The Villages Daily Sun

Legacy of Service

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Posted: Tuesday, December 26, 2017 8:00 am

The Villages community lost one of its most respected community leaders Sunday evening.

State Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, R-The Villages, ended his battle with cancer, passing away at The Villages Regional Hospital — the community medical facility he was so passionate about.

Despite his health battle, Hahnfeldt, of the Village of Bridgeport at Lake Miona, never quit working for others. He stood tall and proud, exuding passion and wit, as he gave an update on his legislative agenda during the Dec. 13 annual Villages Homeowners Association general meeting.

So quickly, however, the brief hospitalization that ended in his death extinguished the light of one of The Villages most respected advocates.

To many who knew him, Hahnfeldt’s death at age 73 on Christmas Eve felt more like the impact of a fallen hero on the battlefield. His departure left so many stunned on a Christmas Day as they fought through grief to appreciate his service as a retired nuclear submarine squadron commander, a vocal proponent of The Villages active lifestyle and his zeal as an elected public servant.

Those impacted by his death included Gov. Rick Scott, also a U.S. Navy veteran.

“My wife, Ann, and I are saddened by the news of Rep. Don Hahnfeldt’s passing,” Scott said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his entire family during this difficult time. We will always remember Rep. Hahnfeldt’s commitment to The Villages and our nation.”

In the final hours, Gary Lester, The Villages vice president for community relations, offered comfort to Hahnfeldt, his wife, Cheryle, family and friends.

“Don was a great patriot who gave so much to his family, his nation and this community that he served so well,” Lester said. “He was a born leader who made a difference in a variety of ways. And he was a good friend who definitely will be missed.”

Everyone who knew Hahnfeldt, originally of Pennsylvania, recognized how much he meant to The Villages, the state and the country, said Al Butler, chairman of the Sumter County Commission. The two were elected in separate commission races in November 2012.

“There’s a lot of good things he did for us, and we need to appreciate and celebrate the time we had with him,” the Village of Bridgeport at Lake Sumter resident said, not only of their time together as county commissioners, but also as close friends. “He was a really fun guy to be with, had a fun sense of humor, a strong sense of community and strong sense of service. He also was so proud of The Villages.”

By happenstance, Butler met Hahnfeldt and his predecessor in the state House, Marlene O’Toole, during a continuing community education class on Florida government.

“We got to know each other there,” Butler said. “We all signed up independently to learn about Florida government. Then Don got me involved in the VHA. At the same time, we got involved in the Republican clubs. We also took our training together at the same time as county commissioners. So, we got to know each other very well.”

Hahnfeldt’s passion for the community became quite apparent as a three-term president of the VHA, The Villages homeowner advocacy and community service group, said current VHA President Fred Briggs.

“We lost a tremendous mentor, adviser and wise counselor,” said Briggs, of Haciendas of Mission Hills, and a four-term VHA president. “There were so many things that Don provided to all of us, someone who was a proponent of all the good and necessary in The Villages.”

Word of Hahnfeldt’s death stunned Briggs, who enjoyed listening to his mentor speak about the upcoming state legislative session during the Dec. 13 VHA meeting.

“He was so very positive about going back to Tallahassee at the first of the year and accomplishing all sorts of things,” he said.

Briggs and Hahnfeldt not only shared a common bond as VHA presidents, but also their service as commissioned naval submariners.

“He is the one who encouraged me to get involved in the VHA,” Briggs said. “Whenever I needed expert guidance, I turned to Don. And he was always so generous with his time and thoughts. He was a terrific guy, and wise beyond everything. He was always very complimentary of me. That’s why I’m so proud to call him a friend.”

Hahnfeldt’s passion for The Villages also became quite apparent as a health care advocate. He joined the Central Florida Health board of directors in 2009 when The Villages Regional Hospital and Leesburg Regional Medical Center consolidated.

And from January 2014 to December 2015, he served as its chairman and led the board through the ambitious $59 million expansion of The Villages hospital that includes a new North Tower with 34 medical-surgical beds, 32 intensive care beds and the TVRH Rehabilitation Hospital with 20 long-term beds; a 50-plus bed emergency department that doubled in size; and a state-of-the-art Advanced Surgery Center.

Hahnfeldt definitely left a legacy, said Don Henderson, Central Florida Health president and CEO.

“We are saddened to learn of his passing and would like to express our deepest sympathies to Mrs. Cheryle Hahnfeldt and family,” Henderson said. “Don will always be remembered for his commitment to the community and his passion for excellence.”

Hahnfeldt also became a strong advocate of Cornerstone Hospice & Palliative Care, parent of The Villages Hospice House.

“Our prayers and blessings go out to Don’s family on this Christmas Day,” said Chuck Lee, Cornerstone’s president and CEO. “Don’s life was filled with service to others; his country, his community, and most recently our team at Cornerstone. He leaves a legacy of incredible business acumen and was an excellent adviser to our organization. Don was a dedicated patriot who stood strong for what he believed in, and his passing is a tremendous loss for all of us.”

Many people knew Hahnfeldt for his military, community and public service. But not everybody knew about his athletic prowess as the 1966 captain of the University of Pittsburgh diving and swimming teams. In October, his wife and children witnessed the university’s Varsity Letter Club honor Hahnfeldt during an awards dinner as one of eight former Pitt athletic winners for their post-graduation accomplishments.

“I’ve done so many things since my time at Pitt, but this honor recalls everything that made for such a special time in my life,” Hahnfeldt told the Daily Sun at the time. “I’m so humbled to be recognized because of what this award means, which is about what you’ve done after you’ve gone off and started your life. To be able to reflect on this place and now knowing what I was going to be once I left here, I’m just ever so grateful for the opportunity.”

O’Toole said that statement represents the man whom she trusted to succeed her in 2016 as she termed out as The Villages representative to the state House. Although saddened at how quickly the illness consumed him, O’Toole walked away from those final hours once again impressed with Hahnfeldt’s resolve.

“He was as positive as always,” she said. “Every task he took on in life he gave it his all, again and again.”

O’Toole met with Cheryle Hahnfeldt for a cup of coffee at the hospital and was equally impressed with the couple’s commitment to one another through his military service and into retirement.

“Don found a life partner in Cheryle,” O’Toole said. “They are the proof in the pudding that you can have it all – and he did have it all. He served his country, his community, Sumter County and the state of Florida. And along the way, he found time to have family and fun. He will be missed by many.”

David R. Corder is a senior writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or Daily Sun Managing Editor Curt Hills and Ombudsman Larry D. Croom also contributed to this story.