PINELLAS PARK — Janet Huntley and her husband, Hardy, opened the Wagon Wheel Flea Market in what are now the westbound lanes of Park Boulevard, which was then a two-lane road.
"I can remember at that time, they sold all the refreshments out of what used to be an ice cream truck," said Jo Ellen Pennington, Mrs. Huntley's sister. "They never realized it was going to take off quite the way it did."
The Wagon Wheel, now a Pinellas County landmark, seldom closed. And it remained open last weekend despite the unexpected death of Mrs. Huntley on Nov. 11 at age 66.
But while the public knew Mrs. Huntley for her affiliation with the Wagon Wheel, she was best known among friends and family for her generosity and her interest in children.
Just a couple of weeks before Mrs. Huntley died, she was at a meeting of the Pinellas Park Kiwanis Club. Her husband, Pinellas Park City Council member Rick Butler, and a police officer were talking. The officer, Bill Holmes, wanted Hardy Huntley to help fund a program at Girls Inc. that provides a neutral ground where divorced parents can meet to arrange child visitation and the like. Huntley never got a chance to respond.
"Janet overheard the conversation and said, 'I'll be writing this check,' " Butler recalled Wednesday." "Bill looked at me and I looked at him and said, 'I guess she likes your cause.' … Even Hardy looked at me like, oookay."
The moment was particularly poignant when Butler heard of her death.
"It caught me off guard," Butler said. "She was a great lady. … Her heart was in the right place. It was kids."
Mrs. Huntley was born July 18, 1943, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and spent her early years in Hillside, N. J., before moving to Pinellas Park. That ushered in what her cousin Don Miers called the "WW decade" of the 1960s. WW stood for Mrs. Huntley's stint as a mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs and the opening of the Wagon Wheel with her husband, whom she met when she began working as a carhop at Hardy's Drive-In at Park Boulevard and 34th Street.
The Wagon Wheel, which opened in 1966, was patterned after roadside flea and garage sales Huntley had seen in his native North Carolina.
Although Huntley was the face of the Wagon Wheel, Mrs. Huntley was the backbone, Pennington said. Mrs. Huntley did the office work, and the hiring, firing and training, and often gave kids a chance to work when no one else would hire them.
But for all her work at the flea market, Mrs. Huntley's first love was children and charities, especially those that benefited children. And she never talked about her contributions. Pennington said she believes not even Mrs. Huntley's children knew how generous she was. She even established her own charity, the Janet A. Huntley Music and Arts Public Education Fund.
"She really was very, very, very generous," Pennington said. "She would just find out somebody needed something and go do it."
One year, Mrs. Huntley was so affected by a Christmas tree that had "ornaments" with needy kids' names on them that she bought 300 gift cards worth $25 each for every child named on the tree.
"Kids were her life," Pennington said. "She worshiped her grandkids."
It was her first grandchild, Isaac, who called her "Flower" one day after a blouse she was wearing. Mrs. Huntley was "Flower" from that moment on.
And last weekend, each Wagon Wheel employee wore a flower in her memory.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at (727) 893-8450 or [email protected]