- March 29, 2018
WINDERMERE – Six months into Gary Bruhn’s first term as mayor in 2004, the town of Windermere nearly fell apart on him — literally.
The town was hit back-to-back-to-back by hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne. The three storms hit in a span of six weeks, and each time, the town lost power for a week.
A rookie mayor at the time, Bruhn worked 14- to 16-hour days with staff to keep the town running and repair damage.
The following year, 2005, was no easier, because he had to contend with the challenge of constructing the roundabouts. Diverting all the traffic to the residential dirt roads made for unhappy and frustrated residents, but it had to be done.
In 2009, what he calls the “Tiger Woods debacle” plowed into town, bringing a negative national spotlight on the town. And in 2011 — what he terms as one of the “darkest times for the town” — Windermere police officer Robert “Robbie” German was fatally shot on duty. He says it is the day the town’s heart was broken.
Shortly after that, the town was hit with an incident involving high-level corruption in its own police department. Some were calling for the department to be disbanded and allow the Orange County Sheriff’s Office to take over. But Bruhn refused and instead worked on hiring the right individual willing to take on the challenge of fixing the department.
So it should be noted that his welcome into the role of Windermere mayor, and the following years, were mired by both typical and unique challenges. Still, it was never enough to chase him away.
But now, after a 15-year run, Bruhn, 66, is stepping down, citing the decision to sell the home in which he has lived for the last 30 years.
He has purchased a larger home in the Reserve at Belmere that will be more accommodating for family visits, particularly his grandchildren, with whom he hopes to spend more time, he said.
However, because his new home is outside town limits, once his home sells, he no longer will be able to serve as mayor. Town charter rules require town residency for elected officials.
“We thought the time was right,” Bruhn said the evening he announced his pending resignation Monday, Dec. 3. “I’m not getting any younger, so we figured it was time to find what will hopefully be the last home of our lives. And I’m excited to move into my new home, but my heart will always be here. I mean, I’ve lived here almost half my life. And I’ve been mayor for half of that, but it was just that time.”
Bruhn, who was born in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, moved many times with his family because of his dad’s employment with the U.S. Army. He spent a few years in Germany and bounced around several states until his family finally settled in Wisconsin. There, he went to college, joined the Army himself and served six years in the U.S. National Guard.
He eventually made his way to Georgia, where he met his wife, and later moved to Windermere, where he spent 30 years working for Lockheed Martin.
Then in 2004, he tried his hand at politics. He was never the type to run for class president, but the town was dangerously divided at the time, and he felt he had to do something.
“I wasn’t happy with what was going on,” he said. “We had some very controversial elections. There had been some real dissension with annexations as it related to The Manors, going as far as lawsuits being filed. It was just a very contentious and divided town.
“And we had a developer come in who bought the Windermere Union Church and was planning to buy up the rest of the parcels downtown and build this huge commercial development. But there were a lot of people who didn’t want Windermere to become a commercial destination. And the developer would tell us how crazy we were, and, well, I came in right in the heels of that.”
He describes Windermere’s political situation at the time as chaotic. He recalled how a council member resigned the day he took office and a town attorney resigned the evening he was sworn in.
But instead of being discouraged, Bruhn helped where he could to set things right by staying active and involved despite the myriad challenges — which is exactly what he advises the next mayor of Windermere to do.
“You need to try to make sure that Windermere always has a seat at the table when discussions are going on,” he said. “This is a very demanding job, but you need to stay involved with MetroPlan Orlando, stay active with the League of Cities and local mayors, because they represent all of the issues in our state. Just stay active and stay involved.”
ONE OF A KIND
It was that same activism and commitment to stay involved, regardless of the lack of a paycheck, that made Windermere Town Manager Robert Smith admire Bruhn — a mayor Smith believes is unlike many others.
“There aren’t many like him,” Smith said. “A lot of times, the mayor is just a ceremonial position, and the person who fills it doesn’t take such an active role as he does. His heart was always with the town of Windermere, and not only the town of Windermere, but other cities’ rights as it related to Home Rule. And he fought for that for quite some time. And he’s sat on every board and committee I can think of. The amount of hours that he volunteered — and at zero cost to the town, I might add — is just extraordinary. You don’t see that kind of passion or volunteerism from many.”
Bruhn, who plans to resign no later than March 2019, hopes Windermere residents will remember the difference they can make, too.
“I just hope I’ve instilled in at least a few of you the knowledge that you can make a difference,” he said. “You have the ability — between your volunteerism, and your activism and engagement — you have the ability to make a difference in this town.”