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Farewell to Dolores Allen, independent to the end

The four men started drinking early. Shots of whiskey, bottles of beer.

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These weren't rocket scientists. One of them pulled out a pistol and convinced the others it would be fun to play Russian roulette — insert a single bullet in the gun, spin the cylinder, place the barrel against your head and squeeze the trigger.

When it came time for one of the men to hold the gun to his head, he pointed it at one of his buddies and — BAM! The bullet ripped into the man's heart, killing him instantly as he sat on a couch inside a tiny rental house in Aripeka.

I got there about 15 minutes later. One of the rather large, rather drunk men who had survived the lethal game objected to my presence. He rushed toward me. And just as quick, Charles Dexter Allen stopped the man in his tracks with three words: "He's my friend.''

In this tiny coastal village, Allen commanded respect. Even in his 80s, he often strolled the streets barefoot, dressed only in cutoff blue jeans. Flat, muscular stomach, snow-white hair, deep tan. You might have guessed him to be closer to 60.

His influence at the crime scene near his house some 30 years ago saved me from cuts and bruises, but it was so much broader than that. While he seldom shared details of his personal life, he formed a political committee in Pasco that placed a premium on open government. The Allen Committee found qualified candidates and worked to get them elected. Judges, commissioners, senators — this civic-minded group made a positive difference in public policy at a time when population growth and those who got rich off it threatened to overwhelm local government.

In 1984, a former social worker from Michigan entered a race for County Commission with six others. "Everybody said, 'You have to meet with Dr. Allen,' '' Ann Hildebrand recalled this week. "He held court at a bank in New Port Richey, and I mean he held court. I coveted their endorsement. They were a force to be reckoned with.''

Hildebrand has been on the commission ever since.

One of my former jobs at the Times required political commentary. Allen seemed to know my office hours, because the phone would be ringing many mornings when I arrived. He often disagreed, but always in a gentlemanly manner. It was a sad irony that one day in 1987, when he was 89 years old, he got sick from something he ate at a political rally. He called me to his home.

Allen knew his time was up. With his wife, Dolores, on his arm, he answered the door at their little house next to the Aripeka Baptist Church. His body was weak, but his mind remained sharp. He showed me amazing collections of art, books and weapons. He knew I had grown up in Texas and enjoyed telling me about his own fantastic adventures there. He took me to his bedroom and opened the closet.

"I want you to have this,'' he said, holding out a tan three-piece western suit he had worn when he was my age. He knew Times employees are forbidden to accept gifts, but as anyone involved in Pasco politics in the 1970s and '80s can tell you, Charles Dexter Allen didn't take no for an answer.

He told me this was a dying man's wish. I accepted the suit. It fit like a glove.

He died the next week.

Allen would not allow me to write about him then. For a man so well-known, so eager to fight for open government and straightforward politicians, he had a mysterious side — like many others who lived back in the swamps of Aripeka. Even today, people who knew him well can't tell you why they called him "Dr. Allen.'' Maybe it was philosophy or theology, they say. He wasn't a medical doctor.

Dolores accompanied Charles to Allen Committee meetings. She had spent most of her life in Aripeka, where her family had moved from West Virginia. She was one of the original mermaids at the Weeki Wachee attraction in the late 1940s.

Dolores had been with Charles since 1969 and enjoyed politics. After he died, she stayed pretty much to herself in that same house. The Rev. Joe Sims at the Baptist church next door had been after Dolores to think about moving into an assisted living facility.

"She was fiercely independent,'' Sims said. "My suggestions didn't sit well with her.''

On March 3, Sims stopped by the house to take her shopping. When she didn't answer the door, he went inside and found her in bed. She had died in her sleep at 82. An obituary said she had no living relatives, but cousin Bonnie Whiting lives nearby.

"She always talked about Charles,'' Sims said. "And she loved Aripeka and looking out to the Gulf of Mexico. She wasn't about to leave her house, not for any assisted living facility. When the folks from Dobies (Funeral Home) picked her up, I said, 'Miss Dolores, you got the last laugh.' ''

• • •

A memorial service for Dolores Allen is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at the Aripeka Baptist Church. Her ashes will be spread off the coast.

Farewell to Dolores Allen, independent to the end 03/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 9, 2010 8:35pm]
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