By Reggie Connell
Apopka lost a giant this weekend with the passing of former Apopka City Commissioner Billie Dean.
Brash. Outspoken. Fighter. Whether on the dais of city hall, the classrooms of Phillis Wheatley and Apopka High Schools, or Korean battlefields, Mr. Dean was a force of nature.
I learned this firsthand a few years ago.
In December of 2015, I attended my first Apopka City Council meeting as managing editor of The Apopka Voice, and Dean was forcefully pushing back on a business coming to South Apopka.
“I have a problem with this project,” Dean said. “A serious problem. It’s a known fact that anything not worth a damn goes to the south side in a community where it is totally African American.”
My second experience with Mr. Dean came in January of 2016 when he took on the mayor, city attorney, and city administrator in the closing minutes of a Council meeting.
Here’s how we described it:
“Mayor Joe Kilsheimer was seconds away from adjourning the January 6th City Council meeting… but before he could gavel it to a close, Commissioner Billie Dean spoke out.
“Don’t adjourn because I have a few questions,” he said.
“This concerns the Old Florida Outdoor Festival,” he continued. “Are the meetings open to the public?”
“No,” answered Kilsheimer.
“Why?” Dean asked.
“Because they are staff meetings,” said Kilsheimer.
Kilsheimer referred the question to City Attorney Cliff Shepard.
“So the public can’t just sit in if they aren’t invited? Dean asked Shepard. “They can’t just sit in and listen to what’s going on?”
“They don’t have a right to sit in,” said Shepard. “If the staff were to say ‘come on in’ they could, but they don’t have a right to be there, and that’s the difference. In Sunshine (Law) issues, you have a right to be there.”
“So this does not concern the entire community…the Old Florida Outdoor Festival?” Dean asked.
“That’s not what I said,” said Shepard.
Dean then turned his attention to City Administrator Glenn Irby.
He asked Irby about the bidding process for vendors before arriving at a much more volatile subject – diversity.
“Is the city targeting a specific audience?” Dean asked.
“Yes,” said Irby. “Those that like music.”
“Are you being facetious now?”
“Well, if you don’t like music, I don’t think you’d want to show up,” said Irby. “The short answer is no, whoever wants to come.”
“Okay, let me reiterate,” said Dean. “There is no need for me to come (to the OFOF) if it’s all caucasian, and it seems centered around Caucasians to me.”
“I have no response to that,” said Irby.
“I know you don’t,” said Dean.”
I published his remarks that night and his earlier comments about South Apopka, and then I met Mr. Dean in person two weeks later at the next meeting.
“You’re the one that wrote what I said?” He asked me as we shook hands for the first time.
“Yes sir,” I said as I tried to get my hand back.
“You’re going to get me assassinated!” Dean said, laughing and looking around at the others gathered. “He’s going to get me assassinated! No one has ever printed what I said before.”
The assembled group laughed uproariously as I tried to make sure he was joking. He walked me out of the council chambers with his arm around me, laughing, telling jokes, and holding court with those walking with him, as he always did after meetings.
It was the first of many post-meeting gatherings I was to attend with Mr. Dean and his entourage.
To fully understand Mr. Dean’s 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. “Through hard work, he earned enough money to buy a new 1925 Ford. He drove it to town, and the whites 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 emerged.
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. He received a bronze star, awarded to members of the United States Armed Forces for either heroic achievement, heroic service, achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone.
After the military, Dean graduated from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, receiving 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 a lot of people asked me to run for the seat. 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.”
In 1994, Dean won a seat on the City Council with 69% of the vote, which he held through five more election cycles before retiring in 2018.
Dean remembered 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,” he told me in a 2018 interview. “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.”
Throughout his time in office, Dean was the voice crying out about the wilderness that is South Apopka.
“[South Apopka] has not changed a lot except the county has paved some streets,” he said to me in 2018. “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.”
The happiest I ever saw Mr. Dean was at a ceremony in South Apopka in March of 2017 when the Habitat for Humanity project (Juniper and Arbor Bend) broke ground to build 58 houses for 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.
“Look over there,” he said, pointing across the street past Juniper and Arbor Bend. “Do you see those houses? My wife and I built those homes. Beautiful 2-bedroom duplexes, 21 of them we built, back in the ’80s. 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. It’s a godsend for this community.”
Apopka lost a giant, South Apopka lost a fighter, and I have lost a friend.
I didn’t agree with Mr. Dean on everything, but I always admired his heart on any subject he tackled, and I loved his passion. I could always count on him for honest and candid remarks on any topic.
He was authentic in a time when that quality is in short supply.
I smiled from the press table when he railed against tin roofs and insisted on specific landscaping styles for countless developers that stood before the Council on a building project. I applauded when he made diversity a priority for every department head seeking new hires during the budget season.
Rest in peace, Mr. Dean. Apopka will miss you.