The late Heath Ledger with daughter Matilda Rose
To the world, Heath Ledger
was an Academy Award-nominated actor with a bright professional future ahead of him. But to his daughter Matilda, he was so much more.
"She's such a daddy's girl," Calypso buyer Michelle Vella told PEOPLE. "I don't know how you tell her she's not going to see her dad again."
Vella often saw Ledger in Calypso Kids, a store near Ledger's SoHo apartment, and was always struck by his calm interactions with 2-year-old Matilda – never rushing her through the store and letting her play as long as she liked. "The way he acted with her was motherly," she explained. "You don't see men acting so comfortably and patiently with their kids. It was amazing."
In the fall, Vella remembers the duo coming in after getting ice cream. "He came in and she was finishing the ice cream and it spilled on her shirt," she said, adding that Matilda didn't like feeling "dirty." After Matilda chose a new shirt, Ledger spent time making sure it fit and that she liked it. "They were so cute [together]."
Liz Bullis, 22, observed Ledger with Matilda in Gourmet Garage, the specialty grocery store in downtown Manhattan where she works. "I saw him a couple times with his daughter," she said. "He would carry her on his shoulders."
Vella also noted that Matilda was always on her dad's shoulders. "She never walked on the street – she was always up high."
"He was one of the best fathers I've ever seen," she added. "If you saw them, you'd fall apart knowing she's not going to have that anymore."
Click here for all the latest news updates on the Heath Ledger tragedy