People tend to think the extraordinary happens somewhere else. Not so. Lake and Sumter counties have an exceptional array of extraordinary people and some amazing extraordinary places.
STORY: Leigh Neely, James Combs, Theresa Campbell and Debbi Kiddy PHOTOS: Fred Lopez+provided
Lake County Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Randy Jones, 51, has made it his mission to go west to fight forest fires when needed.
“There’s gratification in going out and helping folks, in helping local units fight fires because they don’t have the personnel to manage it,” says Randy.
He was one of nearly 350 firefighters recently deployed to a massive fire in 5,600 acres of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. The flames were fueled by extremely dry conditions, and it was one the largest fires in the park’s history. In late November 2012, Randy was among the firefighters who headed up north to help during Hurricane Sandy.
He began making forestry fire calls on the state level in the 80s before being trained to be part of a federal team.
“Even when I retire from the fire department in 2018, I still plan to continue doing this.”
Domestic Global Village
Five college students traveled from France to Lake County to spend July through early September serving as volunteers for Habitat for Humanity of Lake-Sumter. The Domestic Global Village, a European-style hostel in Eustis, became their “home away from home.”
Located at 1806 S. Bay St., Domestic Global Village is a 96-bed facility that opened its doors in October 2013. College students and volunteers from around the country come here to sleep, eat, and relax at the DGV. It features a media center, game room, commercial kitchen, bathhouses, and outdoor volleyball and basketball courts. The purpose of the DGV is to provide a fun and comfortable place for volunteers to stay while they work with Habitat’s house building and community-based projects in Lake and Sumter counties.
“This was the vision our CEO Kent Adcock had. It was a very questionable thing to do, but the impact has been huge,” says Carlos Beron, director of volunteer services for Habitat. He adds that volunteers also have free time to enjoy Central Florida attractions while they are here.
“The Domestic Global Village is probably one of the most important factors of our affiliate right now. We have many partnerships with schools because of this facility, and they love it,” Carlos says.
Students from Ohio State University and Maritime Academy have already booked return trips in 2017.
“Not only is it because of the hospitality we provide, but they also give a contribution to Habitat while staying here,” says Carlos, who notes registration opens this month for colleges to volunteer in 2017, and the DGV can comfortably house 60 students a week.
“Hopefully the French students will go back to France and tell other students about the facility in Eustis and how they had a great time,” Carlos says.
Thomas Roudaut, 22, of Paris, treasured experiencing American culture along with the ability to learn different construction methods. He was involved with building a new Habitat home in Lady Lake.
“People here use wood to make houses. In France and Europe, we prefer to use concrete for all kind of building,” Thomas says. “It’s very different, but I do think it’s faster to build a house with wood, and it’s very interesting to learn.”
Thomas was joined in the construction efforts by his French peers Laura Dechorgnat, 25, and Yohan Porquet, 22, both of Nice; Darlene Coulibaly, 22, of Lyon; and Jerome Coignon, 22, of Paris.
The DGV attracted attention with other Habitat organizations across the country, according to Carlos. “A lot of other Habitat affiliates are saying, ‘Wow! We need to invest in something like this where we can house volunteers and students at the same time.’”
A graduate of Mount Dora High School, Jeff Whitfield says his the early influence in his music was his mother, who sang gospel music. “She was constantly singing and was my first inspiration,” he says. “Since she played the piano, there was always music around.”
Admittedly a shy person, Jeff says he’s still not sure where his courage to perform originates. “I feel like it’s just something I have to do. I still get nervous and scared every time I have to perform,” Jeff says. “I remember the first time I sang in front of people at a seventh-grade talent show at Mount Dora Middle School. There’s just something about people clapping and your friends cheering for you because you did this thing. Once that bug bites, it’s hard to put down—it’s like a drug.”
Jeff cut his first CD, “Kindred Bridges,” at 20, and his most recent album, “Choices,” can be downloaded from his Facebook page.
“I didn’t have dreams of being a rock star. I just love music and want to be able to sing and play well,” he says.
The best days of his life were the day he married his wife Tracy and the births of their children, Chelsea and Aidan.
Barbara Martin-Pope, 80, devoted nearly 11 years to waking up in the wee hours every Tuesday to cook hearty brunches at her Eustis home. She then transported trays of scrambled eggs, ham, salmon patties, grits, biscuits, salads, spaghetti, and other items to the City of Eustis Parks and Recreation Building to feed up to 60 seniors.
