The first time Audrey Potter presided as queen, her city was so small the police chief's daily duty included turning the street lights on and off.
Crime didn't exist in this quaint village. The chief took some grief for using tax dollars to build a fountain in front of the station, but it provided great fun for the only kind of mischief kids got into during those days of innocence. Tide made big bubbles.
Audrey was a 15-year-old ninth-grader at Gulf High in 1946 when she won a beauty pageant and the title Miss New Port Richey. That automatically meant she would also wear the crown as Queen Chasco in a fledgling community celebration heavy on Native American themes but loose on historical accuracy.
In those days, people didn't think much about whether a bunch of white folks dressing up like the earliest settlers might be offensive to anyone — or as we put it these days, politically incorrect. They just wanted to have fun, and that meant parades and a citywide proclamation: Everyone had to wear at least one feather or get tossed in a portable jail, if only for a few minutes.
The city actually started Chasco Fiesta in 1922, but it petered out until 1945 when Dorothy Cornell won the crown she would later pass on to Audrey, whose father, Henry Potter, owned a grocery store across the street from the Richey Suncoast Theatre.
From there the annual springtime event grew into a big regional attraction with concerts and parades and world-record barbecues and midway rides. Its organizers included American Indians in the planning and lined up corporate sponsors. Chasco Fiesta became the major fundraising source for nonprofit charities, a huge factor that unfortunately often gets lost in all the hoopla.
Oldtimers miss the simplicity of the small town celebration, but then the population boom that began in the 1960s has changed everything.
Well, not everything. Audrey Potter is still considered royalty by those who value their town's traditions. Not only is she the oldest surviving Queen Chasco, she is also the only woman ever to wear the crown twice. For that — and a late-in-life dedication to the kind of public service now mandatory for royal candidates — she will occupy a seat of honor at the 25th Chasco Royal Coronation Ball this Friday at the Spartan Manor. It's a black tie affair that benefits the Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind. Audrey is enjoying the attention, but as she said last week: "I feel like Old Lady Moses.''
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In 1950, Audrey Potter was one of 17 seniors at Gulf High School — nine boys, eight girls. Folks got excited about Chasco Fiesta months out, and now its organizers had a new way to select their queen. They also had decided to add a king (Pithla), once again taking literary license.
All over town, merchants placed jars on counters with the names of royal candidates nominated by civic organizations. Each penny counted as a vote. Everybody bought groceries at Henry Potter's store, and she was nominated by the well-established Lions Club. So you might say Audrey had an advantage.
Audrey would share the stage with her boyfriend, Richard Stevenson, whose family had helped settle the Elfers area. He was five years older.
On March 4, 1951, Queen Chasco married King Pithla. They would live the next 48 years in a house on Trouble Creek Road, with Dick commuting most of that time to his job as a state Department of Transportation engineer. They had two kids, Richard III and Robin.
"We had a wonderful life,'' Audrey said. "And then I was lost.''
Dick Stevenson died after an illness on Sept. 21, 2005. Audrey's grief was crippling. She couldn't seem to gather herself. Then one day she found salvation on the arm of a woman whose roots in New Port Richey also run deep — Evie Parks.
"Audrey has known me since the day I was born,'' Evie said. "We hadn't seen each other in awhile, but I knew right away what could help her.''
Evie's aunt, Jean Sawyer, is also Audrey's best friend. The three women gathered at HPH Hospice, where Evie directed the volunteer program.
"I tried everything after my husband died,'' Audrey said, "but it was the hospice support group that made the difference.''
When she finished with counseling about four years ago, she joined the hospice's army of volunteers. Every Tuesday, she works the front office at the Marliere Center and regularly offers visitors some perspective on the historical photographs of New Port Richey that decorate the walls.
Evie, meanwhile, is wrapping up her 21st year at HPH. Her history of community involvement stretches back before she graduated from Gulf High in 1968, and last year that record of service earned her a title she had coveted since she was a little girl.