"He'd call up before the last show and say, 'Hey, J.D. Y'all hang around for a little bit after the last show.' Then he said, 'I'll probably be there before y'all go off the stage.' We used to go around ... had a quartet that was his favorite group in the world, and we used to sing nothing in the world but the old hymns and gospel songs and so forth. And I used to look at him and none of the gyrations. Occasionally a smile, that you just knew he loved what he was doing. But I used to look at him while we were cooling off with a beer after singing with the guys. I thought, 'You know, I don't know if I really know Elvis. He's a multipersonality guy. He's somebody one day and somebody else another day.' But I believe that's him, that guy singing those hymns."
Crossing paths with The King in Las Vegas seems to have reinforced Dean's belief in the importance of a stable, even quiet home life. He would marry and have three children, and while a handful of hit songs would follow in the '70s, Dean focused on his business and domestic obligations. He still showed up on TV to chat with Johnny, Merv, Mike and Dinah, and to host awards shows and network specials, but his sausage empire took precedence. In 1984, at age 56, he sold the Jimmy Dean Meat Company to consumer-products giant Sara Lee Corp.
He was essentially retired, but apparently all was not well at home. Five years later, in 1989, while visiting on old friend Ralph Emery's show, he heard a voice and saw a face that turned his world upside-down or rightside-up, as he says.
She was Donna Meade, an emerging Nashville nightclub singer from Highland Springs, Va. The fact that she was 25 years younger didn't stop him from pursuing her, and while she was intimidated at first, by their second date she had agreed to marry him.
"He asked me, when he asked me to marry him, where I wanted to live," Donna says. "And I really didn't know. He suggested Nashville, he suggested L.A., New York, Dallas, Richmond. He said, 'The only thing that I'd really like would be some water nearby.' And I don't know why we really started looking around here, [but] finally somebody mentioned that this property wasn't for sale but they said it could possibly be at the right price."
They knew before getting out of the car on their first visit to Chaffin's Bluff, a nearly 200-acre estate along the James River, that they were home. It didn't hurt, either, that Donna's relatives were nearby, that the airport was nearby, and that Jimmy's increasingly large yachts all named "Big Bad John" would be able to dock at the slip on their property.
"I quit numbering them at five," he says. The latest, built on the West Coast, is still on its way here. "It's approaching Costa Rica right now."
The new "Big Bad John" measures a whopping 141 feet long, but "the most important thing is that it's 28 feet wide." That'll enable the Deans to put a little farther out to sea and shave days off their annual May trek north, to visit friends up through New England, and on their fall sojourn south, Caribbean-ward.
They spend about half the year traveling in this way, flying back to Richmond for "our Chaffin's Bluff fix" every few weeks. While the Deans also maintain a condo in Dallas, Donna says they used it only twice last year. "This is our favorite place in the world, right here. It's the sweetest old place," Jimmy says. "I enjoy the water, but I've got to visit here. And I can sit out there on that porch and watch that sun dip out of sight over the James River, and suck on a little glass of merlot, and suddenly become very much aware of the fact that I ain't mad at nobody. ... Everybody who comes here will say ... 'It sure is peaceful here.' It's where God meant me to be, it just took a long time to show it to me."
The house itself (a converted 1902 hunting lodge) is somewhat smaller than you might expect, but spacious enough. Even more surprising is how tastefully it's decorated, given Jimmy's penchant for Texas-sized, diamond-studded belt buckles and rings. Still, there are a few flourishes: the kodiak bear on the Florida-room floor; the vast, lightbulb-fringed dressing room mirror, fit for at least two country music stars; and most of all the giant poolhouse-cum-party-room they call it Casa del Rio with its adult toys and long bar.
Now the Deans are renowned entertainers here, on their own stage, hosting three big bashes (Memorial Day, Labor Day and Christmas) each year, with fall bonfires and hay rides to boot. They seem happiest in the living-room area of the house, where they play the gleaming grand and sing old favorites. (His: "Amazing Grace." Hers: "Over the Rainbow." Theirs: "Tennessee Waltz.") This is where "Virginia," their state-song contender, was fashioned from her lyrics and his tune for Varina High School.
"I've been writing songs for a long time and I've been performing for a long time," Donna says, "but to have somebody like Jimmy here to critique my songs, my performances I mean, when you have a Grammy-award winner in the house, you definitely run your work by them and value their opinions and critiques." She wrote a song recently called "God Bless The Children" that will appear on Christian Children's Fund commercials and she is working on an album of inspirational songs, like the one Jimmy released in 1998.
When they're not at the piano, chances are you'll find them in the den. "We live in this room," Donna says of the cozy wood-paneled vault, with its river-rock fireplace and the Dean's knickknacks on the mantle and walls: Jimmy's hit records, an ancient cannon ball that fell out of a tree nearby, stuff like that.
