The Villages Daily Sun

Community gathers to remember Hahnfeldt

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Posted: Wednesday, January 3, 2018 8:00 am

SUMMERFIELD — Family and friends heard messages of hope Tuesday as they gathered to celebrate the life of Don Hahnfeldt during a Mass of Christian burial at St. Mark the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church.

“Yes, we mourn, but not without hope,” Father Sebastian Hanks told the group that nearly filled the sanctuary.

Hundreds of people paid respect to the memory of this community leader who died at age 73 in the waning hours of Christmas Eve following a battle with cancer, while also still a serving member of the state House of Representatives.

Two of his daughters, Christiana Damm and Katherine Devitt, read from the Bible, while daughter Jennifer Humphreys offered prayers.

The congregation then filed outside to witness a military tribute to the 32 years Hahnfeldt served with the U.S. Navy submarine service, retiring not only as a captain, but also as a Pacific Fleet nuclear submarine squadron commander.

First came the harsh finality of the 21-rifle salute thanks to seven members of a Florida Department of Corrections honor guard from the Sumter Correctional Institute at Bushnell.

Then a lone sailor with a Navy funeral team from Orlando raised the tribute to an even more solemn moment as he played the final bugle call, taps.

In the quiet of a blustery, cold day, they also witnessed members of that funeral team take utmost care in folding the American flag and presenting it to his wife, Cheryle, of the Village of Bridgeport at Lake Miona.

During the subsequent reception at Savannah Center, guests learned more about this man, who was born in Pittsburgh, excelled as a dive-and-swim team member at the University of Pittsburgh and then devoted a lifetime of service to his country, state and adopted hometown of The Villages.

The large-screen slideshow of photos painted a picture of an all-American child who matured into a proud husband, father and grandfather and served as a nuclear submarine squadron commander during some of the most tense moments of the Cold War.

When he retired to The Villages, he continued to find ways to serve.

It was at the VHA, The Villages homeowner advocacy and community service group, where Fred Briggs met him.

Hahnfeldt served as a three-term VHA president, a record Briggs exceeded in December when he was elected to his fourth term as VHA president.

“Don was a submarine sailor, as was I,” he said. “We had a lot to talk about. He also had been the president of the VHA and was a mentor to me and encouraged me to get involved in the VHA.”

Right away, Briggs saw something special in Hahnfeldt.

“The thing about Don — he was a terrific leader,” he said. “He was a mentor to anyone who needed his help.”

Hahnfeldt had an immediate impact on Ken Middleton, a Village of Bridgeport at Lake Miona neighbor who retired as a Navy jet fighter pilot.

The two men forged a friendship that included golf nearly every Friday for the past 12 years.

Middleton, Briggs, Bill Lifka, also a Bridgeport at Lake Miona neighbor, and Sumter Administrator Bradley Arnold served as Hahnfeldt’s pall bearers.

“Don was a man who brought everything he could to everything he did,” Middleton said. “He was a man who served his country his entire adult life in one form or another, a man who was looked up to almost immediately by everyone he met.”

Arnold met Hahnfeldt in 2005 when he was a member of a citizens group interviewing Arnold as a then-candidate for the county administrator’s job.

Hahnfeldt became so interested in the growth of Sumter County that Arnold persuaded him to participate in the Leadership Sumter program, and Hahnfeldt ultimately became an elected county commissioner.

“Don was a visionary, for one,” Arnold said. “He would encourage people through a smile and jokes. He was very serious, but at the same time he had a very light touch, light hand and definitely a light laugh about most everything he did.”

That vision also came with a passion for The Villages, said Marlene O’Toole, who became friends with Hahnfeldt through their service on the board of directors of Central Florida Health, parent of The Villages Regional Hospital, and Cornerstone Hospice, parent of The Villages Hospice House.

O’Toole, of the Village Mira Mesa, considered Hahnfeldt a perfect choice to replace her as The Villages state representative when she termed out in 2016.

“We’re here to honor a real hero in my mind,” she said. “He was a man who gave of his talent and time. We’ve lost a person who was engaged and involved in everything. When you lose someone like that, it’s a tough fill.”

There’s no question Hahnfeldt left a lasting legacy, said Al Butler, chairman of the Sumter County Commission.

Butler met Hahnfeldt shortly after he and his wife, Marsha, moved in 2006 to the Village of Bridgeport at Lake Sumter.

Six years later, the two won separate races for seats on the county commission.

“He was just a tremendous guy,” Butler said. “He had a wonderful persona. He looked like he came out of Hollywood casting. He was a strong, vibrant guy with an extremely enthusiastic personality and attitude. He took that everywhere he went. He was not only a guy who gave a lot of service, but he also had a lot of fun in the process of doing it.”

David R. Corder is a senior writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or