On Nov. 18, the Keys lost one of its own. Jeffrey Leonia, 24, was beloved by all who met him. He grew up on Marco Island and in Naples, spending weekends, summers and holidays at his parents’ house on Lower Matecumbe. As an adult, he chose to make the Keys his home, moving to Islamorada to create a water-focused life he loved.

The Keys community is mourning the loss of this kind-hearted captain and is striving to do right by him through the legacy of love and adventure that he’s left in his wake.

Leonia loved being on the water, and would text his dad each morning with a picture of him clearing the bridge or of the sunrise. TONY YOUNG/Contributed

“He really lived to the fullest, every single moment. He lived more in 24 years than many hope to in a lifetime,” said Tony Young, one of Leonia’s best friends. “Jeff was a true waterman in every sense, who wanted to enjoy each moment with those he loved, build his family with love and respect, and share his passions and everything he learned with others.”

The pair met five years ago working as spearfishing guides for Islamorada Dive Center. Instantly bonding over a love of the sport and sea, they started Forever Young Charter Company together. “It was just an idea based on best buddies who wanted to fish all day, and who thought people might want to go out with us,” said Young. “It’s been him and I since day one. We wanted to grow that love of the ocean with folks and connect them to the Florida Keys, so when they went home, they’d make changes in their lives to make a difference in their communities.”

Jeff with Tony
Tony Young and Jeff Leonia met as dive and spearfishing guides. The fast friends eventually opened up Forever Young Charter Company together and spent as much time as they could doing what they loved — fishing with each other. TONY YOUNG/Contributed

Drake Noble has been Leonia’s best friend and partner in crime since the pair was 15. They met on a beach when Leonia needed someone to drink the warm beer he’d stolen from his dad with him, recalls Noble. “We’ve been best buds ever since.” Noble said. “Jeff loved the water, loved every part of it. And he loved the Keys. He just got a place in Islamorada. This is where he wanted to be.”

Stephanie Sirotzke remembers her boyfriend as someone larger than life. Through the example of his own courageous living and contagious energy, Leonia influenced Sirotzke and others around him to do their best and “live more.” Sirotzke said, “He was positive, upbeat, and kind. He was always ready to try something new, go somewhere, do something different.” She adds, “And he was such a goofball. He spread love to everyone he met and impacted every single life. He connected with people and made them want to ‘Live like Jeff.’”

Part of Leonia’s infectious charisma was his “pure heart” and generous spirit. Young remembers, “He’d give you the shirt off his back; and his sandals; and his board shorts – just to help other people. He’s one in a trillion – one of those people you come across in your life and you just know they’re genuinely good.

Jeff and Stephanie
Stephanie Sirotzke, Leonia’s girlfriend, describes him as the love of her life. The pair moved full-time to the Keys together to start their lives. STEPHANIE SIROTZKE/Contributed.

“He’s the type of person you wish you could have in your life,” Young said, “the friend everyone looks for, the son everyone wants their kid to grow up and become, the boyfriend every girl dreams of. And we had him. I feel blessed for that.”

Sirotzke adds, “He was my everything. He was my best friend, and the love of my life. He was supposed to be my future. We built our life here in the Keys, and he completely changed me for the better.”

Noble said, “He was just living. He loved life, so no matter what happened, he made the most of it. He spread that joy to everyone.”

Young said Leonia’s legacy is in how he lived and loved. “He left us all to learn that life is precious, and if there’s something you enjoy doing, go chase it. Move as many people as possible and make this place better. Be the best you can be and love life every day.”

Sirotzke said, “Jeff will be with us all in every sunrise, sunset, fishing adventure, dive, boat ride, beach visit and every moment in between. He would want us all to get out there and enjoy these moments, so we’ll continue to ride these waves for him.”

Leonia loved to stay up all night, watch the sunrise, and jump off the Alligator Lighthouse. Donations in his memory can be made to his favorite charity, Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation, to save his favorite lighthouse (http://bit.ly/AlligatorLight-Leonia).