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Issue 677

01/30/2014 at 4:11pm

Don StilwellStilwell Settles Into Manager Role

At this Monday's council meeting, Don Stilwell will likely accept an agreement to become the new Interim Town Manager of Fort Myers Beach. Many of our readers are likely somewhat familiar with Stilwell as he served a long tenure as the manager of Lee County (1993-2009), and he was in the midst of a run for county commissioner when news of Terry Stewart's pending departure reached him so he decided to put in for the opportunity to serve the residents of Fort Myers Beach. What many folks probably don't know about Stilwell is that he was once a fighter pilot, that he actually began his lengthy career in public service working for the private sector, and that he and his wife hold traditional dinners every Sunday for their extended family of 17.

"I was born in Oregon, and grew up there where I entered the Air Force right out of high school,” Stilwell told us on his first day at Town Hall this week. "I got trained to be a jet pilot and I loved it, but I blew out my ear drum so they had to ground me.”

Not content with a job as a desk jockey after being a top gun, Stilwell left the military and went to school, earning his Associate's Degree at Sacramento City College before going to the University of Oregon in Eugene where he received his Bachelor's in law.

"I knew I didn't want to be an attorney, so I went to work in the private sector with Allstate Insurance, where I worked with attorneys,” he told us. "A couple of years later, I started investing in the stock market and did well enough that I opened a brokerage firm which expanded into Bend and Cuyahoga Falls. Never once in all that time did I think about working for the government.”

Eventually, the firm's partnership would have a falling out, and Don would find himself doing just that.

"We had two guys in the firm who really wanted to work, and the other two just wanted to spend money,” Stilwell quipped. "So I had a good friend working for the city of Springfield, and he encouraged me to get hired on as the Assistant Director of Finance and Administration.”

Things went well for Stilwell in Springfield, and after just two years he was able to parlay that good publicity into an offer for his first job as city manager for the Portland suburb of Woodburn, Oregon - a city with a very eclectic mix of residents.

"This was 1972, and the population was about 10,000,” he said. "That number was divided evenly between the farmers who originally settled there, members of the Russian Orthodox Church who spoke little English, a very large section of seniors who lived in a gated community, and Hispanics who worked at the country's largest BirdsEye manufacturing plant. All signs were in English, Russian and Spanish, and they had translators in city hall. It was fascinating.”

After two years in Woodburn, where he helped to build a new business park, Stilwell was asked to be the first county administrator in Del Norte County, California, a small county - population 20,000 - in the redwoods on the Oregon state line.

"I did well there for about four years, then San Luis Obispo County - population 170,000 - called and said they had just fired their guy and asked me to come,” he said. "I really liked where I was, but I wanted the opportunity to work in a bigger county, so I went.”

From there, Don moved to Washington County - a Portland county with the third largest population in Oregon.

"That was pretty challenging as they were going through some major changes and the Silicon Valley thing was starting up in Portland so I helped recruit many of those companies to the city,” he said. "Then they ended up recruiting me, so I went to work for a technology group where they made me the Executive Vice-President of the government industry branch. That was a very good experience, and I got lucky and made a little money.”

Then, in 1992, Stilwell would answer a call that would prompt his friends to call him nuts.

"All managers across the country are aware of which counties and cities are hiring and how often,” he said. "Out of all of them, Lee County was the most well-known for it's revolving door of managers - they were always recruiting! They had all kinds of problems back then, so when I accepted their offer, everyone just assumed I'd be right back.”

Obviously, that didn't happen and Stilwell went on to help first put a fractured county government back together and then shepherd it through the fastest growth period in its history - where folks were moving here so fast the infrastructure had to scramble to keep up. He would also see the county's general fund go from a $10 million shortfall to having over $100 million in reserve, initiate a seamless government concept to improve efficiency and help start conservation programs to protect green spaces.

"What pleased me the most was to see credibility brought back to county government,” he said. "I got here at a very good time in that there was so much turmoil, and we were able to set things right.”

Stilwell told us that his favorite thing to do when he was Lee's manager was to go to local parks and ask the tourists and newcomers why they came to southwest Florida.

"Most of them would answer, 'Because this is how Florida used to be',” he said. "They liked that sense of 'Old Florida' that no longer exists on the east coast and in the big cities. Those core values became our core values, and that's why programs like Conservation 20/20 were set up - we wanted this area to remain a desirable place to be. We also gained a lot of financial stability.”

During his 16-year tenure, Stilwell also got to know the current county manager - Roger Desjarlais - and the two became friends and worked together well, something that will likely be beneficial to this Town as the beach and the county move forward with the reconstruction of Estero Boulevard.

"Roger was working as the head of emergency services when I came to Lee, then he became assistant county manager for five or six years before going to Broward County to be their county manager,” he said. "He's the real deal and they're lucky to have him.”

Stilwell resigned his county manager post in 2009 after forwarding racy emails on county computers; something he admits was a very bad decision.

"I made a mistake, and I regret it,” he said. "I think people will look at the other things I've done and my reputation. I've gotten a lot of positive response over the weekend, so I'm looking forward to getting to work.”

And he has. On Monday, he'd already met with Mayor Alan Mandel, Attorney Jim Humphrey and several department heads.

"Right now, with the election coming up, I want to keep moving forward on the current projects and also meet with each candidate to see what want and what they say,” he said. "I want to get a clear direction from Council as to what direction the town should move in.”

So our readers can get to know him a bit more personally, we asked Stilwell what he likes to do for fun, and he told us he works out to relax.

"It's been 41 years next month that I started working out regularly, and I love it - I like to be healthy,” he said. "I also love sports - especially the Portland Trailblazers and Oregon Ducks, and I love to read.”

The most important thing in Don's life, he admits, is his family. His extended family spans two marriages (all parties are amicable and all get along well) and several generations.

"We have family dinner every Sunday at our house on McGregor, and that's 17 people - if my ex and her husband are here, that's 19,” he said. "And once a week, my daughters and I have lunch at McDonald's. Family is everything to me.”

Keri Hendry Weeg