STORY: Michelle Clark+Mary Ann Desantis+Leigh Neely+Shemir Wiles PHOTOS: Fred Lopez+Provided
There have been people who could see the future and make it happen. They understand that living is for today, but their legacy is what they do to make tomorrow better for those who follow. The people who made history in Lake and Sumter counties are no doubt pleased with those still making history today.
The face of philanthropy
As the broker/owner of Micki Blackburn Realty, Catherine “Micki” Blackburn Nagel is known as a shrewd businesswoman who’s found great success in the world of real estate.
However, Blackburn isn’t just about business. She’s given back to the South Lake community through several philanthropic endeavors. One of her most extraordinary acts of kindness was helping fund mammograms at South Lake Hospital for women who didn’t have insurance.
Chairman of South Lake Historical Society’s board of directors, Blackburn was the driving force behind establishing the Clermont Historic Village. She’s also a member emeritus of Cornerstone Hospice Foundation’s board and she’s been involved for several years with Langley Medical Clinic in Sumterville.
“I think a lot of what motivates me is my life experience,” she says. “You have to ask yourself—and I know it may sound corny or trite—is this world any better because I’m here? Am I making a difference?”
Joe knows Leesburg
Joe Shipes is happiest when Leesburg’s streets are teeming with residents and visitors enjoying one of the 200 events organized by the Leesburg Partnership every year.
“My job during the past 20 years has been to guide the stakeholders here in Leesburg through the National Main Street process,” Joe says. “I am pretty much a behind-the-scenes person, directing, encouraging, introducing, and disseminating concepts and ideas.”
During Leesburg Bikefest, Joe never leaves downtown, and guides his staff and volunteers every step of the way. “At the end of the day, the people of Leesburg are making the extraordinary effort and positive strides to improve the community.”
Sheriff William Okla Farmer Jr.
The man with the badge
Better known as Sheriff Bill, Sumter County’s beloved lawman has a long and illustrious career of serving the public. Immediately after graduating from South Sumter High in 1965, Farmer completed finger print identification training with the FBI. He promptly went to work as a member of the Duval County Sheriff’s Office Crime Scene Investigation Unit.
In 1966, Farmer joined the Army, returned home in 1968, and pursued a career in service to the people of Sumter County. Deputy was his title for more than four decades before he was elected sheriff in 1997. During this time, he was committed to the communities of Sumter County. Aside from leading a proactive administration, he serves on several other committees and boards. His office sponsors a charity golf tournament in his name for the youth of Sumter County.
In the last three elections he ran unopposed, a testament to the trust the people have in his ability to hold the office.
All in the family
The Fussell name is synonymous with the famous Webster Flea Market. Many from the family served the market in some capacity through the years and dedicated themselves to the family business.
Donald Fussell, a Webster farmer and businessman, believed in a need for a market and was a founding member of the Sumter County Farmers Market at Webster. He was director until 1938. Carroll W. Fussell was market attorney before becoming a judge for the Fifth Judicial Circuit. Robert Fussell served as livestock auction foreman and market foreman.
The Fussell most remembered for his lifetime of service is Marvin C. Fussell, who began working the market livestock pens at the age of 12, and eventually served as director and market manager until his retirement in 1992. Marvin saw the market through some of its major growth.
Six Decades of Service
When Emogene went to work in the Lake County elections office in 1958, she used a manual typewriter and “lots and lots of carbon paper.” Things changed over the years, including her job title, which became supervisor of elections in 1972—the same year President Richard Nixon was running for re-election. Today, the 90-year-old is preparing to oversee her last presidential election as she announced her retirement from her own elected position when her term ends on Jan. 2, 2017. Stegall, known for running a tight ship, has never had any taint of a controversy during her time in office and is one of Lake County’s most widely respected politicians. She attributes her success to running “honest, fair, nonpartisan, and transparent elections.”
A man with a mission
When remembering his father, Bud Beucher can’t help but smile. “He was charming, loved life. He was a man’s man,” he says. “He was smart, a character…He was a visionary.”
