If you wanted something in the city of Ocoee, S. Scott Vandergrift was the person you wanted fighting on your side. The former longtime mayor championed many causes dear to his heart in his hometown of Ocoee, whether it was having a light installed on a dark street or getting the new high school emblazoned with the city's name.
The Ocoee native died Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017, at the age of 77. The former mayor's family described him as cantankerous, witty, eccentric and a beloved icon and said he died just as he lived — as a fighter and a legend.
Vandergrift cherished the city he called home and was proud of his lifelong commitment to public service. His first stint in politics was as an Ocoee city commissioner from 1967 to 1969. He was elected mayor in 1973 and served two years. In 1992, he ran for the mayor's seat again and won, serving until his retirement in 2015.
He devoted his life to making the city of Ocoee a better place to live. He was frequently spotted around the city driving his white Prius (his “mayor mobile”) and wearing his shirts, hats and ties that promoted his beloved city.
Vandergrift had several schticks, including handing out butterfly pins and “get out of jail free” cards.
Often he could be found on the side of the road or in the mall sitting in a lawn chair with a sign that read, “Stop and chat with your friendly mayor.”
“He radiated, light, warmth, wit, tackiness, fun and service,” Deitrick said of her father. “He really cared about others and lived a very impactful life. (He was) always volunteering, he never met a stranger, he always made you feel important, loved and heard.”
His many campaigns were run as grassroots surrounded with volunteers from all over Orange County helping him win his campaigns.
“You knew it was election year when you entered the city limits of Ocoee and saw the tackiest, homemade signs made from old construction wood and painted with leftover paint,” Deitrick said. “He believed strongly in recycling, and his campaigns reflected that belief.”
His favorite passions were fishing, butterflies and performing as Santa Claus.
During his tenure, the city’s population more than doubled — from 15,000 residents to more than 40,000. But he always made time for his constituents.
“One of the things I loved about my dad was he made you feel special,” said Vandergrift's daughter, Donna Deitrick. “It didn’t matter where you were from.”
His motto was this: It’s not what you give people, it’s not what you do for people, it’s how you make them feel.
“That was a very big thing he did, getting on the citizens' level,” Deitrick said.
He had a genuine concern for his residents, and one of his favorite activities as mayor was marrying couples at the Ocoee Gazebo on Valentine's Day.
Cathy Sills, customer service utility billing supervisor, has been at Ocoee City Hall for 24 years and interacted often with the former mayor.
“To me he was … a public relations person for the city,” Sills said. “You couldn’t find anyone to help the city any more than he did. He always saw the good in everybody. He was kind, quirky, he gave 150 percent of himself to the city and to the citizens. Everybody didn’t always agree with him, but nobody can … say he didn’t love the city and everything it stood for.”
She recalled his fight to have the new school named Ocoee High and he won that battle because of his perseverance.
“I'll never forget walking into my office at Ocoee High School before we had even opened and seeing the mayor in my chair,” former Ocoee High Principal Mike Armbruster said. “He said, 'Remember, you may be the principal, but I am the mayor!" I laughed and told him to get out of my chair.
“From that moment on, we worked together to make OHS something pretty special,” Armbruster said. “He even donated a 10-foot helium balloon with OHS on the side that we would fly 100 feet above the football games with the U.S. flag waving proudly below. He never missed a game or a play or a band performance in those early years. He truly was the mayor of Ocoee High School and a good friend to me.”
Sills, too, remembers his presence at nearly every athletic event the school held.
“He was everywhere,” she said. “He flitted around like a butterfly. He might not stay anywhere 10 minutes, and then he was on to the next thing. I think that’s why he loved butterflies so much because he flitted around like one.”
While mayor, Vandergrift worked hard to get the southwest side of Starke Lake cleaned up and beautified. There is a mayor's butterfly garden there, the result of his good environmental stewardship.
“He was just a kind soul,” Sills said.
"I was absolutely heartbroken to learn of former Ocoee Mayor Scott Vandergrift’s passing and offer my sincere condolences to his family and many friends,” Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said. “Not only was Scott a transformative mayor for Ocoee — a real "hands on" leader who was devoted to improving the lives of Ocoee’s families, children and senior citizens — he was a good friend and counselor to me.
“It goes without saying that there will never be another Mayor Scott Vandergrift,” she said. “He was a beloved Central Florida leader and icon — a true son of Ocoee. I’m going to miss him, and I know that our entire Central Florida region will feel this loss – especially the people of West Orange County, which he loved so deeply.”
“The city offers its sincere condolences to Mayor Vandergrift’s family, friends and loved ones and to the residents of the city of Ocoee,” Ocoee Mayor Rusty Johnson said. “May he rest in peace, and may his memory live on with all who knew him.”
Born to Eleanor and John “Foots” Vandergrift, in Ocoee, Florida, on March 22, 1940, Sam Scott Vandergrift was the youngest of five boys.
He graduated from Jones Business College with a bachelor’s degree in management and marketing and served on the USS Waller in the U.S. Navy for three years. He worked for Bellsouth Telephone Company for 25 years and was a real estate broker for more than 40 years.
Vandergrift's memberships ran the gamut, from Ocoee Lions Club and Rotary Club of Ocoee to Friends of Lake Apopka and the Florida League of Cities. He was a charter member and past president of the Ocoee Jaycees, the Ocoee Little League and the Tri-County League of Cities.
He was a board member of the West Orange Chamber of Commerce, president of the Ocoee Volunteer Fire Department and chairman of Save Our Star-Lite Inc., an organization created solely to try to prohibit the demolition of the iconic Star-Lite drive-in movie theater in neighboring Winter Garden.
Vandergrift is survived by George Henry “Frog” Vandergrift (Ruby Jean), the last of the Vandergrift boys; his three children, Donna (and Greg) Deitrick, Lee Vandergrift and Marsha Vandergrift; ex-wife, Linda Marlene Vandergrift; grandchildren, Brent Deitrick (Alana) and Chelsea Vandergrift (Jason Antrup); great-granddaughter, Dawson Deitrick; caregivers, Maria Vargas and Stephanie Coan; and the citizens of the city of Ocoee.
He was predeceased by his wife, Beth Vandergrift.
A celebration of life will take place at 3 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 4, at the Ocoee Community Center. To honor Vandergrift, citizens can plant butterfly-attracting plants or make a contribution to Wounded Warriors or Cornerstone Hospice.
Jean Grafton, who served as the city clerk during Vandergrift's terms as mayor, has known him his entire life and knows firsthand his love for the city of Ocoee.
“I watched him want to do things for the city because he loved the city so much,” she said. “There was no one who loved the city of Ocoee more than Mayor Vandergrift. … He took his job seriously. He was absolutely everywhere.
“He was as dedicated to his job as mayor as anyone could ever hope to be,” Grafton said. “I respected him a lot for his desire to do what needed to be done for the city.”