ST. PETERSBURG — Jonathan Johnson introduced himself with an enthusiastic handshake.
He inquired into friends and strangers alike with an energetic lilt at the end of his sentences: "You doing all right? You doing all right?"
If he was introducing himself he also introduced his business, the inimitable pies and cakes you might be wanting. Mr. Johnson supplied several area stores, some near 16th Street and 18th Avenue S, with desserts no one could replicate.
Mr. Johnson, better known as Papa Joe the Pie Man, died Sunday at his home, of an apparent heart attack, his family said. He was 54.
Some liked his lemon pie best. Others preferred the red velvet cake or the butter pecan cake or sweet potato pie.
"The Cake Man made the best cakes in the world," said Melvin Hall, who owns Connie's Bar-B-Q, taking some poetic license with the nickname.
"It was real moist. It wasn't dry. It was rich. It was just good."
Mr. Johnson also supplied pies and cakes to the Blue Nile Food Store and to Obama Express.
Born in St. Petersburg, he played basketball at St. Petersburg High and worked in a succession of cooking jobs. He had been married briefly and had a son and a daughter.
Tragedy struck the family in 1993 when Clarence Carter, Mr. Johnson's 16-year-old son, was fatally shot while trying to rob a convenience store. The incident propelled Mr. Johnson back to school. He earned a business administration degree from Eckerd College, then got a job as a social worker with the state's Department of Children and Families.
"He wanted to keep the young boys off the streets and he wanted to keep families together," his daughter, Meyonta Russaw, 37, said. "A lot of women with kids at young ages, they weren't able to provide for their kids. He made sure they had Christmas. He made sure the babies had milk and Pampers."
Mr. Johnson stayed at DCF for several years. In recent years he had returned to cooking, and was planning to rent storefront space on 16th Street S near Connie's.
Over the years he gave away hundreds of cakes and pies, many for his church. "He always shared what he had," said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church. "He made sure I got some. I didn't need them because I'm heavy enough."
Mr. Johnson was discovered unresponsive Sunday, his family said. On a kitchen counter sat seven cakes and six pies he had finished to take to church.
He had planned to put the icing on when he woke up.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.