ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — In the mid 1960s, Terry Loebel was an unemployed forklift operator looking for a way to support his family. American Motors, his former employer, was going through hard times.
Mr. Loebel moved to Pinellas County and scrounged for money, including working as a bug man and collecting soda bottles for the deposit. Then he got an idea.
Mr. Loebel persuaded local merchants to invest in coupons he would mail to thousands of potential customers. If the ads did not work, he would refund their money. He called the company Val-Pak. Today Valpak, as the company is now known, distributes more than 20 billion coupons a year.
Mr. Loebel sold the company 18 years later and retired, 45 years old and wealthy. He spent the rest of his life pursuing his dreams: racing cars, collecting some of the world’s best photography, and donating to causes large and small with little or no fanfare.
Mr. Loebel, a nonconformist whose brand of direct marketing has become a household name, died July 28 after a long illness. He was 71.
‘‘He was the kind of boss everybody would die to work for,’’ said Bob Dean, a former Valpak typesetter who rose to vice president. Mr. Loebel rewarded his workers after tough days with cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Dean said. On slow days, he sent them home, with pay.
Above all, friends and family say, Mr. Loebel never forgot where he came from. To strangers in a restaurant, he was the guy in jeans and a baseball cap watching the Indianapolis 500.
‘‘He was a normal guy to be around,’’ said Dean, 66. ‘‘If you did not know him, you did not know he was who he was.’’
Mr. Loebel was born in Milwaukee. As a teenager in the 1950s, he slicked his hair back and burned rubber in a ‘57 Chevy.
He married Patricia Blanchard and had two children. American Motors laid him off, and he moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1965.
The family lived in a cracker box two-bedroom house. Mr. Loebel worked for Orkin and installed air-conditioning units he could not afford in his own home.
‘‘I think he realized: ‘Hey, this stuff isn’t any fun. I’ve got to come up with something else,’ ’’ said Greg Loebel, his son.
The idea that turned his life around came in the mail.
Another company was sending envelopes full of coupons to new residents. ‘‘He says, ‘Well, I wonder why I couldn’t do that for people who live here all the time,’ ’’ said Greg Loebel, 50.
Soon, the living room and kitchen became a family factory. His wife and children, Greg and Kimberly, stuffed and licked envelopes.
The idea caught on.
Mr. Loebel sold the company in 1986. He raced cars in Sebring and across the United States. He moved away from racing after a 1992 crash in Atlanta in which he hit a wall at more than 100 miles per hour.
He turned to other pursuits, including an intense study of black and white photography. In 2004, Mr. Loebel donated 32 vintage prints to the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. They included an 1890s tintype of Butch Cassidy, a 1925 portrait of Charlie Chaplin, work by Margaret Bourke-White, and an iconic series by Lewis Hine of the construction of the Empire State Building.
Mr. Loebel and his son underwrote defibrillators for St. Petersburg police vehicles.
One day years ago, Mr. Loebel and his son had just left a favorite burger joint in California when they saw a car on the side of the road, its engine on fire.
Mr. Loebel recognized the cook at the restaurant they had just left. The man was disconsolate. Without a car, he would not be able to get to his job.
‘‘After we left,’’ his son said, ‘‘I found out later my dad went back and bought him a new car.
‘‘That’s my dad,’’ he added.