"Take care of yourselves and each other, and always remember my motto:
Itís ok to work hard, as long as you play harder."

-Joe Milligan,
in an email to his parents 7/02

Loved ones say farewell to a surfer

By Pamela J. Johnson
Sentinel Staff Writer

November 11, 2002

NEW SMYRNA BEACH -- Beyond the white-capped breakers, a group of surfers lying on their boards formed a ring. A black-and-white woodstork circled above for several minutes, then glided toward the horizon.

For the first time Sunday morning, a dark cloud disappeared and the sun broke through.

"Joe, we know you're here with us, man," Robert Sean Robertson, 23, said over the roar of the waves.

Robertson along with about 50 other area surfers organized the paddle-out ceremony Sunday to say goodbye to Joe Milligan, their Orlando buddy who was killed Oct. 12 at a nightclub in Bali when a terrorist bomb exploded.

Milligan, who would have turned 24 on Halloween, was taking one last big surfing trip to Bali when the bomb went off, killing nearly 200 people. He was one of a handful of Americans killed in the blast.

On Sunday, Milligan's parents, George and Julie, and sister, Katie, 26, stood in ankle-deep water watching the surfers as they tossed into the sea long-stemmed red roses and wreaths made of sunflowers and seashells.

After forming the circle, the surfers talked about Milligan and prayed. Then, riding boards they painted with messages such as "In Loving Memory of Joe" and "I Love You Brother," they surfed for about a half-hour as a tribute to their lost friend.

The surfers chose the spot near Ponce Inlet, where the Milligans own a condominium. It was where Julie Milligan took Joe out on a raft at age 2, introducing him to the sea.

It also was where Joe learned to surf as a boy and rode the waves with his friends.

"I feel like his spirit's all around us," said Adam Moore, 23.

Before the surfers paddled out, they gathered with the Milligans at the shore and exchanged stories about Joe, who had just graduated from Bond University in Australia and had planned to be home by Christmas.

They stood around the flowers and wreaths that the surfers would later carry to the sea, often hugging one another for comfort.

"He was only 6 when he asked me about heaven," Julie Milligan recalled. "He was concerned that he might not recognize God when he got there. He asked me, 'Mommy, when I go to heaven, will God shake my hand?' "

Katie Milligan read a poem written three years ago by her brother's former girlfriend:

Gather yourself at the seashore and I will love you there.

For I long for a man with nests of wild things in his hair

A man who will kiss the flame

Several of his friends recalled Milligan, the fearless world traveler, who fulfilled his dream of riding the perfect wave in Bali. He lived on the edge, trying extreme sports from skydiving to cliff diving to bungee jumping.

"He lived everyone's dream," said Brad Graham, 24. "Yeah, Joe Milligan. He's in Fiji. He's in Australia. He's in Bali. He's surfing. He's skydiving."

They recalled a high-spirited person who was nonjudgmental, gregarious and giving. He was sociable but had a shy side. Tall and athletic, he often wore a baseball cap, even indoors, with the bill pulled over his eyes.

As they talked about Milligan, many were overcome with emotion.

"I miss him now so much," said Jeremy Snowden, 23, crying. "I love him so much. I had the best times of my life with him. He was the best."

"Cheers to that," Graham said, grabbing his board. "You guys ready to hit the water or what? Let's hit it."

Pamela J. Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5171.

Copyright © 2002, Orlando Sentinel