There was laughter as well as tears — lots of laughter — as a standing room-only audience celebrated Jose Wejebe's life Sunday afternoon.
Wejebe, the popular host of the "Spanish Fly" television show on the Outdoor Channel, died April 6 when the small plane he was piloting crashed shortly after take-off in Everglades City.
Disbelief and shock were the words used to describe the reaction to Wejebe's death at the age of 54 by his family, friends and fans who gathered at the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame & Museum. But those who spoke also talked about how humble and modest Wejebe was, how much fun he was to be with and how he connected to everyone he met.
"He had that quality, I don't know what the word is for it, but he could make you feel that you were a big part of his life," said Tommy Sanders of JM Associates, which produced "Spanish Fly," which first aired on ESPN2 in 1995.
"He was so down to earth, when you met him, you felt like you'd known him for 20 years," said Gary Ellis, the founder of the Redbone Celebrity Fishing Tournament series, which has raised millions of dollars for cystic fibrosis research.
Ellis said that when he was asked to create the SLAM tournament in Key West to go along with the Redbone in Islamorada, he went to Key West to ask fishing guides if they would be interested in participating.
"Jose was one of the first guides who raised his hand," Ellis said.
"He did so much for Redbone."
That was Wejebe: Always helping others, whether it was donating his time or money to a charity, loaning one of his boats to another guide or signing autographs for fans of his show.
"He never told a fan 'no' for an autograph," said his friend Ken Davis, echoing an earlier story of how Wejebe was supposed to make a brief appearance at a store and ended up staying for hours to chat with those who had lined up for his autograph. Davis also said that the newly created Jose Wejebe "Spanish Fly" Memorial Foundation will continue Wejebe's charitable efforts.
"I was so lucky to have such a special dad," said Wejebe's daughter Krissy, "and to share him with so many people who loved him."
Whether they knew him personally or just watched him on TV, people felt a bond with Wejebe. The day of Wejebe's death, Mike Myatt of the IGFA said the organization would help any way it could. Asked the following morning if a memorial service could be held there, Myatt immediately said yes and had the facility closed on Sunday so people could share their feelings and stories about Wejebe.
Ellis told how he was partly responsible for Wejebe getting a TV show. Jerry McKinnis of JM was televising the Mariner Outboards Tournament Trail, which Ellis was involved with. Ellis invited Wejebe to be one of the guides and told McKinnis that he should put a cameraman with him. The footage of Wejebe was a highlight of the episode that resulted.
"Everyone at the company could tell this guy was special," Sanders said.
Wejebe's fellow fishing show hosts Rick Murphy, Blair Wiggins, Peter Miller, C.A. Richardson and Mark Sosin were there to honor Wejebe Sunday, along with industry representatives from Hell's Bay Boatworks, Shimano, Mercury Marine, SeaVee Boats, Raymarine electronics and Costa sunglasses. Numerous fishing guides were there, along with greats such as Stu Apte, who told how Wejebe wrote the IGFA Hall of Famer a letter when he was 12 asking if he could call Apte. Apte called Wejebe and gave him his phone number, which he said he almost came to regret because the young angler, who lived in Miami at the time, was so into fishing that he called all the time.
Those who sponsored "Spanish Fly" said working with Wejebe was a pleasure because he became so involved in their products.
"He never thought of his sponsors as 'them,' it was always 'us.' He was part of our family, part of our team," said Larry Rencken of Raymarine.
Chris Peterson of Hell's Bay said Wejebe was in the Titusville company's factory the Tuesday before he died. Wejebe, who owned four Hell's Bay skiffs, often shared suggestions on how to tweak the boats.
"He had a lot of input into the boats," Peterson said, "particularly with how the boats were rigged out — the lighting, the poling tower. He was re-rigging his boats and found a lithium ion battery that weighed only 11 pounds to replace a battery that weighed 60 pounds.
"He was always trying to make the boats better and better and helped us push the envelope."
Then there were those like Beverly Murray, of Fort Lauderdale, who was a fan of "Spanish Fly" and later got to fish with Wejebe in Islamorada and in Costa Rica thanks to a birthday present from her husband, John.
"John had a fly fishing trip set up and he wanted me to learn to fly fish," Murray said. "I said, 'I'll go fly fishing when you get Jose Wejebe to teach me.'"
John Murray, who did not know Wejebe, arranged a lesson through mutual friend Sandy Moret and surprised his wife on a trip to Islamorada.
"Jose was unbelievable," Murray said. "He was
the most patient soul, very explanatory, fun to be with. He was spectacular.
"That was the best birthday present."
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