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Epilogue: 'Fiddler of St. Petersburg' filled the air with music

Thousands of Rays fans and Beach Drive passers-by saw Jeffrey Stroup playing folk tunes on his violin. The self-proclaimed Fiddler of St. Petersburg died at age 59 of natural causes. Despite his public persona, he lived an intensely private life.

Photo by Karalee Bidwell

Thousands of Rays fans and Beach Drive passers-by saw Jeffrey Stroup playing folk tunes on his violin. The self-proclaimed Fiddler of St. Petersburg died at age 59 of natural causes. Despite his public persona, he lived an intensely private life.

ST. PETERSBURG — On their way to Tropicana Field, thousands of Tampa Bay Rays fans have walked past a gaunt man with a graying ponytail playing a violin.

His music — hundreds of American, European and Jewish tunes older than his mid 1800s violin — seemed to animate the steps of expectant crowds.

He called himself the Fiddler of St. Petersburg, the name printed on a plain business card that also mentioned his membership in the Chamber of Commerce.

Fellow musicians say he played well. Enough people threw coins or dollars into his case so that Mr. Stroup could pay the rent on an efficiency apartment and replace his bowstrings several times a year.

Despite his ubiquitous presence at the dome, on Beach Drive or at St. Petersburg International Folk Fair Society events, the fiddler was an intensely private man.

Neighbors knew that he had papered over the windows of his apartment and forbade them to enter.

Those in his inner circle knew that Mr. Stroup was a foreign diplomat's son who had never warmed to that lifestyle, choosing instead the relative poverty of a street musician.

Mr. Stroup had decades of practice learning the best places to set up his folding chair and small amplifier, and what kind of music to play.

"He found that old folk tunes with a swing feel got people happy and inclined to toss money in his case," said Elan Chalford, a well-known area violinist and teacher who had known Mr. Stroup since the mid 1970s.

"What he did, he did pretty well," Chalford said.

He studied from the book One Thousand Fiddle Tunes, of which he had memorized more than a third. He favored Scottish jigs and reels, but was also well versed in Russian, Hungarian and gypsy traditions, to name a few.

Besides playing the fiddle, Mr. Stroup, a native of Washington, D.C., had driven a cab, painted houses and worked as a laborer.

He could make $100 or more on a good night playing the violin. He paid his rent on time by check, his landlord said.

The son of diplomat Windsor Stroup could have chosen a far different life.

"He lived around the world," said longtime friend Karalee Bidwell. "He grew up with a nanny and a tutor and never had a pet. Because of that, he never related well to people."

At age 6, he saw a street violinist performing and told his parents he wanted to learn. They did not relent until Mr. Stroup was 12, a circumstance that probably hindered his development, Chalford said.

Windsor Stroup retired to Belleair and died in 2001. The relationship between father and son was strained, friends say.

"His father was very disappointed he never went to college and into the diplomatic service," Bidwell said.

Records show that Mr. Stroup married Terri Dillard in 1991; they divorced two years later.

He preferred to work alone.

"Jeff was a brilliant player," said musician Pete Gallagher. "He was just an odd individual. He was not the type of guy who was going to join a band and show up for practice every day."

He celebrated holidays and his own birthday with the Scottish Cultural Society, a group with which he was affiliated for 30 years. At SPIFFS fairs, he wandered from tent to tent in a prized tartan sash, playing another nation's music at every stop.

He spent his spare time working on projects, typing hundreds of pages on an Olympia manual typewriter and drawing up charts and graphs. He told friends he had applied for a patent to replace computer-based library catalogs, which he distrusted, with an indexing machine he had conceived.

"He was interested in subjects that were quite off the beaten path," Chalford said.

In recent years he had learned how to play Japanese music, an accomplishment he was especially proud of.

On Sept. 28, landlord Sara Johnson noticed Mr. Stroup's Ford Escort outside his apartment. The Rays were hosting the Yankees in a critical game. It didn't make sense.

She entered and found Mr. Stroup dead. The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office determined that he died of natural causes.

He was 59 and had no survivors.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

.biography

Jeffrey William Stroup

Born: Nov. 15, 1951.

Died: Sept. 28, 2011.

Survivors: None.

Service: 2 p.m. Oct. 19; A Life Tribute Funeral Care, 716 Seminole Blvd., Largo.

Epilogue: 'Fiddler of St. Petersburg' filled the air with music 10/11/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 11, 2011 10:51pm]
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