TARPON SPRINGS — Even from his hospital bed, Hercules Ypsilantis kept making the witty jokes his friends and family knew him for.
After 30 years of driving around the country and a childhood spent in early Tarpon Springs, Ypsilantis was full of stories. His second cousin Cimos Angelis said "Uncle Herc" never met someone he wasn't friends with. When they would go from the parking lot to the door of a restaurant, Ypsilantis could run into dozens of people he knew and would say hello to.
"He just had a way to connect with people and make them laugh," Angelis said. "I've never known anybody that wasn't enthralled with him, the way he told stories."
As a high school student in 1949, Ypsilantis caught the Epiphany Celebration cross. He said it brought him a lifetime of blessings. He was the oldest living cross retriever until his death on July 17 at age 87.
Ypsilantis's Greek Orthodox faith was a vital part of his life, his daughter Cathy Avallone said. His blessings from that day are part of why he felt he never had an accident during his decades as a Greyhound bus driver.
He wore his cross every day, and would go to St. Michael's Shrine in Tarpon Springs to light candles. His faith, family, friends and decades-long service as a freemason were all things he cherished, his daughter said.
For his best friend and caretaker Epi Resendiz, the day to day of seeing Ypsilantis will be what he misses most. Every morning they would eat breakfast together, in the house or at a restaurant.
On Mondays and Wednesdays they played poker and puffed on cigars — Resendiz sneaked a few into the casket, like Ypsilantis said he wanted. He also sneaked in the ashes of Ypsilantis' old Shih Tzu, Sissy, whom he asked to be buried with.
"I never had a father since I was a kid," Resendiz, 49, said. "It was like my father, he treated me like a son."
In Cedar City, Utah, Ypsilantis dated Kent Burgwardt's mother for three years. He taught Burgwardt how to fish and hunt starting when the boy was 7 years old. Though the relationship ended, Burgwardt said he always thought of Ypsilantis as a father figure and continued to stay in touch.
"He was always a gentleman, even when he was giving you a hard time," he said.
For Avallone, it has been heartwarming to see how many people loved her father. Even at the Dollar Tree, people will stop her to say how they loved Ypsilantis. He was one of the natural wonders of the world, she said.
''He always was bigger than life, there was no doubt about it," she said. "You know, he was Hercules."
Contact Romy Ellenbogen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Romyellenbogen.