At 90, after living and working in Key Biscayne for nearly 70 years, Dick Vernon is an institution. He is probably one of the few people still present to have seen World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker wave to the crowds during festivities marking the 1947 inauguration of the causeway linking the key to the mainland.
With a full head of white hair, Dick Vernon cuts a handsome figure. He is a cheerful and gregarious man, full of optimism – a real treasure trove of stories. If you lived on the Key in the 1960s or 1970s and did business with Key Biscayne Savings & Loan, filled a prescription at Vernon’s Drugs, attended Lions Club meetings, been a member of the House of trading or spending time at the Beach Club, you surely remember Dick Vernon. He was president of all of them.
Everyday towns all over America have their own versions of Dick Vernon. But because of our island’s remarkable history and the outsized role the Key has played on the world stage, Dick’s life has been anything but ordinary.
He golfed with Bill Baggs, boated with Bebe Rebozo and rubbed shoulders with President Nixon. Her pharmacy was selling Joy perfume – expensive at $75 for a small bottle – just so Mrs Rickenbacker could use it as an air freshener for her villa. Yet he remembers the names of the people who worked for him at the store and the children who came to spend their pocket money on comic books and milkshakes.
Dick grew up in Coral Gables with his parents Harry Sr. and Lucille, and his brother and sister, Harry Jr., and Barbara. He served four years in the United States Navy, including three in Korea. While on home leave in 1950, he and his father traveled to Key to see the staked out mall where their sundries store would soon be built. The store was originally located closer to where Winn Dixie is now, but later moved south to the corner of Crandon and Westwood. Artisan Kitchen & Bar is here now.
It’s hard to overstate Vernon’s importance to the early Key community.
After opening in 1951, Vernon’s quickly became the main gathering place on the island. There was Key’s first telephone, a U.S. Post Office substation, and a beloved soda fountain that served hot coffee and breakfast in the morning and legendary burgers for lunch, washed down with cherry Coke cold.
“Everyone had their usual seat at the counter,” Dick explained, “and they knew not to sit on someone else’s stool.”
In 1953, Dr. John Handwerker, Key’s first doctor, convinced Harry Sr. to add a pharmacy to the store. Residents were tired of having to wait for ordinances to be issued by Coral Way.
When Dick got out of the Navy, he met Jane, who worked at Vernon, and the two were soon married. He signed up for classes at the University of Miami on the GI Bill and tended the evening bar at the Key Rendezvous with his friend Harry Tellam. When he learned that his father was paying the pharmacist a then-generous salary of $4 an hour, Dick enrolled in pharmacy school at the University of Florida and returned to get back to work.
Vernon remained in business for over 40 years until – at 5 p.m. on August 25, 1994 – its doors closed for the last time. It was the end of an era, but even in retirement Dick remains very busy.
He starts most mornings by taking his golf cart around the island. Last week he kindly invited us to ride with him. The first stop was No Name Harbor in Bill Baggs State Park, where he likes to count sailboats. That morning, he counted 11 boats, compared to 22 the previous week.
The next stop was the lighthouse. He pointed to a sign indicating how the area would have been developed had it not been for Bill Baggs’ tireless efforts to preserve the land as a park. A passing tourist inquired about the abandoned structures in the bay. “It’s Stiltsville,” he explained. “There were 28 houses there, but now there are only 6. The seventh burned down last year.” He is a source of knowledge.
Then we headed to the island of Mashta. He knows roughly who lived where, even though most of the original houses were razed long ago. He drove us near the lot on Island Drive where his parents lived after moving from their first home on West Mashta Drive. It listed where the general manager of the Key Biscayne hotel lived and the house on the corner of South Mashta Drive where sportscasting legend Red Barber lived. He showed us where Fulton Ivey had a ramp for his seaplane.
Near the site of the Nixon compound, he pointed to the helipad behind what was once Helen Carter’s home. “Ms. Carter told the Secret Service they could build the helipad there even though it blocked her view,” he said. “She was a patriot.”
Mid-morning, his phone rang. His daughter-in-law, Thania, called to remind him to come by for dinner. Thania is married to Dick’s son, Robert; they are local real estate agents and he is a former mayor of Key Biscayne. Dick’s daughter, Debi, also lives on Key. She recently retired after teaching at St. Agnes Academy for 30 years.
The visit could have lasted all day, but at 11 it was time for Dick to head to the Beach Club for a cigar – a daily indulgence. But before we parted, he had time for one last story.
“It was the early 70s and Nixon was in power. I was on the beach with some friends near the Key Biscayne hotel when I noticed Bebe [Rebozo] standing next to the president, waving at me. Oh great, I thought – the President of the United States probably wants my advice on the economy again!
Only on Key Biscayne.