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Did you ever wonder about the guy that is a constant participant when it is time for public comment at Village Council meetings? Van Cadenhead has quite a history with the Village having been a regular at meetings since Islamorada first incorporated 23 years ago.
Van was born July 11, 1948 at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, son of Master Gunnery Sargent Thomas R. Cadenhead and First Lieutenant Elaine Cadenhead, delivered by Dr. Leon J. Tune, or so his birth certificate claims.
Van’s early years were spent at a variety of military facilities from Jacksonville to Memphis to Pensacola to Opa-Locka.
When discussing his early years, Van remembers a day in Opa-Locka when his father, then a Marine Corps nuclear weapons expert, took him to see a nuclear bomb on the military base. Van laughs when he claims that experience was what turned him into a hippie. That huge black bomb, and the thought of what it could do, was terrifying to a five-year-old.
In 1956, his parents retired and the family moved to the Florida Keys where his father operated the Mandalay Fishing Camp at MM 98 in Key Largo. It was those early years in the Keys when Van learned to love the environment and perhaps most of all the underwater world he learned to explore.
The stories of Van’s childhood are certainly unique and explain his diverse talents. He learned the fundamentals of carpentry at age five from his uncle when he stayed with him when his father was shipped off to Korea. He learned diving techniques when he worked for the famous treasure hunter, Art McKee, for $.25 an hour mowing grass and working on his boat, the Treasure Princess, starting at age 8. A few years later. he worked as an assistant photographer to the world-famous underwater photographer Jerry Greenberg while he was chronicling “Key Largo Reef: America’s First Undersea Park,” the cover story about John Pennekamp State Park for National Geographic’s January 1962 edition.
Van spent a summer in California as a stunt double for Tommy Kirk (from the “Spin and Marty,” Mickey Mouse Club series) in the movie “Catalina Caper.”
Van graduated from Coral Shores High School in 1966 in a class of 42 students. His senior yearbook contains several multi-page stories about the class of ’66 written by Van, philosophical then, just like today.
Following Coral Shores, Van went to Indian River College. Then came the summer of 1967 – known in history as “The Summer of Love” in the hippie world. Though Van always considered himself that hippie, it was a “Summer of Boot Camp” for him as he wanted to make sure his military parents always would be proud to have him home for Thanksgiving dinner, something he’d just not want to miss. He didn’t want to kill any Vietnamese, so he joined the Navy and became a sonar technician.
Van put in four years in the Navy and then returned to his life in the Florida Keys. He first lived in Key West, a city he loves. He worked for Mel Fisher during the early years of Fisher’s quest to find the wreck site of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha which sank in 1622. Van left the treasure salvor two weeks before Mel lost his son and daughter-in-law when their boat capsized and sank in 1975, and long before Fisher discovered the wreck in July 20, 1985 with its estimated $450 million cache known as "The Atocha Motherlode." But while Van was diving with Fisher in 1975, they were already on the trail of the Atocha, finding gold coins, gold chains, a sword and whistle where the ship had broken up and was dragged by the 1622 hurricanes.
As a young man just out of the military, Van was married and had a young daughter. He needed to find a job that paid better than treasure hunting, so off to the Upper Keys he went to find work in the construction industry. He put his carpentry fundamentals that he first learned as a young child to work. To be able to live in the Florida Keys, he often worked more than one job at a time. Van worked on dive boats at Holiday Isle in Islamorada and at the Holiday Inn in Key Largo. And he was a scuba instructor.
What about his music? That started when he entered first grade at W.J. Bryan Elementary school in Miami. There was an audience of 500 when Van started first grade and the young students were invited to come up on stage to entertain classmates. Van immediately headed for the stage. The music teacher asked if he would like her to accompany him on the piano – “No, I will sing a cappella.” And he sang the only song he knew from beginning to end: the Marine Corps Hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma, To the shores of Tripoli.” Van loved the applause and attention and thus began his love of performing.
At age 14, Van played at Sunday jam sessions at the Caribbean Club in Key Largo, and at 16 he started a band, the Velvetones,” while a junior at Coral Shores High School. He was the lead singer for his growing band, often entertaining classmates with the likes of “Hang on Sloopy” and the popular Beatle’s songs during the time when "Beatlemania" was raging.
In the late 1970s, Van sang at some of the local venues, like Papa Joe’s. Soon, he added other musicians and they became known as the Matecumbe Minstrels, and he called himself Dr. Tune... yes, after Dr. Leon J. Tune who delivered him when he was born in 1948.
Van is well-known around Islamorada for his outspoken political views. Ever since Islamorada incorporated, Van Cadenhead has frequented Village Council meetings. He often brought his guitar and sang his own musical parodies to get his points across. Van continues to speak up often in his attempt to be a voice of reason in his determination to save every tree possible and to assure development is handled appropriately when it comes to protecting our environment and the legacy of Keys residents.
One thing is for sure. Van Cadenhead loves the community and the people of Islamorada. He has been a welcomed voice on the LPA for several years now. When Van talks, or sings, you need to listen.