Keys character and salesman who defined Florida living dies at 90

Fred Castillo, who died at 90 on March 9, couldn’t have been more of a Miami and Florida Keys character unless Ernest Hemingway or Carl Hiaasen created him for one of their novels.

In a good sense. Born in Miami on May 3, 1925, the youngest of four to a father from the Yucatan, Mexico, and a mother from the Canary Islands, Spain, Castillo found himself an island across the waterway from Alabama Jack’s, a fixture on Card Sound Road near the Miami-Dade and Monroe border.

Built himself a shanty, called it the House of Representatives, and every weekend friends and family would join him for drinks, fishing and fun in the 1960s. “One day, a seaplane landed there. It was the owner of the island,” Castillo’s daughter Paulette Mick recalled. “He said, ‘I’m glad you are enjoying the island. It is my island. But you are welcome to stay here.’”

The casual setting, in eye’s view of Alabama Jack’s, which he’d run for original owners Jack and Alice Stratham when they vacationed, was idyllic.

That is, until the ’60s came to a close.

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“Time went on and unfortunately some drug deals went down there,” his daughter said. A body was found in a boat that had drifted up to the dock. “After that, that sort of went downhill and became a place not that desirable to go to because of the drug deals.”

Castillo was mostly unfazed. As a teen in Miami he worked as a paper boy for the Miami Herald before World War II. He juggled island life on the Keys with hard work. He ran Fred Castillo’s Used Cars on Flagler Street near downtown Miami.

After the war, he also returned to the Miami Herald as a district sales manager and chief express sales manager from Miami to South America and the Caribbean. The company sponsored an Operation Amigo exchange program for students in South America and Miami. Mick remembers her father and mother, Martha Castillo, traveling often to Peru, Panama and Ecuador as part of that program. “A wonderful time, those years,” she said.

Before Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, Castillo and family would sail upon a ferry boat to Havana. Castillo sold some of his cars there. “That last year we were going over there, soldiers were on the streets with guns,” Mick said. “We were traveling down some of the roads in Cuba to different towns and there’d be buses on the side of the road. People had been set out and the buses burned.”

Years before, Castillo went to Jackson and Miami High schools but for his senior year played football for, and graduated from, Gesu High in Miami. He joined the Marines on Feb. 17, 1943, before his graduation day. (His sister Esther picked up his diploma.) He shipped out to Hawaii on the USS Kalanin Bay and spent 58 days sleeping on the ship’s deck on a cot, with a tarp pulled over him to fend off inclement weather. Miserable, but it built character.

“That was the worst part,” his granddaughter Jean Mick-Jollay said. “He didn’t have to go into battle. He ended up on the luckier end.” The Herald ran a photo of the Castillo brothers Joseph and Anthony and Fred who were all on leave at the same time from different branches of the military before their services ended in 1945. Their father, Jose Castillo, was an engineer on the Overseas Highway.

But from the wartime experience he learned fortitude. “He was always working more than one job,” Castillo’s daughter said.

Fred Castillo was a member of the VFW Post 10211 in Key Largo, the American Legion, the Moose and Miami Pioneer Club.

“He was always telling jokes,” his granddaughter said. Her name for him: “Hoo-Hoo,” because of the owl-like sound he made when she was a baby and cried in her crib. The reassuring sound always calmed her down. “Hoo-Hoo” became his handle during the CB craze of the ’70s.

After retiring from his sales management role at the Herald, he ran single copy sales distribution of the paper in Key Largo, rising early after midnight with his wife to deliver the paper. “He was a leftie so he would throw papers over the van,” Mick-Jollay remembered. He also was a member of the VFW Post 10211 in Key Largo, sold cars and RVs. He bought investment properties.

“All the kids knew him as Uncle Fred,” his daughter said. At the end of his life he’d moved to North Carolina to be near her. “Everybody loved him.”

In addition to his daughter and granddaughter, Castillo is survived by his wife Martha Castillo and son David Castillo. The family plans a private celebration of life in Key Largo. Donations in Castillo’s name can be made to The VFW, Humane Society or The Miami VA Fisher House.