AVON PARK - Sobbing as he spoke, Sebring mechanic Joseph Reyes said he would no longer see the familiar smile, the cheerful greeting, the funny quips and the well-versed knowledge.
Every other weekend, Reyes would drive to whatever location Lamar Stone had his produce stand set up. For over three decades, Stone had become a familiar face for motorists, bicyclists and walkers looking for their nutritional fix or just some pleasant conversation.
Stone died from lung cancer Feb. 21 at 72 and since then the bite on U.S. 27 from Avon Park to Sebring has become a bit more sour for longtime customers, friends and family who looked forward to visits with the "Produce Man."
"He was awesome; even when his health was down he was always out there with a huge smile," said Reyes.
Stone's stepdaughter, Sharon Hunter, said her stepfather, born in Copper Hill, Tenn. and raised on a farm in Darien, Ga., began selling produce in Avon Park in 1982. She said he would go out to area farms and handpick his own fruits and vegetables and eventually set up a regular produce stand at south Heron Street and Hammock Road. Over the years, he also set up booths at Glisson's Animal Supply, Dolan City Plaza, along U.S. 27 and U.S. 98, Lake Placid, and at the Flywheelers flea market, Avon Park.
Manning his stands, Stone became somewhat of an icon for his labor longevity and sense of respect.
"He treated everyone like family. People would even bring him gifts of appreciation, like fresh-caught fish," said Hunter, sitting with her mother and Stone's wife, Shirley Phillips.
Stone, who died at his stepson's house in Plant City, was a proud U.S. Marine Vietnam veteran, Phillips said. She said that instilled a sense of honesty and pride in his work, wherever it was, and his family - including grandson Cody Hunter - has helped make Stone's Produce a longtime success.
"Customers would come in and tell us that he had such good produce they bought it regardless of the price because they knew it was going to be good quality," she said.
Although the Produce Man - who would quip "fair to middlin'" whenever he was asked how he was doing - is gone, his family plan to keep the curbside cornucopia going. Along with her son, Sharon runs the "Sharon's Produce" stand on the east side of U.S. 27 north of Stryker Road.
"He was great. If I requested something, he would make sure to have it in stock when i got there," said Reyes,
A memorial service for Stone will be held at 6 p.m., March 11, at The Baptist Church of Avon Park, 100 N. Lake Ave.