SUNSET BEACH — Since his midlife shift, no one who knew Ted Nelson, better known simply as "Tedley," could separate him from the beaches. You'd see the self-employed handyman riding a black bicycle along Gulf Boulevard, one hand on the high monkey bars, the other securing a chain saw slung over his shoulder.
Or walking Sunset Beach, that sliver of land south of Blind Pass Road, with an 8-foot Australian rock python, Slick, coiled around his shoulders.
Or hanging around At Cost Liquors and Beer, sipping a canned iced tea.
"That's how he got the name 'Tedley,' " said Atul Shah, who owns At Cost. The nickname might have sprung, as Shah suggests, from a modification of Tetley Tea or from his first and middle names, Ted Lee. He's had the name so long it's hard to tell anymore.
Tedley was more than a drinking buddy or a guy who would trim trees or clean your bar. More even than a guy you could trust with the keys to your house. He was a walking reminder of free will — an inspiration even to his beach neighbors, who by definition had already chosen surf and sand over being in the middle of anything.
"He was living his life the way he wanted to," said Joe Nuzzo, 70, a former beach bum like Tedley who owns Suncoast Surf Shop. "There was nobody else like him that I've ever met."
Theodore Lee Nelson was born in the Chicago area in 1956, a dentist's son. The family moved to this area when he was young. Tedley went to Seminole High. In 1981 he married Diane Husted, whom he met working at a beach hotel.
They lived in California for a while and surfed together. Back in St. Petersburg, Tedley struggled at his job as a school custodian. He didn't like the regimentation, having to be somewhere every day just because somebody you had never seen said you had to be.
Then they had children, and the other shoe dropped. "I grew up," said Diane Lewis, 56. "I had kids and responsibilities."
They divorced in 1992; Tedley moved to the beaches for good. He lived in little apartments and stayed closest to Sunset Beach. He hung out at the former Driftwood, home to bikers, musicians and tradesmen who played 8-ball on a felt cushion thin as notebook paper and drank luke-cold draft beer.
Then the Driftwood turned into Caddy's On The Beach, offering mimosas and omelettes and a bikini contest. Tedley stayed away.
By 2000 he had gotten rid of his car.
"Who needs a car?" Tedley told the Times in 2007. "I been to town."
Though he wore the title "beach bum" proudly, he also described himself as "more of a minimalist than a bum." Scores of people hired him over the years to paint or landscape, friends say. Since Tedley didn't have a cellphone, they got in touch by leaving sticky notes outside Ka'Tiki or Nick's Seabreeze.
"Other places he didn't like to go to," said Angie Corson, a friend. "They were too establishment for him." The work kept Tedley in Captain Morgan and Coke, which he consumed slowly, coffee (lots of cream, lots of sugar) and lab rats for Slick.
When the power got shut off, Tedley didn't curse the darkness. He lit candles.
But he had no insurance, and for the past year or so tried to shrug off numbness in his hands and feet, and the fact that he was too tired to finish jobs he started.
Doctors diagnosed esophageal cancer. Tedley died Sept. 9 at Palms of Pasadena Hospital. He was 57.
Friends and family have organized a farewell gathering Sept. 29 on Sunset Beach, in time to catch the sunset.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.