Visionary is a great word to describe a man who took a badly neglected 18-hole golf course and transformed it into a premier resort in Central Florida. It all started when Nick Beucher came across a Wall Street Journal ad for the Floridian Country Club of Howey-in-the-Hills and after seeing the breathtaking 168-acre property, purchased it for $160,000.
Some of Bud’s earliest memories at Mission Inn involve sitting on the first tee and, with some prompting from his father, asking where people had driven from to play the course.
“People were coming from places like Tampa, Daytona, and Gainesville just for day play,” he says.
Then, in 1969, Beucher decided to create a Spanish Colonial-style golf resort complete with overnight accommodations, and through the decades, Beucher added more buildings, a spa, tennis courses, a marina, a trap and skeet range, and various other amenities.
“My father had a very humble beginning and we haven’t forgotten that,” says Bud, vice president and general manager at Mission Inn. “He always passionately believed in what we were doing and what we could do.”
Lake County’s Warrior
Eustis native Carey Baker has fought for what he has believed in for decades—as a member of the armed services, as a member of both the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Senate, and now as the Lake County Property Appraiser. As a legislator for Lake County, he helped pass historic property tax cuts for millions of Floridians and sponsored legislation to modernize the appraisal process. He now has a new mission: enhancing the level of useful information and services for Lake County property owners. And he’s well on his way to accomplishing that goal as his agency received a prestigious international award in 2015 from the International Association of Assessing Officers for a website that is “transparent and easily understood.”
“The biggest challenge has been making these positive changes, including improvements in our office’s processes, while maintaining our position as the lowest funded, per capita, assessing office in the state,” he says.
When he was 18, Baker joined the family business—the A.W. Peterson Gun Shop in Mount Dora—founded by his father. “I have enjoyed both public service and private business tremendously…but in my heart I will always be a small businessman living the American dream.”
Dr. James A. Glisson
Celebrating a Legislative Achievement
Most people know Dr. James Glisson as one of Lake County’s preeminent chiropractors and the founder of Lake Health Care Center, Inc., in Eustis. But four decades ago he was serving in the Florida Senate, where he co-sponsored a bill to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a legal holiday. Florida became the first state in the Deep South to establish the MLK holiday when Glisson’s bill was signed into law May 8, 1978, five years before Congress established it as a federal holiday. Glisson said years later that the holiday was at the top of his legislative achievements. Prior to being elected to the Florida Senate in 1973, Glisson had served in the Florida House of Representatives for the 33rd district from 1968 to 1972.
Hello, it’s me
Thanks to forward-thinking Max Wettstein, direct-distance dialing doubled the size of the Florida Telephone Corporation in Leesburg. He worked at the company for 44 years, spending the last 22 as president before retiring in December 1975. The Florida Telephone Corporation was founded by Max’s father, Otto Wettstein III.
“Growing up, we always played ‘telephone company.’ It was just what we did as kids. We had old phones and equipment around, so it was perfect,” says Amanda Wettstein, Max’s granddaughter.
“My grandfather was a visionary for Lake County. He was also kind and gentle. He spent so much time with us that we never really knew how busy he was or how many people he employed. He was just granddaddy,” Amanda adds. “My favorite memory of him is how we would do yard work for hours in the heat, then sit on the back porch and have a Coke that came in the old small glass bottles. That Coke and the time spent talking with him is still priceless.”
Max was a founding director of Citizens National Bank, on the board for the Lake County Boys Club, and a member of the American Red Cross, the Rotary Club, Jaycees, and Elks.
A woman who answered with art
Beverley Steele founded the Young Performing Artists nonprofit to meet the needs of young artists not just in Webster but all over the U.S. Her work as the head of a marketing and management-consulting firm makes her a national ambassador for the needs of children.
Her most intimate work, however, has been within the community, providing a place and resources for young people to find self-expression. The organization is responsible for numerous scholarships, including the Day of Stars Scholarship competition which awards one worthy artist $4,000.
Through numerous initiatives, Steele brought art education to the forefront. Her commitment to community programs has helped build a culturally rich foundation for Sumter County and surrounding areas.
