Thank you, Dee Boutilier Sulenski, for sharing a photo of your license plate! One of my faves, for sure.
Dee Sulenski remembers the moment when she finally decided to give her left leg to Willie Nelson.
On a trip to Connecticut in 1998, she chatted with her favorite cousin, a biker adorned with multiple tattoos, about the process of getting inked. Once her cousin explained that tattoo artists can use stencils to create designs from almost any printed source, Sulenski was sold.
Back home in Virginia, the devoted Willie Nelson fan headed to Gloucester and had his autograph etched above her left ankle.
Since then, that first tattoo has been joined by four more elaborate pieces done in Richmond by renowned tattoo artist Tom Renshaw. Two are portraits of Willie as an adult; another is of him as a boy. A final tattoo is of Nelson’s trusty acoustic guitar.
All five pieces decorate Sulenski’s lower left leg.
“I liked Willie so much I knew I wanted it,” she says, thinking back. “Someone asked me, ‘What if you stop liking Willie?’ I said, ‘I’ll be dead, so it won’t matter. It’s not going to happen.’ ”
The tattoos attract attention.
“It’s funny to watch people stare â€” they don’t think you see them staring. But most people are impressed with the artwork. I’ve never had a negative reaction.”
That includes the main man himself, who’s admired the tattoos in person several times.
“He is genuinely pleased,” she says.
Clearly, 53-year-old Dee Sulenski is a Willie Nelson superfan. Aside from the tattoos, she’s made her tidy Toano home a shrine honoring the soft-spoken country outlaw.
Her den is Willie Central â€” walls covered with autographed photos, posters, magazine covers and devotional art such as a small, colorful “velvet Willie” painting â€” but you’ll find bits of memorabilia in almost every room in the house. Even bathrooms are decorated with framed Willie Nelson autographs.
Sulenski has given all six of her cats Willie-related names, Abbott for Nelson’s hometown in Texas and Trigger for Nelson’s well-worn guitar.
Her car’s license plate reads WLE NLSN.
Sulenski has successfully surrounded herself with reminders of the red-headed Texan. And very soon, their worlds will intersect again.
Tonight, Sulenski will attend her 100th Willie Nelson concert at The National theater in Richmond. Tomorrow, she’ll take in No. 101 at The NorVa in Norfolk.
Will she be in the balcony or near the stage at the shows?
OK, that’s a dumb question.
“Right down front,” she says without hesitating. “I want to see every bead of sweat.”
Sulenski first fell for Nelson in a movie theater.
“I saw the movie ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ right before I left for Coast Guard boot camp in 1980,” she says. “I don’t know if the timing had something to do with it, but from that point on, it was all Willie.”
Looking back, Sulenski isn’t clear on what exactly flipped her switch, Nelson’s gentle music or his laid-back charisma.
“I can’t explain it,” she says. “I don’t think it’s possible to explain what happened. I love his music, but he’s such a wonderful, generous man. He’s genuine. There’s absolutely nothing fake about him
“He really pays attention to his fans. If he’s talking to you, it’s like you’re the only person in the world.
“He’s really a kind person.”
She’s met Willie Nelson countless times â€” but always in structured musician-fan situations.
She says she’s careful not to invade his privacy.
“I care for Willie sincerely, and I’ve always been very respectful of his time,” she says. “I would never do anything to make him uncomfortable.”
Their first close encounter was after a 1989 performance at Scope in Norfolk. She gave her camera to a random passer-by who took a snapshot that’s become one of Sulenski’s most prized possessions. It shows the pair cheek to cheek, both beaming.
Their second meeting, at Kings Dominion outside Richmond, is where she scored the autograph that now adorns her leg.
“We kissed spontaneously,” she remembers. “Then I said, ‘I need a picture! Can we do that again?’ ”
The photo, taken by her husband Marion Sulenski, is on the wall of her den.
It’s not easy to be the spouse of a superfan. Marion admits to feeling a twinge of jealousy when he saw the print of that particular photo. But with reassurance from Dee, he’s come to terms with his wife’s obsession.
Despite the fact that he prefers classical music to country, he’s accompanied Dee on most of her Willie Nelson adventures â€” including a stint in Branson, Mo., where they saw two shows a day for three straight days.
“It makes her happy and that’s what makes me happy,” he says. “She enjoys it so much it hasn’t been hard to be a good sport.”
The couple has been married for 18 years â€” a period that spans much of his wife’s Willie Nelson infatuation. Marion says their outings have strengthened their relationship. More than anything, though, he’s a realist. He knows he couldn’t change his wife if he tried.
“It would be like standing on a beach with a bucket and trying to keep the tide from coming in,” he says. “You just can’t do it.”