RICHMOND, Va. – Richmond icon Donnie Corker – “Dirt Woman” – died in his sleep at age 65 on Sept. 26, falling a couple decades short of the goal he set back in February, to “die at 90, onstage.”
His legacy will survive much longer, as the stories of one of Richmond’s biggest characters seem endless. CBS 6 reporter Mark Holmberg recently interviewed Donnie, after he survived a heart attack, a stroke and assorted severe complications.
“Don't worry, he said at the time. "I'm going to die at 90, onstage," all dressed up - "probably in a two-piece" - so he'll be prepped for the funeral home.
Corker looked and felt better at the time, and he told Holmberg that he was certain when he left this world that he was going to heaven.
"Got to be," he said. "God wanted me to do a lot of things for people. I don't go (to heaven), nobody will."
Corker talked about his dad and his mom and how accepting Richmonders have been to him for all these years. "They knew what I was," he said.
Corker grew up in rough-and-tumble Oregon Hill with seven brothers and sisters, the son of a railroad man and his wife who both loved him as he was. He never learned to read or write. "I never went to school," he said. "I always rode the city buses."
The stories about the cult figure are endless, starting in the 60s when he was a prostitute on Richmond's streets. He was always forthright about his years of "tricking;" behavior he was certain "God has forgiven."
It seemed he was everywhere, Holmberg wrote: Selling flowers on the street; peeling garlic at Mama Zu; haunting bingo halls; a regular presence at city council meetings.
Then there was the mud and jello wrestling, along with eating dog food for charity. Dirt Woman would do just about anything.
"He was a lightning rod for bizarreness," said Richmond musician Peter Headley, who dreamed up the annual Christmastime "Hamaganza" benefit ("Hams for the Hamless!") and musical extravaganza two decades ago.
For 20 years, Dirt Woman played a wild and raunchy "Mrs. Claus" for the benefit, raising thousands of dollars and hundreds of hams for the Central Virginia Food Bank and other charities.
He posed for calendars and starred in music videos, including one by Richmond's world-famous GWAR.
He was famously (and falsely) arrested at Doug Wilder's historic inauguration as governor, and filed a $1 million lawsuit against the city that had some merit, but didn't succeed.
In 2008, he ran for mayor, saying "Dirt Woman gonna clean up Richmond," as he told us back then.
Even most of the beat cops and detectives who would see him have a grudging respect for him.
"Donnie's got a good heart," said Tim Morley, a retired Richmond police lieutenant who used to work the 900 block of W. Grace Street, known as the "battle zone" back in the day.
"Donnie was never mean to anybody," Morley added, noting Dirt Woman and the police knew their respective roles. "It was kind of like the wolf and the sheepdog; at the end of the day, everybody would punch the time clock and, 'Good night Ralph,' 'Good night Sam."
Jerry Williams, a longtime Richmond TV critic, producer, and advocate for alternative lifestyles in Richmond, said Donnie sort of blazed a trail - without really meaning to do it.
"Donnie pretty much has just been himself and been outrageous," said Williams, who is resuming work on a documentary about Dirt Woman.
According to legend, Dirt Woman's campy and sometimes wild drag shows got the attention of filmmaker John Waters, and there was some talk of Dirt becoming the next Divine.
As Holmberg wrote, Corker was famous for remembering the names and the personal stories of the people he met. He would make huge rounds of phone calls every day, mostly just touching base or asking for small favors. He called the news desk at CBS 6 practically every day.
He will be missed by many who were close to him, and remembered by even more. His legend as an Oregon Hill boy who bridged nearly all cultural divides and greatly expanded the concepts of decency and acceptable behavior will long be a part of Richmond's history.