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Dan Wagner  /  AP
Colleen Devita holds a photo of her older sister, Jackie Devita, at the Devita Ranch home in Venice, Fla. Before she died of cancer in 2008, Jackie DeVita pressed her wedding ring into the hand of her younger sister, Colleen. She wanted continuity for her family.
By Sarasota Herald-Tribune
updated 11/13/2011 12:41:43 PM ET 2011-11-13T17:41:43

Terminally ill with cancer, Jackie DeVita, a 42-year-old mother of three school-age children, made a special request of her unmarried sister.

A once-in-a-lifetime request.

Removing her wedding ring and handing it to Colleen Leary, Jackie said, "I want to know that this is the three of us," referring to Colleen, Jackie and her husband, Richard. "Don't ever leave my kids."

Four years ago, Jackie knew she was losing it all — her husband, her three children, the magnificent home they had built on a ranch in rural Venice, and her life. She wanted continuity for her family. Colleen, Jackie's best friend and her junior by less than a year, could provide that.

Colleen said no to the ring, but couldn't say no to the children.

A year later, in 2008, Jackie died. But she knew a stranger would not inhabit her home and raise her children. Or love her husband. Three months after Jackie DeVita's funeral, Colleen Leary became Mrs. Richard DeVita, and the promise was kept.

"I know we have her blessing," says Colleen DeVita, now wearing the ring that was once her sister's.

Jackie and Colleen were "Irish twins," born 50 weeks apart in 1963 and 1964. In family photos, it is hard to tell one from the other. "Even though she had blue eyes and more auburn hair, and I have dark hair and dark eyes, people would mistake us for twins," Colleen says.

They grew up in Binghamton, N.Y., until they were teenagers, then moved to Florida, then Pennsylvania. Jackie loved northern winters, especially skiing, hunting and fishing. She loved the holidays and all the over-the-top preparations.

"Jackie was always a girl who knew what she wanted," Colleen said. "We would walk into a clothing store and I would try on 20 things, and she would look at one thing and say, 'I want that.'"

Colleen was a tomboy, preferring summer sports: kickball, softball and swimming. But they both liked dancing. They both loved to cook.

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After graduation, Jackie studied to become a medical assistant. Colleen, fed up with cold weather, moved to Florida.

"I was 20 years old, very young ... enjoy the warm weather and the beach," Colleen said.

In 1988, Colleen took a job with endodontist Richard DeVita, who was building a dental practice doing root canals at an office in Bradenton. Richard was a cold-weather refugee, too. He grew up on Long Island as a devout Catholic, attended Stonehill College, a Catholic school in Easton, Mass., then studied dentistry at Emory University in Atlanta.

In 1993, Jackie joined Colleen in Florida. Soon both Leary girls were working in Richard's dental office.

One Thursday afternoon a month after she was hired, Jackie mentioned to Richard that she had two tickets to a Phil Collins concert the next day in Tampa.

"At first, I thought she was beautiful," he said. "She was attractive as hell. But it was her whole personality" that made the difference.

At the concert, Collins sang one song, complained of a sore throat, then left. Richard and Jackie drove back to Sarasota for a walk on Siesta Beach. Richard was a beach person, living on Siesta's Point of Rocks at the time, and they took many such walks.

In April 1994, they took a different sort of walk, down the aisle at the palatial Oheka Castle in Richard's hometown, Roslyn, N.Y.

Said family friend Carol Clark, a Realtor with Signature Sotheby's in Sarasota: "He worshipped the ground she walked on."

The DeVita house has space — lots and lots of space — and fixtures, finishes and furnishings that might have impressed John Ringling.

It is a home that easily captures your attention, a 101-acre ranch and 19,114-square-foot house hidden behind gates and oaks near Jacaranda Boulevard in rural Venice. It is on the market — has been for years — for $13.5 million.

Jackie and Richard bought the property in 2000, after six years of marriage and the birth of three children. They liked the property because their children could get out and ride bikes in a safe environment. Richard also saw potential for a profitable future sale.

The very large home, built in 1974, was incomplete. Having sold a house on Siesta Key at a then-record price, the DeVitas set about creating a showplace. They put in a swimming pool and a playground. Jackie hired art students from Ringling College to paint murals on the walls of the children's rooms, including one on the ceiling of Gabby's bedroom reminiscent of circus artist Willy Pogany's ceilings in John and Mable Ringling's Cá d'Zan. A wall in her pink bathroom is painted with a mural of ballerinas dancing around maypoles.

Richard managed the project, acting as his own general contractor, but Jackie was the creative force.

"She had a vision; she knew what she wanted," Richard said. "When we first came here, it was just gigantic, and who knows what to do? Upstairs was like six bedrooms in a row. So we went, phoom, and knocked everything down."

Colleen said Jackie would march through the stone store, taking command like a general.

'This house is all Jackie'
"This house is all Jackie," says Colleen, sitting at a round table in a cozy corner of the 1,000-square-foot kitchen. "An amazing organizer -- she just had that knack. I could never have done it. Just to organize the closet for me would be huge."

A casual glance at his property reveals that Richard is a perfectionist. There is nothing dirty, broken or run-down. But Richard admits he is neither a farmer nor terribly outgoing, which is notable because he lives on a ranch and has a house that is made for entertaining large groups of people. "I'm not a social guy," he admits.

"He is so far from a farmer," said Colleen.

Single, Colleen would spend a lot of time with the couple after their marriage.

"From the time Jackie and Richard met, we were constantly together, the three of us," Colleen said. "We hung out every week at the beach. I wasn't dating or anything, so I was always the tag-along, but I loved it because I knew Richard and I loved Jackie."

When Richard was working, the sisters would take the kids to Disney World.

