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Sweet serenades and a steady supply of dog treats made Stephen “Song” Sheridan a favorite at Santa Rosa’s Doyle Park.

When the weather was nice, Sheridan, 65, who spent his days in the parking lot, living in a series of creaky old vans, would haul out a guitar and strum classic rock to anyone walking by.

His four-legged friends became so accustomed to the treats he kept near the ever-present crossword puzzle on his dash that they sniffed around his favorite parking spot near a sprawling oak long after he was gone.

“The first thing my dogs do when they get out of the car is run to the van,” said Laurie Garrison of Santa Rosa, who met Sheridan while walking her beagles about 10 years ago. “Or at least to where it used to be. It’s going to be strange.”

Sheridan, a longtime homeless person and a colorful fixture at the park, died Wednesday of natural causes in the bathroom of a Denny’s restaurant a few miles away.

People who knew him said he grew up in New York, served in the military and was married several times but had no children of his own. One of his ex-wives, Shirley Sheridan of Tacoma, Washington, said he drove a school bus in the Pacific Northwest city when she met him more than 15 years ago.

He sang to her and soon they were married. But the two had a falling out when he wouldn’t keep his job. He left home one day and never returned, she said.

“He was charming,” she said. “It hurts my heart to learn the way he ended up.”

Just how Sheridan came to Santa Rosa is unclear. Parkgoers said he showed up at Doyle about 10 years ago, waiting for the gates to open at sunrise and hanging out all day. He toiled over crossword puzzles, read a Bible and played guitar. At night he drove to different locations to sleep.

Despite his hardscrabble existence, he kept a sunny disposition, greeting parkgoers with waves and engaging them in conversation. When animal control officers showed up to ticket people for leash violations, he would honk his horn to warn them.

In return for his friendship, people gave him money and invited him home for Thanksgiving dinner.

“He was always upbeat, always had a smile,” said dog owner Linda Glass. “He had great hugs, too.”

Sheridan wrote poetry, often about the things he saw at the park such as the felling of a majestic oak and the loneliness he felt on rainy “non-dog-walking days.”

Another Doyle Park dog walker, Paul McKairnes, helped Sheridan publish his verse in a pamphlet which Sheridan sold for $10 a copy.

“He was a gentle soul,” McKairnes said. “I don’t know how he ended up in his predicament. But I never saw a more positive guy.”

Yet another park friend, Connie Cloak, said Sheridan made up nicknames for people. He called her “Connie-riffic,” and Garrison, “Lori-story,” she said.

He also checked up on people through text messages to make sure they were safe when walking to and from the park, she said.

“He was a devoted friend,” she said. “He used the term ministry about the people he cared for.”

In September, Sheridan announced he was leaving town for good, moving back to Washington to escort a girlfriend who had become ill and wanted to live with her family.

But he returned to Santa Rosa in early November. He texted Cloak on New Year’s Day saying he was “moving slow,” a sign, she thought, that he might have a cold. Then he went silent.

On Thursday, deputies identified him as the person found dead in the Baker Avenue Denny’s bathroom by an employee.

It dawned on Cloak how little she really knew about the white-bearded man who befriended her about a decade ago.

“His role in our lives was so constant and yet so incidental,” Cloak said. “I think he meant a lot to a lot of people.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707- 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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