Feb. 23, 1968. A Winn-Dixie in Gulfport.
A gunman leads the store manager from cash register to cash register. Customers dive behind counters and dash for the exits.
Christopher Proper, 21, shopping with his wife, would likely have been in Vietnam as a Marine if not for an injury during basic training. Instead he was selling insurance and thinking about becoming a police officer.
The gunman moves closer, his back turned. Mr. Proper leaps on him, pinning the man's wrists to his side. The gunman squeezes off two shots. Both hit Mr. Proper, but one of the bullets also takes down the gunman.
It turns out the gunman, Robert Leon McCain a 26-year-old Texas drifter, was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, sought in connection with the murder of a bank customer just four months earlier and hundreds of other robberies over the previous four years. Legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent Mr. Proper a letter.
"My associates and I wish to commend you on your brave deed which serves as a splendid example of good citizenship," Hoover wrote.
Mr. Proper kept the letter on Page 2 of a thick binder, preceded only by a similar letter from President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Before becoming a hero, Christopher Michael Proper grew up around St. Petersburg, loving the outdoors, the beach, and singing to the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd on his 8-track. He married and eventually had two daughters. (One daughter, Aimee, 24, later died of Hodgkin's disease.)
Mr. Proper never talked much about the grocery store robbery. Instead he joined the law enforcement world and threw himself into catching other armed robbers, car thieves, child molesters and rapists.
While with the Sheriff's Office, Proper was named officer of the year by the Exchange Club. He assisted in a 3,000-pound marijuana bust while with the Florida Marine Patrol, and served as police chief of Jupiter Inlet Colony from 1982 to 1990. He worked on the vice squad as a Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy, chasing down drug dealers in a white Trans Am, and provided security for actor Burt Reynolds. In the 1990s, he worked a stint as a prison guard in Martin County.
He started as a park attendant at Egmont Key State Park in February 2002 and became a park ranger eight months later.
"That was like the dream job for an outdoorsman," his sister said. "You're out in the sun with the sea."
Then it all seemed to unravel.
In 2002, Pinellas County sheriff's deputies charged Mr. Proper with driving under the influence and impersonating a police officer. His appearance, normally meticulous, began to slide. He blew an engine by not changing the oil.
He kept his job until October 2005. By then he had started to distance himself from his family. He began losing the ability to carry on a conversation. Doctors diagnosed Alzheimer's disease. To his sister, Kelley Pace, a registered nurse, that didn't sound right.
Finally a neurologist diagnosed Pick's disease, which unlike Alzheimer's, affects only certain lobes of the brain. People with Pick's have abnormal deposits of a protein called tau inside nerve cells. They may be antisocial or inappropriate. Average age of onset is 56.
Eventually, he couldn't speak or answer questions. But he often sang, belting out God Bless America, You Are My Sunshine or the national anthem.
Mr. Proper died June 9 in a St. Petersburg nursing home. He was 66.
His sister keeps a special photo on her iPad. It shows her with her brother a week before he died, her hand steadying his elbow as they walk barefoot in the Pass-a-Grille tide, outside with the sun and the sea.
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.