The streets of Long Beach were Jerry Pryor’s home for many years, and he liked to help keep them clean.

Pryor, described by those who knew him as humble and generous, died Wednesday after a battle with Parkinson’s disease, his friend Corliss Lee said. He was 78.

He spent the last several years in an assisted living facility, but before he became too ill to live outdoors on his own, Pryor could often be seen around Lakewood Village pulling a cart piled as high as his head with his belongings, which included tools he used for pruning bushes and trees, sweeping and picking up trash in the area.

Before Lee met Pryor, she had no interest in getting to know her unhoused neighbors, she said. But about four years ago, someone asked her to deliver something to Pryor’s camp, and when she arrived she grabbed a blanket from her car – it was a cold night – and called out to him.

“This giant long hand comes up out of the tarp, and I put the blanket in his hand and this sweet little voice goes ‘Thank you,’” Lee said. “I was laughing all the way back to the car, he was so sweet.”

She recognized Pryor’s finer qualities right away and as she set about trying to help him, she discovered he had a wide range of friends and supporters.

Pryor never panhandled or asked for money – friend Bruce De Mille said, “Initially when I gave him cash, he’d give it away to other people.”

But business owners, employees and residents who appreciated his self-directed cleanup work would offer gift cards for food and supplies, and when De Mille started an online fundraiser to replace Pryor’s old ladder, within days it raised hundreds of dollars and netted a donation of a new ladder.

In this file photo from February 2019, Jerry Pryor pulls his wagon during an early foggy morning in Long Beach. Photo by Stephen Carr.

Pryor liked to hang out at Dale’s Diner and Hojas Tea House on East Carson Street, where De Mille would leave money with the owners so Pryor could get something to eat. When people stopped to visit with him, “Jerry would always reach into his cart and pull out something, a gift – and typically it was a can of peaches,” De Mille said.

While Pryor was generally mild-mannered and appreciated the gift cards people gave him for doing odd jobs or just because, he could also be stubborn, and getting him off the streets was an almost impossible task, his friends said.

From the little his friends were able to learn about his background, they knew he’d graduated from Wilson High School, where he sang in the choir; he never married; and he’d had jobs fixing newspaper boxes and driving a truck for an asphalt company.

He would have earned social security and was eligible for other benefits, but “he didn’t trust the authorities; he didn’t trust the system,” Lee said. He’d tried to get his documents together to apply, but he didn’t get anywhere and he didn’t want to waste more time on it, she said.

Pryor hated doctors, so he shied away from getting medical or mental health treatment that might have eased his path in life. However, he trusted Lee enough to get in her car — something his longtime caseworker had never achieved — and she took him to the city’s Multi-Service Center, the hub for homeless services, for help with his paperwork.

He was close to his brother, Danny, and for a time lived in a motorhome in his driveway. But when Danny died and his widow moved out of state, Pryor declined to come along, De Mille said.

Pryor told De Mille he didn’t want to stay in area homeless shelters because people there drank and used drugs, and he didn’t want to be around that. More than once, he was offered the use of someone’s granny flat or a spare room, but not wanting to impose, Pryor would make some excuse not to go, or to leave after a few days.

Despite his stubbornness on certain issues and his other quirks, Pryor had a devoted circle of supporters, perhaps even fans. When someone asked to post his address at the assisted living on NextDoor, “he got like 60 Christmas cards,” Lee said.

De Mille thinks people recognized and appreciated the man’s work ethic and how he tended the neighborhood, and Lee found him to be a kind and calming presence in her life.

“Every time I got to see him, it put a smile on my face,” she said.

No funeral plans have been announced, but Lee said she’s hoping to get a memorial bench installed in one of the city parks.