by Jennifer Sheppard
Special to The Hernando Sun
Dozens if not hundreds of motorcyclists, friends and family of Mitzi Marie Babb came to pay their respects at the July 21 memorial service inside the Withlacoochee State Forest Croom Motorcycle Area for the Florida Forest Service park ranger who tragically lost her life last month.
Babb went missing from the Croom Motorcycle Area where she worked and lived as resident park ranger. The Croom Motorcycle Area was closed for days while the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office conducted a massive search effort until Babb’s body was discovered floating in a waterway in Camden County, Georgia.
The celebration of life began under cloudy skies with some of Mitzi’s favorite songs playing in the background. Cary Hunt hosted on behalf of the Suncoast Trail Blazers, which he has been a member for over 20 years, and thanked the Central Florida Trail Riders, Nature Coast Trail Riders, Florida Trail Riders, the Team Wanker group and Suncoast Trail Blazers for helping to organize the service, The Ozona Pig for lunch and Dave Merritt for donating the memorial stone.
“For over 40 years, the Suncoast Trail Blazers have put on an event here at the Croom park, so for over 40 years, we’ve had contact, interacting and working with Florida Forest Service,” Hunt said. “These people have been great to work with, and I’d also like to thank those guys for hosting us here today for this memorial service.”
Babb, who grew up in Bristol, Tennessee, started as a part-time ranger in 2010 before becoming a full-time resident park ranger. She worked closely with the Suncoast Trail Blazers helping to put on events at the park while also working to protect the interests of everyone who enjoyed the park. “She enjoyed what she did. She enjoyed being here. She enjoyed working with you guys and helping everybody here,” Hunt said.
Hunt recalled Mitzi’s caring heart when he buried his RV in the sand one year.
“She stayed with me the whole time and made arrangements for a tractor to come out here and get me out,” he said. “Not many people would do that. They would leave you on your own to do that, but Mitzi was not like that. She cared about people and she would make sure that you had what you needed, and she would take care of you...she was good like that. She really was.”
Guests paid tribute with memories of sharing musical interests to differences in opinion, but Babb was able to recognize what a friendship was and not hold grudges. She was adored for lighting up the lives of everyone (and everything) she met and was remembered for not letting anyone remove spiders from inside, because it was their home, too.
Keith Mousel of the Florida Forest Service spoke of Babb’s fun-loving attitude and willingness to proudly spar with folks and forget it the next day and move on.
“This has been a tough month for all,” Mousel said. “The quickest thing I can say is let’s try not to remember that last week of Mitzi’s life. That’s the tough part. She had some tough roads; we all have tough roads. Let’s remember the life that Mitzi led and that was her caring nature for people, for Croom Motorcycle Area, for the riding community, for the Florida Forest Service community, the animals that she tried to save, and everything, her daughter, family and friends, that’s what’s important.”
Other speakers like Florida Forest Services’ Lita Hart remembered Babb for her free spirit and honest, forthright nature.
“You knew when she said something to you that it was the truth,” Hart said. “I just appreciate her, the impact that she left on my life, and I know that she would certainly not have expected all of you to be here today but would be so grateful for you remembering her in this way.”
Mark Fitch, a close friend of Babb’s and a ranger at Croom, recounted the recent celebration of Mitzi’s life in Bristol where musicians gathered on blankets playing guitars and singing followed by a violin procession and police escort.
“It’s been hard to get words out for all of us, trying to complete a sentence,” he said.
Fitch recited excerpts of Babb’s writing to try and help listeners know that she understands what they’re going through:
“You start with a big gaping hole in your heart
It feels like your entire soul is crumbling into it
You acknowledge that the weight of this loss is going to suck indefinitely
Every single day
You steal yourself from the people who mean well and and those who are just nosy
They all are going to ask you if you’re OK
Convinced you are or they become distracted by the next whatever
It’s annoying as hell
Maybe in the process of telling them you’re fine, you’re telling yourself, you will be
Maybe over time, you start to believe it
Then, one day, you realize you almost are
That you're stronger than you ever wanted to know
But you are.
You really are. You continue to be you force yourself to function until you almost feel like you’re living again. You revisit those times of greatness
But you do not allow the losses to define you.
You let love and light envelop you when it presents itself.
And you cry until the well runs dry and you scream.” - Mitzi Babb
Then, calling Mitzi his partner, he addressed her directly: “Mitzi, you completed me. When I was with you, I was humorous and spirited. I had will and inspiration … I was kind and thoughtful, and I had my gut feelings, and it’s all gone, and I think Mitzi has it, which is OK because it was hers to begin with, and I’m speaking for all of us when I say that. It’s OK for all of us because I talked to her the other day like I do every day and she said she’s going to give it all back a little bit at a time. So we have to be patient and stand strong for her; that’s what she would want. We have to continue on in her place.”
As a soft summer drizzle began to fall, retired Florida Forest Service park ranger, Joe Tyberghein, who had the privilege of bringing Mitzi on board, spoke of God crushing tears for his favorites as it started to rain.
“She brought a lot of special thoughts to all of us I’m sure and at this moment I’d like to just take a moment and remember Mitzi,” he said. We know where she is, and she’s got Him laughing up there, and maybe God’s got some red hair now, too.”
Russell Groover, a local author who lives on Croom property, described a time when Babb helped get him to his 58th-straight Daytona Beach Bike Week.
“On that trip up, it was drizzling rain about like it is right now when we got there, and she parked close by, and she walked up ahead of me on the sidewalk pushing people out of the way making sure somebody didn’t trip me with my cane,” he said. “That one trip was important.”
“When we got back, I said, ‘You know what, I think I’m going to adopt y’all,’ as a joke, and she wrote it up and we signed it and that’s the way it’s been,” Groover said of adopting Mitzi and her daughter, Constance, adding that he dedicated his latest book to Babb’s free spirit. “She was good to a fault to people. She took in strays, human, animals. I saw her mourn over a gopher turtle that got run over up here for two days. That’s what kind of a soul she had … I’m just glad that you have this turn out. She would have loved it.”
Angela Cornier, Babb’s self-proclaimed adopted sister who traveled from Bristol to attend the Florida service, thanked everyone for “giving Mitzi the home that she had here.”
“She was grateful of the fact that this was her place to be autonomous … she spoke of Florida and particularly of Croom and this park as her solace and her oasis that she was able to find along the way,” she said. “It’s incredible to know that 800 miles away, she was the same light here that she was back home.”
The celebration concluded with a moment of radio silence from the Florida Forest Service followed by a memorial trail ride in her honor.
Jennifer Sheppard can be reached at [email protected]