On a sun-baked Florida day on Sanibel Island, we burst into the grand chaos of Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille. A long line of admirers snakes around the palm-rimmed porch and inside for a handshake and hug from their hero, Randy Wayne White. He sits on a tall stool, sweaty, sunburned and smiling.
This ex-Davenporter, one of the old hometown’s true literary successes, is signing copies of his latest thriller, “Chasing Midnight.” There are people from Kansas City and Canada and Chicago.
Randy, a New York Times best-selling author, wears a Davenport Central High School Blue Devils baseball jersey. It is brand-new, the real thing. He stops the signing.
“Bill Wundram is here,” he shouts. He stands to fit me into a Blue Devils jersey like the one he is wearing. When Randy was a student at Central, he was a knockout of a ballplayer, and he has coaxed his old coach into sending him the jerseys.
Kimmi McGonnell, manager of the place, seats us in the booth where Randy shows up to write nearly every morning. Mostly, he uses a computer; occasionally, he writes in longhand — just like Charles Dickens used to write his novels.
We listen and laugh with Randy. To every guy he doesn’t know, he says, “Hey, skipper, it’s good to see you again.” Every woman — no matter the age — is “darling” or “dear” or “sweetheart.” He knows how to work a crowd. They love him and his books; he is a million-plus best-seller. On this day, he will have two signing sessions, two hours each. He expects to sign 1,300 books.
“I love every minute of it,” he says.
A fan named Dorothy from Naperville, Ill., leans into our booth and says that Randy is her guardian angel. “I couldn’t walk or do anything; Mayo gave up on me. One day someone brought me to Randy for an autograph. He hugged me. Next day I was like brand-new.”
Randy’s Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grill is a big place, with a dining room and the ambience of palm trees and a big sun-dappled patio with a guitarist. Plenty of atmosphere for Doc Ford, the central character in all his books.
WE SIT with Dr. Paul and Karen Rohlf of Davenport, who have a place on Sanibel. We’re chomping away on grouper sandwiches when up comes Randy’s wife and fellow Central grad, Wendy Webb.
Growing up, Wendy lived at 22 Edgehill Terrace in Davenport. “Your brother Tommy used to cut our grass,” says Karen. “And you had a brother, Ben.”
“I’ll go home and bring back Ben. He’s with us for a week,” Wendy replies.
Ben joins us, an Episcopal priest, a handsome moustached fellow who is as affable as his sister. All this is going on in a booth while Randy is sweating away, signing books and hugging and posing for pictures an arm’s length away.
“Life with Randy is easy-going, but he’s a go-go guy,” Wendy says.
I listen to all the praise for this ex-Davenport guy, who proves that a person can make it big time if he has determination and that overused phrase, “the right stuff.”
Randy’s parents left Davenport when he was a senior in high school, so he got a cheap apartment to stay and graduate with his class.
His grades were so-so, but he loved to write. After school, he would go to Vander Veer Botanical Park and scribble essays about the park and the city.
“Well, here I am, doing pretty darned well,” he shrugs during a recess between book signings.
We sit at a picnic bench, away from crowds who still want his attention. He wipes beads of sweat from his brow, slaps my back and says, “Don’t you dare quit writing.”
While Bill Wundram is in Florida, he is writing occasional columns.