VALRICO — Over the past 30 years, a generous benefactor has reached out to countless people in their time of need, always anonymously.
Some faced eviction. Others never had a home.
Maybe a family's plight had appeared in a newspaper story about a slain law enforcement officer or a terminally ill child.
All got a messenger's knock on the door and an envelope containing cash. They didn't know who sent it, and the messenger would never say.
Now that benefactor, Tommy Alday, who never wanted it to be about him, has died at 64.
Mr. Alday, the founder of a title company with offices that once spanned Central Florida, died Nov. 28 of multiple myeloma, a type of blood-cell cancer. .
"He should go into Starbucks' very-best-customer list because he bought so many cards," said Ron Donalson, a co-owner of Alday-Donalson Title Co. Mr. Alday bought $10 gift cards by the box, and distributed them to "hundreds and hundreds" of people, Donalson said.
"If he saw somebody walk up to a Starbucks and they didn't have a smile on their face, he would stop them, give them a Starbucks card and say, 'Just smile,' " said Donalson, 61.
He gave his prized cattle to high schools so the FFA could raise money for scholarships.
"He never asked for anything in return," said daughter Michelle Cesario, who has taught agriculture at Brandon and Strawberry Crest high schools. "He just wanted to go to the fair and see those kids showing their cow."
Fond memories of his youth on a Bainbridge, Ga., farm lingered, and might explain his work ethic and resourcefulness.
"He had that Georgia-boy slang," said Donalson,.
They met in the mid 1970s, after Mr. Alday married Sheila Donalson, Ron's sister.
In 1976, the two men opened a title company in Brandon, handling real estate closings. A few months later, they opened another office in Temple Terrace.
"We had an open door because we were one of the few independent title agencies in the area," Donalson said.
In those early days, the two men bought a boat together for $125. They took their accountant into the bay — and watched the water rise to his shirt collar as they bailed.
"That boat sank like a submarine," Donalson said.
Mr. Alday and Donalson contributed to politicians, whose good will drove more business. A Tampa office opened. Then two more.
In the mid 1980s, Mr. Alday bought seven additional offices, in Orlando, Melbourne, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. In 1987 he bought his first Porsche.
A tailor made his suits out of Italian fabric. He bought 10 acres in Valrico and raised horses, pigs, chickens and cattle.
For 10 years, Mr. Alday and a group of friends met on Fridays at Valencia Gardens. They sat at the same table and ordered from the same waiter. Mr. Alday always tipped generously.
He could confront behavior he found objectionable. "He could be blunt when he needed to be," Donalson said. "If you did something that he didn't think was right, he didn't go tell someone else, he told you."
By 2007, Alday-Donalson had 19 offices and 160 employees. Then real estate prices plunged nationwide. The company today lists 10 offices in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Seminole counties.
All the while, Mr. Alday continued to give, sometimes through his work as an honorary deputy under Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee or as a supporter of Armwood High School's new gymnasium, and sometimes because someone seemed sad.
"He would see a mother and daughter at a restaurant and say, 'Take care of their bill. Don't tell her,' " Donalson said. "He would do that weekly."
Typically, Mr. Alday kept his illness a secret as long as he could.
"I swear, I feel like he gave away more than he kept," his daughter said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.