She paid for all the food herself.
“I enjoy cooking and I like doing stuff for people,” says Barbara, a former restaurant owner, who was encouraged at a young age to serve others. “My father was a minister and my mother was a beautician, and she taught me to go out and help people in the community.”
Barbara recently retired from cooking the Tuesday brunches and was honored by Eustis officials for her dedication. Now she’s taking time to join her peers at the recreation building and socialize over coffee, doughnuts, and bingo games.
The Donnelly House
Anna McDonald Stone originally came to Mount Dora with her parents. Her husband, William, was a wanderer, and Anna was eventually granted a divorce. Surprisingly, she also took on the debt owed on her husband’s land and eventually paid it off. When Capt. J.P. Donnelly purchased the land beside hers, romance sparked, and the two married in 1891. They became business partners as well. In 1893, he built her a beautiful Queen Anne-style house that is still a town landmark with its octagonal turret and wraparound porch. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Located on Donnelly Street, it is directly across from Donnelly Park. J.P. was the town’s first mayor, and sold the town the land that eventually became Annie Donnelly Park. In 1930, the massive structure became the Masonic Temple Lodge. It is not open to the public, though the Mount Dora Lodge #238, F&AM, occasionally has public tours.
Nashville recording artist Jimmy Stanley has established a fan base in Music City and while touring on the road . He appears in the TV shows “Nashville,” and “Crazy Hearts: Nashville,” yet he proudly tells everyone he’s a “Florida boy from Eustis who is living the dream.”
He headed to Nashville after his 2006 graduation from Florida State University, and was “discovered” at the famous Blue Bird Café when a TV crew was filming a pilot.
The director assumed Jimmy was an actor. “Well, you look like one. We’re going to bring you back. You’re going to be the only recurring character, other than the cast,” Jimmy was told. “I didn’t believe him, and sure enough they called.”
Jimmy now carries a Screen Actors’ Guild card. He was given speaking lines on “Nashville,” playing himself at the Bluebird Café, and once his songwriting talent was discovered, it led to being a cast member on “Crazy Hearts: Nashville.”
“The fans have been amazing; they are die-hard loyal fans,” he says. “To play my music for millions-plus people every week, it’s cool. I was super blessed to have that opportunity.”
His single “Say You Want Me” is on iTunes, and Jimmy was thrilled to return to perform a concert at the Eustis Hometown Celebration at Ferran Park.
“I had this moment at the amphitheater, looking around and seeing what a great job the City of Eustis has done with the park,” he says. “There were little kids running around, it was the Fourth of July weekend, and I said, ‘Man, this feels really good.’”
The moment made Jimmy excited about settling down. He and singer Kristen Kelly recently tied the knot during a country wedding in Nashville.
“A big field party,” Jimmy says. He and his bride built an arbor to exchange their vows. Their guests were seated on hay bales covered in blankets; the reception featured a chili bar and Cajun boiled peanuts.
They met in Nashville and their relationship blossomed while on tour. Jimmy’s surprise marriage proposal to Kristen was seen by millions on the TV show, “Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta” that aired last February.
“She’s my soulmate. We both spend a lot of time on the road, and sometimes we get to play together, which is pretty cool,” says Jimmy. They were able combine their honeymoon with gigs in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“My life has been unpredictable,” says the son of ministers Pam and Geoff Bunnell of Eustis. “God puts things in front of you, and you may think you know what you want and where you are going, but you can go a lot of different directions.”
Jimmy relishes every opportunity to sing near home. He was touring with Ronnie Milsap last year when they came to Eustis to play.
“We parked our tour bus directly across from Crazy Gator, and there were notes from people on the bus door saying, ‘Jimmy, we love you!’” he says, adding the heartfelt messages were proof to what he already knew: “There’s no place like Eustis or Lake County in the world, and I’ve been to a lot of places.”
Don Van Beck
If you wanted to describe Don Van Beck in one word, it would have to be tenacious. Don works diligently to recognize and honor local veterans, often in ways city commissioners find too much for their budgets. However, something as insignificant as money is no deterrent to the veteran of World War II and the Korean War. “I believe it’s important to honor these men and women and make sure no one forgets the cost of freedom.”
That work continues with the Vietnam Memorial, which includes putting a Huey helicopter atop a ground pole to illustrate how pilots swooped into the jungle to rescue wounded soldiers. He often can be found in the hangar at Brainerd Helicopters, where the big bird is being restored. He monitored the progress of the restoration while completing 45 radiation treatments for prostate cancer during a nine-week period.
Always a busy person, Don has been an entrepreneur, a management consultant who authored two books, and commodore of a yacht club. Now that’s he’s retired, he’s a dedicated volunteer. He’s executive director of AMVETS and has no plans to slow down anytime soon. “I want to live until I’m 95 as long as I’m able to do stuff,” says Don, who’s 88 now.
A 14-year-old math prodigy who can solve a Rubik’s Cube with amazing speed, Danielle Carson of Eustis mastered multiplication and long division as a preschooler. By first grade, she was doing algebra.
“Math is easy for me,” says the math major at Stetson University in DeLand. She began taking college classes last year and made straight A’s.
“Most of the professors don’t know that I’m 14,” says Danielle, who is taking Calculus II, physics, cryptology, and a required freshman seminar class this semester.
“I appreciate getting a great education, and being able to continue learning,” she says. “The professors are very smart, and it’s great being able to work with students at my level and beyond.”
Danielle expects to graduate college at 17. She already has her sights set on a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“What I really admire about her is her hard work, and I don’t think she could be in college now if she hadn’t been such a hard worker,” says her mother, Mindy Carson, a computer science instructor at Valencia College, who began homeschooling her daughter after seeing her excel academically.
Danielle aspires to become an engineer. Building and designing space rockets, she says, would be her dream job.
Judi Boyer Bouchard
For nearly 48 years, Judi Boyer Bouchard sought answers about her older brother who went missing in action in Laos during the Vietnam War.
She did speaking engagements to raise awareness about military members who were prisoners of war or missing in action, and she was active in the National League of POW/MIA.
The answer to her many prayers came on the eve of what would have been Alan L. Boyer’s 70th birthday. Judi received news that his remains had been found and identified through a DNA match. Her brother, who was a member of the 5th Special Forces, was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
“The service at Arlington was absolutely perfect,” says Judi. “I was totally overwhelmed, especially by the number of people who showed up after so many years.”
Some of her brother’s fraternity brothers from the University of Montana were in the crowd.
“I have no other living relatives, but found out just how many ‘brothers’ I now have,” Judi says. “And many, many Special Forces soldiers, most of whom never met Alan, also came to pay their respects. It was truly overwhelming.”
Following a 21-gun salute, Taps and bagpiper’s performance, Judi was the first to lay a red rose on her brother’s casket, followed by others leaving POW flags, Vietnam T-shirts, and POW/MIA bracelets with Alan’s name.
“The entire day was beautiful, overwhelming, and amazing,” Judi says, adding it gave her a sense of peace.
She also felt her late parents’ presence at Arlington. “I know they were there with me in spirit,” she says.
Le Petite Sweet
A weathered “Simpson Hotel” sign hangs above Le Petite Sweet in Mount Dora, yet the hotel began in 1925 before it was closed in 1983. In its heyday it was noted as the first fireproof hotel in Central Florida, according to the builder’s grandson, Bob Simpson of Mount Dora. The hotel reportedly attracted guests from the north and as far south as Cuba.
The Judy Family Bluegrass Gospel Band
A group of men and women softly pat their feet on the church floor. They clap, they sway, they sing as beautiful sounds of the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and guitar fill the air. In this day of mega-church campuses featuring electrified praise bands, the Judy Family Bluegrass Gospel Band is a throwback.
Because bluegrass is acoustic music, their instruments are not amplified, allowing them to play their organic sounds with perfect purity. And fancy clothes or outfits have no place in their band. In fact, they take pride in being “real-deal Lake County rednecks.”
“I remember performing at a tea party event,” says Dennis Judy, who plays the mandolin. “A woman there told us she would like to have us back but that we needed to wear color-coordinated sports coats. I told her I just bought new clothes at Wal-Mart and am very proud of them. Heck, I walk around with my finger in my belt loop just trying to hold my pants up. And if a piece of clothing doesn’t say Hanes on it, I won’t wear it!”
With each performance, the band, featuring three generations of Judy musicians, is on a mission—literally. They perform at churches, family reunions, weddings, fundraisers, and festivals spanning from South Georgia to south Florida. For them, it’s not just about music. It’s their ministry. It’s not about entertainment. It’s about faith.
“We’re a close-knit, family-oriented bluegrass gospel band,” says Dennis’ brother, Randy, who plays upright bass. “We know our calling is to reach people. People ask us all the time if we would perform at their funeral when they die. That’s a very special feeling that they would want us to give them a send-off.”
