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Date of Issue: January 04, 2007

2006 Islander of the Year: Pete Lannon

islander of the year pic
Revved up
Pete and Debra Lannon were joined by son Pete Jr. and his childhood friend for the "superbowl" of NASCAR racing in Homestead, Fla. Following the races, the family spent a few days at Stan Schieble's home in Key Largo - a short drive from the racetrack. "It was an unforgettable weekend," said the Lannons.
islander of the year pic
Pete Lannon proudly shows his Halloween parade persona to the Islander camera.

If there is one person who has touched the fabric of life that brings out the best in the Anna Maria Island community - it has to be Pete Lannon. He is more than our Holmes Beach community resource officer, he is a mentor for our children, a confidant for those in need and a friendly face that even Island visitors look for as they pass Anna Maria Elementary School, where Lannon has been a fixture as the school's crossing guard for more than five years.

Lannon joined the Holmes Beach Police Department after moving to the area from North Carolina and has been active at AME for seven years, teaching the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program and patrolling during student pickup and dropoff hours.

He's been more than a school resource officer at AME, he has been an active member of the Island community, as his friend Joy Murphy puts it, "doing more than just his job."

"He'll jump in and volunteer just because he wants to," she said.

So, when news spread through the Island community in early October that the officer was off duty due to illness, it didn't take long for people to band together their resources in support of the Lannon family.

According to Lannon's wife, Debra, the official diagnosis for Pete is metastatic pancreatic cancer. Metastatic, meaning it has moved from the primary site, the pancreas, to involve another site, in this case, she said, his liver and the surrounding lymph nodes.

Shortly after the diagnosis, Lannon began radiation treatment to shrink the size of the pancreatic tumor. He also received small doses of intravenous chemotherapy drugs to make the tumor cells more receptive to the radiation.

"He has been done with the radiation treatment for about eight weeks," said Debra, "and it did shrink the tumor, so that now he is without pain. He can never be rid of the tumor, but we can hope that we keep it small."

The first opportunity Island friends and students had to see Pete following his diagnosis was at a spaghetti dinner that also served as a fundraiser for the family. Held in St. Bernard Catholic Church's activity hall, the room swelled with kids and adults eager to offer Pete hugs.

Lannon remains on a drug treatment program and, despite the outpouring of well-wishers, he has to refrain from receiving hugs. Chemotherapy destroys his white blood cells, which help him fight off infections, such as a common cold virus. So he has to be careful and avoid contact.

"Cancer is never cut and dry," said Debra. "So every person responds differently to every treatment. He will go for another scan probably at the end of January to see what progress has been made."

The illness caught many people by surprise, especially Pete's family. At 48 years old and having overall good health, doctors weren't looking for anything so drastic when Lannon began complaining of back pain earlier in the year.

As far as family history, Lannon's dad died from lung cancer in his late 60s, but he was a fireman during a time when less protective gear was provided. Lannon's mom was a 25-year survivor of breast cancer and died a year ago from natural causes at age 80.

Pete has no doubt he will be a long-time cancer survivor as well. His fighting spirit and infallible positive outlook as he battles this challenge in the public eye only make him more of a positive role model.

Pete and Debra have three children - 25-year-old Pete Jr., 21-year-old Jessi and 10-year-old Matt. "When he was first diagnosed, it hit our oldest son the hardest," confided Debra. "Jessi kept an upbeat attitude for her dad's sake, and Matt doesn't really understand the whole thing and doesn't really want to know."

Staying positive is a matter of taking "one day at a time."

"You can't be negative," said Debra. "There is nothing else to do but keep going."

Lannon admitted that he might understand the willingness to give up if he was older. "Being sick is very draining on a healthy person, I can only imagine how it must be to go through this when you already have other strikes against you from aging.

"I guess everyone at some point asks ‘Why me?' You just think of your family and friends and keep as good an outlook as you can."

