The longtime Ocoee resident was the city’s first volunteer fire chief and helped construct the first fire station on McKey Street.
There was no mistaking which college team Frog Vandergrift rooted for — he was never without his orange hat with “Damn Right I’m a Gator” emblazoned across the front.
To know Vandergrift was to know of his love of the Florida Gators and his beloved city of Ocoee.
George Henry “Frog” Vandergrift, a lifelong resident of Ocoee and an older brother to former Ocoee Mayor Scott Vandergrift, died Thursday, June 6, 2019. He was 89.
Frog Vandergrift also was the city’s first fire chief at a time when only local volunteers handled fire-and-rescue emergencies. In 1957, Vandergrift was on the crew that built the first fire station on West McKey Street. It contained two truck bays and a large conference room upstairs that later was turned into an apartment.
That building still stands today in downtown Ocoee.
Vandergrift was born Feb. 14, 1930 — the fourth of five boys — to John Joseph “Foots” and Eleanor “Miss Foots” Vandergrift. He would meet his future wife, Ruby “Jean,” when she and her family moved from Winter Garden to Ocoee when they were both 9 years old. They would have been married 69 years this November, and they lived in the same house for 64.
Jean said most people didn’t know her husband’s given name.
“We’re actually in the phone book as Frog; all our credit cards are Frog,” she said. “If anybody asked him how he got his name, he said when he was born he came out hopping and his mama called him Frog.”
Vandergrift graduated from the original Ocoee High School in 1948 and then served in Korea with the U.S. Army. He was a 32nd-degree Mason with the Winter Garden Masonic Lodge and the Orlando Scottish Rite and was a Shriner.
“Everybody knew him by his hat, by his suspenders. He never met a stranger. He always knew what was going on in Ocoee.”
— Frog Vandergrift’s daughter, Earline Vandergrift Sturges
His family said his hobbies were going fishing and supporting the University of Florida’s Gator football team. He and his wife were Gator Boosters for nearly 40 years and routinely drove their motorhome up to Gainesville for the home games and out-of-state for the away games.
He was such a fan of the team that he was seldom without his Gator hat.
“It followed him everywhere,” said he daughter, Earline Vandergrift Sturges, of Suwanee, Georgia. “He started having them made in … the ’90s, and he would give them to people.
“Everybody knew him by his hat, by his suspenders,” she said. “He never met a stranger. He always knew what was going on in Ocoee.”
When he left his volunteer position at the fire department, Vandergrift worked for M&M Welding and then the well-drilling company Meredith Corp.
“After the well was brought in, then he went in and set the pumps and checked it to see that it was performing like it was supposed to,” Sturges said. “He was the foreman, and he worked for Meredith for about 36 years.”
He was foreman, too, when Universal Studios Florida was building Jurassic Park.
In the winter, Vandergrift was called often to help the citrus growers when their pumps froze.
“During the winter he didn’t travel much because he worried about if there was a freeze,” Sturges said. “He did the wells for the golf courses around here. He worked all around the state of Florida.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Vandergrift’s survivors include his grandchildren, Austin Franklin, Madison Sturges and Brooklyn Sturges; honorary grandchildren, Jackie Freymuth, Kelly Greenhill, Kazandra Holliday, Tanner Holliday, Michelle Gurney and Kimberly Turner; and countless nieces and nephews.
A visitation was held Monday evening. Funeral services are at 11 a.m. Tuesday, June 11, at Collison Carey Hand Funeral Home, 1148 E. Plant St., Winter Garden. Interment will follow with military honors at Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando.