I tried that. Changed the user, changed the permissions, even cracked the whole tree open with chmod -R 777, and no success.
in the error logs, I was getting: (13)Permission denied: /home/me/.htaccess pcfg_openfile: unable to check htaccess file, ensure it is readable
I've finally discovered the problem... explained here [ulaptech.blogspot.com] something called SELinux?
According to that advice, I can't be putting public_html folders anywhere except in the preconfigured /var/www/html folder. To do otherwise means turning off SELinux, and since I only just learned that word 5 minutes ago I don't think it's something I should be messing around with today.
At this point I had made so many little changes to the httpd.conf and other conf things... nano has no "undo" after you've saved things, so I just wiped out the server with a rebuild of the CentOS image, and I'm starting from scratch again.
that's really not a problem - I can yum all my stuff back in less than 10 minutes (I've done it 5 times already since Friday night)
This throws a big wrench into the file organization scheme I had in mind for this new server, but at least by the time I hit the sack tonight, I should have VirtualHosts working? We'll see...