Death of Johnny Cash stirs memories

Published Sep. 13, 2003|Updated Sep. 1, 2005

Johnny Cash, the legendary country music artist who died Friday at age 71, will forever be remembered as the "Man in Black." But here in Port Richey, he shed the dark duds for shorts, T-shirts and a fishing pole.

When he needed a respite from the road, an escape from the spotlight and the sometimes hard lifestyle he led, Cash would head to a simple wood-frame house overlooking the Pithlachascotee River.

"Everybody left him alone, and he enjoyed it because of that," said Port Richey City Council member Bill Bennett, who grew up near the Cash house.

"He just loved to fish and relax _ a down-to-earth, good ol' boy."

Yet as much as Cash saw Port Richey as a diversion, he embraced his adopted community, showing appreciation in ways both small and large, such as the benefit concerts he gave in the late 1970s.

Family ties brought Cash to Port Richey, where his mother-in-law, country singing matriarch Maybelle Carter, owned the riverside house on Sunset Boulevard. Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, inherited the property in 1979, a year after Maybelle Carter died. Their primary home was in Hendersonville, Tenn.

His visits to Port Richey date to the 1960s. Cash was a regular at Korman's marina. "He would buy shrimp, squid and mullet (for bait) and head off in his boat," remembered Jo Korman, 77. "Later you'd see him on the deck cleaning the fish."

When passersby learned the fisherman's identity, they flocked to him. "He always shook their hand and gave autographs," Korman said. Three years ago, when Korman was in the hospital, Cash sent her a heaping fruit basket.

"He was a very kind man," she said.

A frequent destination for Cash was Des Little's fish camp. On at least one occasion, in March 1976, Cash brought along a friend, the Rev. Billy Graham.

"Johnny was always good to us," said Pete Little, 55, Des Little's son. To repay use of the camp, Cash bought the elder Little a Toyota truck. "Johnny was always bighearted like that."

"In his last years," Little added, "his whole life was dedicated to that area: to family and to God. He was a marvelous man to know."

In 1971, Cash paid a hospital visit to a New Port Richey woman, Katie Rewis, because she wanted to see him before she died. "Cash held on to her hand," a friend told the St. Petersburg Times in an interview at the time.

A friend said Cash, who had never met Rewis, visited her because "the Lord had been good to him, and it was his place to share a little of it."

County Administrator John Gallagher first met Cash in the late 1960s at the Little family's stilt home in the Gulf of Mexico. Gallagher and his friend, Pete Little, both in their early 20s, would water ski while Cash and others relaxed at the house.

The Man in Black wore lighter attire in Florida.

"He had normal clothes, shorts and a shirt, sitting in a chair, just looking at the gulf," Gallagher said.

Gallagher crossed paths again with Cash a decade later, when the singer offered to give a concert to benefit the police pension fund for New Port Richey, where Gallagher was the city manager. Cash gave back-to-back performances one night in 1978 or 1979 at Gulf High School for the cause, Gallagher said.

"He just had that feeling about police departments," he said.

Ruth and Bus Obenreder lived a few doors down from Cash and his wife. When the famous couple were in town, the Obenreders went over to chat or eat dinner. "He'd make us coffee that was so strong you could hardly drink it," Bus Obenreder said with a laugh from his home in Beacon Woods.

He said the Cash home was simply decorated, nothing too fancy. But Johnny liked his comforts. His bed, Obenreder said, was extra soft and required a step stool to get into. "He said it couldn't be soft enough."

Mrs. Obenreder said it was tough to see Cash's health deteriorate in recent years.

"I know he'll be happy to be with June again," she said.

As her husband walked visitors to the door Friday, he picked up a black guitar and strummed a bar from I Walk the Line, one of Cash's most recognizable songs. "He had such a full life," Obenreder said.

Cash cut one of his last ties to Pasco County in May 2002 when he and his wife sold their Sunset Boulevard house to Dean Rudder and Jennifer Zulian.

The soon-to-be-married couple weren't shopping for a celebrity home; they just wanted to live in the waterfront neighborhood, Zulian said. When they sent letters to out-of-town homeowners to see if any might be willing to sell, the Cashes were the only ones to respond, she said.

The home still has traces of its old owners. A two-sided fireplace bears Johnny's name on one end, June's name on the other. Pots, pans, dishes, knickknacks and even a bedroom set came with the house, Zulian said.

The warranty deed, bearing the signatures of John R. Cash and June Carter Cash, shows the home went for $180,000.

"We got his autograph the expensive way," Zulian said with a smile.

Johnny Cash posed in 1995 with Hudson resident Bus Obenreder for this photo outside Cash's home in Port Richey. Family ties brought Cash to Port Richey, where his mother-in-law, country singing matriarch Maybelle Carter, had owned the riverside house.

Johnny Cash owned this home at 5030 Sunset Blvd. in Port Richey until May 2002. It overlooks the Pithlachascotee River. The new owners are currently refurbishing the 1916 house.