The country singer and sausage king, Jimmy Dean, lived high above an expansive, picturesque section of the James River, on Chaffin’s Bluff in Varina, Va.
The property is old. According to sources, during the Civil War the Confederate army built fortifications on his land to defend Richmond, and the earthworks still crisscross the property.
Most people remember Jimmy Dean for his song “Big Bad John,” about a coal miner who saves fellow workers when the mine roof collapses. His musical career made him a millionaire and Jimmy Dean Sausage, which bore his name, took him beyond the stars when he sold it to Sara Lee in the 1980s.
The Dean property is a 225-acre estate with several buildings, including a guesthouse and a poolside “party” house, as well as a dock that accommodated Dean’s 141-foot yacht.
It was near the dock where I first met Jimmy Dean. I was working in the Governor’s Office of the Commonwealth of Virginia at the time.
The governor’s staff was invited to a reception at Dean’s home about a month before an election, and Governor Jim Gilmore suggested I attend the grand affair.
My wife Brenda and I owned an old Mercury Marquis at the time that belched blue smoke from the tailpipe. It was like one of those cars you see on the interstate from time-to-time. You could see it from a long way off.
“I wonder where that smoke is coming from,” you might ask, until you get close enough to see it is just an old car burning oil.
When the day arrived, I found myself pulling off Osborne Turnpike onto Dean’s half-mile-long driveway that was lined with trees the entire length.
As I reached the front yard, I was flagged down by a man dressed in a red and black chauffer’s outfit, with a wide-brimmed hat.
“Sir, if you will, please park near the front of the estate. Mr. Dean will be pleased to greet you,” he said politely.
As I sat there for a moment, I noticed there were rows and rows of Cadillacs, Beemers, Lexuses and Land Rovers sitting in the grass. I looked like I might be the only one there driving a 12-year-old Mercury.
I closed my eyes and stepped on the accelerator. A big, puff of blue smoke came roaring out of the tailpipe, and I saw the man in the suit smile as he waved me on. He understood.
There was an open parking space about 10 yards from the dock. I pulled into the spot.
Within a second or two, I heard a loud voice with a distinct Texas twang. It was Jimmy Dean. I introduced myself to him and he shook my hand. A pleasant man, Dean then introduced me to a state senator and his tall, blond wife.
“If she fell down, she would be halfway home,” Dean said without a bit of reservation. He laughed and so did I. The state senator didn’t.
Later in the afternoon, I was standing near the piano when Jimmy came back around to say hello. “Are you from Virginia?” he asked.
“No. I’m from Ohio,” I replied.
“I wondered, since I didn’t hear a southern accent,” he said.
He told me about the times he played the Ohio State Fair in Columbus. “Have you ever heard of Little Jimmy Dickens?” he asked.
“Sure,” I responded.
“I don’t know if you know or not, but I play an accordion. One time in Columbus, Dickens was on stage with me. After a break in the music, Little Jimmy turned to the audience and asked, “Do you know what a gentleman is? A gentleman is someone who can play an accordion, but won’t.”
We both laughed at the sight of Dickens cracking the joke.
Brenda and I would run into Jimmy and his wife, Donna, at various political functions during our time in Virginia. Surprisingly, he would remember my name and made a point to speak to me.
Jimmy had charisma and made an impression wherever he went. He was always dressed in a large cowboy hat and big belt buckle.
One afternoon, Brenda and I were shopping at Ukrop’s, a well-known grocery in Richmond. Jimmy and Donna walked in and bought a few items.
We were standing in line about three people behind him. As the two people ahead of us checked their items, the cashier informed them that Mr. Dean had taken care of their groceries. He left before they had an opportunity to thank him.
Just before we left Richmond, we read in the Richmond Times Dispatch that Dean had written an alma mater for a local high school called “Varina, Dear Old Varina.”
He didn’t have to write it. He wanted to.
Jimmy Dean was a country music star, folk character, sausage pitchman.
In the end, he was just a good man who brought joy to many.
He slipped away from us on my birthday, June 13, 2010.
He is now more than halfway home.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.