Lannon has said numerous times in the past few months that he feels like Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life."

Since Lannon has had to take an extended leave of absence from work, the Island community came forward to assist the family with financial concerns.

In addition to meeting the cost of ongoing medical treatment, the family provides for their daughter's college tuition and carries two home mortgages. One of the homes has been on the market but the family has not yet found a buyer.

Staff at AME established an account at Wachovia Bank in Holmes Beach to accept financial donations. Also attorney Chuck Webb worked with the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce to establish the non-profit organization Bay of Dreams to accept donations and assist in fundraising efforts on Lannon's behalf, as well as for future needs of others. Friends organized a benefit dinner and auction, the HBPD sponsored a walk-a-thon with friends of the family and the Bradenton Beach Bridge Street merchants raised funds at their holiday events. Fellow officers have also donated their own leave time to Lannon.

"I think Pete was shocked at first by how much of a response there has been from the community," said Holmes Beach Police Chief Jay Romine. "I think he was truly surprised that he has touched so many people. We weren't - everyone who knows him loves him."

And Lannon said he "loves the people on the Island." He counts the Island community as his extended family and said he feels "blessed" by the support everyone has shown.

"I don't think you really know how much of an impact you have on people until something like this happens," Debra said.

The impact Lannon continues to have, even in his leave of absence, is quickly apparent on the days when he makes a visit to the Island. On a recent visit to AME to tape a holiday greeting for students, one youngster's eyes lit up as he saw the DARE officer climbing the steps to the media center - the student excitedly nudged his classmate and pointed out "It's Officer Lannon," a grin appearing across his face.

"The kids past and present knew where to find him most of the time," said Debra. "They knew he had an open-door policy, that they could come to him at anytime. Parents, too, come to him for advice.

"I see how the kids look up to him when we visit the school - they all wave and whisper, ‘Officer Lannon, Officer Lannon.'"

Lannon can't wait to get back on the job and his co-workers at HBPD are looking forward to that day, too.

"It's been a huge adjustment," said Romine. "We're like a family and it's just not the same around here. No matter what type of day you might be having, Pete would come to work laughing and smiling.

"Pete can crack himself up over nothing - and it's contagious. He is a big kid with a terrific attitude - we miss that lightheartedness here and he is missed at the school."

Chief Romine said that as an officer, Lannon has the knack for resolving issues in a manner in which everyone walks away happy. "He can get along with a wide range of people and he is very well suited for his position."

Romine said he and his staff continue to offer the family their prayers and support. When it's a rough day on the job, Romine said all it takes to turn the tide is remembering that Lannon would do anything to get back to work.

One of the pitfalls to his illness, Lannon said, is extreme boredom. The holiday festivities proved to be a diversion, with a flurry of indoor and outdoor decorating to manage and the older kids coming home to spend the night before Christmas. "It was nice to wake up with everyone home again," he said.

With the holidays winding down, however, Lannon's days around the house became boring. "He now even goes shopping with me," said Debra, "Before he was sick, the only store he set foot into was Publix to get milk, Popsicles and a lottery ticket. He has been to Wal-Mart twice this week."

Lannon said he misses the kids, misses teaching, misses joking with his coworkers at HBPD, misses crossing guard duty and waving to everyone and the conversations he'd have with people.

"We miss his positive attitude - he needs to get his butt back to work," Romine said.

There is no word yet on when we'll see Lannon waving at us each morning in front of 4700 Gulf Drive, but the outlook for 2007 is to keep up the fight - "to put on some weight, increase his energy and get him back to work, even if only for a few hours a week," said Debra.

"We just want to express our appreciation for everything everyone is doing to support our family," said the Lannons. "Please keep the prayers coming - and pray to St. Joseph that we sell our house in Country Creek."

Pete told The Islander, "We wish everyone a happy, healthy, prosperous and safe new year. Hope to see ya'll soon."

Same to you, Officer Lannon.