CLEARWATER — Dayton Andrews was a born talker. He asked the girl next door on a date their first day at college. He proposed; she accepted.
He told off-color jokes, sometimes in the wrong situations. Nobody minded, said Betty Jo Andrews, now 79. He had a way of getting away with it.
For decades, he talked to television viewers, inviting them to "come trade with me under my old oak tree."
Mr. Andrews rescued the oak in 1964 on the site of Massey-Andrews Plymouth. He built the dealership around the tree, stamping its image of the trees on the corners of the $2 bills lining his suit pockets.
The money talked. A stranger who mentioned the oak tree to Mr. Andrews became $2 richer.
"Some people probably worked him for 100 bucks," said finance manager Steven Hagenau, a 31-year employee at what is now Dayton Andrews Chrysler Jeep.
When Chrysler nearly foundered in 1979, Mr. Andrews lobbied for the famous federal loan that righted the company.
He spoke with gifts. Diamond bracelets for Betty Jo. Catalogs for women who worked at Dayton Andrews Jeep Chrysler in Clearwater or Dayton Andrews Dodge in St. Petersburg, accompanied by an invitation to "buy some shoes." They threw lavish employee Christmas parties.
He asked his favorite waiter at Donatello, a Tampa restaurant, to join the family on yearly fishing trips to Alaska. Edward Lewis declined for 10 straight years before flying with a dozen others to a fishing lodge. Mr. Andrews picked up everyone's tab for a week's stay, which runs $7,500 a person.
"I have never, ever in my life met such a generous person," said Lewis, 50, who would return to the King Salmon Lodge four more times.
Once ensconced at the lodge, Mr. Andrews and his wife acted as host and hostess for other guests, some of them celebrities, often at the request of the owner. Soon, some guests began booking trips to coincide with the Andrewses'.
"People would literally follow them to the lodge," said Mike Cusack, an Anchorage dermatologist and former owner of the King Salmon Lodge.
As good as Mr. Andrews was at talking, there were some subjects rarely discussed. He was born in Connecticut to a 49-year-old mother and a father who died in a car crash.
"It's just a part of his life that's rather sad," Betty Jo Andrews said.
In 1991, Mr. Andrews was ambushed by three masked men at his home. They tied him to a chair, pistol-whipped him and held a shotgun to his head.
Mr. Andrews didn't talk about that, either.
"Honestly, I don't think he ever got over that," said Hagenau, the finance manager.
In recent years, Mr. Andrews lost his most public symbol. The oak tree at Dayton Andrews Chrysler Jeep was losing its leaves to an unstoppable disease.
"He spent a fortune trying to save that tree because it's his legacy," former Internet director Shawn Curto said.
Curto was there when Mr. Andrews saw the tree being cut down. "There were tears in his eyes," he said.
The company planted two new oaks to replace the old one. For Mr. Andrews, life went on, even after a debilitating stroke and heart attack in May.
Longtime employees visited Mr. Andrews in recent weeks. Though he could barely speak, he thanked them individually for their service.
Mr. Andrews died Sunday. He was 81.
Times staff writer Jared Leone contributed to this report.