DADE CITY — Reports of Leroy "Corky" Yager's death have been greatly exaggerated.
People heard that the owner of the famous Volkswagen repair shop Sunray Bugs was forced to get rid of hundreds of cars from a junk yard behind his shop. (True.) People figured: Since the Bugs are gone, either the business closed or Corky died. (False, and false.)
"Rumors, rumors," said Corky, who at 83 greeted a reporter this week with a firm handshake and a quick wit. "We're still shipping parts."
Corky remains bitter that the county cleared out his cars in January after a protracted zoning battle. He stripped off as many original German parts as he could, but many more were scrapped. "They were parts that you can't buy," he said. "There's nobody manufacturing them."
Corky and his small staff are slowly cleaning up and sorting through the remaining parts. In the coming months, he hopes to build a new repair shop and parts store across the street on U.S. 301.
Something else that's true: Corky will be the star at next weekend's Pasco Bug Jam. That's because of his recent ordeal and because this year's event falls on Veterans Day. He was just a teen when he fought in the closing months of World War II, and he was later drafted in the Korean War.
"He's a real asset to the Volkswagen community," said Carol Hedman, coordinator of the Bug Jam. "We just thought this would be a good time to honor him."
Corky has gnarled hands from decades of working on cars and an earlier career in the trucking business. He combs back wisps of white hair and wears dark blue work pants.
He's been involved in the Bug Jam since it started 24 years ago. It was his 1971 Beetle that broke a Guinness world record in 2009 when 17 people climbed inside. (The record fell a year later after 20 people squeezed into an old Bug at a Kentucky university.)
Hedman said this year will probably be Corky's last as a vendor. His age, combined with the loss of his beloved cars, has taken a toll.
"He's a hard man to keep down," she said. "I just hope when I'm that age, I can be going like he is."
His fight with the county began in February 2009 after a neighbor complained that his "VW graveyard" was an eyesore. County officials found a zoning violation. By August 2010, it was clear he wouldn't win. His lawyer signed an agreement that he would clear the property.
After several missed deadlines, the county hired a vendor to clear roughly 800 cars in December and January. Corky saved as many parts as he could, heaping them in huge piles inside a shop that used to be neat.
"Ever since the thing happened in December, a huge part of him has been forever changed," said his daughter, Tina Mazzara. "He's happier, I think. He's coming to terms with part of it. But it's been hard."
Two old golf carts that haven't been driven in months serve as indicators of how Sunray Bugs has been transformed. Once there were so many old Volkswagens you couldn't drive a truck through the 10-acre lot to retrieve a part. Corky used a golf cart.
"We used to have seven golf carts," he said. "I've seen times when people were on every one of them."
Now, there's no need to go out to the empty fields behind his shop.
"Since they took everything, we're just struggling to stay open," said mechanic Bruce Bratcher, 59, as he looked up from under the engine of a yellow 1968 Beetle. "When a customer walks in, we get all excited."
They still have some work. Corky is just a few parts shy of restoring a bright red Karmann Ghia. (When it came to the shop a few years ago, Corky politely called it a "rust bucket.") In his paint room is the body of a '63 Beetle with a new powder blue coat. He hopes to have it finished in a few months. He's been working off and on for a dozen years on a Thing that is sitting on a lift.
Bratcher got his first Beetle when he was 21. He couldn't afford to pay to fix up his car, so he learned how to do his own repair work.
During a break, he pointed to a dusty silver "new" Beetle. Probably a 2000 year model. "That thing right there is an imposter," he said. Too complicated. Breaks too easily.
Corky drives a 2002 Jetta. He's not sure whether what Bratcher said is true or not. "That's just one man's opinion."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.