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Epilogue: Ben Tillett worked the land and loved the water

The third-generation citrus farmer died this month at the age of 87.
Published Jan. 17, 2019

Ben Tillett made breakfast nearly every morning — biscuits and sausage gravy, fried eggs and grits, toast, scrambled eggs, omelets, pancakes, waffles, and often, his very own orange juice.

He was a third-generation citrus farmer, among the few family citrus growers left in Tampa Bay. His fruit still grows and goes into unpasteurized juice at the Citrus Place in Terra Ceia.

He was also a high school English teacher, a husband, father and grandfather. But in the summers, when school was out and the next harvest grew, the citrus farmer headed for the water.

Tillett died Jan. 9 at age 87 of complications from old age.

He got his first boat, a Thompson 44 trawler, in 1977. Sidney Tillett, the oldest son, remembers long summer days out on the water fishing, skiing and frying that day's catch. Tillett converted that boat into a pleasure boat, eventually sold it and got another that made several treks to the Bahamas with family.

He often fished for mullet in the shallow waters around Terra Ceia, including a spot named after his grandfather, Tillett's Bay. He taught his two sons to cast their nets, and to be quick, quiet and patient about it.

"You want to sneak up on the fish before they see you," Sid Tillett learned. "Because they know how to swim fast."

Then, his dad would take the fish they caught onto land. Right there on the beach, those mullet got filleted and fried. Sometimes, Tillett made hush puppies to go along with them.

"We often had fish to eat two or three nights a week," Sid Tillett said.

Franklin Kittle taught with Tillett at Manatee High School, and the two remained friends after retirement. They traveled on Tillett's boat together through the Intracoastal Waterways to Lake Okeechobee, navigating the locks and dams.

Tillett's boat wasn't fancy, Kittle said, just comfortable. He was a cast netter and a gill fisher.

"I suppose that was as much a part of his life as his work and his teaching," Kittle said.

Sid Tillett and his mother, Vera, run things at the Citrus Place now. They harvest the five acres of groves that remain every November through April.

About three years ago, Tillett sold his last boat.

While he could, he kept fishing.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Want to know more about Ben Tillett? Head over to Instagram and @werememberthem and see one way his oldest son will remember him. Know someone who has recently died whom we should write about? Send suggestions to Kristen Hare at epilogue@tampabay.com.

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