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I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Caroll Spinney, a.k.a Big Bird. He’s been very generous with the press since his documentary “I am Big Bird” has sparked much interest. I called him at his home in Woodstock, Connecticut and he gave me nearly an hour of his time (he actually apologized for not having more time, but was expecting guests) and talked about his life, his love and the yellow-feathered friend as if he hadn’t done it numerous times before. As an avid Sesame Street fan, it was a childhood dream come true.
As news spread Sunday that 72-year-old Joseph Leppado had died, memories about the man known as “Papa Joe” spread on social media.
The Fort Walton Beach man, and his pit bull terrier mix dog, Snow, were well-known in the Mary Esther community.
“He was a kind man,” said Ellen Murphy. “…and he loved that dog so much.”
Leppado was pushing a wheelchair and walking his dog east on Hollywood Boulevard Saturday night around 9:20 p.m. when he was hit by a man driving a pickup truck, according to Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, which is still investigating the crash.
The accident occurred near the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Jonquil Avenue. East and westbound lanes on Hollywood from Bryn Mawr Boulevard to Marcia Drive were shut down for several hours after the crash.
EMS responded and transported the victim to Fort Walton Beach Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.
Snow, who Murphy said suffered road rash, is in the custody of PAWS.
It was Snow who attracted Murphy to Leppado about three years ago at the Viking Food Mart on Wright Pkwy.
“That dog is one of the best-behaved dogs I have ever seen. Anyone could approach her,” she said. “As long as Snow is free from the streets, Papa Joe would be very happy.”
Many who saw him walking around the Mary Esther area, with Snow tied to the wheelchair, thought he was homeless, but he did live in a rundown apart-ment on Cape Drive, less than a mile from where he was struck.
Before he came to Florida around 2006, Leppadom, who is originally from Pennsylvania, was living in Virginia. He leaves behind four kids, seven grand-children and six siblings.
His daughter, Shannon Nicole Taylor, said it had been five years since she last saw her father.
“I do believe he was trying to go in the right path,” she said.
Taylor said she wasn’t surprised to learn her father panhandled, that it was perhaps something he chose to do “so no one could find him.” The Army veteran was often found outside Books A Million, asking for spare change. But when her uncle called to tell her that he passed away, she said it hurt.
“My father’s my father regardless of his past. Despite his evils, he was a sweet, loving guy,” she said. “But because of the choices he made, my kids will never get to know him.”
Leppado’s family is planning a funeral service in Virgina, “a place he loved,” Taylor said.
Last time Murphy saw Leppado, was about a month ago, she gave him some money, petted Snow and said, “Hope to see you soon.”
“God Bless Joe and Snow,” she said through sobs.
DeFuniak Springs man, William Burgess, said he and his girlfriend, would see Leppado often when they came to Fort Walton Beach.
“Anytime I had extra money, I gave it to him. He once told me it would go toward his water bill,” he said. “…but I didn’t know anything about this person.”
One day, he took the time to talk to Leppado, and said he found a friend.
“He told me, ‘I can tell you’re a good person.’ I told him, ‘I can tell you’re a good person, too,'” he recalled.
Burgess said when he saw the headline of a man pushing a wheelchair with his dog, he knew it was Papa Joe.
“Someone asked me how I was doing today and I told them, one of my friends just passed away,” he said.
“He wasn’t just a man, he was a good man.”
As seen in Northwest Florida Daily News
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With just a few hours notice, I raced over to Mobile, Alabama for the Trump Rally where die-hard fans and supporters were waiting hours to get in the Ladd Pebbles Stadium. After an hour-long sweaty speech and another hour wait for the shuttles to take us back to the parking lot, I was able to file the story and photos in to Mashable from a downtown McDonald’s. It was a crazy night.
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