ZEPHRYHILLS — The secret to Dick Jarrett's longevity is this: He always has something to look forward to. Three times in 15 years doctors gave him five years to live. So, Jarrett, 84, and his wife, Barbara, developed creative strategies to stay busy — a lot like the practices that propelled his Ford Motor Co. dealership empire.
After opening his first car lot 35 years ago in a sleepy, unknown town, Jarrett matured into a powerful local businessman and soft-hearted philanthropist. He's retired now, but his schedule hardly reflects it. And his many good works continue to bear fruit all over east Pasco.
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Reared on his family's 500-acre tobacco plantation in Reidsville, N.C., Jarrett admired the work ethic and generosity of his grandfather and father. To this day, Jarrett continues to support the Speedwell Presbyterian Church in Reidsville built with donated materials on his family property.
Like so many in his generation, he recognized the gathering clouds of war.
"As a 10-year-old boy, I got to ride along on Saturdays to help build new barracks at Fort Bragg. It was nothing more than a cavalry outpost," he said. "The 15 soldiers adopted me, threw me up on horses and allowed me to hold the lumber.
"On the Sunday morning that Pearl Harbor was bombed, my father told me to grab my (school report) cards because we won't be here in the morning."
As a teenager, Jarrett enlisted in the Navy and describes his two-year military stint as the best years of his life.
"It was just when the Germans and Japanese gave up," he said. "We had to make a U-turn at the Panama Canal. I wound up at Guantanamo for six months before serving in Newport, R.I., and Norfolk, Va. I had nothing but a good time."
Though Jarrett never saw combat, he did save a fellow sailor's life.
"I . . . ran tenders from the ship back and forth across the Chesapeake Bay," he said. "When a drunk returning from leave fell between the ship and the transport, I grabbed him by the shoulder just before being decapitated by the larger boat."
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When Jarrett arrived in Florida, he traded his Navy blues for the Ford Motor Co. black three-piece suit. He managed a Clearwater dealership before launching his own franchise in Dade City.
"It was a small town with a small hospital and not much else," he said. "I stayed in a roominghouse and started reaching out to the community."
Jarrett focused on customer care and maintenance. A loyal customer base expanded. His business acumen elevated him to chairman of the board at First Union Bank.
Jarrett imparted his talents to his sons, Bill and Brian, who opened family dealerships in Avon Park and Winter Haven, respectively. Both have cultivated community ties while supporting the arts and serving on business boards. His middle son, Charles, is a Navy commander running a hospital complex in Guam.
After his first heart attack in 1998, Jarrett officially retired. Ever since, he has monitored a computer loop of five Jarrett "stores" in Dade City, Avon Park, Plant City, Winter Haven and Davenport from his Zephyrhills home office.
"There are reports and transactions to review," Jarrett said, "and I still reconcile all the checking accounts at 11 different banks."
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Jarrett's love of children — five of his own, 11 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren — sparked his widespread charitable causes. During the late 1970s, the local little league, Boy Scouts, Pasco High School and chamber of commerce were struggling financially.
"I invested a lot of cold cash and hundreds of man hours," Jarrett said. "I jumped in to get things back on the road."
Jarrett organized and hosted pig roasts and golf fundraisers, taught a weekly automotive high school class, launched hot air balloon rides for teachers, distributed 50-cent pieces to kids at the dealership, recognized local straight-A students with trophies and trips to Disney World, and coached and umpired for 12 little league baseball teams.
He also rescued the faltering Pasco County Fairgrounds in 1992.
"I started the two-minute cow milking contest," Jarrett said. "As a strong country boy, I won the inaugural trophy."
Milton Jones, president emeritus of Pasco-Hernando Community College, met Jarrett close to 50 years ago in Clearwater.
"My son won the local and regional punt, pass and kick competitions and was going to the state," Jones said. "When I went to pick up the new car to drive to the finals, there was Dick Jarrett.
"He's a magnificent fellow who took care of my cars and established a $1,000 annual scholarship for the college."
Roy Hardy, 90, ran Hardy's department store in Dade City from 1948 to 1985. He and Jarrett continue to serve on the board of Hardy Benevolent Trust Fund, providing assistance to needy families since 1982.
"These days I fiddle around with cattle and cut hay," Hardy said. "I've always been a Ford man."
Jarrett Ford continues to support little league, bowling leagues, Pasco High football and awards for top area students. This year, Jarrett was recognized as the nation's No. 1 Ford dealership for its "drive for your school" fundraiser.
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Jarrett married his dealership comptroller, Barbara Railey, in 1992 and settled into a new home in Lake Bernadette, an average-sized suburban dwelling with access from his master bath to a 20-foot lemon tree.
"When anyone asks why we live simply, I remind them that no one else can take a shower and pick ponderosa lemons at the same time," he said.
Jarrett was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003. While undergoing radiation treatment, he supervised construction of a 30- by 15-foot rock pond and waterfall from a lawn chair.
The project expanded next door to his home from an empty lot into Jarrett Park. It welcomes neighbors to a lushly planted waterside retreat dedicated with a granite headstone and towering flagpole to honor "those who died in the line of duty and currently serving to protect our freedom."
Jarrett hand-trims the tree topiary into the shape of a puppy dog while Barbara tends the flower beds, gazebo, benches, inlaid tile checkers/chess table, and a regulation size shuffleboard court. A freezer holds a stock of popsicles for visitors.
"We don't entertain as much as we used to," Jarrett said, "but I still brew and bottle homemade wine for friends."
The Jarretts are packed and excited about spending their first Christmas alone together this month in North Carolina. "We had to clear the trip with 10 doctors," Barbara said. "And then the family okayed it, as long as we're home by Jan. 12 to celebrate Dick's 85th birthday."