Founder of The Villages
Evidence of Harold Schwartz’s contribution to the development of Lake and Sumter counties is not difficult to find. The sprawling planned retirement community known as The Villages is everything Schwartz dreamed of and more.
It began with a trailer park in the 1970s in what is now called the historic side of The Villages: Orange Blossom Gardens. The plan was to have a community where retirement didn’t mean a rocking chair and inactivity. Instead, it meant creating a lifestyle where clubs, recreation, and neighborhoods you could access with a golf cart connected people.
To say his dream came true is an understatement. There are 100 miles of golf cart paths, 630 holes of golf, and around 2,400 organized clubs in The Villages. It now includes parts of Marion County, too.
Schwartz came from Michigan, where he was a successful businessman, and continued to use those skills to build the community of his dreams. Many residents from those early years knew Schwartz personally. He strolled in the streets of his mobile home park, greeting neighbors and stopping for a chat. He was often described as a polite and kind man who wanted to be sure that his residents were happy.
After 10 years, Schwartz convinced his son Gary Morse to join him in Florida. Morse, who worked for an advertising agency in Chicago, put his marketing skills to work. The father and son built a golf course, which they let residents use without charge. That was perhaps the turning point for their “field of dreams.” The lure of free golf was an invitation too good to refuse and it was repeatedly announced on The Golf Channel, which brought people from everywhere to Central Florida.
Soon hundreds of homes sold every month. Everything a resident needed was provided by the owners of The Villages, including town squares with nightly entertainment, recreation centers, retail outlets, banks, and medical offices, and The Villages became the vibrant community it is now.
One of Schwartz’s most memorable gestures was the billboard he erected in a vacant lot on U.S. Highway 441/27. The sign featured an enormous picture of him with his hand pointing to the dirt. The caption said Schwartz predicted a hospital would be built “right here,” indicted by his large, cardboard hand. The Villages Regional Hospital was completed and opened in 2002, a year before his death.
Like legendary settlers of old, Schwartz was a visionary with the capacity to see the potential in an empty space. His legacy is marked in The Villages by the statue of him, his arm outstretched, welcoming newcomers to Spanish Springs Town Square.
David M. Walker
Reaching for the Stars
Although the Lake County road named after him is only one-mile long, the late David M. Walker covered millions of miles in space after graduating from Eustis High School in 1962. Two decades after he was voted “most likely to succeed,” Walker was an astronaut aboard the space shuttle Discovery and later commanded three more shuttle missions, including the Atlantis, which propelled the Magellan space probe toward Venus. Walker died of cancer in 2001, but his legacy lives on at the Eustis Historical Museum in the permanent David Walker exhibit.
Paving the Way for Women
Catherine Hanson’s career is a series of firsts: She was the first female elected to the Lake County Commission, where she served from 1990 to 2006, and was the inaugural candidate in the county’s Women’s Hall of Fame. As a commissioner, her accomplishments included expanding fire services to rural areas, initiating an affordable housing program, implementing responsible growth, and establishing the annual State of the County address. She paved the way for women to be elected to countywide seats, and six women have since followed her as county commissioners.
Piloting a City’s Growth
When Tavares’ City Administrator John Drury first arrived in 2006, he was having lunch at O’Keefe’s Irish Pub and noticed seaplanes landing on Lake Dora and then pilots wading ashore so they could grab some lunch at the restaurant.
“I thought to myself, ‘What if we give pilots a ramp so they don’t have to walk through muck and water,’” he said in a 2013 interview with Lake & Sumter Style.
In 2010, Drury’s vision became a reality when the Tavares Seaplane Base opened and began attracting not only more seaplanes but also family-friendly businesses, including restaurants, hotels, a splash park, a conference center, and an array of festivals in the revitalized Wooton Park.
“Our challenge was to turn a vacant downtown into a vibrant downtown,” said Drury, also a pilot himself.
