OKEECHOBEE — Jeff Kennedy moved to the Lake O area from coastal Boynton Beach five years ago now, and he’s settled in comfortably to the small-town life he sought, with no intentions of going anywhere soon. A former Minnesotan and hair/tanning salon owner, he’s from the St. Paul area, “Paul Bunyan territory but God’s country,” had a bad winter injury and decided 20 Februarys ago when he slipped on that patch of ice, “That’s it.” Twenty-four hours later he was in Palm Beach County “with $400 in my pocket, and I was done with winter.” He was single at the time but met his wife, Sharon, later that year, and married her in 2002, and “here I am.” He’s mighty happy to be alive at just-turned-60, because in 2013, he was diagnosed with chronic lymphomic leukemia, a cancer of the blood that, of course, can be terminal.
So what brought him to Okeechobee? “The lake drew me — being on the water. My house in Treasure Island, 5 feet out the back door is my boat. Where else can you find anything better?”
Upon hearing his prospects for treatment, he decided he didn’t want to undergo chemotherapy or radiation, and says his doctors wished him lotsa luck when he said he wanted to try treating it with cannabis. But he’s a longtime, firm believer in the mostly illegal drug’s healing powers (it became legal for medical use in Florida not long after his diagnosis). The drug had gotten him into major trouble with the law a few years previously in Palm Beach, but he eventually prevailed after spending more than $10,000 on legal defense in a marijuana possession and cultivation case that began when he himself had called the police because of a break-in and they ended up searching his home and arresting him.
That’s when he started the website Imapatientnotacriminal.com — part of the Florida Cannabis Action Network — but that’s not his main gig anymore. He’s leasing the space for Back to Butch’s Bar in Okeechobee, has had it open for six months, and it’s become a very popular lakeside hangout.
Butch’s has a roomy iair-conditioned belly-up tavern and table setting, with a walk-off screened-in porch, a patio tiki bar and stage, outdoor concession stand and dock facilities set amid a “fish camp” style RV park. He offers also an old-time shuffleboard table, beautiful billiard tables and a newly organized Wednesday night poker tournament (*ask your bartender).
In an interview in March, he said of the place’s popularity level, “They’re just killing me here… If I ran for mayor tomorrow, I could probably get elected.”
We put our standard questions to him.
How is your livelihood connected to Lake Okeechobee? Is the lake a big reason that you came to this area?
I came to get out of the city and get away from all the hustle. This is my fifth year living in Okeechobee.
What would you be doing if you weren’t here?
I’d be doing what I was doing before, running my pro-legal cannabis charity.
How does the relative health of the lake affect your livelihood?
The health of the lake is very vital to our business. It attracts many fishing people. Used to be at one time considered the bass capital of the world. If the lake is bad, the people aren’t going to come. I have 17 boat slips on the water, so that would definitely hurt my business if the lake continues to go in a downward spiral.
To you, what’s the best thing about living near the second-biggest freshwater lake in the nation?
The business opportunities are endless here. The biggest and best thing about being able to do business in this town is the people.
What is something that might force you to leave this area and why?
What are your biggest worries when it comes to Lake Okeechobee? And how do you feel about how it’s being portrayed in outside media?
Lake O is nothing more than one of the pawns on their chessbard as these politicians negotiate with those who fill their pockets. It’s all political when it comes to the media.
What, as you see things, are the biggest and best assets of doing business near Lake Okeechobee?
The local community has supported us from the day we opened our doors, and for that I’m eternally grateful — and for our locals that support Back to Butch’s Bar. My biggest asset are the local townfolks, and second is being on the water.
Chris Felker can be reached at email@example.com.