August 6, 2009
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Country-music legend Jimmy Dean was so
upset by the fire that gutted his Henrico County home that even
today, more than three months later, he refuses to look at it.
But Dean said he never once considered leaving his Chaffin's
Bluff estate overlooking the James River. He and his wife,
songwriter and former recording artist Donna Meade Dean, plan to
remain on the property until the main house is rebuilt.
"I'm not going anywhere," Jimmy said last week, sipping coffee
in the couple's poolside "party house."
"You can't blow him off this property with dynamite," his wife
Donna did not give an exact estimate of the damage to the home
and its contents, but she said they were fully covered and that
their insurance company so far has paid them about $2 million.
Because the company did not have to relocate the Deans, it is
paying about 90 percent of the cost to add a gym and recording
studio onto a barn on the property and to enlarge the kitchen in
their guest house and add a laundry room to it, Donna said.
"And an outhouse," joked Jimmy.
The guest-house improvements and the barn addition should be
finished by the middle of this month. The couple are staying in
their party house and plan to move into the guest house when it's
ready. There, they will stay until the main house is completed,
which they expect will be in January.
Jimmy is best-known for "Big Bad John," a 1961 narrative,
Grammy-winning song about a coal miner who saves fellow workers
when the mine roof collapses. He founded a sausage company in 1969
that he sold to Sara Lee Corp. in 1984.
Henrico fire officials ruled that an electrical problem caused
the fire April 20. More specifically, Donna said, it started
because of antiquated wiring in the basement.
Donna said she was washing dishes and her husband was watching
TV when she smelled smoke. She yelled to him that she thought the
ice machine was on fire. "He said, 'Well, we've got a fire,' "
"Had we not been awake and smelled the smoke . . . it would
have been another story," Donna said.
Fire spread quickly from the basement through the walls to the
ceiling of the roughly 4,000-square-foot house.
She helped Jimmy, who uses a walker, outside. Then she and
caretaker Stefan Gunn salvaged what they could, running in and out
of the burning house even after firefighters told them not to,
Donna said. Gunn's fingers and arms were burned.
They saved many valuables, including Rowlf the Muppet, a gift
that was hand-made by Muppets creator Jim Henson; autographed
photos of Jimmy with various celebrities and U.S. presidents, and
Donna's guitar collection.
Firefighters rescued Jimmy's Grammy and a clock that had
belonged to Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales.
Donna said she was grateful for the firefighters' efforts. Three
of them were injured during the blaze.
There were two bits of irony: The only room that wasn't damaged
at all -- a large walk-in closet -- contained a fire-proof safe.
And a pile of logs that had been set in the fireplace was
untouched. The same logs are in the fireplace now.
Jimmy's prized baby grand piano was lost in the fire. Also
damaged or destroyed were a collection of celebrity-autographed
books and posters of Jimmy and Elvis Presley, Donna said.
"Elvis who?" joked her husband.
"Money things you can replace," Jimmy said, "but there was a
lot of memorabilia that can never be replaced."
His wife said she was touched by an outpouring from
well-wishers, and she wants to thank them all. The Deans received
innumerable cards. Former President George H.W. Bush made a phone
call to Jimmy. Several local restaurants offered to bring them
One member of Jimmy's fan club sent him her photo album,
including pictures of him and country music singer Patsy Cline.
The Deans lost their Bible in the blaze. A 12-year-old boy who
had played violin for the couple last year at an event at Jimmy's
childhood church in Plainview, Texas, sent the Deans a Bible with
their names embossed in gold on the cover.
Donna, 56, teared up as she paraphrased a letter the boy sent:
"I know how much my Bible means to me, and I was afraid you may
have lost yours, and I wanted you to have one."
Jimmy, 80, said he is at peace at the roughly 225-acre estate
off Osborne Turnpike in the Varina area. He has picked a spot near
the river where he wants to be buried.
"It's the sweetest piece of property in the world, we think,"
Jimmy said. "People that come here say it a lot of different ways.
It sure is peaceful here. We like that."