The longtime Windermere resident and World War II veteran made an indelible mark on the town with his dedication to service.
Service was a way of life for William C. Criswell, and he emulated the Rotary motto “Service Above Self.” He served with the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion, the Seabees, in World War II and continued giving back through a number of community organizations his entire life.
Criswell, a 56-year resident of Windermere, died Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. He was 93.
He is most recognized for his work with the Windermere Rotary Club, of which he served as president; West Orange Habitat For Humanity; and Home At Last, an organization he founded with Bill Curdts that provides homes for wounded veterans.
Criswell’s work did not go unnoticed. In recent years, he was recognized numerous times with honors and accolades for his service to the community.
In 2009, the Winter Garden Elks Lodge named him Citizen of the Year.
A year later, Criswell was selected as one of Major League Baseball’s All-Stars Among Us for his extraordinary contributions to his community and traveled to Anaheim, California, as a guest of the Tampa Bay Rays for the 2010 MLB All-Star Game.
In 2011, he and Curdts were named Citizens of the Year for Orange County District 1 “for their commitment to military families and the significant collaborative partnerships they created to make this amazing program a success,” said S. Scott Boyd, former Orange County commissioner. “Bill and his passion for helping our community heroes is evident from his work in the town of Oakland and the number of military families he’s helped over the years.”
In 2014, Windermere Mayor Gary Bruhn declared March 2 Bill Criswell Day and presented him a plaque with a key to the town of Windermere for his work with Home At Last.
The following year, Criswell was one of two recipients of the Golden Eagle Award, presented by the Central Florida Council of Boy Scouts of America.
“Being a small part of a veteran returning home is an honor, privilege and rewarding experience you won’t ever forget,” Criswell said upon receiving his scouting award.
Criswell had a dream of creating a Windermere Veterans Memorial; in 2018, the project he spearheaded was unveiled in front of Windermere Town Hall. It features five pedestals around the flag plaza that honor each military branch and a sixth one that explains the monument.
A LIFE WELL LIVED
Criswell was born June 18, 1925, and grew up in Euclid, Ohio, graduating from high school in 1943. In the fall, he joined the United States Navy and was assigned to the maintenance battalion. After two-and-one-half years in the military, Criswell returned home. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from Kent State University, Ohio, and moved to Central Florida, where he met his future wife, Helen Ann.
He loved sports and spent a great deal of time on the baseball diamond or basketball court, said his daughter, Holly Hansen, of Orlando. He was a Boston Celtics fan and an even bigger fan of the Cleveland Indians.
“He once saw (Shaquille O’Neal) tossing around a basketball with some local kids on the old b-ball court next to (Windermere) Town Hall,” Hansen said. “Dad was really touched by that and became the (Orlando) Magic’s biggest supporter from that day on.”
Criswell spent 29 years with H.C. Buchanan Concrete Inc. before retiring as vice president in 1994. The project of which he was most proud was roofing the Vertical Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in 1963.
Helen died in 1997 after 46 years of marriage. Hansen said her father was lost after her death but “the Church of the Messiah was the light that guided him out into the sunshine again.
“He started making friends and getting involved with the community and with veterans causes,” she said. “He felt he had been given a chance at life, and he grabbed it with both hands. All he wanted to do was to give back. The rest of his days were spent in the service of others.”
He turned his passion to service with the Windermere Rotary Club, the Central Florida Builders Exchange and West Orange Habitat for Humanity, serving as president of all three.
In 2007, he found a way to combine his building skills with his desire to help veterans and their families through Home At Last, which builds handicap-accessible, mortgage-free homes for veterans wounded in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eight homes have been constructed in Oakland, and a ninth will be built this year.
“There is a certain bond with people who have served their country — I don't care if they're Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force — there's just that bond of respect for the other individual for giving time to their country,” he once said.
“Bill Criswell will be truly missed,” said Gary Atwill, who met Criswell at a Windermere Rotary Club meeting and worked with him with Home At Last. When Criswell’s health began to decline, Atwill succeeded him as board chairman.
“He made life better for many in West Orange County,” Atwill said. “His service to the community will live on.”
Windermere Mayor Gary Bruhn said he has much admiration for Criswell.
“Bill didn’t just make a contribution to the town of Windermere,” he said. “Bill made a contribution to Central Florida. … He just made such a tremendous impact on Central Florida. … He gave so much to the veterans of Central Florida; he has made a lasting impact.”
In 2011, Bruhn and friends in the community decided it was time to give back to Criswell to honor a man who worked tirelessly on behalf of others. A day of service was planned, and group of volunteers gathered to paint the veteran’s house, which he designed and built himself.
“There is just an entire history of Bill in the community,” Bruhn said. “There’s a hole in Windermere that will be very hard to fill because he has just done so many things.”
Betsy VanderLey, District 1 Orange County commissioner, said she considered Criswell to be a friend and an example of service to his fellow man. She grew to know him through the Windermere Rotary.
“Bill always exemplified the ‘Service Above Self’ motto of Rotary,” she said. “He gave his talents to many causes but most notably to Home At Last. … Because of his efforts with these vets, he has left generational impact on those families as well as in Oakland.
“Always the gracious gentleman, Bill shared with me shortly before he passed that his prayers were those of gratitude for the life God gave him. Our community and my life is better for having known Bill Criswell, and I suspect that God welcomed him with a ‘well done, good and faithful servant.’”
Criswell is survived by one daughter, Holly Hansen and husband Steve, of Orlando; and two grandchildren, Amanda Simokat, of Tampa, and Stephen Hansen, of Chicago.