'Happy camper' and volunteer Ken Hamlin lived a double life

Published April 1, 2012

LUTZ — To those in line at a north Tampa food pantry, Ken Hamlin was a neatly dressed benefactor, delivering boxes of groceries with a smile and a funny story.

To patrons of Side Splitters comedy club, he was a wanna-be comic who showed up on open mike nights to try out his jokes.

To the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Mr. Hamlin was a problem — not so much for his behavior but for where he lived. For some time — more than six months, perhaps much longer — he had lived in a tent in woods off U.S. 41.

Some customers at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul on Nebraska Avenue did not know that the man delivering their food had no real address.

"He didn't act it," said Brenda Mervin, 55, who showed up last week for her monthly allotment of groceries.

Nor did he dress the part — some described his clothes as "preppy."

"He looked great," said Nancy Jones, the president of St. Vincent de Paul's west Hillsborough district. "He looked like he came out of some house in Carrollwood."

But if you talked to him for very long, he would tell you he was homeless — though he preferred the term "happy camper."

"He told everybody," she said. "He was like, 'I'm Ken and I'm here. I live in the woods, and let's have fun!' "

Mr. Hamlin, who had been showing up faithfully to hand out food, sweep floors and even fix lighting problems, died on March 18 when a car collided with his bicycle. He was 50.

The more people got to know Mr. Hamlin, the more some of them pondered his contradictions. He was a longtime pattern-maker for Tampa Brass and Aluminum — yet was penniless, aside from cash he made from occasional handyman work. He was, he had said, a former president of a Rush Limbaugh fan club who was now camping out on private property.

"Even though he had nothing, he would always say, 'People should always carry their own weight,' " said Ron Brown, a volunteer who met and befriended Mr. Hamlin at St. Vincent de Paul's.

On the face of it, the two men had little in common. Brown, 63, is a semiretired manager who worked at the same company for 37 years. He has a home in the suburbs with a pool, which Mr. Hamlin recently helped him repair.

Mr. Hamlin had been over to the house for dinner. Before last week, Brown had only visited Mr. Hamlin's campsite once, although he picked him up by Sunset Lane three times a week to take him to the food pantry.

"He once told me that he went to have dinner, he was going to have something out of a can," Brown said. "And the raccoons had taken all the labels off the cans."

When he got money together, Mr. Hamlin ate at a nearby Beef O'Brady's. He enjoyed chatting with strangers.

"He had more confidence than anybody I knew," Brown said. "He would walk up to people in the middle of Walmart and say something complimentary such as, 'That's a nice pair of shoes you've got on.' "

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There seems to be no sure answer to this question: How does an apparently talented and outgoing person wind up living in the woods?

Mr. Hamlin spent part of his childhood in Tampa, then moved to Northfield, N.H., when his mother remarried. He relished the open spaces on the family's 36 acres, sometimes camping by himself for several days, said Nancy Cullen, his mother.

After high school he returned to Tampa. Paul Rehsi, a manager at Tampa Brass and Aluminum, said that Mr. Hamlin was already there when he arrived in 1995, and that Mr. Hamlin remained with the company until 2004. He worked as an industrial pattern-maker, creating three-dimensional shapes — a job that requires some artistic skill.

"He was an entrepreneur, he developed several products of his own," Rehsi said. He patented a couple of his creations, among them a walnut-crunching alligator.

Along the way, he married and had two children. In 2005, Mr. Hamlin was arrested for violating a domestic violence injunction. The injunction had been issued a day before at the request of Nancy Hamlin, who said her husband had left harassing voice mail messages. Mr. Hamlin was convicted and served three months in the county jail.

"His drawback was alcohol," said Deputy Jerry Andrews of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. "He couldn't get over the hump as far as being an alcoholic."

His days in the woods were likely numbered. Andrews intended to get him into a halfway house or something similar.

"We were just biding our time, waiting," said Andrews, a community resource deputy. "I don't want to drag him completely out of his element downtown where he was going to be uncomfortable."

At 3:16 a.m. on March 18, deputies responded to a crash at U.S. 41 and Crystal Lake Road. Mr. Hamlin had turned his bicycle into the path of a Ford Fusion. He died that day.

Friends and family gathered at St. Mary Catholic Church, where Mr. Hamlin had attended regularly. Several people spoke on his behalf, some through tears.

Ten days after the crash, Brown pulled his truck onto the shoulder of Sunset Lane. He walked to a sprawling campsite at the end of a trail.

On one side lay two grills, a small table with reading glasses and magnifying glass, a tube of toothpaste and a church bulletin. Rusty cans of bug spray stand atop an ice chest and a full dresser. There are two tents, one full of clothes and another for sleeping.

On a clothesline between two trees hang khaki trousers, a long-sleeved, rose colored shirt and a paisley tie.

Mr. Hamlin also owned a battery-operated cassette player, on which he had been listening to the audiobook A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Both he and Brown admired Mark Twain's writings.

Brown had quoted Twain at the memorial service: "Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: This is the ideal life."

With that in mind, he said, "Ken had a good life."

He scouted the campsite, spotted a tree saw he had loaned Mr. Hamlin and picked it up.

He won't go back there again, he said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at or (727) 892-2248.