Jon VanderLey is considered by many in West Orange County to be the impetus for positive change and structure in the town of Oakland. It was under his leadership as mayor from 1998 to 2004 that the budget was stabilized and a charter school was built.
VanderLey, 78, of Winter Garden, died Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017.
The loss has been felt throughout the town and community.
Oakland Commission Mike Satterfield said he feels like he has lost a close relative.
“Jon was more than the mayor of the town for me,” he said. “I became family with the VanderLeys; it’s just that simple. I thought of Jon as more of a father figure. He brought my family through a lot of hard times. He was just a family mentor.
“I lost a dad,” he said. “He showed me how to be the right kind of commissioner, and he was just my dad.”
The former mayor was born in 1938 in Traverse City, Michigan, and relocated the family to West Orange County in 1970. They moved to Oakland in 1992, Leesburg in 2005 and Winter Garden two years ago.
His political influence stretched beyond the town limits of Oakland.
He was one of the founding members of the West Orange South Lake Transportation Task Force, which was instrumental in getting the funding for West Colonial Drive moved up a decade.
He was a founding member of MetroPlan Orlando’s Municipal Advisory Committee, as well. This committee brought together the mayors from throughout the region to help shape regional transportation policy. It was the first of its kind in the state of Florida and strengthened the region’s transportation planning process.
VanderLey served on the board of directors for the West Orange Chamber of Commerce for many years. He was the recipient of two Chamber awards, the President’s Award in 1999 and the Sam Hovsepian Award in 2000.
VanderLey Park, in Oakland Town Center, is named for the former mayor.
The Oakland Avenue Charter School was his brainchild and passion. His dream to open a school in Oakland was fulfilled beginning in 2000 when he proposed the idea to the Oakland Town Commission.
“A charter school could be some of the glue that holds the community together,” VanderLey had said. “We have the opportunity to have a first-class school in Oakland.”
Oakland Avenue Charter School was opened in 2003 and is only the second school in the town’s history.
Mayor Kathy Stark first worked with VanderLey in 1998 when she was a town commissioner and he was elected mayor.
“Jon Vanderley was the catalyst for so many improvements in the town of Oakland,” she said. “With his vision as the mayor, the charter school, a project that he considered his greatest accomplishment, was built, and it continues to thrive to this day.
“In addition, Town Center was rebuilt, the day-to-day operation of the town was changed for the better and budgets were stabilized, along with so many other things,” Stark said. “It was his hard work and vision for our future that we all should be grateful for.
I personally will miss Jon and the influence he had on all of us during his time here in West Orange County,” she said.
Fred Brummer, a former Orange County commissioner and state representative, said he met VanderLey in 1998 while campaigning door to door in Oakland.
“The mayor took time out from his household yard chores to speak with me when I introduced myself to ask for his vote,” he said.
When Orange County Public Schools stopped courtesy busing for Oakland students attending Tildenville Elementary School, VanderLey announced his plan to build a school in the town.
“Were it someone else — or if Mayor Jon had not been so confident in tone when making the statement, or had it been some other solution — I might have just shook my head,” Brummer said. “Mayor Jon was confident in his statement, and, irrespective that the proposal was breathtaking, Mayor Jon was just the person to get the community behind the proposal.”
Brummer worked with VanderLey on the Transportation Task Force and even copied one of the mayor’s ideas when he became a county commissioner.
“There is no elected official or person for whom I have greater respect than Mayor Jon VanderLey,” he said. “I was proud that he considered me a friend.”
VanderLey was a contractor prior to and after his terms as mayor.
He has his private pilot’s license and loved to fly, and he enjoyed being on the water. His family says his favorite pastime, though, was spending time with and supporting his loved ones. He was a big influence on his granddaughter’s choice to become a helicopter pilot with the U.S. Army, and Rachel Chiles wanted him to pin on her wings at her flight-school graduation.
When his daughter, Betsy VanderLey, ran for a seat on the Orange County Commission, he was her greatest advocate.
“He is a big part of the reason I ran,” she said. “I saw what one man with vision could do for a community.
“He was always in our corner and helping, regardless,” she said. “I knew that if I was pursuing something, he would be right there with me in any way he could.”
VanderLey is preceded in death by a son, Wesley. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Kay; children, Josh (Michelle), Betsy (Todd), Ella (Joerg) and Joel; grandchildren, Christopher, Jacob, Rachel, Hunter, Ethan, Hanna, Jackson; and great-grandchildren, Joseph and Annabella.
VanderLey's memorial service is at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 11, at Mosaic Church, 608 Oakland Ave., Oakland.