BRANDON — Ben Crisler was one of the lucky ones.
Unlike most people, the former owner of Ben's Family Restaurant learned what people thought of him before he died.
Lying in his hospital bed, Mr. Crisler, 76, read through the messages his former employees had written in a private Facebook group. The account had existed for a couple of years, but his daughter, Lori Faria, had only recently discovered it.
Under the glow of the fluorescent hospital lights, the day before his death, he read their notes:
"I owe all my strong work ethic to him and (his wife)," former employee David Campbell wrote. "I've had success in my work all my life because of the values they forced in all of us. It is amazing to me how people there have a special connection that no other place has offered."
Another former employee, Jorg Vazquez, wrote that Mr. Crisler served as a mentor.
"I worked there with him for 14 years," Vazquez wrote. "Why? 'Cause of the person he was. I felt loyal to him. To his family. And if he never sold it in would still be there. That's how much I loved working for him."
Mr. Crisler, who was known as a tough boss, was thrilled to read the praise, his daughter said. He commented online on the messages, and some of the former employees were able to stop by the hospital and visit.
When they arrived, Mr. Crisler, a perpetual storyteller, launched into tales of the restaurant and reminisced about the moments they all shared.
"He could tell you his entire life story," Faria said. "He didn't want to be interrupted or anyone else to tell it for him."
Mr. Crisler died Sunday of a heart attack. His unexpected death came only a couple of months after his beloved family restaurant, run by different owners, burned to the ground.
"He said to someone in the hospital, maybe the pastor, that he figured if the restaurant burned, they had to get rid of the owner, too," Faria said. "He was joking, but it was kind of true.
"It hurt all of us," she added. "It's kind of crazy how emotional it is to see a building burn. It's a building, but it's every memory we had. We were at the restaurant all the time. That was our life."
Mr. Crisler opened the restaurant in 1981. It would transform him into an area icon, and, until the fire, the oldest restaurant in Brandon.
He lived the "typical American success story," his son, Mark Crisler, said.
"My dad was a hardworking guy, extremely hard working," Mark Crisler said. "He came from a very poor background … he came from nothing, worked very hard, and became successful within the community."
While the restaurant was popular, Mr. Crisler left his true mark on the teenagers he hired and mentored through the years, his daughter said.
"The biggest impact my dad has made here was on the lives of teenagers," Faria said. "So many of them attribute their work ethic and their ability to do the job right the first time around from him."
He was a demanding man, his children said. He expected nothing but the best and would work his employees until they met his standards. His standards, his son said, were something he never backed down from.
But underneath the tough exterior was a more tender, sentimental side, Mark Crisler said. After his father died, Mark found emails with former customers and employees from decades past, including people who had moved away or hadn't worked at the restaurant in 20 years.
"He was as sweet as could be, with a heart of gold really," his son said. "The perception was he was this hard-nosed businessman who wouldn't take any guff, but really, he was the most sentimental man I've ever known."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.