Local leaders pay tribute to Sheriff Don Eslinger on the eve of his retirement and share their thoughts on the man who quietly kept Seminole County safe for more than 25 years
As the longest-tenured sheriff in Seminole County’s history, Don Eslinger will leave quite a legacy when he officially retires in January. In his 38 years with the sheriff’s office and 26 as the top law enforcement agent in the county, Don has not only taken a bite out of crime (down 66 percent during his tenure), but his advocacy for children, the mentally ill, and victims of domestic violence has forever changed lives throughout Central Florida.
Don Eslinger is a sheriff of the people, and his accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. The respect he has gained from his peers, allies, and law enforcement personnel is second to none. A few of those who knew Don best and worked with him closely during his career recently took the time to share with Lake Mary Life their thoughts and stories about Seminole’s most enduring sheriff.
founder of Kids House of Seminole
Nancy pulls no punches when she speaks of the influence Don had on her and the children of Seminole County.
“There wouldn’t have been a Kids House without him,” Nancy says, describing the children’s advocacy center that has become a national model in the fight against child abuse and neglect. “I remember when I was asked at a meeting years ago if I would help set up a children’s advocacy center. Don told me he had a place. It was a little house on Ronald Reagan Boulevard that was being used by the Sheriff’s office. He convinced the county commission to let us have it, then was instrumental in building the board.”
It was Don who realized that bringing together all the agencies involved in a child abuse case under one roof would speed up investigations, improve outcomes, and – most importantly – best serve the interests of the young and fragile victims.
“Kids House puts everything right there,” Nancy explains. “Before, abused kids had to go through an interview process that was horrific. They were afraid to talk. They were not comfortable in a police station.”
Today, Nancy says, agency personnel collaborate at Kids House, while a child advocate conducts an interview in a child-friendly setting.
Nancy remembers how Don’s passion to help kids grew through his community policing efforts.
“That’s when he saw this great need for the children,” says Nancy, who has known Don since he was a young man. “He wanted to do something more.”
Don’s solution was to place the Crimes Against Children Unit at Kids House.
“Don is the force behind the scenes to make things happen,” says Nancy. “I can always count on him. He is always ready to help. Don is the kind of person you can really count on. He does not show a lot of emotion, but there is a caring and compassionate person underneath. I remember when retired Officer Terry Hoffman was diagnosed with cancer. Don would travel to Gainesville to be with him. He was always looking out for everyone else. We all owe a lot to Don.”
Seminole County’s chief deputy and sheriff-elect
“He has always been sheriff to me,” says Dennis, who was hired by Don in 1992. “He is my mentor. The relationship has been more student-teacher over the years. I have always admired his skills and analytical abilities.”
Dennis, who will be sworn in as Don’s successor, says Sheriff Eslinger enjoyed such a successful career because he never accepted the status quo. Instead he employed the mantra, “If it’s not broke, take it apart and make it stronger.” That is an example, Dennis says, of the wisdom Don instilled within the organization.
A self-described sponge, Dennis says he never really knew how much he had absorbed from his boss until 2008.
“When I went to the FBI National Academy at Quantico, Virginia, I felt I had an unfair advantage over the others,” says Dennis.
Dennis cites Don’s community policing efforts as a true example of how well the department operated under his watch and how that leadership paid dividends within the county.
“There was a significant reduction in crime under him,” Dennis explains. “That’s because Don believes in order to treat crime, you need to treat the underlying causation.”
Dennis says it was no surprise when Don was invited by jurisdictions across the country to talk about his philosophy of community policing.
“Don knows collaboration, that is, bringing together law enforcement, organizations, and law-abiding citizens,” says Dennis.
“He understands his responsibility and built this organization on the premise that crime is a symptom of another problem.“
Don’s advocacy for children will forever be his legacy, Dennis adds.
“He is an extremely humble person: I have never met a more humble servant leader,” says Dennis. “But extremely transparent, as well. His passion has long been to protect the ones most vulnerable.”
When Dennis assumes the title of Seminole County Sheriff, the transition will be seamless.
“Sheriff Eslinger has ensured a solid succession plan so the services that are offered to our citizens are not compromised,” says Dennis. “I am well-suited because of what he taught me. I will remain in contact with him, but walking down the hallways won’t be the same.”
Seminole County’s undersheriff, who will retire with Sheriff Eslinger in January
“We have enjoyed a close working relationship over the years,” says Steven about Sheriff Eslinger. “It has been more of a partnership than an employer-employee relationship.”
Steven, who met Don 30 years ago and has worked with him at the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office for nearly a quarter-century, has been humbled observing Don’s remarkable creativity on a day-to-day basis.
