Every year, Style compiles an amazing list of Extraordinary People. The talent, tenacity, and strength of these people provide inspiration for everyone else. Some may say this part of Central Florida is just a stop on the way to bigger and better things, but the people who come from Lake and Sumter counties often hit the big leagues, the grand stages, and find age is just a number, not a time to stop doing what they love. What about the kids? They learn early that showing up and working hard means winning all the way to the top.
Stories: Leigh Neely, James Combs, Theresa Campbell, Chris Gerbasi
Leesburg native Donté Dorsey says he wasn’t afforded the opportunity to go to college, yet he knows the importance of a STEM-based education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
He helps local underprivileged and at-risk youths become technology-minded.
“It really gives them a competitive edge in going out into the workforce,” says Donté, a 2008 graduate of Leesburg High School and founder of the nonprofit organization, Youth with Technology.
Donté moved to North Carolina after high school and became an information technology analyst for Merck Pharmaceuticals. Once he began reading technology-related books for IT certification, his efforts paid off. His salary increased from $12 to $22 an hour.
Donté was eager to inspire others.
“I started going to local community centers and started teaching the certification that I learned to kids,” he says, which led to starting YWT and Ambitek Learning, a program for adults interested in IT training and certification.
“I definitely want people to know it doesn’t matter where you are in your life, you always have an opportunity to do any and everything you want to do,” he says. “If you didn’t go to college, it doesn’t mean you can’t be successful.”
Retired FBI Agent
Though many people don’t believe him, Dale Watson says he knew he wanted to be an FBI agent since eighth grade.
“Groveland High School had a career day, and an FBI agent talked to us, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” Dale says.
From that day, he planned his life around that objective. Not only did he become an FBI agent, he eventually rose through the ranks to become assistant director over all counterterrorism for the federal agency under Director Robert S. Mueller.
Dale’s father came from a small town near Groveland and his mother from Sumter County. After his parents married in 1944, the couple moved to a farm in Groveland. In 1950, his father felt a new calling—to be a minister. After two years of seminary in Texas, the family returned to Groveland, where his father preached and farmed.
Dale speaks with amazement that he and his brothers have done so well coming from a simple life in a small town. The oldest, Jim, retired as an officer in the Florida National Guard, and the middle brother, Tom, worked with billionaire businessman Ross Perot and retired fairly young.
“We all got scholarships, and one of us was even valedictorian of his class,” Dale says. “I was class president from middle school through my senior year. I played football and basketball, and I wanted to play baseball, but we had to help my dad get the crops in during the spring.”
As a distinguished graduate of the ROTC program at Florida State University, Dale was commissioned in the U.S. Army. He did this knowing the FBI hires no one just out of college—the bureau wants people with work experience.
“I never engaged in any activity that would disqualify me. If I hadn’t made it, I would have stayed in the Army, and if I came out of the Army, I probably would have taught civics and been a coach,” Dale says. “I have always found that the harder you work, the luckier you get.”
When the FBI called, he arranged to resign his commission and became an agent. During his 24 years with the bureau, Dale worked investigations of the Oklahoma City bombing, the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, the 9/11 attack, the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, the TWA Flight 847 hijacking, and the American embassy bombings in Africa. In addition to working at field offices in Birmingham, Alabama; Kansas City, Missouri; and New York City, he worked in 63 foreign countries.
He retired in 2001 and is now a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton. In his spare time, he does not watch programs or movies or read books about the FBI.
Rachel Clark personifies the mission of Keep Lake Beautiful: to beautify Lake County by engaging the community. Rachel, a 2017 graduate of Mount Dora High School, coordinated a lake cleanup among her classmates this year in conjunction with Keep Lake Beautiful and Lake County’s Adopt-a-Lake Program. For her efforts, she received the Outstanding Youth Champion Award from Keep Florida Beautiful. The teenager from Sorrento is virtually a lifelong volunteer, starting in elementary school and including recycling, lakeshore restoration, stormwater drainage, and litter prevention projects. Rachel attends Lake-Sumter State College in Leesburg, where she planted 50 cypress trees on campus. “I’d like to continue that project around the area,” she says. At LSSC, she plans to study political science. “I want to effect environmental change at a higher level as well,” Rachel says. Volunteering is fun and rewarding, she says, and everyone can make a big difference environmentally by taking small steps, such as recycling and conserving energy. “It’s an important issue to me because it’s something that affects everyone,” Rachel says. “No matter where or who you are, the environment affects us all.”
