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‘Jabo’ Stewart of John’s Pass, whose tall tales were true, dead at 95

The boy raised in Polk’s “Sand Pit” went on to fight in the Pacific, develop John’s Pass Village and romance a princess.
Willis "Jabo" Stewart moved his food store to Johns Pass and helped create the tourist destination known as John's Pass Village. Here, he enjoys the village's popular sea food festival. [COURTESY OF THE STEWART FAMILY | John Stewart]
Published Oct. 10
Updated Oct. 10

The life of Willis Maulden Stewart took so many turns it could have been written by Charles Dickens or even inspired the character Edward Bloom, whose tall tales raised eyebrows in the film Big Fish.

But with Mr. Stewart, known as “Jabo" to family and friends, the remarkable stories are true.

Born during the Great Depression, Mr. Stewart lost his father to a rattlesnake bite, battled kamikaze pilots during World War II, gained success in business and helped found John’s Pass Village, and even romanced a princess he found working as a grocery store bagger.

“If his life was a movie I would get up and say give me my money back because that would never happen,” son John Stewart said. “But it all happened.”

Mr. Stewart died Oct. 1. He was 95.

“He lived a remarkable life,” his son said. “He lived a lot of extremes and journeyed from one place to another."

Mr. Stewart was born in Plant City and raised in a Polk County neighborhood between Lakeland and Auburndale known as the “Sand Pit," where you pumped water by hand, used an outhouse and ate by kerosene light, his daughter-in-law Sheila Stewart said.

Children, she said, were part of a “southern version of Our Gang" — the poor, neighborhood kids made famous in Depression-area short films — with nicknames like Duck, Poog-a-jie, Teet, and Pealicker.

Mr. Stewart was called “Jabo,” his son said, because he was always jabbering.

“He talked really fast and ran his words together, so he was called Little Jabber. That became Jabo. He had it for life.”

Willis "Jabo" Stewart as a child, far right, growing up in Polk County's rural Sand Pit neighborhood. Stewart was 5 when he posed for this photo in 1929. [COURTESY OF THE STEWART FAMILY | John Stewart]

Mr. Stewart was 12 when his father died. To then help support the family, he went to work at a grocery store where his duties included reporting to customers about the winning numbers in the illegal lottery known as bolita.

He saw plenty of action during World War II aboard a destroyer-escort ship that battled Japanese attackers in the sea and air.

Willis "Jabo" Stewart served with the Navy on a destroyer-tender ship during World War II. [COURTESY OF THE STEWART FAMILY | John Stewart]

Still, his son said, when his Navy service came up, he preferred “to talk about how this boy from the Sand Pit was suddenly thrown in with people from all over the world who he would never have met otherwise.”

After the war, Mr. Stewart returned to Lakeland and married Wyline Pickney, then opened a smoke shop and later East Main Grocery,

“Noticing that the leg was the favorite part of the chicken for many, my dad started selling the Georgia Tri Pod – a whole chicken sold with an extra leg tucked in,” his son said. “Some folks marveled at how modern science bred a chicken with three legs.”

In 1962, Mr. Stewart opened Jabo’s Food Store in John’s Pass in Madeira Beach.

The construction of the John’s Pass Bridge diverted tourist traffic away from the store so he and other business owners came up with the idea that became today’s tourist destination John’s Pass Village. Mr. Stewart the first president of the merchant’s association, promoting the shops as a collective.

A postcard from the early days of John’s Pass Village prominently features the food store operated by Jabo Stewart. [COURTESY OF THE STEWART FAMILY | John Stewart]

Under Mr. Stewart’s leadership, the association hired architect Martin Fishback to turn the area into a replica of a turn-of-the-century fishing village, according to news reports from the time.

“Its rickety-looking shops could have stepped out of Olive Oyl’s hometown in Popeye,” noted a Tampa Bay Times article from 2007.

In 1980, Mr. Stewart spearheaded the village’s first major event — a seafood festival credited with helping bring tourists back to John’s Pass.

One feature of the festival: Whoever came closest to judging the weight of a dead shark won a box of seafood. The dead shark always found its way to the lawn of a local official by the next morning.

“It was allegedly a sign of affection,” John Stewart said with a laugh.

Mr. Stewart later delved into real estate and opened an office in John’s Pass Village.

His wife died and he met grocery bagger Valerie Brook Wyatt, raised as a princess on the island of Sarawak in Malaysia before her king and queen parents handed control to the British, according to news archives.

“Why was she working there?” the son said. “I think because she was bored.”

Wyatt added another to the many turns his father’s life would take. They became a couple and remained companions until her death in 1993.

“A boy from the Sand Pit and a princess were an unlikely pair,” John Stewart said. “But they were happy.”

In retirement, Mr. Stewart traveled the world, volunteered with Habit for Humanity, and told true tales that strangers might mistake for tall ones.

“Jabo Stewart was a man’s man," said his friend, historian Gary Mormino. "He witnessed boom and bust, muleskinners and sawyers. He lived the Florida dream.”


Willis Maulden Stewart

Born: Sept. 5, 1924

Died: Oct. 1, 2019

Survived by: children John, Jim and Mary Stewart; grandchildren Matthew Stewart and David Dinehart; and great granddaughter Loretta Stewart.

Service: To be announced.


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