On New Year's Day 1989, Stew Leonard Jr. and his wife, Kim, their two young children and his siblings and their families were all gathered together for a holiday celebration in St. Maarten.
He can still hear the laughing voices of young children as they clamored around the pool and the backyard swing set at their rented vacation home. He can still smell the birthday cake his wife was baking for his daughter, Blake, who was turning 3 years old.
He vividly recalls how much fun his younger son, 21-month-old Stewie, was having as he stood beneath the ladder handing him balloons to inflate and tack to the deck for his sister's birthday brunch.
"It was a great day," recalled the president and chief executive officer of Stew Leonard's farm stores in Danbury and Norwalk
Quicker than the flash of a light switch, though, the family's holiday idyll faded to black.
One moment, Leonard said his son was standing just below him; the next he was gone.
The first thought was that Stewie followed his cousins into the kitchen to lick frosting out of the cake bowl, he said. But Stewie wasn't with the other children. Leonard and his wife, Kim, then went to his bedroom where they found his teddy bear, untouched and alone.
"We started panicking a little," Leonard said of starting a search around the house and yard.
Suddenly, Leonard said, he spotted a yellow cloth floating in the pool.
"I did the sprint of my life and grabbed him, and started CPR immediately," Leonard said of the little boy he found face down and unconscious in the water. His voice quickens, and quavers, as he recites the events that are indelibly etched in his memory.
As it was a holiday, the Leonard's choices for medical care were limited. Leonard said he drove his Jeep 80 miles an hour to the nearest hospital some 15 miles away.
"And it was just too late," Leonard described of the moment the island doctor came to tell he and his wife he was unable to revive their sweet, lovable boy. "I remember my wife and I just held hands and starred into space We were just in shock, absolute shock."
That was not the end the story, however.
From the numbness that shrouded them through the wake and funeral, the multitudes of condolences and well wishes that showered them for months afterward, Leonard said he and his wife wrestled with how to move forward.
One of his friends' shared with the Leonards his own family loss, and how for years he stayed silent, sharing his grief with no one. His friend despaired such retreat worsened his despair rather than helped him.
So Leonard and his family -- the Leonards have four daughters, three born after Stewie's death -- started sharing "funny Stewie stories." A year later, they founded a nonprofit charity in their son's honor, the Stew Leonard III Water Safety Foundation. The mission of the organization that has to date raised $1 million dollars for water safety awareness and education is to prevent other families from losing a child to drowning.
To implant their message on an intended audience of parents and children ages 2 to 6, the Leonards opted to take a page out of their creative business model that employs larger-than-life characters meant to delight customers and entice them to buy everything from milk to chicken and even Twinkies.
They created a character called Stewie the Duck, a life-vest wearing duck who must take swimming lessons and follow proper water etiquette if he to swim with the "big ducks." In May 2002, the Leonards released their first book, "Stewie the Duck Learns to Swim," which has sold over 100,000 copies, along with a second book, "Swimming Lessons with Stewie the Duck." The books are available in both English and Spanish.
At the Stew Leonard's stores, Leonard never lets a customer with a young child leave the store without giving them a signed copy of one of the soft-paged books. He is particularly gratified when he hears a child humming the "Stewie the Duck" jingle that bears the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."
The Stewie the Duck water safety program has been used at a children's hospital in Phoenix, Ariz., and by firefighters in Rialto, Calif., after a rash of drownings in their community, Leonard said. Over the last five years, Rialto firefighters have read the Stewie books to some 8,000 first-grade students to promote water safety. In those years, not one of those first-graders have been involved in a water accident, according to a department news release.
Regional YMCA of Western Connecticut Aquatics Director Stephanie Huber hails the Leonards for turning a personal tragedy into a triumph for many young children who might otherwise not be able to take swimming lessons.
The Leonards' philanthropy provides financial support to allow 120 children, ages 3 and 4, enrolled in the local Y's school readiness program to take swim lessons, and funds their five-time-a-year "Splash" program for some 60 children between ages 3 and 12 who have never had a swim lesson to do so free of charge. Similar programs are offered in Norwalk.
"It's invaluable," Huber said of the Leonards' generosity.
In April, the Leonard's embarked on the latest Stewie the Duck venture, a mobile app of the book that can be downloaded free to iPad and iPhones.
Apple approved the first-of-its-kind water safety computer application on April 4, 2012; the day that would have been Stewie's 25th birthday. Leonard said he had a "mental block" about that date until his wife started crying when he informed her of the approval.
"I get choked up right now just saying that. I'm thinking of him right now," Leonard said. "I know they say everything happens for a purpose, and that can be hard to swallow. Unfortunately, though, tough times do build character and do make you stronger. This has made my wife and I stronger, and also made my daughters stronger."
Three of them -- Ryann, Chase and Madison -- never even met Stewie; but he's their brother. They have embraced this water safety effort; they do reading every summer. His daughter, Chase, just returned from a semester in Spain, but while there asked for 20 copies of the Spanish edition to give to friends.
Every New Year's Day, the family hoists a toast to Stewie; and celebrate daughter Blake's birthday. Leonard said he is certain his son is proud they are honoring his life by working to save others.
"I think he'd like to have us celebrating as if he were sitting at the table with us," Leonard proclaimed.