One of the great characters I’ve met in my life was a larger-than-life man named John Durney. I first met Mr. Durney when I was just beginning my avocation as a docent at the Salvador Dali Museum in the 1990s.
Mr. Durney, tall and thin, was the ultimate Dali aficionado. I believe he was a graduate of the first class of docents of the new Museum in 1983 and his tours were truly something else. John gave his tours adorned with a long, trimmed, waxed and shaped mustache, much in the style and manner of Salvador. This was not a prop – it was his own mustache. All docents enjoy giving tours, but John Durney lived for them. While a man of many passions, he quite literally went the extra mile when it came to our Museum. On his own dime, Mr. Durney traveled throughout the world to talk about the images and talents of Salvador Dali – always promoting the Dali Museum in the process. He gave a series of lectures about Dali in Russia, as well as Germany, Austria and England. He eventually sat on the Dali Board of Trustees with other Tampa Bay luminaries.
He was also one of the most gracious men I have ever met. I was lucky enough to go on a European excursion with him and about a dozen other people in 1994 through the Museum to see a Dali Exhibition in London and the artist’s home town in Spain. I got to know Mr. Durney pretty well during this trip and, over time, I also learned of his many lifetime accomplishments. After this trip he never failed to come up to me whenever we met to say hello, shake my hand and wish me well, even if it was in the middle of my docent tour in front of 75 people. Despite our almost 50 year age difference, he made me feel like an ole pal.
John was also a lovely combination of old school with a sprinkling of eccentric. Always a gentleman, he was never out of a suit, complete with a variety of colorful vests. If the occasion was somewhat celebratory, like the opening of a dry cleaners, out came the white tie and tails. Did he wear a monocle? Maybe not, but if he did, it wouldn’t have been out of place. Pointy mustache a-blazing, he drove around town in a Rolls Royce, which was very impressive until you detected that the Rolls was somewhat old and a bit dingy for its day. Still, it was a ROLLS! – befitting this elegant gent. At the age of 84 when many slow down if not come to a screeching halt, my pal bought and took up riding a motorcycle. More on that later.
Before I ever knew Mr. Durney, he had a full life and a list of accomplishments that would choke the average over-achiever. In addition to being an executive at a large corporation in Pasco County, John was a poet, a philanthropist and an all-around renaissance man. He absolutely loved his town, he was a key figure in the early development of the Port Richeys and he showed his dedication by acting as Port Richey’s mayor from 1967 to 1975 and then as mayor of New Port Richey from 1978 to 1980.
Over time, people began referring to John as “Mr. Port Richey” when they’d see him around town.
One fateful day in October, 2001, while riding his motorcycle in Schroon Lake, N.Y. (of all places) the 84 year old John Durney lost control of his motorcycle and was killed. This Cary Grant-meets-Charlie-and-the-Chocolate-Factory character was gone.
Years after John was gone I was taking a river boat ride down the Cotee River in New Port Richey with a guide who pointed out all the stately homes that used to be owned by Hollywood movie stars when this area was feted to be the next “Southern Hollywood” . The home of Charlie Chaplin….the home of Gloria Swanson…..the home of Marilyn Monroe, when the captain said, “And that home over there was the home of Mr. Port Richey, our mayor and late friend, John Durney.”
Of course it was a large ramshackle of a monstrosity, but it was right on a beautiful curve of the Cotee River. Large and stately, yet slightly out of control – How John Durney! I was glad to hear his memory still being invoked.
More recently I discovered that a few years ago, his memory was again honored when, at the urging of New Port Richey officials, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names voted to name a little spit of an island in the Gulf, “Durney Key”. John knew and loved this island about a mile off the coast of Port Richey and just north of where the Pithlachascotee River meets the Gulf. It’s popular with local boaters who use it to camp, picnic and snorkel.
I’ve never met anyone quite like John and I don’t expect I will again. John told the (then) St. Pete Times that he fights each day to accomplish something that will make him feel good. He carried around a piece of paper in his vest pocket that read: “Remove a stone from somebody’s path each day.” John Durney would be 95 years old this year. His legacy is the pile of stones somewhere that cleared a path for us all.