NEW PORT RICHEY — Lucky for Des Little, he got bit by a rattlesnake.
It was lucky because everybody in town said to pray for him. That included a young girl who'd not heard his name until that moment: Mickey DeCubellis.
It was not a conventional how-they-met story, but it lasted.
The pair were married for more than 50 years until his death in 1989. Together they raised four children on a ranch near the intersection that now bears their family names. They started a successful paving company, earned reputations as local philanthropists and counted country music legends Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash among their friends.
Des was the gregarious, Stetson hat-wearing rancher who once persuaded a newlywed couple to take a late-night wheelbarrow ride through downtown New Port Richey. Mickey was the calm, sweet-natured force behind him.
"He was a ball of fire," said son Pete, "and she was there to control it."
Michealine "Mickey" Little died last week (April 30, 2009) at the age of 94.
Her household wasn't the only place where she was the quiet and steady hand.
She never held public office or was as well known as her husband, for whom the Gulf High School stadium was named. But she was a leader in her own right in the community of longtime west Pasco residents, looking after children when their mother was ill, showing up at a neighbor's with a cooked turkey and greeting every visitor with "Can I get you something to eat?"
"She was a mother to just about anybody who met her," said County Administrator John Gallagher, a family friend who used to work for Mr. Little.
"I always called her my angel," said longtime friend Diana Chittum of New Port Richey. "She fed, she counseled and she encouraged them on."
Mrs. Little was the last surviving child of a Canadian couple who arrived here well over 90 years ago, lured by warm weather and the prospects of better health.
They took the train to Tarpon Springs and then oxen-drawn carts to the wilderness of Pasco County, about a quarter mile east of where Little and DeCubellis roads now intersect.
The living was hard, to say the least. No electricity, no running water. They raised chickens, made their own butter and cottage cheese, cured their own meats.
After she and Mr. Little were married, they built a house just west of her parents' homestead. Her brother lived nearby and ran a sugar cane operation at one time.
The couple parlayed years of hard work and business savvy — not to mention four kids who were expected to help — into Desmond Little and Sons Paving, a successful contracting business that paved many of west Pasco's best-known neighborhoods.
Mrs. Little did the books. And though she often dressed up in high heels to go to the post office, she also drove dump trucks to construction sites.
The couple made the news in 1988 after they won more than a million dollars in Florida's second Lotto drawing. They gave some of it to their offspring and most to charities, though Mrs. Little may have gotten a little carried away in wanting to give away the money.
Her husband called a priest he knew and asked him to come talk to her: She wouldn't stop saying "yes" to everybody who asked for something.
Even as a girl, she had a deep maternal instinct. Lifelong Port Richey resident Frances Mallett, 89, was about 10 years old when she met Mrs. Little, who was just a few years older.
Mallet's mother had died, so Mrs. Little took her under her wing, making sure she got on the school bus and escorting her to her classroom.
That was a trait that only strengthened as she got older. At least, in one instance, it seemed like super-strength. Her son, Terry, remembers working under a Ford station wagon when it fell on him. His mother came running out, he said, and pulled it off him.
In her later years, she lost her sight and her hearing. But somehow, they say, she always knew where the children were in the room. She always turned her face toward them.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.