Major Alexander St. Clair Abrams
A Man of Vision
By the time Major Alexander St. Clair Abrams arrived in Lake County in 1876, he had been a Confederate soldier, a newspaperman, and a lawyer. The New Orleans native was a wise businessman who dreamed of seeing Tavares become the state capital. He spent his own money to make Tavares the county seat in 1888.
St. Clair Abrams was confident that Tavares would be a city of 100,000 people someday,” says City Councilman Bob Grenier. “He would be absolutely delighted to see what the city has become.
Mentoring through sports
Coach Inman Sherman is a no-fuss kind of man—it is this simple, down-to-earth mentality that made him a legend in Florida football. For 32 years, the coach built up players at South Sumter High School, not just a football program. Sherman hasn’t stopped to count his own accomplishments, however. He can’t tell you how many games he’s won because he doesn’t collect them. He’ll tell you he’s too busy.
“When we coach, we coach daily. We do what we need to do next to get better,” he says.
He only focuses on what’s next and on the players themselves. This makes him legendary. Though he won’t mention it, since he claimed the position as South Sumter’s head coach in 1984, he’s had more than 250 wins. While an honorable milestone, his biggest accomplishments are the success stories of the young men he coaches.
Several players had careers in college football and the NFL. Clint Hart, Ben Moffitt, and Earl Everett are three of Sherman’s players who signed with NFL teams. Sherman’s most recent player to make a name for himself is Keanu “KeKe” Neal (Hart’s younger brother), a Florida Gator who opted to forgo his senior year for the NFL draft.
“I’ve watched him as a child and have seen him grow up into the awesome young man he is,” says Sherman.
Sherman counts his blessings not only with those who continue the sport but the young men who are successes in other areas. Sherman notes Dr. “Ferdie” Fernando Serra of The Villages played on the first team he coached. Joey Hooten, the Sumter County property appraiser, played football for Sherman in the ’90s.
“When the players advance themselves, when they’ve done something more than graduate high school and they come back and share with you, it is just really gratifying.”
Sherman has invested in the lives of many young men through the years, and his greatest successes lay their stories. Sadly, this cherished community icon is hanging up his whistle this year and retiring.
“I enjoyed every minute of it; stopping now is perfect because I still enjoy it and I’m still healthy. There are still some things my wife and I would like to do,” he says.
The Raiders coach is leaving a legacy of pushing for excellence and believes that drive will continue after he is gone.
“We have a great staff here. Ty Lawrence will take over with the current staff. It’ll be a seamless transition for our boys, and I think that’s important. We have a real good team of juniors that will be seniors next year. “
Legendary thinking puts his players first, even to the very last.
Wendell “Wendy” Husebo
The voice of Lake County
Leesburg provided more than a warmer climate for Wendell Husebo when he moved down from Minnesota. Wendy, as he was affectionately known, helped establish Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, where he was superintendent for many years. He and his wife Jean had three children: Lanny, Larry, and Sandra.
“Being raised by and having had the privilege of working with my dad for over 30 years, I saw that Dad was consistently the same at home and at work: always encouraging, always looking for the best in others, and always giving of his time,” Lanny says.
In 1951, Wendy and his brother Paul bought WLBE radio station, where Wendy greeted residents with his perpetually cheerful voice for many years. The two brothers also owned the Leesburg Packers baseball team, which later became The Lakers.
“It was a way of life for Dad to give of himself, whether starting his business, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Leesburg Regional Medical Center, or starting a professional baseball team,” says Lanny. “Growing up, Dad was the voice of Lake County and produced videos for the city, county, and chamber events, plus he was the voice for ‘time and temp’ for the telephone company.”
Wendy and his wife, Jean, established Husebo Advertising, which became Husebo Advertising and Public Relations in 1962 and is currently under Lanny’s leadership.
“As important as these endeavors were, Dad was always an encourager to my brother, sister, and me. His positive, caring attitude was a major influence in shaping my life and Lake County.”
