CLEARWATER — For two decades, Dale Pople patrolled the streets feeding the homeless, helping old people carry groceries, extinguishing a car fire. He wore a red, yellow and blue Spandex outfit with an SH emblem:
Now, Clearwater’s real life superhero has retired. But don’t say he hung up the cape. In the real world, capes aren’t practical. He learned that detail weeks into his superhero career.
"It’ll get caught in the toilet" said Pople.
Other would-be heroes around the world are part of the real superhero movement, regular folks who employ characters and costumes to do random good deeds. There are probably hundreds, Pople said. Pople is celebrated as one of the originals.
A short documentary detailing his exploits as an un-caped crusader is making the rounds at film festivals around the world. Portrait of a Superhero, directed by St. Petersburg Clearwater film commissioner Tony Armer, will screen Tuesday at the Studio@620 in St. Petersburg.
At 50, Pople has bad knees and shoulders and twice had hernia surgery due to years of weight lifting and "superheroing."
"I don’t care how good of shape you are in," said Pople,6 feet and 220 pounds of muscle. "You are not going to break up a fight between 21-year-old kids at 50."
Even fictional heroes can be slowed by age, said comic book writer Bob Layton, who lives in Brandon. Pople’s retirement reminds Layton of his Iron Man: The End book. "Suffering from nerve damage from too many years of being Iron Man," Layton said, Tony Stark trained an apprentice and spent his final years with his wife.
Pople, who will continue his day job behind the scenes in television broadcasting, said he, too, will enjoy more evenings with his wife. He hopes to find someone willing to carry on his superhero tradition in Clearwater.
"Everywhere could use a superhero," he said.
Like comic superheroes, Pople has an origin story. Bullied by classmates and abused by his mother, he said, superhero tales were his escape.
"They overcame everything."
After going to Countryside High School, he spent two years in the U.S. Navy, then graduated from the police academy, he said, but instead chose a career in television.
At 29, he got into professional wrestling. Naming himself "Super Hero" and dressing the part, he envisioned becoming the ultimate good guy. But one year later, he tore his ACL in a match.
"So, I’m a broken-down wrestler with a superhero gimmick," Pople said. "I wondered what would happen if I did it for real."
He drove around Clearwater one day in the summer of 1998 wearing his full superhero ensemble, until he happened upon a fender bender.
"Super Hero, we’re so glad to see you," an old English couple told him.
"It was like they expected me to be there because this is America and superheroes are everywhere," Pople said.
They didn’t need help, but he was emboldened because they took him seriously. Since that day, Pople estimates, he has assisted hundreds.
Social media has helped Pople connect with other real-life superheroes. There was Orlando’s Master Legend in a metallic suit and helmet, and San Diego’s Mr. Xtreme in camouflaged body armor and bug-eyed goggles.
For a short time, Pople connected with another five superheroes from Florida to form Team Justice, Inc., collecting items for charities. It included Master Legend and Artiseroi, who promoted himself as a "gadgeteer." Modern day hero groups, Pople said, include San Diego’s Xtreme Justice, who patrol the streets and assist charities.
In 2011, HBO produced the documentary Superheroes about the movement. Pople was among the stars.
"That was probably the peak of all this," he said.
At that time, he was superheroing for three hours a night, seven day a week. In recent years, he’s crusaded sporadically. No matter their schedule, Pople warns potential superheroes to be patient. He spent more time wandering around than saving people.
"It’s 90 percent boredom and 10 percent pure terror."
The Clearwater Police Department has said in past interviews that officers were familiar with Pople, that he had never caused them problems, that he obeyed laws and knew to avoid certain situations.
Pople condemns superheroes who cross the line and become vigilantes. The best heroes understand they are neighborhood watch, not law enforcement.
He has never been in a violent confrontation, he said. The closest he’s come is stopping fights and muggings. The sight of a muscular man in a superhero outfit screaming in a "daddy voice," he said, was enough for combatants to pause or run.
"If I’m willing to go out dressed like this, they are pretty sure I can back it up," Pople said.
Before resorting to fighting crime, Pople said, call 911, "let police do their job without getting in the way," choose "de-escalation" over combat and be prepared for the public to look cross-eyed at you.
Pople once saw a girl walking home alone. He asked if she needed a ride.
"I could have approached it differently. She kept walking. She probably thought I was a lunatic."
Armer, who has been close friends with Pople for nearly the entire superhero run said, "He is who is and pulls it off. Isn’t that how everyone should be? We’ve been to Vegas together and he’s dressed up and strutting."
Pople wore his superhero outfit on his first date with his wife, Karen Connolly.
"I was in awe of his self-confidence," Connolly said.
But a few years later, as they drove home from a night out, Connolly admitted she didn’t understand why he still had to be a superhero. Moments later, they witnessed an out-of-control car flip into a lake. Pople found the driver in shock lying on the shore. He dove into the water to make sure no one else was in the car.
"That’s why I do it," Pople told Karen.
Clearwater comic book writer Jimmy Palmiotti, whose creations include antihero Harley Quinn, predicts Pople’s retirement will be short lived.
"Being a superhero is in his blood," he said. "His values will always be there. That is what heroes do — they set an example for people. That is hard to walk away from."
Pople admitted that might be true.
"Maybe I’ll do more charity work."
But he’ll likely do it without the superhero suit.
"One thing I have learned is that you don’t need the outfit to be a superhero," Pople said. "You only need integrity."
Contact Paul Guzzo at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.