Asked for the key to a successful home-building career, Gale J. "Jack'' Apple liked to say: Be honest and never build something you wouldn't live in yourself.
It was a philosophy that served Apple well as his Apple Homes built thousands of houses — many of them waterfront — throughout the Tampa Bay area including in Apollo Beach, Venetian Isles, Shores Acres, Maximo Moorings, Yacht Club Estates, Vina del Mar Island and Isle of Capri.
"He was one of the last true gentlemen, who you could do business with on a handshake because you could always trust his word," said Realtor Scott Samuels, who grew up in Yacht Club Estates near Apple's house. "A dear friend will be missed.''
Apple, who still lived in a home he built in 1965, died of heart-related problems late Thursday at age 92. His death came less than a month after another legendary bay area builder, Arthur Rutenberg, passed away at 89.
And like Rutenberg, Apple worked almost up until the end.
"He just bought some land 30 days ago, six lots," his son Douglas said. "He was always looking, always dreaming. His hobby was the next deal."
A native of Lansing, Michigan, Apple came to St. Petersburg in 1946 after getting out of the Navy. He saw other veterans flocking to Florida and recognized the need for new homes; indeed, he needed one for himself.
Apple learned wiring and plumbing from a book he got at Sears. He bought lumber with cash. Working days and nights, he built a two-bedroom home in 60 days. A short time later, he sold it for cash and doubled his investment.
At a time when many people preferred older, leafy neighborhoods that reminded them of their former homes up North, Apple realized the potential in the bay area's many small undeveloped islands and other waterfront areas. He and partners began buying land, dredging canals and putting in seawalls.
In the '50s and early 60s, "waterfront lots were $3,000 and nobody was interested in them," Douglas Apple said. "Then they invented a boat motor that normal people could buy and the explosion hit. Until someone could afford to own a boat, nobody wanted to live on the water."
Apple, whose logo at one point was "The Waterfront Home Builder," broke away from Northern building styles and designed its houses to suit the more casual Florida way of life. A typical Apple home — many of which survive in Apollo Beach, Shore Acres and Yacht Club Estates — had 1,600 to 1,800 square feet with a split plan, central kitchen and terrazzo floor. One enduring innovation: sliding glass doors to provide wide open views of the pool and water.
In the early '70s, as waterfront living grew in popularity, Apple began building homes on land it leased to buyers at nominal monthly rates.
"I think his motivation was to allow people to buy more for less," his son Phillip said. "They could buy a waterfront house and afford the mortgage and minimum payment for the land lease."
As his company blossomed, at one point building hundreds of homes a year, Jack Apple delved into other areas. He owned a flea market in St. Petersburg. He had apartments and warehouses. He helped finance other builders, and headed the former Contractors and Builders Association for many years. He built playhouses for the Ronald McDonald House and St. Jude's Cathedral in St. Petersburg.
Yet, "he didn't have a big entourage, he ran a multi-million-dollar business out of his den," said Douglas Apple, who is now the company's president.
Apple also clung to the old-fashioned way of doing things.
"There were no computers, no calculators," Samuels said. "He still did all of his math in long hand on a piece of paper up until the last day. And we're talking about big numbers. A lot of it he could do in his head but I'd see him doing long division on pieces of paper that you'd just shake your head at."
When times were tough, Apple Homes survived by keeping overhead low. "He didn't extend himself past the money he had," Douglas Apple said.
Today, Apple Homes operates out of an office in South Pasadena and builds custom homes, predominantly in the northwest part of St. Petersburg. In 2011, in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times during the depths of the housing crash, Jack Apple explained what kept his company going at time when many other builders failed.
"You have to be fair to people,'' he said. "They're not going to tell their friends if you don't treat them right. We didn't misuse anybody to get where we are. There's a lot of satisfaction in doing things right.''