ST. PETERSBURG — Darryl Jones made his living as a cook, but for many years gave up his time to smoke, fry and grill turkeys to feed the poor and lonely at Thanksgiving.
It was a promise made to his late grandmother, Rosa Jackson, who began the dinner that became a St. Petersburg tradition in 1973.
Now the dinner's founder and her successor are both gone. Mr. Jones died Saturday (Feb. 9, 2013), 10 days before his 51st birthday.
As he fought cancer in recent years, he was persuaded to cancel the Thanksgiving feast just once, continuing to journey from his home in Apopka to prepare the meal's centerpiece in the back yard of his mother's St. Petersburg home.
"I'm a little tired, but other than that, I feel good," he said in 2011, the year he postponed chemotherapy to prepare for the feast held each year at the Campbell Park Recreation Center. At one point, it served as many as 300 people.
"I made a promise that as long as I'm able, I'm going to do it," he said.
"He had so much strength, so much courage," his wife, Diane Givens-Jones, said by phone this week.
Darryl Jones' mother, Eloise Jones, said her son made his promise to continue cooking the feast, even before his grandmother, a retired dietary worker who died in 1996, knew she had cancer. The two had a special relationship and similar temperaments, "like dealing with people no matter what they said, even complaining about a free dinner," Mr. Jones' mother said.
"This coming year would have made a total of 40 years the dinner would have been going," Eloise Jones said.
Darryl Jones, born in St. Petersburg, spent most of his working life in the dietary department at St. Anthony's Hospital. He spotted his future wife while catering a family reunion, said Spencer "Bill" Colquitt, a close friend since elementary school.
"He saw what he wanted," Colquitt said.
Mr. Jones' friendship with Colquitt continued even after Colquitt left for college and the military.
"We all came home to be with our families for Thanksgiving, and we would go and support him and his grandmother" at the dinner, Colquitt said of the friend he called Jake.
"He was definitely a stickler in ensuring that people would have a good meal, something that he would eat. He was generous to a fault sometimes. . . . If you were blessed to be considered his friend, then you truly had a friend for life. It was nothing for him to make a to-go plate for people who couldn't make it."
Givens-Jones, who became the family's sole wage earner during her husband's illness, offered words in a similar vein.
"Every night I would come home and dinner is prepared, even though I knew he didn't feel good. He would make sure I had something to eat. All I had to do was pop it in the microwave. That was him," she said.
"He was my soulmate and he was my friend. He was my protector," she said. The couple were together for eight years. It was the second marriage for both.
Colquitt said his friend in recent years had dreams of opening a restaurant and spoke of operating a food truck long before the concept became the rage in this area. He wanted to use real china and offer a tent where people could sit.
He was very meticulous with his cooking. He found his calling," Colquitt said.
Mr. Jones didn't graduate from high school with his friends, but went on to earn a GED and sought to convey the importance of education to his two sons and other young people, Colquitt said.
Darryl Jones' death calls into serious question the future of St. Petersburg's Thanksgiving tradition. But his family said they hope there will be at least one more meal to share.
"What we want to do is do it this year and retire it," his mother said. "Do it in memory of Darryl."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.