"I wasn't a stranger to these children. They knew me like they knew their mother," Colleen says.

"We often talk about that: 'Why didn't I ever get married? Why were we so close?' Jackie would go to Montana with Richard for a week to 10 days, and leave the kids with me. We just did that."

Richard said it was in "God's plan" that Colleen remained unmarried. "I wondered, too," why she had never married.

Jackie, Richard and their children — Richie, Mikey and Gabby, now 16, 14 and 12, respectively  had lived in the house for three years when Jackie's headaches started.

By then — 2005 — the DeVitas had decided to sell the house. Their middle child, Michael, has Down syndrome. The DeVitas felt the best option was "an amazing Catholic school" in Colorado. Richard bought an office in Colorado and put the house -- now called Villa DeVita, or "House of Life" — up for auction, which was a trendy way to sell high-end property at the time. (It didn't work.)

Richard thought the headaches were from tension, but Colleen says Jackie was never stressed. "She would just calm people down — you would be in her presence and you felt a sense of peace."

Jackie and Colleen were in the car — the three children in the back seat — on June 17, 2005, when Jackie's doctor called.

"He told her, in the car on the cellphone, 'You have a mass the size of an orange in the back of your brain.' She is driving. She dropped the phone," Colleen says.

They drove straight to the emergency room.

Colleen quit her job with Richard's office, on U.S. 41 near Southside School in Sarasota, and moved into the Devitas' guest suite.

The family looked to Richard, with his medical background, to find Jackie the best care. He chose Duke University's medical center in Durham, N.C. He chartered private jets to shuttle her to treatment.

"She had all the doctors that Ted Kennedy had at Duke," said Richard, referring to the senator who died from cancer in 2009.

There were months of treatment, and the tension wore on the brother- and sister-in-law.

"Oh, we used to fight," Richard said. "We had good arguments, even when she was sick. It was tense. We were on the edge. And I was dealing with the doctors because of my medical background, so I was the middleman between the doctors and explaining to everybody."

Says Colleen: "I wanted Richard to fix my sister."

After two years of treatment, "things weren't working," Richard says. "You get frustrated. Somebody must have a better idea, so we went to M.D. Anderson," a well-known cancer center in Houston, where Jackie underwent a final, massive surgery.

After that, the family returned to Venice.

Jackie could not walk. With so much of her brain removed, her personality was gone.

On June 3, 2008, at 44, so was she.

Some couples fall in love in a single moment. For others, it's gradual.

For Richard, now 55, and Colleen, 46, it was a little of both.

In the early years at the office, "I never really liked her," said Richard. "She was always a pain in the ass."

Over the years, that changed. Then they were united by fighting Jackie's illness.

"There were the kids, and we found something that Jackie wrote — 'Sorry, Richard, I want Colleen to take care of the kids, and I hope you understand.'"

Colleen says Jackie passed similar messages to her.

Sister hands over her wedding ring
"I remember being in the hallway a year and a half into her illness, and she took off her wedding band, this band," says Colleen, pointing to the ring on her left hand, "that Richard had given her, and she handed it to me, and I refused it. And she said: 'I want you to have this. I want to know that this is the three of us. Don't ever leave my kids.'"

Jackie's funeral was in June 2008. Richard and Colleen flew to visit family in July.

"Coming back on the plane, I don't know what caused me to get up from my seat — I am terrified of flying — and I remember just going over to him and leaning on him, and at that moment, all that anxiety and stress that was within me for three years just kind of let go," Colleen says. "I feel like it was God's way of saying, 'Be at peace, just let it go.'"

She says she was left thinking she was in the right place. The decision to marry was simply the next step.

Colleen did not like the idea of living in the DeVita house as a single woman, caring for her sister's children with her grieving brother-in-law under the same roof.

"There was no reason to wait," she says.

So for the second time in his life, Richard DeVita asked John Leary for his daughter's hand in marriage.

"He was busting my butt the whole time because for some reason, he knew," Richard said. "Then I asked him. And he gave me a hard time about it. And then he laughed.

"My mother — I thought I would have a problem with her, but I didn't."

Richard and Colleen wanted the children's approval, so Richard took the group to church. "He asked for the children's permission — and Jackie's permission, it being a church," said Colleen.

"The kids were excited. They weren't in shock or anything."

"All that mattered to me was that it would be OK with my sister, and I could hear her talking to me," Colleen said. "This is where she wanted me. She wrote it in a letter. She handed me her wedding band. She talked to both of us.

"It took me a while, because I do care about what people think. But it mattered more to me that I had peace, and I felt peace for my sister, knowing that this is what was supposed to happen if she couldn't be here to raise her children."

Three months after the funeral, Richard and Colleen married.

"I am happy. I loved this man as a boss, a brother-in-law, and now as a husband," Colleen DeVita says. "I always say to people, 'Was I in love with him? No. Do I love him now? Yes.' He's a good man.

"Are there regrets? Absolutely not. Is this where we are supposed to be? Absolutely."

Not all the DeVitas' friends and relatives saw it that way.

Some friends — "we thought they were, anyway," Richard says -- whispered their disapproval, particularly over the length of time between Jackie's death and Richard's remarriage.

Colleen said her mother, Christine Leary, struggled with the marriage.

"I think my mother went through a lot of grief. We're good now," Colleen said.

"People handle grief in different ways," Richard said.

That is how they converse. There is no fear of interrupting each other, and they often finish each other's sentences.

The memory of Jackie is ever-present in Villa DeVita. It sometimes overwhelms Colleen, especially given that the photographs and mementos are so openly displayed.

"There are days where I walk in the hallways and keep my head down because I don't want to feel what I am missing," Colleen says. "But there are days I can look at them and smile and say, 'I am still here. I am here for you.'"

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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