“Don is a visionary,” Steven says. “He sees all sides of all issues. Don evaluates and makes decisions in the best interest of the community and our organization. He has always aimed at making the organization better.’”
Steven says that Don’s system of community policing is one of the best in the country because it is not just about investigating crimes.
“Community policing is his passion,” says Steven. “His whole philosophy is about preventing crime. He always says that the most significant thing you can do is prevent crime in the first place. Empower and police the community one neighborhood at a time. He is the people’s sheriff.”
When Deputy Sheriff Eugene Gregory lost his life in the line of duty on July 8, 1998, at the hands of an armed, mentally ill person, Don decided the sheriff’s office needed to take a proactive role in mental health intervention. He led the charge for mental health reform in the state, assisting in the re-engineering of Florida’s Baker Act.
“Don believed in more treatment, since mental illness affects public safety, and that still pays results to this day,” says Steven.
Don also founded the Florida Partners in Crisis, promoting collaboration among mental health, substance abuse, and criminal justice systems.
“What Don does, he does for the right reasons,” says Steven. “He led the organization with that philosophy.
“Don has certainly enriched my development. It’s been a privilege working with one of the nation’s premier sheriffs.”
Seminole County Commissioner
Brenda has been a commissioner in Seminole County for 12 years, but she began working with Don back in the 1980s as a community volunteer. Sandra Lynn, county chairman at the time, introduced the two.
“We have been friends ever since,” Brenda says. “He has always been there for me, and I have always been there for him. When Elise [Don’s wife] was pregnant with their son Donny, and she could not stand the sight of food, he would come by my place to grab something to eat then walk the precincts when he was running for office.”
Brenda says that Don is a fun-loving kind of guy who always stays within the lines.
“Maybe right up to the lines at times, but never over,” she grins.
The pair worked on many projects together over the past three decades. Brenda recalls how in 1990 the two of them organized a luncheon to raise money for the Boy Scouts. The event was so successful, it is still held today.
“Over the years, we have raised more than $3 million for scouting,” Brenda reports.
Brenda also recalls when the state wanted to close down the local Juvenile Detention Center and move the children to facilities in Orange and Brevard counties.
“We decided to tour the center one day,” says Brenda. “Don thought perhaps we could run it through the sheriff’s department instead of paying the state of Florida. We were halfway through the tour and were so turned off with the upkeep and the attitudes of employees, we left. Don prepared a plan to move the center into the sheriff’s department and received County Commission approval. In the first year, we saved the county $1 million.”
Brenda believes it is Don’s compassion for the community that drives him.
“When you live in a community, you want it to be the best it can be,” she says. “It’s not about us, it’s about the community.
That’s why Don and I are such good friends.”
Brenda is also proud of the succession plan Don prepared before announcing his retirement.
“It helps all of us,” Brenda says. “We do the best we can do as a commission so the sheriff’s department can do its job. That close working relationship, between commission and sheriff’s office, is not always present in other communities.”
Brenda says there was never a time that she picked up the phone and Don wasn’t there for her. She’ll miss that.
“He has grown into a great man who cares so much for his family, friends, and the community,” says Brenda. “No matter what he does, we will stay in touch.”
CEO of SafeHouse of Seminole
“He eats, drinks, and sleeps this job, I think,” says Jeanne. “And he focuses on victims. It’s outside-of-the-box thinking.”
Jeanne was working for the state attorney’s office when she was appointed as Division Chief of the Domestic Violence Division for the state in 1995. She had been introduced to Don six years earlier.
“SafeHouse of Seminole exists because of Don and the community coming together,” Jeanne says of the county’s emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence. “The idea was, and is, to focus on victims and children to make healthy relationships happen.”
In 2007, Jeanne remembers how Don was instrumental in coordinating a SafeHouse fundraiser luncheon that featured Denise Brown, Nicole Brown Simpson’s sister, that raised $65,000.
“We built the new shelter that year, and Don wanted all employees at the Sheriff’s office to see the place,” Jeanne remembers. “Every unit came by and took a tour of SafeHouse. I think there were about 300 of them.”
Don is such an integral part of SafeHouse and its successes that the organization presented him with an award on October 25 at its annual Celebrate Hope event for Don’s years of service. Beyond his advocacy for fighting domestic violence, Jeanne has the utmost respect for Don as a person and a leader.
“When Don walks into a room, he’s a leader,” Jeanne says. “He leads by integrity. He does what he says he is going to do. And that is not true about a lot of people. I know he was always there for us. All of us.”
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