TAMPA — A breeze runs through the spacious rural home of Robert Richards, touching the relics and symbols of his life on every surface.
Helen Richards, his wife and longtime business partner in an iconic Tampa restaurant and fish market, points to paintings of fishing boats and sea birds, then resumes her place at a kitchen table covered with snapshots and news clippings about her husband.
"He was the love of my life," she says.
Many of the images show a tanned man with serious eyes and a strong jaw, almost always on a boat. Nearby, a file folder of clippings, newsletters and correspondence attests to Mr. Richards' efforts to keep the bay free of pollutants, each item stapled to a pink sheet of paper with a handwritten description.
She has labeled the file "Good Deeds."
But the lion's share of photos, like those that fill a cookbook she and her husband authored, have something to do with the Seabreeze by the Bay restaurant, a landmark for nearly 80 years famous for its deviled crab. She and Mr. Richards grew up near the restaurant and market they later owned on the 22nd Street causeway, along with a fleet of boats that supplied them with fresh fish.
Mr. Richards, who was so connected to sun and saltwater that his friends called him "Capt. Seaweed," died March 2 of stomach cancer. He was 81.
"He was the hardest working man I've ever known," said Mike Crain, 54, who captained fishing boats built by Mr. Richards for more than 35 years. "He worked from daylight to after dark every day."
He demanded the same from others. "If you were getting paid $10 an hour, he wanted you to work at $11 an hour," said Keith Richards, 50, his son. "Not $6. Not $7."
For more than 20 years, Mr. Richards operated his fishing boats through the night, packed the fish for his market, then went to bed after sunrise. He would relieve his wife later that day until closing, then fish again.
He was born in Palmetto, with pioneer bloodlines tracing back to the Mayflower, his wife said. As a boy, he often rowed his boat to the Seabreeze for 5-cent deviled crabs and a soda. He met Helen Chattin in 1953 and married her two years later. They had four children.
He ran a roofing company and worked as a boilermaker. In 1969, he took a lifeboat he had modified with shrimp trawl nets to Gulfport, Miss. — and ran smack into Hurricane Camille.
Mr. Richards and a mate bailed water all the way home. With the blessings of the Licata family, who had founded the Seabreeze in 1923, he opened a seafood market next door to the restaurant.
Over the years, he built fishing boats and anchored them behind the restaurant. The couple bought the Seabreeze in 1992. Using the Licatas' top-secret recipe — of which even the employees making them knew only designated portions — they continued selling unmatched deviled crab treats, often more than 1,000 a day.
They also started what became a tradition, a circular, pink marble "love rock" behind the restaurant, on which many couples stood to exchange vows by the bay. Faced with rising costs and net bans, the Richards sold the Seabreeze in 2001. That year, they self-published a popular cookbook containing all of the recipes. In retirement, Mr. Richards built another fishing boat, now in his back yard near rows of home-grown vegetables.
A few hundred well-wishing friends have visited the house since cancer diagnosed in the fall spread rapidly.
Helen Richards, 75, tells one story after another about her husband, as if trying to trace a broad circle in a short time.
"People need to know how much this man did," she says. "Somebody needs to brag on him at some point in his life."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] (727) 892-2248.