BROOKSVILLE — Most of Tom Price's customers never knew him by name. To the kids who flocked around his small, well-worn converted mail truck, he was simply, Mr. Jack, the Ice Cream Man.
For 11 years, Mr. Price traveled the streets of Hernando County selling all kinds of sweet, frozen treats. Popsicles, Bomb Pops, sno cones and ice cream sandwiches. It was his life, said his wife, Dawn Price.
"He was out there seven days a week, rain or shine," she said Thursday. "He loved kids. He enjoyed making them happy and seeing them smile."
Mr. Price, 72, died Saturday (May 9, 2009) after a long battle with cancer. Mrs. Price said the illness had kept him from his ice cream route for the past several months.
In a 2006 interview, Mr. Price told a St. Petersburg Times reporter that after more than 30 years in the ice cream distribution business, including a stint driving a Good Humor truck in Piscataway, N.J., he thought he was through with the business.
But a good friend, Jack Quinn, who owned two ice cream trucks, talked him into taking over his Spring Hill routes, which included YMCA after-school programs and day care centers.
After Quinn's death in 2004, Mr. Price continued to drive the truck. When not at the schools, he would cruise up and down residential streets. A small speaker mounted on the roof announced his visit with a tinny rendition of Scott Joplin's song, The Entertainer.
Despite his dedication, the business was hardly lucrative. Mrs. Price said her husband seldom came home with more than a few dollars in his pocket. Much of it was in coins that likely came from piggy banks or between sofa cushions.
"He was a soft-hearted man who would go out of his way to help people," she said of her husband. He sometimes chipped in to pay customers' electric bills or help them out with money for groceries. And when kids had no money for ice cream, he frequently gave it to them for free.
"It was hard for him to say 'no,' " she said. "He even kept a big bag of treats in the truck because he saw so many dogs that looked like they hadn't been fed for a while. He didn't want to disappoint anyone."
Even illness couldn't stop the ice cream man.
Mrs. Price remembers that after undergoing three hours of chemotherapy last year, her husband insisted on going out on his route.
But by January the cancer had begun to take its toll. Mr. Price lost weight, and had grown too weak to drive his truck. Mrs. Price said he quit driving because he didn't want the kids to see him sick.
His young customers didn't forget him. They made dozens of get well cards and posters and had them sent to the Prices' Brooksville home. Mrs. Price said her husband cried upon seeing them.
As was his wish, there will be no funeral. Rather, Mrs. Price is planning a celebration of life gathering at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Brooksville Chapel of Brewer & Sons Funeral Home, 1190 S Broad St., in Brooksville.
She has rounded up a collection of photos of her husband to be shown during the service. The couple's 16-year-old son, Frankie, will play The Entertainer on the piano.
In addition, Mrs. Price said she is trying to get hold of the man who bought the ice cream truck last week to see if he might park it at the funeral home during the service.
"I'd like to think that any kids who see it will think of Tom and the good things he did," she said.
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.