TAMPA — Under a sweltering June sun, 68-year-old Leonard Whaley felt a familiar twinge.
Whaley, born of a family that has peddled produce in South Tampa for nearly a century, has had four angioplasties to open clogged arteries. He knows when he's having a heart attack.
So Whaley left his produce stand and went to the hospital.
When he returned after a month of bed rest, his flimsy old produce tent was gone.
Was this the end?
• • •
Leonard Whaley jokes that members of his family don't retire from the produce business.
"Why would I retire? All my friends are Whaley's customers," he says.
The Whaley family has been feeding Tampa folks since the 1920s, when Leonard Whaley's granddad opened up shop on Florida Avenue.
About 10 years later, the family moved to a S Howard Avenue spot and stayed there for more than 70 years. A lease dispute in 2008 sent the crew packing.
Leonard Whaley talks about the shuttering like the death of a close friend. In a rusty cash box, he keeps old newspaper clippings about the store.
• • •
Earlier this year, Whaley approached Richard Yarnell, owner of a Sunoco gas station at S Boulevard and Platt Street, about renting a corner of his parking lot to sell fruits and vegetables.
Yarnell was honored.
Before the Howard Avenue store closed, Yarnell shopped there himself.
"He's a 'Who's-Who' in Tampa," Yarnell said of Whaley. "He's a part of the family, you know?"
So, each day before dawn, Whaley would trek out to a local farmers' market in east Tampa to stock up. By 10 a.m., he had everything ready under a thin, white tent.
Business was good.
As the summer heat set in, Whaley started going home for a couple of hours at midday to cool off. He could feel the tightness in his chest getting worse. He could only ignore it so long. The hospital beckoned.
After surgery, when Whaley was well enough to run errands, he took a trip to the gas station to visit Yarnell.
But why was the tent gone?
"Don't worry about it," Yarnell said.
Whaley went home, watched TV and tried not to get too bored.
Yarnell pulled out his tape measure.
• • •
On July 1, finally ready for work, Whaley pulled into the Sunoco parking lot.
Standing before him was a new 15-by-15-foot wooden produce stand. It has a sheet metal roof, wood lattice walls and colored triangle flags hanging inside. In the corner is a 30-inch industrial fan to blow cool air right at Whaley.
"To think he would actually go out of his way to do this," Whaley said.
Yarnell hopes the new digs will stave off more health troubles for Whaley.
"I love having him around," Yarnell said. "He's a good man."
On a recent August morning, in the breeze of his new fan, Whaley fiddled with his stock of avocados.
A customer walked up, wiping sweat from her forehead, and shopped in the shade.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2442.