Donna gets up about 7:30 a.m. each morning to let out the frisky poodles. Jimmy rolls out of bed around 8:30 or 9 to join her for coffee and figure out the day's schedule. "It's never the same twice. There's always something," he says. "We have some rather easy ones and others that are just go, go, go, go, go, go!"
Asked what he did the day before, a Monday, Dean draws a blank, then recovers with a joke.
"As Chet Atkins put it, I'm busier now than before I was retarded," he says. "I'm supposed to be retired but I'll be damned if it doesn't show up."
They work out each morning in the exercise room. Jimmy keeps tabs on Sara Lee stock on CNBC. Basically, they do as they please. They continue to write songs and to plug "Virginia" while tweaking their estate's landscaping here and there.
It seems like the quiet life of any semi-retired millionaire couple. Then you find out Jimmy and Donna Dean are into politics.
"We're involved politically here in Virginia, because this is where we live," Jimmy says. "I vote, and if I don't vote I sacrifice my right to bitch, so we choose our people very carefully. ... We're doing work for George Allen, not because he's our friend and he certainly is our friend he and Susan are wonderful people, they're good friends but we support him because of what he has done for Virginia as governor and what we feel like he will be able to do as senator."
Dean's taken a real shine to his fellow cowboy-hat-and-boots-wearing Virginian. "I'm on the phone all the time in the morning, basically," raising money and votes for Allen. Dean adds that later in the week he'll be stumping for him in Mt. Jackson, way out near Luray Caverns.
Jimmy and Donna Dean also have been attending fund-raisers for Mark Earley, another of their favorites. In fact, a few weeks ago, the night that country great George Jones came to perform in Richmond, the Deans were sporting black-tie ensembles to drop by an Earley event first.
[image-1]photo by Stephen Salpukas / Style WeeklyJimmy and Donna Meade Dean, married since 1991, take time for a song before attending a political fundraiser.I ain't got a dime;
Don't care where I'm going;
I'm as free as a breeze,
And I'll do as I please;
Just a' bummin' around.
What the hell is it going to do today?" Jimmy says, looking out the den's large windows toward the river while the CNBC stock tickers roll on by.
He could be asking about the weather, or he could be musing on today's fate of SLE, symbol for the company that bought his in an all-stock deal in 1984.
"Depending on what Sara Lee does, that's his mood," Donna says. "Jimmy counts his money."
Based on remarks he makes throughout the day, you can safely bet that he counts in the tens, possibly the hundreds of millions. But it's the hour-by-hour, sixteenth-of-a-point moves that still determine his demeanor.
"Sometimes you grin a lot, and sometimes you cry a lot," Jimmy says. The market as a whole has been acting up lately. "You know, I've been looking at that thing for a long time and I've never seen such wild vacillation," he says. "I would like to see Greenspan just keep his mouth shut. Every time Alan Greenspan opens his mouth, something gets screwed up. And if you ever find any kind of a federal intervention that basically deals with the law of supply and demand, you're going to find something gets screwed up."
Donna goes back in the kitchen with a sigh, but Jimmy is just warming up.
"Besides, Greenspan is ugly. When he gets older he's going to be even more ugly. His head looks like it wore out seven bodies."
Jimmy can joke about money these days. He's a big deal even in big-wheel Texas, where years ago he became friends with George and Barbara Bush. The men share an affinity for the outdoors, and Jimmy's got some carp-filled ponds at Chaffin's Bluff, just a rumbling ride away in his king-sized Cadillac SUV.
Bouncing through the brush, he points to the heronlike birds that are trying to get at his fish and reels in another anecdote. "We're fishing one time and [Bush] said, 'If I ever become president, I'm going to do something about those things, because they're good for nothing and all they do is eat the bait fish.' It's true."
Last year, Gov. Jim Gilmore appointed Dean to the state board of game and inland fisheries, which deals with hunting, fishing and boating laws. (Look out, you good-for-nothing birds.) But it's clear his real passion is education.
"Something has to be done with the literacy level of not only Virginia but of this entire country," he says. "It's my contention that the government is not getting it done." Jimmy and Donna Dean, in fact, planned to build their own school in Henrico County, "but the complications were unbelievable. So we said, well, we've got this school here ... maybe we can jump in there. Maybe we can help there." The Deans have essentially adopted Varina High School, pitching in to help meet academic and athletic needs, and most notably rewarding top teachers with cash and giving students who improve their grades savings bonds and scholarships.
It's a scaled-back version of their original plans, but Jimmy Dean has learned that sometimes the art of living, like politics, is the art of the possible. That occasionally a song and a smile will only get you so far. That life has limits, and that's all right.
"You know, it's probably a bad mistake, but I really don't have any mountains to climb. We'll be doing some (song) writing, you know, but I went through this thing like I was killing snakes for a long time. Long, long time. And it's nice to be at a point where you can say, 'I don't think I want to do that. I don't care how much money it is, I'm not going to do it.' That's a good place to be."
Jimmy Dean is talking. Now he's done.
"All right," he says. "Now get your ass out of my living room." Jump to Part 1, 2,