TAMPA — Don Depue was a regal man who stood out among the slouchers and headphone-wearing homeless at the Trinity Cafe.
He had perfect L-posture at Table One, where you could find him every day for about 2 1/2 years. He never put his elbows on the table, always took small sips and bites and savored everything.
The Trinity Cafe is a soup kitchen in substance but a fine-dining restaurant in style, with multiple courses and set tables that bring a dignified lunch to some undistinguished lives.
Depue was the homeless guest who noticed. While many clients passed on compliments, he was the only one who walked into the kitchen after every meal to praise the chef, always including a detail he had noticed, like the garlic croutons topping the pinto bean soup.
To staff and volunteers, who have served more than 700,000 meals within the independent cafe housed in the downtown Salvation Army building, Depue's courtesy and manners were their reminder of just how thin the line was between them and the streets.
So the ignominious way such a stately man died affected even the most experienced among them, stealing some of their deep hope in humanity.
Chef Alfred Astl found him Friday morning unconscious and uncovered outside the building's dock with a submarine sandwich for a pillow and flies buzzing around.
"What is this, Calcutta?" Astl asked. "I've been doing this 10 years, and this was the most uncivilized thing I've ever seen."
Depue was taken to Tampa General Hospital, then moved to a hospice, where he died Sunday. He was 70.
Astl, a chef who gave up a three-decade-long restaurant career that included a stop at the historic Hotel Jerome in Aspen, is known for a gruffness that shields a giving heart. But Depue, who slept outside the building, broke through.
Every morning as Astl drove in, Depue awoke and asked him about the day's menu. On rainy days, the chef sent a volunteer down with a cup of coffee and whatever pastry was left over.
Depue hung around the Salvation Army because he was a religious man who attended the church services. He told his friends his father was a Methodist minister. He wore a crucifix and carried a rosary.
He thought of the entire building as a church and politely asked anyone who cursed to rephrase their words. He didn't evangelize but always carried a hardbound black Bible.
He told friends he was an only child. He said his wife ran off with another man and his only son had died of cancer. He owned an electronics store on Armenia Avenue for years but the recession and the IRS claimed it. His friends say he never smoked, drank or used drugs.
Sister Maureen Dorr, a nun at the Trinity Cafe, lent him books about Jesus that he consumed as vigorously as his meals. He was especially fond of dessert and sometimes ate three or four.
Six feet tall with a long, jovial face and swept-back hair, he was always seen in a maroon windbreaker. Program director Cindy Davis tried to give him a warmer coat but he pointed to his gray fleece lining.
Dorr tried to give him two warm shirts but he would only take one. "No sister, no, no, I have enough," he would say.
In his final weeks, the staff noticed he was getting thinner. He lost his appetite, prompting the chef to send Dorr from the kitchen to encourage Depue to eat.
He would tell the nun he was just taking his time.
But the staff saw him walk around with labored breaths. His friends said he was speaking nonsensically at times. He held a soda can tight for four hours last week but no one could figure out why.
When paramedics woke him, he told them it was 1992 and George H.W. Bush was president.
At Tampa General Hospital, Trinity Cafe volunteers Barb and Jim Allen brought Depue chocolate kisses. They said he was positive, as usual, and wouldn't talk about his condition.
At the Melech Hospice House, his final words were, "I'm ready. I'm going home," staff members were told.
But the way Depue's street friends heard it, his last words really began with a refined request:
"Tuck me in …"
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.