Their firm faith has helped them garner a firm following. And their personable, down-to-earth appeal makes others comfortable with opening up to them—including complete strangers.
“During a performance at First Baptist of Central Florida, a woman approached Dennis and me,” said vocalist and guitarist Ricky Boone. “She told us how her son was on drugs and about to go to prison. She couldn’t even speak to her own pastor about this. I think people can relate to us because we’re on their level. People tell us all the time that we are the real deal. We’re as true as grits.”
There are plenty of lighter moments, however. This close-knit family band can joke with the best of them, and audiences love their good-natured sibling humor. Furthermore, they have no qualms being on the receiving end of rural stereotypes.
“One time we were performing at a food drive in Poinciana when a woman from Scotland asked if she could perform with us,” Dennis recalls. “Afterward, she told us that she had never played with a redneck, stringed orchestra.”
The late Cecil Austin Judy, the father of Dennis and Randy, formed the band. A self-taught guitar player, he instilled the love of bluegrass music into his children, and it became a family love affair. The Judy family performed together for free at churches, birthday parties, and funerals.
“Mom taught us how to pray, and dad taught us how to play,” Dennis says. “We’ve been training for ministry all these years.”
Cecil succumbed to cancer in February 2014. However, his children continue his proud legacy by producing beautiful harmonies and original bluegrass songs. And that’s music to the ears of Cecil’s wife, Wyona Judy.
“I’ve spent all these years praying for salvation for my children,” says Wyona, who spent 49 years as a Sunday school teacher at Church of God of Prophecy in Mascotte. “Music is how God has blessed us.”
The Judy Family Bluegrass Gospel Band consists of Cecil Austin’s three children, Dennis Judy, Randy Judy, and Cindy Boone. Randy’s son, Dakota, and Cindy’s husband, Ricky, are also members of the band. Dakota, 20, also performs in another bluegrass band aptly named Third Generation. He performs alongside three brothers and a sister: Bruce, Denver, Dallas, and Destin. “I will continue the family’s legacy of making beautiful bluegrass music,” Dakota says.
Deep local roots
Wyona Judy’s maiden name is Wyona Drawdy. Her great grandmother was Dora Ann Drawdy, whom surveyors named Lake Dora after in 1846. Dora was one of the first settlers in Mount Dora and is memorialized today with Dora Drawdy Way, an alley in downtown Mount Dora. “I remember hearing what a very generous person she was,” Wyona says. “When surveyors were surveying the town of Mount Dora, Dora allowed them to stay at her home. Her kindness and hospitality is why they named Lake Dora after her, or so the story goes.”
Great Escape Lakeside
Andrew Greenstein has made a habit of dreaming big. He set a goal to retire early and he did—at age 28. He built Everafter Estate, his ideal home loosely based on Michael Jackson’s Neverland. He traveled a great deal and began renting his home when he was away for long periods and that led to building The Sweet Estate in Minneola, a candy-themed hotel with 10 bedrooms and a pool shaped liked an ice cream cone. Now the father of two children, he and his wife enjoy parenting together, so when they decided to build another hotel, the whole family participated—Great Escape Lakeside in Groveland opened in June and has been occupied ever since. Each room represents a different game. You’ll find Monopoly®, Clue!®, PacMan®, a Laser Maze, Operation®, and Scrabble®. There’s even a Las Vegas Room and a console where you can play The Price is Right®, Family Feud®, or perform like an American Idol® contestant. There’s a giant water slide that takes you into the Go Fish!® Pool, Human Foosball, Human Bowling, and a giant Connect 4® outside. There’s also a theater for watching movies and a video game and pinball arcade. Andrew and his wife Belinda take care of all three places along with their children, Baiden and Kayden, and a full staff.
Clermont’s downtown-waterfront master plan is moving at full steam. Victory Pointe, an $8 million eco-friendly, urban park on the west side of downtown, breaks ground in January. The lush, natural setting and re-imagination of the beach by Lake Minneola means new event space. In addition to hosting triathlons and festivals, it serves storm-water needs for downtown property owners, which is attracting investors.
Clermont’s Waterfront Park has long been enjoyed for the white, sandy beach and pristine waters of Lake Minneola. That, along with the chain of lakes, is attracting new businesses due to the connection of the Coast-to-Coast Trail. From that point, it is exactly 101 miles to the Atlantic Ocean and 101 miles to the Gulf of Mexico!
