Stuart Eldridge’s resume isn’t very long, but it tells of his deep devotion to youth. He and his wife, Lisa, first visited the campus of the Edgewood Children’s Ranch 37 years ago, ready to serve one year at the ranch before seeing where else their life would take them.
They never left.
Eldridge — who began as a cottage parent in 1983, became an operations manager and, ultimately, served the last eight years as the executive director — died of a sudden heart attack Tuesday, Jan. 28, at the age of 59.
The longtime Winter Garden resident spent nearly four decades with the children who went through the program at the ranch, and he had a reputation for being anywhere other than behind his desk. Even after taking the leadership role, Eldridge still picked up donations for the Edgewood Ranch Thrift Shop, dug the ditches when the toilets were clogged and served as the ranch’s jack-of-all-trades.
Gaby Acks, director of development at Edgewood, met Eldridge when she began volunteering at the ranch nearly 30 years ago.
“Our staff is just heartbroken,” Acks said. “He was a man of faith. That man that you always knew was going to do what was right. … He was a man of character. He was a good leader. … He worked 24/7 for the ranch.
“He had an MBA and was not too proud to clean out a sewer pipe,” Acks said.
Other colleagues shared the same respect for him.
“He was a man who loved the kids and was a great role model,” Joan Consolver said. “I just felt the Lord had led me to have Stuart become my successor.”
Eldridge became director when Consolver retired eight years ago. She remembers hiring the Eldridges right out of college and newly married. She said they were a Godly couple and they both earned the respect of everyone at the ranch.
“(Stuart) was loved by the kids; he was the father many of those boys never had,” Consolver said. “And he also was well respected as a leader of his staff. He’s just a fine Christian man who devoted his life to serving the Lord and making the lives better for children.”
The day after Eldridge’s death, Kenneth D. Robinson, president and CEO of Dr. Phillips Charities wrote: “Stuart may have been one of my favorite people in philanthropy. He found his calling early and stayed committed, his dedication to the ranch never wavered, and it can be seen in their work and success.”
Edgewood opened in 1966 when a juvenile court judge saw a need for a residential facility for young boys who exhibited negative social behavior due to family circumstances. It now serves up to 70 boys and girls ages 6 to 17.
The ranch’s website and Facebook page were full of comments of appreciation and praise last week from parents, students and colleagues:
“Trips to Publix to pick up food meant so much more when you found you were riding with Uncle Stuart. He was always passing knowledge onto us ranchers.”
“Stuart was such a great example of a Christ follower. He always had a servant's heart.”
“This man helped save my life. He is enjoying his reward for doing so as we speak. Some see tragedy in this, but I see victory.”
“There is a light there that will never be extinguished and will be a beacon to those who continue the wonderful work of changing and enriching those lives who pass through the gates of the Edgewood Children’s Ranch.”
“His work, his life, have been an integral part of the lifeline that is the ranch to so many young people.”
“He was characterized by gentleness and kindness. Christ shone through every aspect of his life. What a privilege to know him and call him a friend.”
“One of the most thoroughly decent men I have ever known.”
Eldridge was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Aug. 29, 1960. He graduated from Toccoa Falls College in Toccoa, Georgia, in 1982.
He was a past president of the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies.
Eldridge was preceded in death by his mother, Johnnie Eldridge, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and infant daughter, Alyson Joy.
Besides his wife, who remains a counselor at the ranch, Eldridge is survived by sons, Ryan, of Denver, Colorado, and Terry, of Buffalo, New York; sisters, Susan (Frank) Landis, of North Carolina, and Donnie Castillo, of California, and many nieces and nephews.
A memorial service was held Monday, Feb. 3, at Westwood Church in Orlando. The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be directed to the Edgewood Children’s Ranch, 1415 Edgewood Ranch Road, Orlando, FL 32835; or edgewoodranch.com.
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.