They called him Mr. Leesburg
Local historian George Rast was a beloved community activist until his death at age 102. His first home in Leesburg was a brand-new four-room rental on Lake Street. He was a charter member of the Leesburg Lions Club and the Heritage Society and was called “Mr. History.” For years, he was the force behind the annual Watermelon Festival, a tradition that went on from 1930 until 1957. Winner of numerous awards and acclamations, Rast was a community icon for many years.
A Renaissance Woman
This Lake County Women’s Hall of Fame member is also a past president of Leesburg Partnership and the current executive director of the Lake County Education Foundation.
“Legendary? No, I am a believer in community and lover of Lake County. My previous position at The Daily Commercial allowed me to form relationships [that helped organize] Lights of Lake, Mardi Gras, Ibini Tera, and Lady of the Lakes Renaissance Faire. I now serve 46,000 students and employees in our schools. My skills are not making a corporation rich but enriching the lives of our students and teachers. Hopefully my efforts will produce a true Lake County legend.”
Hello, Mr. Clermont
When Robert “Oakley” Seaver passed away June 17, 2006, the entire South Lake community mourned the loss of a great leader.
“He had a tremendous love for his community,” says Pastor Doug Kokx, the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church of Clermont, who was a good friend of Seaver. “He was a unique individual.”
Seaver was involved with a number of civic organizations, most notably the Clermont Kiwanis Club and the Friends of Cooper Memorial Library. He also worked as Clermont’s postmaster for 32 years and served on the South Lake Hospital Board for 50 years.
The year before Seaver passed away, the city presented him with his own road, Oakley Seaver Drive.
He gave Leesburg wings
Henry Pringle moved to Leesburg in 1929 with wife Dorothy and children George and Rosemary. He joined his father, who developed Silver Lake Estates. Henry’s biggest contribution to Leesburg’s growth was convincing the Army Air Force to build their World War II airport here. He donated the land, and today, the international airport is Henry Pringle Field. In addition to his entrepreneurial work, Henry did extensive pro bono work in town.
A man of substance
Beloved among athletes and parents alike, Coach Hubert Dabney was a community inspiration. He organized the building of a pool for blacks in Leesburg’s Carver Heights. It’s now the Hubert O. Dabney Pool.
He was on the board for the Florida Interscholastic Athletic Association from 1932–68. He began teaching in 1939 at Royal High School in Sumter County and finished at Leesburg High School where today, students walk into the Hubert O. Dabney Stadium. His football record was 207-45, and he coached basketball, baseball, track, and swimming. After retiring, he was athletic director at Leesburg High School.
Dolores Gano Walker
One could argue as the granddaughter of two South Lake legends, it would only be natural for Dolores Gano Walker to be a legend in her own right.
Her grandfather, Archibald Gano, came to Clermont in 1878 from New Jersey and opened a sawmill that provided lumber for many of the first homes in South Lake, including his Clermont home that is now the Mulberry Inn on Montrose Street. And her other grandfather, George Myers, was the first mayor of Mascotte.
Walker, Clermont’s official historian and a founding member of the South Lake Historical Society, is a fixture in front of the original Cooper Memorial Library at the Historic Village. On Sundays, she likes to give tours and share her infinite knowledge of South Lake’s history.
For her, the best part about volunteering at the Historic Village is educating children about their past. Each generation, she says, is less inclined to seek out their family history.
“It is important to teach them from whom they are descendants,” says Walker. “It’s important for future generations to have this information.”
Over the years, Walker has been recognized for her community service, including receiving the South Lake Chamber of Commerce’s Gem of the Hills Award and most recently, being inducted into Lake County’s Women’s Hall of Fame.
Annie’s got a gun!
The statue behind the Leesburg Public Library features a young woman and her dog: Annie Oakley and Dave, that was beloved as well as a part of her sharpshooter show. Not many people know Annie Oakley loved to hunt and fish in Lake County. She and her husband Frank Butler frequently stayed at the Lake View Hotel, near where the library is now. It’s possible people didn’t know the famous sharpshooter was in their midst as she preferred the title Mrs. Frank Butler in private life.
Lady of South Lake
At a time when media was a man’s world, Ann Dupee shattered the glass ceiling to blaze a trail that lead her through an incredible career.
She has worked in radio, television, advertising, and newspaper. In 1968, she and her husband, George, purchased the South Lake Press, and under her leadership, the newspaper increased to 48 pages and grew to a circulation of 4,000.
Since selling the paper in 1992, Dupee has remained quite active in the community. She served on the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council, became the first female member of the South Lake Kiwanis Club, and served a two-year term as president of the Greater Clermont Area Chamber of Commerce. Café Dupee at Cooper Memorial Library in Clermont is named after her.
In 2001, Dupee was inducted into the Lake County Women’s Hall of Fame. She also earned coveted spots in the Lake County Business Hall of Fame and the Lake-Sumter State College Hall of Fame. Dupee is quick to say the work she’s done hasn’t been for the accolades.
“I haven’t done it for that,” she says. “I do it because I love this community and it’s where my interests lie.”
A crusader for civil rights
It’s hard to say if Virgil Hawkins ever dreamed of making the kind of impact he did. After all, what he wanted seemed so simple: to study law at the University of Florida. However, overcoming Florida’s Jim Crow laws that kept state universities segregated proved to be a battle that took Hawkins nearly a decade to fight. Even after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Hawkins to be admitted to UF in 1957, the Florida Supreme Court pushed back, invoking states’ rights.
Realizing his case was going nowhere, Hawkins withdrew his college application in 1958 in exchange for a court order that desegregated UF’s graduate and professional schools. Three months later, UF admitted its first black law student.
Hawkins eventually earned his law degree from the New England School of Law; however, his application to take the Florida Bar Exam was initially denied because the school was not accredited by the American Bar Association. Citing the harsh treatment Hawkins received when he tried to enroll at UF in 1949, The Florida Bar urged the state’s high court to allow him to take the exam. In a 7-0 ruling, the Florida Supreme Court allowed Hawkins to practice law by special waiver.
By this time, Hawkins was 69 years old. There were concerns his battle for equality had cost him his most productive years. Nevertheless, Hawkins opened a law office in Leesburg and spent much of his career helping the poor and under-represented in Lake County. Sadly, the concerns expressed at the beginning of Hawkins’ career were substantiated later when Hawkins began making serious legal blunders toward the end of his career that ultimately caused him to resign from the Florida Bar in 1985. Three years later, Hawkins died at the age of 81.
Concerned that Hawkins’ errors were overshadowing his civil rights legacy, then-Lake County attorney Harley Herman launched a campaign to have Hawkins’ Florida Bar membership reinstated. On Oct. 20, 1988, the Florida Supreme Court posthumously reinstated Hawkins’ bar membership and in 1989, UF named legal clinics in honor of Hawkins.
In addition, the Florida chapter of the National Bar Association is named in honor of Hawkins and in 2001, UF awarded its first posthumous honorary degree to Hawkins. Locally, a monument to Hawkins stands in his hometown of Okahumpka on the street named after him, Virgil Hawkins Circle.
A founding family
The Caruthers name is one that has been a part of Sumter County since the early days. Sumter began with settlers looking to claim land and set up a livelihood for themselves. James Caruthers, one of three brothers from Burke County, Georgia, moved his family to Shady Brook in 1843.
James opened and operated a sawmill and was commissioned to build many structures, including Marion’s first county courthouse. Brothers William B. and Samuel followed James’ success and moved to Sumter County, helping to settle and develop many of its communities, from Coleman and Bushnell to Wildwood and others. Many descendants became farmers, respected community leaders, church deacons, soldiers, and cattlemen employed by the government.
Today, the Caruthers family remains closely tied to the community and chances are if you live in Sumter County, you know a Caruthers, or you’re related to one. The family is known for tradition and service. One tradition still active is the monthly maintenance of the family graveyard. The men take the day to clean and work the grounds while the women bring a hot lunch. The Caruthers family continues it to this day to honor their pioneering ancestors and draw the family closer. The hope is it will prevent what almost seems like inevitable fragmenting while instilling a sense of community attached to the land and its history.