Epic Cycles, across the street from the trail, recently opened one of the state’s largest bicycle shops. The unique shop includes a cafe with athlete-recovery drinks, a spa especially suited for bicycle riders, runners, and other athletes and a bicycle repair shop in addition to an array of high-end bicycles.
Other businesses getting in on the fun are Lily’s on the Lake Restaurant, which has a banner reading, “Lily’s Loves Athletes,” and offers paddle sport rentals and amazing views of extraordinary sunsets. Florida Plus Realty has a new office next to Epic and is creating “stay and play” cottages on the property for short-term lodging for visitors and athletes.
Robert “Bob” Turner knew he wanted to be a photographer at an early age—12 to be exact. With money from his paper route, he bought his first Kodak camera. He loved taking pictures and took action shots of friends on the ballfield or at play. The photos were so different from the canned poses in a studio picture that parents readily paid the 12 cents Bob asked. When his mother discovered his scheme, she helped him calculate the cost involved in his little business, and he raised the price to 25 cents to cover the cost of materials. He eventually used his skills to earn a merit badge for photography in the Boy Scouts.
Following high school graduation, Bob joined the United States Navy and qualified for photography training. While stationed with the Atlantic Fleet Camera Party in Newport, Rhode Island, Bob was picked to be the official White House photographer when President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s photographer left due to a death in the family. He spent four days following President and Mrs. Eisenhower.
Though Bob planned to stay in 20 years, he left the navy to marry his beloved wife, Mabel, who died earlier this year. He finished his career at The Davidson School in Pennsylvania and retired to Florida. You may see him at various events from The Villages to Ocala, doing what he has always loved—taking pictures.
As you drive down the winding path approaching Sydonie Mansion, at the southern tip of Mount Dora, you are transported to another time and place. The serene allure of nature calms the senses and sets the tone for your visit.
According to historical documents, the dwelling was originally surrounded by 600 acres of natural vegetation and wildlife. Perched on the highest point of the 12-acre estate, overlooking Lake Minore, the estate is magnificent. It was designed by renowned architect, Grosvenor Atterbury, completed in 1904, and recently added to the National Register of Historic Places as the oldest historic mansion in the state of Florida. In addition, it is said that Thomas Edison designed the estate’s irrigation system.
The desire of present owners, Amy and Clark Frogley, is to restore it to its former glory for tours and a venue for weddings and other events.
“The whole reason this house was built here is because of the view,” says Amy. “The Laughlins thought it was the most beautiful place on the planet, and they had traveled the world.” James L. and Sydney Page Laughlin built the house in 1878.
The wraparound front porch is open and airy but has a blue plank ceiling to reflect the clear skies. The 112-year-old wooden original front door is massive, a full eight feet high, with the original screened door.
Every turn reveals more treasures from the past—from the traditional grandfather clocks to period lighting to decades of history in art. Venetian plaster is part of the renovations with gold leaf being painted on handcrafted original molding. The bannister—more than a century old—is still solid, lustrous, and stately.
Upstairs, large bedrooms are elegantly dressed with relics from around the world. They’re heated with coal-burning fireplaces, and there’s still no central air. The exclusive German windows are hinged for easy opening and closing.
Much of it still needs extensive restoration. When asked if she ever feels overwhelmed, Amy’s immediate answer was, “Every day!”
However, her passion to restore The Sydonie Mansion is relentless and bigger than the immense project.
Amy added to a touch of elegance by placing her personal paintings throughout. She is a talented singer as well as an artist and met her husband Clark in a theater group. Since their four children are grown and out of the house, they left hectic New York behind for the charm of Mount Dora. Much of the original furniture was sold or auctioned off, and she is hopeful they can be brought back to their original home.
Dora Parc, located on south Clayton Street in Mount Dora, is the newest in luxury communities in this charming city. Downtown Mount Dora is just a mile away—close enough to walk or bike for a pleasant morning ride for coffee and breakfast.
The neighborhood will have 38 home sites on its terraced 22 acres, each with deeded access to Lake Dora, a lake view, and a private walking path to the waterfront.
Other upscale amenities include a covered, raised boathouse, granite counter tops, and a choice of a wine cellar or elevator. The four models, named after famous artists, range from 2,574 to 3,365 square feet, and prices start at the low $500,000s.
“The community is built for the way we live today,” says Mary Pat Rordam, representative for AR Bailey Homes.