Jackie Chalifoux, of Lady Lake, is a friendly, outgoing hair stylist at Reflections Salon in Leesburg. However, when her father, Theodore, was critically injured in a hit-and-run accident, she became his advocate and pursued the driver who hit him and left the scene without flinching. The accident occurred Aug. 4, 2016, leaving Theodore with a broken neck and numerous other broken bones. Jackie watched her father suffer daily and wondered why the person who hit him wasn’t arrested. “I waited 10 days to get the accident report, and found (the vehicle) was a gray pickup. I called the Florida Highway Patrol, and they said they could check four videos based on the time of the accident,” she says. “They called back in a few minutes and said they had a suspect vehicle.” FHP sent someone to the accident scene to find vehicle parts, but they reported finding nothing. Unable to accept that, Jackie went to the site herself. “I walked about 100 yards past the spot where they hit and I found it—a piece of a Ford truck,” she says. FHP had told her not to touch anything, so she called and state troopers immediately came out to get it and found other parts of the vehicles in the process. “Corporal Jorge Diaz, of the FHP, has been wonderful. He even read my Facebook posts I wrote every day to help friends know Dad’s progress,” Jackie says. When Theodore died, the Sumter County coroner ruled his death was the result of “complication from an auto accident.” The suspect allegedly lied to his insurance company and had his uncle help support the lie that his vehicle had been hit while parked at his uncle’s house. However, he has been charged with felonies of insurance fraud, larceny, and tampering with evidence. Now, he also faces possible charges of leaving the scene of an accident or vehicular homicide as the story continues.
Atlanta Falcons Safety
A native of Sumter County, Atlanta Falcon Keanu Neal played five positions during his 2016 rookie season: linebacker, nickel, deep safety, box safety, and outside corner. His versatility—and his 106 total tackles—helped lead Atlanta to the 2017 Super Bowl, where the team suffered a heartbreaking 34-28 loss to the New England Patriots.
Historically, football is built around players who specialize in playing one position. Think about it. It’s hard to imagine a 350-pound offensive lineman juking and outrunning defensive players en route to a 75-yard touchdown run. It’s equally difficult to envision a 195-pound running back getting into a three-point stance and trying to block defensive linemen who are bigger, stronger, and more powerful.
However, the sport has undergone a recent evolution where players are being constantly shuffled to play multiple positions. Keanu, 6 feet, 210 pounds, is at the forefront of that evolution.
A 2013 graduate of South Sumter High School, Keanu played three years for the Florida Gators before being picked in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Sources: rotoworld.com/player/nfl/11337/keanu-neal; thefalconswire.usatoday.com/2017/05/30/kam-chancellor-on-keanu-neal-that-boy-is-special
Detroit Tigers Pitcher
Shane Greene, who turns 29 in November, started a journey at East Ridge High School in Clermont that took him to the New York Yankees as a starting pitcher before a trade to Detroit. This season he became the Tigers’ closer out of the bullpen.
Why do you enjoy living in Clermont in the offseason?
It’s been my home since I was in sixth grade. Back then it was a smaller town, and I have a very close-knit group of friends who are like family to me. Also, my parents are still there so it’s nice to be close to them.
What are your favorite memories of growing up there?
The lakes! I grew up on Lake Louisa and when I was old enough to drive a Jet Ski or a boat, I spent every second I could on the lakes.
What’s your biggest thrill professionally?
My biggest thrill was being a part of Derek Jeter’s last game in Yankee Stadium and him hitting a walk-off single. It felt like I was living a real-life movie.
Has it been difficult to go from starter to closer?
The transition was honestly easier than I thought, but I had a lot of help from guys like (relief pitchers) Francisco Rodriguez, Justin Wilson, and Alex Wilson. It’s definitely a different mindset when coming out of the bullpen compared to starting, but it’s the adrenaline and pressure situations I enjoy the most. When you’re closing, every situation is a pressure situation, so it’s been a lot of fun so far.
How do you like playing for the Tigers?
The old English D is one of the most famous letters in the world and it’s because of the tradition that comes along with it. Playing for the Tigers in the heart of Detroit is an honor. The fans show up every day of the week, and we, as players, don’t take it for granted. As far as this season is concerned, obviously, it hasn’t gone as planned, but we have a lot of young, hungry kids in the locker room now so we have to come together and compete day in and day out.
Ron Holiday is the master ballet instructor at Dance Dynamix in the historic Tropic Theater in downtown Leesburg. His posture is perfect and he can do splits. That doesn’t seem impressive until you learn he is 81 years old. The ballet master began dancing when he was 11 years old, and working on the family farm gave him the upper-body strength that a male ballet dancer needs. When Ron met 7-year-old Doris, he immediately disliked her and didn’t want to dance with her. However, he now admits “she was the ugly duckling who became a swan.” The two met again while working in New York City and eventually married, taking the stage names Ron and Joy Holiday. The combination of ballet and acrobatics made them one of the top acts at Radio City Music Hall for 14 years. Ron and his late wife performed everywhere from Broadway to opera houses to the original Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergère cabarets in Paris. Still nimble and graceful, Ron cautions his young dancers to “treat your body as your most prized possession. When you feel healthy and energized, it improves all areas of your life, personally and professionally.” He also teaches at Dance Depot in Umatilla and is choreographer for Martial Arts Creative Form competitions.
