BRADENTON -- As he stared into an endless blue sky over the sparkling Manatee River, Laramie Hargrave closed his eyes to enjoy a gentle breeze caressing his face.
On this sunny afternoon, Hargrave, 34, is at the pier along downtown's Riverwalk and relishing his love for Bradenton and everything it has to offer -- the beaches, climate, entertainment, hospitality, growth and its accessibility.
Accessibility is important to Hargrave, who has lived in Bradenton since 2008. He has cerebral palsy and travels via his electric wheelchair. He applauds the city for making its attractions, like Riverwalk, and businesses accessible for those in wheelchairs.
But there's more to Hargrave's infatuation with the "Friendly City" than its urban appeal.
Hargrave spent years searching for his father, who abandoned him and his mother when she was only a few months' pregnant.
Years after his father's death, Hargrave finally connected with a distant relative in Oregon, who informed him of a family reunion happening in Bradenton. Without hesitation, Hargrave packed a suitcase and bought a bus ticket for a 1,100-mile journey from Oklahoma that would link him to the family he never knew.
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At first sight, Chris Hargrave knew Laramie was his nephew.
When Laramie arrived in Bradenton for the family reunion in 2008, the resemblance was evident.
"He was part of the family immediately," Chris Hargrave recalled.
Chris Hargrave said Laramie's father died of cancer eight years ago and took the knowledge of Laramie with him to the grave. Sadly, it didn't surprise him that he kept Laramie a secret.
"He was kind of a run-around guy," said Chris, the younger brother of Laramie's father. "It's not the first time we had someone look for the family. Nobody was surprised he existed."
Chris Hargrave said his brother abandoned Laramie and his mother when she was four months pregnant.
"The rest of us love him to pieces," he said. "He was glad to get involved with this side of the family."
Laramie stayed in Bradenton for a week after the reunion. Four months later, he moved in with Chris, who lives in West Bradenton and works in the construction businesses.
"I saw the city had good things to offer as far as transportation and things to do," Laramie Hargrave said.
Not soon after, Chris and Laramie took a DNA test to prove they were related. With proof in hand, Laramie became eligible to collect his father's military service payment.
Though Laramie enjoyed living with his uncle, he sought independence. Bradenton Gospel Tabernacle, at 1218 Seventh Ave. E., where Laramie is a member and volunteer, made a makeshift room on the property for him. Laramie then moved into the Watermark apartment complex on the Riverwalk.
He uses the 1.5-mile-long sidewalk to travel through downtown.
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On any given day of the week, Laramie can be found working out at Palmetto's Electra Health Club & Spa or having lunch at the Riverside Cafe at on the Palmetto side of the river or dinner at Bradenton's Tarpon Pointe. For entertainment, he likes Joyland, the area's country music nightclub, or he'll head to McCabe's Irish Pub on Old Main Street to sing karaoke.
Through Bradenton Gospel Tabernacle, he performs community service.
"We started a homeless ministry in the church, maybe two years ago, and I've never seen anyone with more zeal to help people who are down and out," said Lonnie Rhodes, an associate minister at Gospel Tabernacle. "He would bring his wheelchair and we'd make up bags of food and we'd load his wheelchair down. He'd go somewhere downtown and he would find someone in need and he'd testify to them. We gave him literature to read to them."
In addition to his humanitarianism, Laramie is a promoter of downtown Bradenton. As a "Downtown Ambassador," a volunteer for Realize Bradenton, the nonprofit organization that promotes the city, Hargrave works in celebrating the city's projects and successes.
About a week ago, Hargrave attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the future Hampton Inn and Suites at the former Manatee River Hotel on 10th Street West. He shot video and took pictures with his camera phone for later publication.
"Anything I see around Bradenton, I post it on my Facebook page so my family up north will come visit," he said.
Johnette Isham, executive director of Realize Bradenton, said Hargrave is an asset to Bradenton.
"Realize Bradenton really promotes that downtown is everybody's neighborhood," she said. "To see the constant presence and enthusiasm of Laramie at events, morning, noon and night on the Riverwalk, it's just a real joy. It gives us pause to think about how we can continue to make downtown Riverwalk a better place."
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Hargrave developed cerebral palsy during delivery when the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and cut off oxygen to his brain. A court ruling determined the doctor was at fault and as a result, Hargrave collects payments from an insurance settlement.
"When I was little, I always felt bad about it, but once I grew up, I felt if it wasn't for the physician's mistake, I would not have had all the experiences I've had and the positive attitude," he says. As a child and throughout his teenage years, he attended special camps around the country for youths with similar conditions. He graduated from Eastern New Mexico University with a major in office skills.
Hargrave can walk on his own with the help of a walker. Chris wants to move Laramie back into his West Bradenton home, after the house is remodeled to accommodate his wheelchair.
"He amazes me on a general basis," Chris Hargrave said.
Laramie Hargrave found fun, family and a future in Bradenton.
"It's a good city," Laramie says. "Friendly people."
Nick Williams, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams.