LACOOCHEE — Two buses bumped along Lacoochee's narrow roads, sending dust into the hot, sticky air. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and a group of federal officials surveyed neighborhoods considered the poorest in Pasco ever since the big sawmill closed a half century ago.
They turned on one road lined by oaks. Someone pointed to "the worst house in Lacoochee.''
Johnny Cox lived there. TV crews interviewed him that day in August 2010. He wore suspenders but no shirt. A tattered Army cap shaded his full gray beard. He talked about the good old days when he grew up in the quiet town near the edge of the Green Swamp. It was "like living in heaven," he said.
He showed a reporter a pair of bullet holes in his window.
The senator and his entourage left after their short visit. So did the TV crews.
Roger Kaminski didn't. He had been on the bus tour, and something didn't sit well with him.
"I felt like, we're exploiting this guy," said Kaminski, who runs the nonprofit Christian Edge charity. "What are we doing for him?"
He went back to Johnny Cox's tiny home on a quarter-acre. He saw cats, maybe two dozen of them mingling through trash. He winced at the odor. Cox sat on the porch with a drink. He kept a revolver between the cushions of his easy chair.
His family had lived in this home since the Great Depression — so long his surname is on the signs marking the dirt road.
Kaminski sat on the porch and talked with Cox. He asked: "Is there anything we can do for you? What do you need done?"
Cox thought about it for a minute. "Nobody's ever asked me that before."
• • •
John Christopher Cox was born June 19, 1930, in Laurel County, Kentucky.
His father, Elmer Cox, ran bootleg whiskey until his wife got tired of him being drunk all the time. Zona Cox packed the family into a truck and headed south, settling in Bushnell and then Lacoochee in the late '30s. She thought the move would help her husband, and it did. Most of the family never drank after that, according to granddaughter Linda Buchanan, who still lives in town.
Uncle Johnny was an exception. He drank a lot.
Census forms list Elmer Cox as a farm laborer. He also did some carpentry work when he could get it. He fought in the Army during World War I. Zona Cox worked for many years at the Cummer Cypress mill before it closed in 1959. Johnny also worked at the mill, but not as often.
Like his father, Cox enlisted in the Army. He fought in the Korean War. He told Kaminski he was the only survivor from his unit after an ambush.
He left the Army and got married. He moved to Michigan to work in an automobile manufacturing plant. They divorced. She stayed. He moved back to Lacoochee.
When his mother was still alive, he lived in a shed behind the 1928 home on Cox Road with low ceilings and a bathroom added in the '50s. It might have seemed that he was there to take care of his aging mother. His sister, Fannie Hayes, 87, said, "I think it turned out the other way. She was taking care of him."
Johnny's vice got him fired from a job at Pasco Motors where he did paint and body work.
"When he was sober, they would take him back because they said he was the best," Buchanan said.
He and his family weren't exactly estranged. But they didn't talk a lot either. He lived off and on with a longtime companion, Joanne Connell.
"Nobody would put up with Uncle Johnny on account of his drinking," Buchanan said. "He pretty much stayed to himself."
But she said her uncle had a kind heart. He would talk to anybody. He loved her mother, Pearl Pinkston. He did things for her that he wouldn't do for anyone else, like the day he built a porch for her home.
He used to fuss about Zona's cats. When she died in 1994, he stopped complaining. He kept buying food for them. He started taking in strays.
• • •
When Cox first met Kaminski, he had a humble request. He was on oxygen and couldn't get around well. Couldn't keep his yard up like he used to. He could hardly get out to feed the cats.
Perhaps someone could stop by and clear the yard of trash and weeds?
Kaminski worked with a drug rehab ministry group out of Bartow. A carload of people stopped by every Thursday that fall. They started with the yard and cleaned up his fence. They found a plumber who cleared the tub's drain and replaced rusted pipes in the toilet. They hooked up his water heater, fixed the porch steps.
Then Johnny got really sick and went to the hospital. The group kept working. They painted all of the inside walls. They tore out rotten floorboards in the dining room and hammered in pressure-treated lumber.
He moved into hospice care in Dade City.
His niece visited him on a Monday. He was sitting up, looking good. She said he was "tickled" by all the attention from the volunteers. She saw him again on Wednesday, and he looked like he'd been severely ill for six months. Cancer took him a few days later. He died Dec. 6, 2010.
His family witnessed a change in Cox that began with the home improvements. He softened, cleaned up his language. "The important thing is he knew there were people doing (the work), and they were doing it for him," Kaminski said. "I think he ended up dying knowing that people cared."
He never got to live in his fixed up home, no longer Lacoochee's worst.
• • •
Drive by the house today. It looks like a tornado hit it. The back room and bathroom are still barely standing. All the metal and any good wood is gone. The front gate, the tub, the shed — all gone.
It's the work of thieves who took the house apart, piece by piece. They started working just a week after he died.
"It just got me that people would swarm in here so fast and steal everything," Buchanan said. "The house wasn't great, but it wasn't that bad."
• • •
Over the years there have been sporadic campaigns to improve life in Lacoochee. Most of them fizzle. Johnny Cox's house stands (barely) as an example.
But today, something seems different. Key lawmakers have taken notice. There's serious money behind the effort, including $1 million from the state Legislature and an equal amount in county money and private donations.
One of the area's major businesses, Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, has taken a lead role. Habitat for Humanity is building eight homes, just blocks from the old Cox place. The group hopes to buy his lot, too. The county plans to pave roads and run utility lines. Crews will break ground in the coming weeks for a community center in Stanley Park.
Kaminski is part of the effort, working with kids and helping the needy. He's encouraged, but like others who have followed Lacoochee's history since the mill closed, he knows success is far from guaranteed.
"The situation is pretty fragile right now," he said.
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.