Well-known Fort Lauderdale Man, 'Popeye,' Is Remembered After Hit-And-Run

Sep 28, 2018

If you’ve driven along W. Sunrise Blvd in Fort Lauderdale over the past decade, near the Broward Blvd. intersection, you’ve likely seen Popeye. 

He often braved traffic in his wheelchair to panhandle for money and would approach people to strike up a conversation. His real name was Ronald Frederick Gray. 

Gray was killed in a hit-and-run crash in the early hours of Wednesday morning, at the corner of NW. 5th Ave. The Broward County Office of the Medical Examiner identified him.

Late Thursday afternoon, a few friends came to Popeye’s favorite hot dog stand to remember a funny and positive man. 

Jalen Cestero works at the hot dog stand in front of the Home Depot store where Popeye would visit three to four times every week.

He said that he first met Popeye five years ago, and his order never changed. 

"Always yellow mustard and relish, that's all he liked. That and a Yoo-hoo,” Cestero said. “He would get a straw with the Yoo-hoo and he would always blow the straw, you know the wrapper, off the straw and into the air and he would watch it fly - like that was his favorite thing." 

Popeye had experienced homelessness off and on for more than ten years in Fort Lauderdale. 

Friends say it was an injury about 13 years ago that led to Popeye becoming homeless for the first time. That’s why he always used a wheelchair to get around the city. 

"He was always happy, always upbeat, always, you know, telling jokes...he always had the American flag,” Cestero said. "He liked to draw. Not too many people knew that but he always liked to draw, so he had his crayons, colored pencils, and all that stuff."

Popeye had even spent Hurricane Irma in the Home Depot's covered parking lot. His friend, Tony Ehrlich, did too - and he remembers the cartoons that Popeye would show him. 

“He’d draw Popeye. He’d draw different characters. He was talking about doing a mural of Puff the Magic Dragon,” Ehrlich said.

The friends saw each other for the last time hours before the hit-and-run. 

"His attitude was real upbeat even though he was in the situation he was in. I was shocked,” Ehrlich said. "I feel sorry that the person that actually hit him didn’t stay.”

Fort Lauderdale police are still investigating the incident that killed him, and looking for a black, older model of a Honda sedan, with a damaged windshield. 

Ehrlich said that he never found out exactly where the nickname ‘Popeye’ came from, but his friend, Gray, always liked to draw the cartoon couple Popeye and Olive Oil.

“It’s the only thing I ever knew him by,” he said.