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Ralph LazzaraAugust 14, 1934 ~ January 16, 2018 (age 83)
Ralph Lazzara, an extraordinary man who led an extraordinary life, passed away suddenly on January 16, 2018 at his home on Anna Maria Island, Florida.
He was born on August 14, 1934 in Tampa, Florida to Bennie and Lily Lazzara, first generation offspring of immigrants from the small mountain village of Santo Stefano, Sicily. They raised him in a continuously joyous and loving home with his sister Rosalie and his brother Bennie, Jr. and many, many aunts, uncles, cousins and childhood friends.
Always a deep and original thinker, he graduated from Hillsborough High School in 1952. In a chance meeting forty years later, his chemistry teacher recalled him fondly as the smartest student she ever taught, a view echoed repeatedly over the years by those who taught and studied with him. Always a gifted athlete, he was a standout two-way end on Hillsborough’s football team. As a sophomore in the “Turkey Bowl” Classic against Plant—a tradition dating to the 1920s and a major event in Tampa city culture, with families planning their Thanksgiving meal around the game, thousands in attendance, and teenagers wearing corsages on special dates—he electrified the crowd by intercepting a lateral and scampering sixty-five yards for a touchdown. His skills drew visits from Florida Gators recruiters, but he chose a different direction. Upon graduation, he enrolled at the University of Chicago, charting a path as the first in the Lazzara clan to attend college. After taking the entrance exams, he was exempted from two years of study and jumped forward to junior-level classes. He worked hard but kept his taste for adventure. He once, just for the thrill, hitchhiked home from Chicago for the Christmas holidays in a blizzard.
In 1959 he married his Hillsborough classmate Barbara Jolly. They were married for fifty-eight years, when Barbara passed in July of 2017. They traveled the world together, from Europe to Asia, India to Israel, and scores of places in between. They once got separated while crossing the Straits of Messina, Barbara embarked on the train-ferry for Sicily and Ralph waving from the dock, luggage in hand.
Together they had three children: a son Ralph Bernardo, who predeceased them, and two daughters Melissa and Rosalie; a grandson Captain Jerry Mayer; and two grand-daughters, Melissa and Samantha D’Innella.
Ralph relished life’s pleasures. He loved the beach and the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico, spending the summers of his boyhood watching sunsets on Pass-a-Grille and hitting baseballs into the Australian pines that lined Stingray Stadium; in adulthood, blue crabbing at night along the shores of Manasota Key; and later at his beloved home overlooking Tampa Bay, next door to the Rod and Reel Pier on Anna Maria. He loved the mountains and was an avid and accomplished skier. He was a boastful and worthy tennis opponent. He loved to make his legendary salads and to grill steaks, using his famous and secret olive oil, basil and garlic sauce. He loved art and the great art museums of the world; the gelatos shops all over Italy; college football, especially his adopted team the Oklahoma Sooners; Marlon Brando movies; traditional dishes from his Ybor City upbringing; and exotic foods from all over the globe. He loved his wines and a well-made cocktail. He loved to read, often becoming so engrossed that it was hard to get back his attention.
Most of all he loved celebrations, holidays and just good times passed with his family and the multitude of friends he collected throughout life. He possessed an infectious and self-deprecating sense of humor that he often infused with his sharp intellect and comical facial expressions to make light of life’s vexations and troubles.
Fittingly, Ralph became an expert in the human heart. He began his medical studies at the Tulane University School of Medicine, forming a lifelong love affair with New Orleans and starting on a professional path that would lead him to become iconic in the scientific and academic worlds of cardiac electrophysiology. As Dr. Lazzara, he specialized in the heart and its rhythms: the mechanisms governing the proper cardiac cycle, the processes and conditions that can spark perilous disturbances—arrhythmia is the leading cause of death in the western world—and methods to detect and treat heart rhythm abnormalities.
His work path wound around the country and the globe. He left New Orleans for New York, where he refined his focus on cardiac electrophysiology. He served as a lieutenant colonel in the Army, treating patients at the Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver and skiing the Rocky Mountains, as he would for decades after. Returning after Colorado to his native Florida, he became Professor of Medicine at the University of Miami, depleted the local crab supply, and lived in a home surrounded by citrus and mango trees and pulsing with warmth and the laughter of his family and friends. He spent a year-long sabbatical in Milan, Italy, continuing his research and providing his family with a year in the country of his heritage.
For most of his adult life, though, home was Oklahoma City. There his career reached its pinnacle. For nearly four decades, beginning in 1978, Ralph was Professor of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. He was Chief of Cardiology until 1998, when he co-founded and became Medical Director of the Oklahoma University College of Medicine’s Heart Rhythm Institute. HRI’s group has treated thousands of cardiac patients from across the country and around the world. In the spirit of teamwork tracing to pickup baseball at Pass-a-Grille and the football field at Hillsborough High, the HRI group also has shared its sophisticated knowledge and methods with countless professionals at other institutions who could use this expertise in their own turn to improve heart health.
In a career that spanned more than sixty years, Ralph prized research, learning, and sharing his intellectual wealth. He authored over three hundred scientific manuscripts, sixty-six book chapters, and three books. He gave hundreds of lectures around the world. He served for several years as President of the Washington D.C.-based Heart Rhythm Society, an international non-profit organization promoting education and advocacy for cardiac arrhythmia professionals and patients. He was showered with awards, though you wouldn’t know if from him.
As towering as his professional achievements were, they were best summed up in more human terms. One of his patients, on learning of his death, marveled at “how many people are alive and well, watching their children and grandchildren grow, enjoying a bright sky and a fine glass of wine because of Ralph’s work, his commitment, his values and his capacity for a great big deep belly laugh.” Even in the last week he lived, Dr. Lazzara was reading electrocardiograms on his iPad at his Anna Maria home, studying the heart rhythms of patients a land away and in need of a physician’s wisdom.
The long, rich life of Ralph Lazzara will be celebrated in a ceremony at 1:30 on Saturday, February 3, 2018 at Shannon Funeral Home, 5610 Manatee Avenue West in Bradenton, Florida. Those who wish to can donate in his honor to the Heart Rhythm Society. At my.hrsonline.org, click “donate” and select the Lazzara Lectureship Award in the dropdown box under “please apply my donation toward.”
Ralph was a master spirit, a compassionate soul, a kind and gentle person, and a great mentor and friend to many. We will all miss him deeply.