September was always one of Eddie Jones' favorite times of year.
As employees at Brandon Farms spread black plastic in long, neat rows in preparation for another strawberry season, Jones, the farm's owner, would park his truck nearby, roll down the windows and watch.
"That was his Super Bowl," his son-in-law, Joey Gude, said recently.
This year, as Gude laid plastic, he looked up and saw Jones' truck under a tree. He was sure the farmer was inside.
Then, he remembered.
Eddie Jones, the owner and founder of Brandon Farms, the man who planted sunflowers each summer in a field along State Road 60, the loyal father, grandfather and active churchgoer, died Aug. 11, a day after he turned 62.
This September, as he laid the plastic, Gude grieved.
The farmworkers felt heavy, too.
To the men, Jones was family. Sometimes they butted heads in the field, but by day's end they got a slap on the back or an "I love you" from their boss.
Farm manager Adrian Resendiz, 45, worked for Jones since he was 16. He bought a house across the street from Jones. In the mornings, Resendiz would wave to Jones as the farmer sat in his garage.
Now, the garage door is closed.
"We had good times," Resendiz said, dressed for work in a cowboy hat, plaid shirt and large silver belt buckle. "He showed me how to farm and how to do it the best."
• • •
Jones' family first noticed he was in pain in 2007, during Thanksgiving dinner. He always looked forward to his sister's fruit salad, but that year he didn't want to eat much. He told his daughter, Trenda Gude, his stomach hurt.
Jones started losing weight, but doctors could not figure out what was wrong.
Then, in March, doctors spent a week testing Jones at Shands HealthCare in Gainesville. They suspected amyloidosis.
Gude, 36, had researched the disease and knew it was bad. Amyloidosis is a condition in which proteins are abnormally deposited in organs and tissues, she learned. Many people suffering from amyloidosis die within a few years, often from kidney or heart failure.
"I was praying, 'Please Lord Jesus, don't let this be it,' " she said.
But the doctors confirmed it.
Gude drove her father home, picked up his medications and called her husband. They met at the Maryland Fried Chicken in Plant City. She cried.
"What am I going to do without my daddy?" she said.
• • •
In 1979, Eddie Jones started Brandon Farms' roadside stand with two sawhorses, a piece of plywood and a few quarts of strawberries.
The berries were gone in 30 minutes.
"He could see that it was something they could do," said his long-time fiancee, Debbie Holt, 53. "So he started the produce stand."
At first, he set up the booth on State Road 60 by Miller Road.
Now, the red roadside stand sits on the south side of State Road 60, just east of Dover Road on 7 acres Brandon Farms rents to grow strawberries. It's where Jones planted sunflowers each summer for the past several years.
"That was just Eddie," Joey Gude said. "He liked things that were pretty."
The warm yellow flowers drew admirers. Artists set up easels. Amateur photographers snapped photos. Some passers-by asked for permission to walk through the field.
Jones liked working at the stand. Before he became ill, he loved wiping down the tables, where people would stop for strawberry shortcake or a milk shake. It gave him a chance to talk to his customers.
One day, a woman walked in with a small flat of berries that was half eaten. She told Gude she didn't like them, and Gude didn't know what to do. He got Jones.
Standing in a strawberry field recently, Joey and Trenda Gude recounted the much-repeated family tale.
"Hello, madam, how can I help you?" Joey Gude said, recounting what his father-in-law said.
The woman explained her issue with the berries.
"Madam," Jones said. "You keep them, and you pick out any two on the shelf, and you take them."
She protested a little but took the free berries. After she left, Jones turned to his son-in-law.
"You see that, son?" he said. "She'll be back."
Jones didn't have much education. He could hardly read and write, his daughter said.
"But, buddy," she said. "He was the most brilliant man I ever knew."
• • •
Two weeks before Jones' last birthday, Trenda Gude asked her dad what he wanted.
"I want one day to feel good," she recalls him saying.
On Aug. 10, Jones kicked off his birthday with a Gulf Coast Produce shareholders' meeting. He ate lunch with the owners, the sales team and his family. He had his picture taken next to his birthday cake, which had a green tractor on top.
"It was a good day," Gude said, tears welling in her eyes. "God granted him that."
The next morning, she picked up her father so they'd make a 9 a.m. doctors appointment in Gainesville.
It was 8:24 a.m., and she was going 80 mph in the fast lane, just south of Bushnell, when Jones turned to her and said, "Doll, I'm having one of those episodes."
"I feel empty," he said.
Jones seized and had a heart attack.
Adrenaline starting rushing through Gude. Doctors had told her a heart attack would probably kill her father because of complications due to the amyloidosis. He needed a defibrillator but could not have one implanted until a month of satisfactory tests came back. He had one week to go.
The next exit was 7 miles away. Gude pulled over at mile marker 334.4 and called 911.
She started giving her father CPR.
"He was already with Jesus at that point," she said. "He didn't suffer."
• • •
Nearly 1,000 people attended Jones' funeral at First Free Will Baptist Church in Seffner.
The church had to cut off the three-hour viewing, even though people were still waiting in line.
"He had such a heart for kids," said the church's associate pastor, Roger Duncan II. "He was always donating money to help kids in our school, to help kids in our church, paying for kids who didn't have money to go to youth camp. The Lord blessed him financially, but he was the ultimate giver."
Jones invested in people's lives, — from the annual pool party he hosted each year to honor his grandchildren's achievements to the sunflowers he planted for the public.
As his family planned Jones' funeral, they decided they wanted to pass out a fitting remembrance.
"He sowed seeds in so many people's lives," one of his nieces said. "What's better than sunflower seeds?"
At the funeral, each guest received an envelope with Jones' smiling face on the front. Inside, were sunflower seeds.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.