TAMPA — Benny Pinckney was 15 when his family moved into a home in the Palma Ceia area, half a block from the convenience store he would visit almost daily for more than 40 years.
Customers at Max Food Mart on W Bay to Bay Boulevard knew Mr. Pinckney, whose wheelchair faced them as they checked out, even if they didn't know his name.
To some, the relationship between Mr. Pinckney and his community over the years might seem more reminiscent of small-town America than a city as large as Tampa, centering on a man who struggled to speak.
From early childhood, Mr. Pinckney had cerebral palsy, a disorder that can affect movement, hearing, vision and learning. He lived in the same house on Empedrado Street most of his life.
For many years, starting in 1966, he used a wheeled walker to get to the store owned by George D'Souza and his brother, Max. Mr. Pinckney got there about 9 a.m. and stayed a few hours.
The store gave him chocolate-covered doughnuts and a fountain Coke, then helped him consume the snacks, since Mr. Pinckney needed help eating.
In return, he watched for shoplifters, raising his hand when he saw someone attempt to steal something.
"He could not talk but he gave us his eyes," said Max D'Souza, 48. "He helped us a lot."
His walker — and, later, his wheelchair — became fixtures at the store, which had been a Li'l General and a Circle K before the D'Souzas took it over a decade ago.
Customers got to know him, even if they could not understand his speech.
"He had several young women who were devoted to him," said Paul Pinckney, 79, his brother. Mr. Pinckney called the women his girlfriends, though they never dated.
One of his women friends made a sign and hung it on the back of his cart. The sign read, "Lover Boy." In 1989, the Plant High cheerleaders counted themselves among Mr. Pinckney's admirers, giving him a letterman's jacket.
Bennett Vining Pinckney was born in 1933 in Jacksonville, Texas. His biological father abandoned the family, His mother, Lou Myrtis Vining, later married an Army officer who was transferred to Tampa in the early 1940s.
She taught her son to play chess, at which he excelled. He attended special schools and had tutors before graduating from Plant High in 1955.
He started a newspaper clipping service as a young man, finding people whose names had been mentioned in wedding announcements and other items and offering to send copies.
A series of live-in caregivers looked after him with mostly benign results. In 2003, however, friends from Bayshore Baptist Church called code enforcement investigators over squalid conditions in the house, which lacked air conditioning and reeked of urine from a caregiver's pitbulls.
"It was just horrendous," said Vicki Morris, 63. "The place was full of bugs. The whole house was falling apart."
In two weeks, the church raised $45,000 to restore the house, and at least as much again in donated labor and materials. Mr. Pinckney lived there the rest of his life with new caregivers.
He continued to visit Max Food Store daily. "Sometimes he would come in at 9 o'clock," said Max D'Souza. "At 12 o'clock, we know he's hungry now. We would hold up a sandwich, and he would take a little bite."
Mr. Pinckney died Nov. 14 at Memorial Hospital of Tampa, of pneumonia. He was 78.
At his request, friends placed his wheelchair in front of Max Food Mart, along with photos of Mr. Pinckney and a fall-themed wreath.
More than 200 people attended his funeral Nov. 17 at Bayshore Baptist Church. Among them was Max D'Souza, who came to pay tribute to his store's greeter and watchdog.
By photos of Mr. Pinckney on the church's altar, he left a box of chocolate-covered doughnuts.
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.