Actress Susan Harrison was born in Leesburg on Aug. 26, 1938. She went on to graduate from the High School of Performing Arts in New York City, and is best known for her film role in “Sweet Smell of Success,” where she played opposite Burt Lancaster. She gave up acting in 1963 to raise her children. Susan has five children, including daughter Darva Conger, who was the winner of the reality show “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” and had the marriage annulled shortly after the wedding.
Robert Dunston, 83, fixes sandals in need of new straps at Dunston’s Shoe Hospital at 15 N. Eustis St., in downtown Eustis, while surrounded by shoes waiting for new soles. Making footwear repairs has been his livelihood for nearly seven decades. “I wouldn’t work nowhere if I didn’t like what I was doing,” he says. He doesn’t have a business phone, believing calls would interfere with getting work done. “There’s too much to be working on,” Robert says. “People say, ‘I was sent in here to you because they told me you were good.’ I’ll ask them, ‘Do you believe everything you hear?’”
Elizabeth Cook, 45, is a straight-shootin’, quip-crackin’ country music singer-songwriter who was born in Wildwood and now makes Nashville her home. She’s touring in support of her 2016 album, “Exodus of Venus.”
She also recently debuted a new song on a podcast, describing “Stanley ‘By God’ Terry” as a true story about growing up around her parents’ honky-tonk bands in Central Florida. To hear the one-hour interview with Elizabeth and her acoustic performance of the song, go to walkingthefloor.com/episode-103-elizabeth-cook.
Nothing could be better than her own words in this Q&A:
What are your memories of growing up in Wildwood?
Mama went into labor on Lake Miona, but I don’t remember that part. I grew up in Sunset Park in Wildwood. We inherited a house my Uncle Alvah had built there. He worked for the railroad. When he died, we got that house and left a trailer park in Bushnell. I was still infantile. Eventually, I’d tear up those seashell roads in that little neighborhood on my Western Flyer. I’d get in trouble for riding through the retirement communities where no kids were allowed…but their roads were so smooth. I’d follow the mosquito truck and huff pesticides, though I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I’m sure that’s lurking somewhere in my organs and will come back to haunt me.
I sang at the Sunset Park Church of God a good bit, especially once Daddy quit drinking. We didn’t go to the Pine Grove or Coleman bars anymore. But back in the day, Mama and Daddy’s honky-tonk bands played there. Mrs. Susan Jones, my middle school English teacher at WMS, sent me a brick from the Pine Grove Lounge, which I understand they are tearing down. I have it sitting on my bar in my home in Nashville. Mrs. Jones is and was the best. She comes to a lot of my Florida shows and on the Outlaw Country Cruise almost every year. She’s a cool backstage hang, too.
Since my daddy was proprietor of Cooks Welding, we had keys to the gates and fishing privileges to all the big farms around Sumter County. We fished A LOT. And sometimes I would join but I also walked around looking for arrowheads, especially at the peat mine. We moved to South Georgia when I was 16, but I still have (and wear) my Wildwood Wildcat blue satin cheerleader jacket. I’m still so in love with the Florida I remember and the people that lived there.
Did you see family and friends this year when you toured Florida?
I did. In fact, my guest list in Orlando was 17 people deep! And someone brought a cake! And the backstage was too small to accommodate everybody and the mayor of Orlando was there to give me a quilt and it was nuts. So after the show, we cleared the venue, pulled tables together, and all sat around drinking beer and eating cake. It was awesome. I saw family and friends at almost every show, sometimes multiple times, which was nice ’cause that meant maybe I wasn’t embarrassing them.
What’s been your biggest thrill professionally?
There are so many. I get to meet a lot of nice people, and sometimes people who aren’t so nice, but I see so many things just overall. For a little girl that was set afloat on an alligator in Lake Miona to go play France and drink fine wine for the weekend, tour Australia (Florida is better btw), hang out in Japan and eat all kinds of crazy stuff, and then come home and play the Opry, it’s pretty nuts.
What’s coming up in the future?
I’m writing a new record and starting back on the road this fall. I have a million projects going at once. I do a role on Adult Swim’s cartoon series “Squidbillies.” I have an old country star house I’m fixing up. We’ve started making my own T-shirts in the garage because I hate the manufactured ones. I’m training my dog to horse race, shooting skeet every chance I get. Fishing in Tennessee kinda sucks…I mean, relatively. I miss home every day and would marry Florida if I thought it wouldn’t leave me.
As a kid, did you ever imagine being so successful?
Actually, I imagined being more successful…but a helicopter pad could still happen.