PALM HARBOR — Ray "Dogfather" Muldowney found paradise nearly 20 years ago by the sun-splashed shallow waters of a dog beach. He took his boxers, Dempsey and Sugar Rae, to Honeymoon Island the way some people go to Mass, to give and take and commune.
He stayed for hours, wading into the water with them and back out, watching them rest under a short green umbrella he had brought for their shade.
Mr. Muldowney believed in dogs, volunteering his time at Dunedin Doggie Rescue, the Suncoast Animal League, the SPCA and rescue organizations.
"Please be a committed pet guardian for life!" he wrote on one of his Facebook posts. "The most amazing thing about being a human, is we forget that in the moment we are in, all is OK. My dogs purpose is to remind me of that."
The Dogfather did his best to make Dunedin and neighboring cities as dog-friendly as possible. He constantly promoted places such as Rosie's Tavern, the Living Room restaurant, Eddie's Bar and Grill and half a dozen other establishments where customers can bring dogs.
When a friend jokingly suggested he take a commission for all the publicity he generated, Mr. Muldowney shrugged it off with a Dogfather truism, delivered in his native New York accent.
It's all about the dwaugs.
At other times, you never knew if he was kidding or serious.
He was born in the Bronx and grew up with boxers. He followed his father into a sales career, often catering to retailers. He met Frances Strait in a Long Island bar in 1982, and a spark was lit. Each had just emerged from four-year marriages that produced no children, experiences that had disillusioned each of them to the idea of marriage.
He took her and her girlfriend to breakfast at 4 a.m.
Two weeks later he flashed his brights behind the schoolbus she was driving. She pulled over and opened the folding door.
He climbed the steps and kissed her. A busload of middle school students groaned.
They stayed together ever since, moving to the Tampa Bay area in 1993. They brought along a bulldog, Bartholomew, who lasted one trip to Honeymoon Island before collapsing of heat stroke.
Mr. Muldowney preferred big dogs to "little yappers," especially boxers. At dog rescue events, he dressed up Dempsey and Sugar Rae in anything from grass skirts and floral headdresses to Santa Claus outfits.
"Those dogs probably had a closet full of clothes," said Laura Dyer, a friend.
Dogs seem to connect people in Dunedin, with owners meeting each other and their dogs at restaurants and swapping dog-sitting duties.
"If he got up to use the restroom at Eddie's," said Sandra Orr, another friend, "the dogs would sit and stare at the last place they saw him, until he came back."
A number of creditors have also showed interest in Mr. Muldowney's whereabouts. Several have come after him for debts in recent years, as income from a part-time sales job barely kept pace with expenses.
"No man can be condemned for owning a dog," Will Rogers says on the Dogfather's Facebook page. "As long as he has a dog, he has a friend; and the poorer he gets, the better friend he has."
"One of the last things he said was, 'I can't get you a Christmas present this year, but next year will be great,'" said Strait, 60.
Mr. Muldowney died Dec. 24 at Mease Countryside Hospital after suffering an apparent heart attack at his home. He was 58. His death has stunned friends and subdued Dempsey and Sugar Rae. "They miss their daddy," Strait said. Asked where she might scatter his cremated remains, she answered in a word.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248.