SPRING HILL — John Edward Ludwig and his dogs had it made.
The 27-year-old and his pit-bulls Nitro, “Ellie” Elegance, and new pup, Kayla Marie, lived in a tent in woods off U.S. 19 and Applegate Drive.
A roadside memorial — three crosses rising from grass and sandy soil — now stands near the intersection.
“He was in here telling us how good his life was, and how everything was taken care of,” said Rachel Caudill, a clerk at a nearby store Ludwig and his dogs used to visit. “Customers would just go out and help him; one of those people down on his luck.”
On Dec. 5, Ludwig had just finished a meal at a nearby Denny’s restaurant. He was crossing Commercial Way on the marked crosswalk with Nitro and Ellie at his side.
Kayla Marie, the puppy, was swaddled in a book bag on his back.
A car struck and instantly killed Ludwig and two of the dogs, said restaurant server Andrea Valuri.
Ellie was missing when Denny’s employees rushed to the emergency vehicles and flashing lights and identified the victims for Florida Highway Patrol.
“They said it was absolutely instant, and the puppy, too, no doubt about that,” said Valuri, who was not working the night Ludwig and the dogs were killed but knew them well. “If he has one dog he has them all, so we were like, ‘Where is Ellie?’ ”
Employees and regulars from at least a half dozen stores Ludwig frequented were asking each other similar questions when the man who made and distributed free Christmas cards with his dogs printed on them suddenly was gone.
Ludwig never asked for anything, friends said, and he provided for himself and the dogs. In fact, they were a major part of why he never accepted shelter offered him when his Pasco County home flooded and was condemned after Tropical Storm Debby passed through the area in June 2012.
“He took the dogs because the mother had a litter, and he was afraid they’d be used for the wrong reason, or would be put down,” said Ludwig’s friend, Caudill. “They said they had to leave when (Ludwig’s house) was condemned.
So Ludwig made a home for himself and the dogs in the woods, which friends say Ludwig enjoyed and likened to being able to camp every day. When the weather was bad, though, they said, it wasn’t all good.
But he made sure the dogs were well fed and healthy, friends said, and was generous with what he had, particularly toward other homeless people.
“He’d say, ‘I can’t stand to watch someone go hungry, because I know how it is, and people give to me,’ ” Valuri said. “I want his family to know how much of an impression he made on people here, just because of his heart.”
Ludwig’s funeral was Saturday.
Almost exactly one day after Ludwig and the dogs died — at about 9 p.m. on Dec. 6 — Ludwig’s beloved pit bull, Ellie, reappeared at the Denny’s on U.S. 19.
“She showed up at our door with a fractured pelvis, looking for him,” Valuri said. “She is in need of surgery.”
St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th century founder of the Franciscan Order, forsook worldly comforts for a vocational life that involved homelessness and begging.
The patron saint of animals, he is rumored to have gone in search of a wolf on the outskirts of Gubbio, where people there were preparing to kill the animal because of its aggressiveness toward other animals and humans. Francis is rumored to have returned from the countryside with the wolf, telling those in the city that the wolf was not rabid, just hungry, and if they cared for and fed the animal, it would be kind and could live peacefully among them.
San Francis Veterinary Hospital on County Line Road, about 10 miles from where Ludwig and his two dogs died, took in and treated Ellie for her injuries.
She will require a $900 surgery for her fractured pelvis, staffers there said, and altogether her medications, treatment and recovery costs are estimated around $2,000.
The dog was adopted by a nearby Spring Hill man, the veterinary staff reported, and the hospital has opened an account for donations for Ellie’s treatments.
An online donation site created for her called “Give Forward” has raised more than $1,400 by late last week.
Another $600 came from Facebook donations alone, they said, and a car wash held at Denny’s this weekend also raised money for Ellie’s operation and recovery.
“We’re definitely going to miss him,” Valuri said of Ludwig. “He loved his dogs.”
To contact the veterinary hospital, call (352) 848-0940 or (352) 848-0980.