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Tampa baker Joe Diaz made a point of knowing everyone in town

TAMPA — The baker, master cake decorator and ubiquitous local business owner told customers who came into his shop that he was the janitor.

He may have fooled only a few, if anyone at all.

That's because Joe Diaz made a point of knowing everyone.

"Anyplace we went, if he didn't know anyone, he made friends," said his son and third-generation family business owner Darren Diaz. "He could talk to whomever. He could talk to anybody from the CEO to the janitor."

Mr. Diaz, a second-generation owner of West Tampa's renowned Olympia Catering, originally Ybor City's La Paloma Bakery, died Aug. 12. He was 85.

Most Tampanians knew Mr. Diaz for his bakery, but his life was a series of stories, lived, told and retold.

"He was a baker all his life," Darren Diaz said, "but he had all these crazy different experiences."

There was the blood-testing laboratory. There was the scuba diving. There was the car-compounding business.

As a child, there was the shoe shining. Specifically, the shoes of Tampa mob boss Santo Trafficante Jr. and former Tampa Mayor Nick Nuccio, who called the 9-year-old blond-haired boy "Rubio."

"He lived an intense life," his son said.

Through it all, Mr. Diaz was joyful, uplifting. Asked how he was, his response was always the same: "I feel like a million bucks." He said that even when he was in the hospital.

Mr. Diaz was diagnosed with cancer in May, and recently made the decision to stop chemotherapy. Much like the rest of his life, he spent his final weeks surrounded by friends.

"I've never seen so many people visit someone in a hospital," said Darren Diaz, who said his father had a dozen visitors a day, in addition to family.

Mr. Diaz was born on Feb. 11, 1930, in Ybor City to José and Carlotta Diaz, who emigrated from Villa Pena, Spain. He graduated from Jefferson High School in 1949 and studied at the University of Tampa and the American Institute of Baking in Chicago before returning to La Paloma Bakery on Nebraska Avenue, which his parents opened in 1924.

Mr. Diaz took over the business in 1950 before moving the bakery to its current location on N Howard Avenue under the new name. His son Darren joined in 1993, phased out the full-line bakery and expanded the catering division.

Mr. Diaz was active in the Ybor City Rotary. He served as president and as an executive board member, and was famous for steak night and Shrimp-a-roo. He was a Master Mason at the Universal Lodge 178, and a member of the Scottish Rite, Egypt Temple and the Krewe of Sant' Yago.

In town, he was connected.

"He'd be telling a story, talking about Jack, like I knew him," said Darren Diaz, referring to his father's days fencing with former sheriff's spokesman Jack Espinosa in college.

Retired appellate Judge E.J. Salcines will give his eulogy.

At the bakery, he was Papa Joe. There, he was a teacher.

"He always had input on things because he had done everything," the son said. At 80, that included patching the roof.

Years before, that included constructing a cake for 10,000 at the Gasparilla Distance Classic 15th anniversary. Four sheets of plywood supported 100 sheet cakes pieced together (that's 8 feet by 16 feet) and frosted to look like downtown Tampa as seen from Bayshore Boulevard.

Mr. Diaz grew his business to nearly 60 employees in the 1970s. He didn't take days off.

"People bought here because of him," Darren said. "He was very much a part of the success of the business."

He often catered multiple weddings for people — by the person and by the generation.

One woman told Mr. Diaz she would change husbands, but never change bakers. He made her four cakes.

Grandmothers whose wedding cakes were made by Mr. Diaz's father came in with their granddaughters so their wedding cakes could be made by Mr. Diaz.

"That's the legacy my father nurtured," the son said.