Dave Felts, Mount Dora’s Unsung Hero

 

When Nancy and I moved from Orlando to Mount Dora in August 1992, it marked a turning point not just in location, but in participation. In a large city, you tend to feel that your best efforts would make little difference.

Which is why Mount Dora made a big difference.

It was a place where we could volunteer on committees and boards and feel as if our work mattered. And as we got to know the town and found an honest-to-goodness hardware store in the shopping village and saw train engineers park their still-running locomotive and step off for a cup of coffee at a downtown diner, we sensed we had walked through a time tunnel into the 1950s. To learn why this was the way it was, we joined the Mount Dora Historical Society.

That is where we met Dave Felts.

Dave was its president and, to be sure, its leader. Meetings weren’t just meetings, they were community events. With his wife Lynn and children Merita and Byron and Beverly, he organized potluck dinners that attracted dozens and dozens of residents who enjoyed the fellowship of their friends and neighbors. After everyone was full, we’d be treated to a program delivered by a local historian or visiting author.

Having come from a place where we didn’t know our neighbors, here we felt at home. We never assumed his passion for Mount Dora’s history could surpass what he created with the society meetings… until Dave decided to move the old Simpson farmhouse.

When Dave led the drive to save this historic structure, he proved to everyone who told him it couldn’t be done that they were wrong. It was a wonderful day when the town turned out to see a two-story house, sitting atop a massive trailer, moving slowly and gently up Donnelly Street. It sits beside the library now.

 

DSCF3764.JPG – Version 2Not many people realize Dave Felts was responsible for that. Or that he was the founding chairman of the Mount Dora Historical Preservation board. Or that he helped rescue the Historical Society when, in his absence, it had dwindled down to a handful of members. And few realize that Dave’s persistence helped move the city to work toward putting the Mount Dora Historic District on the National Register Historic Places.  They don’t realize that Roseborough Elementary (now the Montessori school) is still standing because Dave and other preservationists took a stand to prevent it from being bulldozed.

Dave’s strong desire to work on behalf of the town was matched only by his lack of interest in taking credit for his work. Which is why we felt it was right to give him overdue credit in our book ‘A Brief History of Mount Dora’. Even before signing the contract, we decided Dave had more than earned that gesture. After we gleaned information from multiple sources, wrote the book, and received a proof copy, we called him up. We asked to sit down with him so he could verify that what we had researched and what we were reporting was accurate.

You should have been there.

In his charming southern drawl, each question led to detailed answers and new information that added depth and context to each story. His unparalleled knowledge of the town’s history – its highlights and faults, its champions and its charlatans — were spun out in fascinating stories that were new to us. It was a virtuoso performance.

Several hours and countless pages of notes later, we showed Dave the first pages from the proof copy of the soon-to-be released book. He saw that we had placed his picture on the dedication page and, above it, this message:

“…to Dave Felts, past president of the Mount Dora Historical Society and founding chairman of the Mount Dora Historical Preservation Board. He continues to be a primary source of information regarding Mount Dora’s history and deserves credit for his role in saving valuable landmarks.”

He was pleased. “That’s nice,” he said humbly. “Oh, that’s real nice.”

Unfortunately, that dedication has become a memorial. Dave passed away on Thursday, February 18.

That news, of course, was unexpected and unwelcomed. But after it was confirmed, I shared a message on Facebook, writing

Dave Felts was the quintessential good guy; the “George Bailey in Bedford Falls” kind of good guy who worked tirelessly on behalf of his hometown and his family without thought of praise or reward — which he well deserved. If you knew him, your life was better for it.

Knowing Dave helps put things in perspective. His life and his work has the power to elevate, and I’m sure I’ll be tapping into that power. I’ll remember how he worked and toiled on a higher ground and how he made a difference by doing the right thing with good intentions, humility, and for the benefit of the entire community. Not just in his lifetime, but for the benefit of Mount Dora’s future.

Gary McKechnie, Guest Writer