Driven by Passion

Written by Donald Farr
Photos. by Paul Bostrom and Jordan Randall

In 1976, Larry Dobbs was in the right place at the right time—and driving the right car—when he and wife Judy drove their recently-acquired and self-refurbished 1965 Mustang convertible from Lakeland to Stone Mountain, Georgia. By coincidence, and perhaps fate, their vacation trip delivered the couple smack in the middle of the newly-formed Mustang Club of America’s first car-show. The pony-car encounter sparked an idea in Dobbs’ entrepreneurial mind, one that would launch a successful business and put Lakeland on the map as the home for one of America’s top automotive publishing companies.

The son of a Georgia sharecropper, Dobbs was employed at a Sears store in Albany, Georgia in 1970 when he requested a transfer to Florida and landed at Lakeland’s Searstown, where he met Judy. By 1974, Dobbs was selling display advertising at The Ledger, an experience that would loom large in future endeavors.

Another piece of the puzzle slipped into place when he purchased a co-worker’s well-used 1965 Mustang for $225. To make needed repairs, Larry scoured local junkyards for parts and, by the time he and Judy departed for their Stone Mountain trip, the convertible was reliable and attractive.

Although surrounded by Mustangs and like-minded owners at Stone Mountain, Dobbs was more intrigued by the vendors selling used Mustang parts. “I had run across thousands of old Mustangs in Florida junkyards,” Larry says. “You could buy parts for a song, yet these guys were selling stuff for five or ten times that amount!”

Dobbs returned to Lakeland and started picking up Mustang parts at local salvage yards, then cleaning and refurbishing for resale and extra cash. Judy complained when she found old wheel-covers in her dishwasher.

Within months, Dobbs’ home-based sideline business, named Mustang Supply Company, gained momentum as classic Mustangs grew in popularity. Through a client of The Ledger, Douglas Screen Printing, Dobbs began offering reproduction stripe kits and other decals for restorers.

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Ever since George Jenkins founded Lone Palm all those years ago, the goal has been to make every member feel how Carol felt: comfortable and at home. Carol’s father always spoke about Lone Palm being a place where people can just relax and socialize in a beautiful atmosphere, supported by friendly staff. And, as reiterated by members of the Lone Palm staff, Carol really believed that to her core. But that’s not just a message Carol kept confined in the walls of Lone Palm, she carried it with her no matter where she went.

“She would always pull me to the side and talk to me for 10 minutes or more,” said Raath. “I was just a person who worked here. Carol and I weren’t business partners or close friends who hung out on the weekends. But that’s just who she was— ask anyone. She always made me feel like her dad would be proud of the club today, proud to see all the people here enjoying themselves. And she knew that would mean a lot to me to hear.” 

Sure, you might imagine someone of Carol’s stature might stop through Lone Palm to eat and talk business, but anyone actually on staff would argue just the opposite. She was there to see the people she considered her extended family. She was there to talk their ears off, and enjoy her favorite meal.

Carol would frequent Lone Palm with her close friends Patty Tomlinson and Susie Jefferson, usually sitting at the same corner table.

“She was so approachable,” said Raath. “If you gave her that slight listening ear she would talk your ear off. And it was always about legacy, and about vision. And Mr George, her father. But never about trivial, surface level stuff. She was a very sentimental person who valued her family and her legacy.”

“She missed her dad very much,” Brol said. “She would mention to me often how badly she wished her dad could meet all of the staff today, who have kept his legacy and vision going. She always said he would have loved us.”

Today, the Barnett family continues that legacy forward as they’ve become part owners of the Lone Palm Golf Club. They continue to explore what it looks like to carry on George’s legacy at Lone Palm, something obviously near and dear to Carol’s heart.

“We want to preserve it “as is” as much as possible, but what that means in the long term, who knows?” said Carol’s son Nick Barnett.

After 20 years of building and overseeing his successful company, Dobbs sold DPG for a sizable sum to Petersen in 1998. Always supportive of his staff, it’s no surprise that he shared a percentage of the proceeds with employees.

Also part of the deal was a clause stating that Petersen would maintain the Lakeland offices for five years. Although Petersen did not retain all DPG employees, they brought in others when they shifted several of their Los Angeles titles to Lakeland

A new owner, Primedia, eventually closed the Lakeland office and moved operations to Tampa in 2006.

However, the Dobbs automotive publishing legacy continued. Inspired by Larry, former employees would launch their own publishing ventures, including several Mustang titles. In fact, the last remaining Mustang print magazine, Mustang Times from the Mustang Club of America, is based in Lakeland, coincidentally adjacent to the building that Dobbs built.

Over the nearly 25 years since selling DPG, Dobbs has settled into retirement. His wife Judy passed away from cancer in 2006, and he is now happily remarried. Both sons are nearby, Jason in Lakeland and Josh in St. Pete.

For several years, Dobbs continued teaching Life Skills and Leadership Skills classes at Victory Church, seminars that drew up to 300 attendees and expanded Larry’s life-changing influence throughout the community.

Legacy is a difficult word to live up to. Larry Dobbs’ legacy is still recognized, not only by the people who worked for him or attended his church classes, but also by automotive enthusiasts around the world who remember reading the car magazines produced by Dobbs’ publishing company in Lakeland, Florida.