative from 1974–1982.

Frey’s civic legacy is housed in part at the University of Central Florida, where his photos and papers are archived in the university library, and his name graces UCF’s Institute of Politics and Government, which has promoted the development of “enlightened, responsible, and actively engaged citizens” for 16 years.

Frey died in Winter Park at age 85 on Oct. 14, 2019, leaving behind his wife, Marcia, and a large community of voters, students, listeners and future leaders, whose careers might just be a little more civil because of him. – Dave Plotkin

Marko Saljanin, restaurateur
On my way to the Melvins/Redd Kross show at the Social in October, I noticed a memorial message to Marko Saljanin on the Beacham’s big marquee, which led me to the news that the jolly patriarch of downtown’s Planet Pizza succumbed to cancer on Oct. 15.

Marko's death leaves a deep print in the city’s cultural fabric. Planet Pizza defines the hopping southwest corner of Orange Avenue and Washington Street just as much as historical nightlife institutions like Independent Bar, the Social and the Beacham, which says much about its place in downtown life. And as a business owner, Marko was far more than just an enterprising businessman – he had a larger-than-life radiance that etched him permanently into Orlando history.

Marko’s loss hits anyone who’s been a downtown nightlife regular any time in the past three decades, but it’s got an especially personal resonance to me. It’s not the probably thousands of delicious slices of his that I’ve enjoyed over the years, it’s the booming warmth he personally shot my way every time I even passed by out on the sidewalk. Whether it’s a handshake, a pat on the back or just a big, beaming smile, Marko’s presence is forever as much a part of my scene as any beloved venue, club or bar. And I’ll miss him like hell. We all will. – Bao Le-Huu

Bobby Clock, musician
The Orlando music scene became a good deal less unpredictable with the untimely passing this year of local musician Bobby Clock, who was 32.

We first encountered Clock at an Illuminated Paths showcase at Uncle Lou's in 2018, and were taken by the frazzled live chops of his band, Bobby Clock and the Soda Pops. It was a mix of Beatles sugar, Nirvana spice and Brian Jonestown Massacre haze, all presided over with urgent brio by Clock, a tangle of long hair and manic motion, veins in his neck popping with every lyric, sawing away at his guitar.

Clock moved to Orlando from Winter Haven in his late teens and quickly started his first project, Detective Sandy Vagina, in the early 2000s. In 2005, he teamed up with the inimitable Orlando scene fixture Danny Feedback – a constant figure in Clock's creative life – in the noise-rock band Hippy Gone Wrong for three years of musical and creative chaos ("firecracker central," remembers Feedback fondly). In 2008, Clock started his most lasting project, Bobby Clock and the Soda Pops, which continued on-and-off through to 2019.

Feedback, Clock's creative co-conspirator of many years, reminisces about his music, saying, "Bobby's music was a sonic reflection of himself. Uniquely chaotic melodies that ranged from beautiful hymns to nasty, overdriven washes of noise, all accompanied by creative, emotional and unfiltered poetic lyrics." Feedback even released Clock's final album posthumously, complete with a raucous tribute set that saw Feedback dressed as Clock, channeling his comrade's musical spirit.

Friend, Clock collaborator and Central Florida music archivist, Joshua Rogers, remembers him fondly: "Bobby's music and performances were inspiring. Epic. Or just a train wreck in slow motion. Whatever Bobby was to everyone else, he was a true original to me." – Matthew Moyer

D-Extreme, DJ
While clubs like the Edge and Firestone and names like DJ Icey and Kimball Collins got the lion's share of the international spotlight during Orlando's heyday as a world EDM capital in the 1990s, cats like DJ D-Xtreme (aka Derek Steplight) and bassbin twin DJ Stylus were the undisputed kings of the city's deep breaks underground with their scene-defining all-night residencies at the iconic Abyss.

In fact, D-Extreme was featured on the star-studded lineup of the big scene revival party Devotion earlier this year. Rest in rhythm, Derek. Thank you for the beats. – Bao Le-Huu

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