ST. PETERSBURG — For many customers, pulling up to Bob Lee's Tire Co. is almost like going to the barber. Attendants will fill the tank for you, check fluids, wipe the windshield and put air in your tires.
For those who remember full-service gas stations, this feels familiar. And comfortable, especially when the same people fill the same tanks for years on end.
For them, "Big John" Gray was the face of Bob Lee's. Mr. Gray, a 12-year employee who ran the full-service pumps with a tenderness that belied his size and no-nonsense exterior, died June 7 at home. He was 57. Authorities believe he died of natural causes.
Customers often tip at Bob Lee's, and they tipped Mr. Gray extra around Christmas. Though many came to know him well, he told few — if any — about a haunted past that had once steered him awry.
Customers knew him only as the steady hand on the pump, the familiar face at the window, the nice man whose profession has gone the way of drugstore soda fountains and cars with fins.
"When you pump someone's gas for 12 years, you get to know them," said Bob Lee IV, 34, an owner of Bob Lee's. Regulars ranged from elderly women to companies with fleets of trucks, Lee said.
On the way home from work every day, Mr. Gray checked on his mother, Delores. Mr. Gray and his girlfriend lived in the home he bought in 1996, several blocks from his mother.
"If you needed a couple of dollars, he would always be there," said Cheryl Andrews, who met Mr. Gray when he worked for a now-defunct full-service Texaco station. "If you needed food, if he didn't cook it for you he would take food out of the cabinet or freezer and say, 'I hope things get better. I'm here if you need me.' "
He lived for fishing on his boat on weekends, or treating neighbors to his barbecue ribs.
He rarely got aggravated, said Andrews, 63. If he did, he'd go into the garage or watch military history on television until he had worked it out in his head. Though friends and family consider him a model of stability, that wasn't always the case.
Born in Detroit, Mr. Gray spent 12 years in the Army, where he worked in and around tanks. He married while stationed in Korea. They had a son, John.
Mr. Gray left the Army in 1984 as a sergeant. He had chronic knee pain from years of jumping off tanks.
A hidden pain would prove even more debilitating. In the late 1980s, his wife and son vanished. He thought maybe she had taken the boy back to her native Korea, but never found out for sure and never saw either of them again, Andrews said.
A string of arrests for drugs and theft over several years landed Mr. Gray in courthouses and probation offices. In 1992, after violating his probation on a grand theft conviction, he spent several months in county jail and the Central Florida Reception Center.
His mother blames the trauma surrounding his wife and son's disappearance. "That was why he got messed up," said Delores Gray, 76. "That was why he went on the wrong path."
By the time he met Andrews in 1994, Mr. Gray had put that part of his past behind him. "Getting the job at Texaco was the beginning of the end of the bad patch," she said.
Mr. Gray left work early June 7, saying he did not feel well. As usual, he stopped by his mother's on the way home, where he complained of knee pain. "He said, 'Mama, I hurt so bad, I just hurt so bad,' " his mother said.
He fell asleep at home. At 7 p.m., Andrews tried to wake him for dinner and found him unresponsive. He died 15 minutes later.
The Pinellas-Pasco County Medical Examiner's Office did not take the case, an indication authorities believe Mr. Gray died of natural causes.
More than a week later, calls were still coming in to Bob Lee's, customers asking about their favorite attendant.
"People were saying 'When is the service?' " Lee said. "They wanted to attend."
Mr. Gray had previously directed that there be no service apart from his military burial, which took place Monday at Florida National Cemetery.
"I think some of those little old ladies will be lost now," Lee said.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.