Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of 24 articles published by The Apopka Voice in 2017 that were among the most noteworthy. We will post all of them from December 26th and December 31st. Then on Monday, January 1st we will poll our readers and let them decide which is Apopka’s biggest story of 2017.

Story #7: His storied career rewrites a potentially traumatic family history

First published May 18th, 2017

By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice

Commissioner Billie Dean is a brash outspoken fighter. He has been for 24 years on the Apopka City Council, on the battlefields of Korea, and in the classrooms of Phillis Wheatley and Apopka High Schools.

His family history made it a requirement.

Commissioner Billie Dean is retiring after six terms in office.

Dean announced yesterday that he will end his career on the City Commission in 2018, thus closing the book on one of Apopka’s political legends.

“I just think it’s time,” he said. “After 24 years I think I have served the community well and I think I have brought a lot of good to the community also. I feel it’s time for me to step aside and allow someone younger and with new ideas to step in.”

But to fully understand his storied career, you must first understand his roots, which in many ways began in Morriston, Florida circa 1920’s. Dean was not alive yet, but his relatives were about to experience an incident that would shape the family for generations to come.

 “My grandfather managed 8,000 acres of citrus fields in Morriston, Florida, and lived on a working farm. He was a preacher and a farmer,” Dean said.  “In the early 1920s, he earned enough money to buy a new 1925 Ford. He drove it to town, and the whites there felt that a black man shouldn’t own a brand new car… so the word got out that they were going to get a lynch mob and destroy the entire family. So all of them got into the Ford and moved to Clermont… and once they left, they never went back. They left with just the clothes on their back and they never, ever went back to reclaim their land. They had to start all over again.”
   It was into that legacy of racial inequality that Dean was raised.
  After that traumatic experience, the family stayed in Clermont, where Dean was born. He went to elementary school there before graduating from Jones High School in Orlando.
 After high school, Dean served in the US Army and fought in the Korean War where he received a bronze star, which is awarded for heroic achievement or service in a combat zone.
 After the military, Dean graduated from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in Science and Agriculture in 1960. In 1963 he received a Masters Degree in Agriculture, Administration, and Supervision also from FAMU.
  After college Dean worked 38 years as a teacher in Apopka at Phyllis Wheatley High School and Apopka High School.
  And it was there that Dean became a potential candidate for the Apopka City Commission.
 “They wanted a person to speak for the African-American community,” Dean said. “And because I was an outspoken teacher, everybody knew me, and I was asked to run for the seat by a lot of people. When something is not right, I’m outspoken. I always spoke my opinion, and in doing so whenever there was a problem, I was the go-to-man. And with that reputation in a little town like Apopka, the word got out and this is why they wanted me to be a City Commissioner.”
 Dean ran unsuccessfully in 1990 against incumbent Commissioner Alonzo Williams, but in 1994, with Williams retired, Dean defeated Steve Rogers with 69% of the vote (919-415) and claimed the open seat – which he has held through five other election cycles.
 Dean remembers his early days in office as his fondest, particularly working alongside Apopka Mayor John Land.
 “He was a man of integrity, truthfulness, and his background was impeccable. When we went to Tallahassee, the legislators would look to him for advice. The last time I was with him (in Tallahassee) they gave him a plaque to honor his service. His demeanor and personality embodied all of the qualities of a mayor.”

Dean has been the voice crying out in the wilderness that is South Apopka for change, and improvements, and there have been highs and lows to that fight.

“South Apopka has not changed a lot except the county has paved some streets,” he said. “For years South Apopka had nothing but dirt, sand and clay roads. Central Avenue was a clay road when I came here in 1963. Michael Gladden Boulevard was a sand street. Other than the pavement, not much has changed.”

Perhaps Dean’s most fulfilling moment in the fight to bring improvement to South Apopka came in March with the beginning of the Habitat for Humanity project (Juniper and Arbor Bend) to bring 58 houses to the struggling community.

“It’s a God sent endeavor to do something on this side of the city,” Dean said.  Affordable housing in South Apopka is what I have been fighting for as long as I’ve been a commissioner. Habitat taking the reins is just what we need.”

Dean recalled a time when he too brought affordable housing to South Apopka.coffee with a cop

“Look over there,” he said pointing across the street past Juniper and Arbor Bend.” You see those houses? My wife and I built those homes. Beautiful 2-bedroom duplexes, 21 of them we built. Back in the 80’s. For decades I have been calling for this. This has been necessary for decades. I have been asking for this type of project well into the previous administration. This is a godsend for this community. They called it the Graveyard Quarters because of all the shacks they built right next to the graveyard. But no more.”

Dean may not be running for a seventh term in Seat #1, but he does have a preference as to who will succeed him – Pastor Alexander Smith.

“I nurtured that young man from elementary, high school, college… I carried him to college, Dean said of Smith. “I consider him my surrogate son. Alexander will be an asset to this community. He’s young. He was a teacher for 30 years. He is an Associate Pastor at New Hope Baptist Church and he has a lot of connection to this community. I think he is the ideal person to continue the legacy of Seat #1 and of Apopka.”

In April of 2018, Dean will watch as a new member of the Apopka City Commission will be sworn-in to sit in Seat #1… a seat that he has occupied for 24 years.

Dean will begin the next chapter in his life after a successful career on the Apopka City Commission that saw him rise to vice mayor of the second largest municipality in Orange County, after becoming the undisputed champion of South Apopka, and after re-writing a family history that was nearly erased from history in 1920.

Morriston is less than 100 miles from Apopka, but it may as well be on another planet as far as Billie Dean is concerned.

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