VALRICO — There's a sandhill crane outside Michelle Hernandez's office named "Crete the crane."
When Hernandez and her co-workers were concerned about the crane's health last week, there was no doubt where they could find help: Rich and Tanya Crete's bird store.
Rich Crete and his wife were known for their eagerness to help birds.
"He had it down to a science," Herandez said, "but he loved it so much that it wasn't like work, it was like talking to a friend about something they knew a lot about."
The Cretes, who owned Rich's Backyard Birds in Valrico, died Monday from injuries sustained in a car crash. Rich Crete was 54 and his wife, Tanya, was 58.
Whenever Hernandez, a longtime customer and Alpha-Omega Title marketing representative, visited the Cretes' shop at 3642 Lithia Pinecrest Road, she said Rich Crete was "always positive, always upbeat."
Hernandez, 45, first met the couple four or five years ago when she dropped by the store to buy her parents a gift. She loved the store and Rich Crete's guidance so much that, as she put it, she "got really into birds."
It was Rich Crete's "dream" to open a birding store, said Anne Marie Dresser, his older sister who also works at the shop. It was that love of birds that initially brought Rich and Tanya together decades ago, she said.
"They realized they loved to watch birds and started dating," Dresser said. They were married for 26 years and shared that passion with others. They opened their store in 2008 and moved it to Valrico last year.
Customers visited the store Thursday to stock up on bird supplies and reminisce about the Cretes. When the store opened at 11 a.m., there was already a line of more than a dozen people stretched from the back counter to the shop's front door.
It was a fitting turnout, Dresser said, for two "community-oriented people."
The Cretes operated the store six days a week. Dresser hopes to keep the store open "as soon as possible for limited hours."
Retired elementary teacher Jill Mason said Rich Crete would "jump at the chance" to visit her class and teach students about birds. He was a staple of the Great American Teach-In, which brought adults into schools to talk to students about their jobs.
The kids, the teacher said, loved it when Rich Crete visited.
"He would raise my fourth-graders up to a fever pitch over birding," said Mason, who taught at Stowers Elementary School in Lithia.
That love of birds was infectious, Mason said, and it started with the Cretes.
"They adored each other," she said. "They adored birding and that store was their passion, and their passion spread because of that."
Hernandez said the store is a colorful, eclectic environment filled with birding supplies and garden flags. Bird songs always seemed to be playing in the background, she said. He'd even go so far as to mix "special blends" of bird feed for his customers.
A staple of the shop was the Cretes' cat, named Audubon, said Donna Hart, 77, who boasts seven bird feeders from his store.
But it wasn't always just the store's bird supplies that caught Hart's attention. The FishHawk Ranch resident said Rich Crete would often have a dropoff spot for donations going to local charity Seeds of Hope, which provides food assistance.
"That's just the kind of guy he was," she said.
Above all, Hart said, Rich Crete was a business owner who was always "very sensitive" to the needs of his customers.
"He was very knowledgeable and had a great sense of humor," Hart said. "He always told me different stories about the birds. You could always ask him anything because he knew everything and he didn't mind taking the time to tell you."
Hernandez was thankful she had one more lesson when she brought up her concerns about the crane on May 26.
"In 30 minutes I got everything I needed to know about sandhill cranes," she said.
Rich Crete's quirks balanced well with his wife Tanya's kind, but no-nonsense demeanor, said Kathleen Sweeney, who knew the husband since their childhood together in Peru, N.Y.
One common ground was nature. Dresser recalled a time when Tanya Crete stopped four lanes of traffic to help baby ducks cross a street.
"It was lovely to watch them together," Sweeney said. "They just loved each other. They belonged with each other."
Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Samuel Howard at [email protected] or (813) 226-3373. Follow @SamuelHHoward.