In 79 years, Joan Rees never seriously considered settling down with a husband.
"I've been in like several times,'' she said, "not necessarily in love. This is love.''
She bubbles like a school girl when she talks about it, and so you feel better about her decision. She has spent generations preserving the proud history of the town where she moved as a toddler, a move that saved her life. And now she is leaving it.
"I'll always be a little New Port Richey girl,'' she said this week.
Joan devoted 27 years arranging trips around the world for thousands of local residents as owner of Gone Again Travel on Main Street. She visited seven continents herself in that time, cultivating sources and an expertise of foreign cultures, which brings a grin when she says she's moving to … Alabama.
"Who would have thought?'' she says.
This all started with a surprise phone call 18 months ago. She hadn't talked to Bill Murray in some 35 years and then one night she answered a ring and there he was asking, "Are you married?''
"Are you still married?'' she answered.
They talked about old times and family and business. They wondered where the time went.
They had met when he was just starting his own company, marketing products for national auto parts manufacturing companies. She ran the office for a rubber company in Charlotte, N.C., that made garden and radiator hoses. They sparred good-naturedly when she checked his customers' credit. He respected her intelligence.
"We liked each other,'' Joan recalled. "He had a great sense of humor. You always remember people who make you laugh.''
But they had never been more than friends. Joan didn't expect to hear from him again once she quit that job in 1980 to return to New Port Richey. And then, out of the blue, he called.
"I must have been in his head,'' she said.
Murray, also 79, had spent the years building one of the nation's most successful sales companies from his home base in Birmingham. He remains chairman, though his son now runs the business. Murray's wife of 56 years, Molly, died in April 2012, six years after suffering a severe stroke.
"I have a great family, and seven wonderful grandchildren,'' Murray said, "but you get lonely. Joan snapped me out of it.''
She met him at his beach condo in Panama City. They booked a cruise to the Caribbean. She took him to her favorites places in France. She left her small one-bedroom home in New Port Richey to spend time at Thanksgiving and Christmas with his family at his 8,000-square-foot home in Birmingham.
Murray is a big booster at Auburn University and provides football scholarships. In exchange, he gets prime seats for the games. He took Joan to several games, including the Rose Bowl, where his team narrowly lost the national championship to Florida State.
"I've been Auburnized,'' Joan confessed.
The decision to move to Birmingham hasn't been easy. Joan's roots are deep, her memory clear. She has shared stories and pictures with local historian Jeff Miller and his fivay.org website. Her own story is fascinating and, as you can see, still evolving.
Joan was 3 when her parents moved to New Port Richey from the Cleveland area, hoping the warmer climate might ease her dreadful health. Intestinal problems resulted in four surgeries and doctors feared she might not survive.
"The move turned out to be my saving grace,'' she said. "I got better. Now I'm about the healthiest person I know.''
Her father, Edward, had been honored with the Silver Star for valor in combat at Verdun in World War I. He found work at a gas station and in the citrus business in Tampa. Her mother, Tillie, managed the Flamingo soda fountain next to the Richey Suncoast Theatre during the 1950s.
Joan graduated from Gulf High School in 1952 with 29 other seniors. "New Port Richey was such a small town,'' she said. "We all knew each other.''
She got a job in Tampa out of high school because she could type. A year later she moved to Cleveland and later to the job in Charlotte. In 1980, she returned to New Port Richey to be near her recently widowed mother. She worked part time at Weiskopf Travel and in 1986 opened her own agency with partner Phyllis Miller.
Joan had never been beyond North America but soon began checking off a list of the world's great cities. "My brother (Bob Rees, a barber in Holiday) always said my favorite place was the last one,'' she said. "But I'd have to say France was the best.''
Which is why she took her new love to Normandy and Brittany.
"It was so romantic,'' she said. "I never thought …''
For his part, Bill Murray is equally amazed. He's pleased the way his family has accepted his new relationship, and that the fiercely independent Joan is moving in. They haven't talked marriage, yet, "but you never know,'' he said. "Right now, we're just so happy to have found each other again.''