Unsung But Never Forgotten

Delray PD “Tactical Team” circa 1990. Sgt. Don West, future Chief Jeff Goldman, Officer Phil Dorfman, Sgt. Toby Rubin and Lt. Allan Thompson.

It’s hard to believe that’s been almost 18 years since 9/11.

Children have been born and have reached adulthood since that tragic day.

So much of our daily lives have changed that I have a feeling we don’t even realize just how much life is different as a result.

I saw a stat the other day that struck me.

Deaths from 9/11 related illnesses will soon pass those lost on the day of the attack.

They are dying of cancer and other 9/11 related disorders as we were reminded during recent Congressional testimony that finally led to more funding for victims and first responders.

That reminder was made personal recently when I dropped by a Delray Beach family reunion of a retired firefighter who lost a sister in law on 9/11 and has watched his brother fight cancer as a result of being near the site of the attack in lower Manhattan.

Families are continuing to suffer emotionally and physically. Some nightmares never quite end and that’s sobering. Those who devote their lives to public safety know that in their bones, but they sign up for that life anyway.

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for public safety professionals—police officers, firefighters, paramedics and those who serve on our beach patrol. It seems that a lot of people gripe about pensions and benefits and there is no doubt that public safety is an expensive proposition. I would suspect that it will get more so as our society deals with challenges ranging from active shooters and opioid addicts to mental illness and extreme weather events.

But for those who complain about the cost, imagine how expensive it would be without it.

In Delray Beach, police and fire are half of your city budget—at least that’s what it used to be and I suspect that’s still true.

But I have always believed that the unsung heroes of Delray have been the men and women who have served on police and fire rescue departments.

There would be no downtown without them because we would not have been able to attract investment had we remained an unsafe city, which we were for a period of time back in the day before two generations of police officers and firefighters came to work every day and turned things around.

How bad was it?

Well in the 80s, they were pelted with rocks and bottles after responding to fights outside of bars on West Atlantic Avenue, the gateway to our city. Some neighborhoods were so hostile to police officers that I once saw the severed heads of pigs impaled on street signs as a warning for law enforcement to stay away. They didn’t—they just persisted. Thank goodness these officers did. Because they saved Delray Beach.


I was privileged at the time to do frequent “ride alongs” and saw some amazing officers do their best to disrupt street level drug sales. Entire parts of Delray Beach were open air drug markets with cars coming in off the Interstate to buy crack cocaine from dealers who used  little children as look-outs at all hours of the night.

I remember, as a young reporter, interviewing then Chief Rick Overman who promised to chase the dealers off the avenue. He predicted that the drug sales would first migrate into the neighborhoods where it would be more difficult to track but he asked for more resources and for the community to be both patient and to play a role in helping make their neighborhoods safer.

MAD DADS was formed and groups of men— most from the neighborhood but a few volunteers from other parts of the city—would confront dealers on the street corners and ask them to stop selling the drugs that hurt so many people and kept residents inside their homes quaking with fear.

Police and fire were partners in that effort and other efforts to make Delray Beach a safer community, one where it would be possible to build something of value.

Over the years I became close with many of the men and women who served. I looked up to them. I admired their dedication, commitment and bravery. They taught me so much.

It’s important to mention them because cities have these unsung heroes and heroines that often get lost. But if they didn’t exist, places such as Delray would be a whole lot different.

My list is a long one and this is by no means complete but let’s just say Delray would have been vastly different and I believe worse off if people such as Adam Rosenthal, Vinnie Mintus, Jim Tabeek, Rich Murphy, Chief Overman, Chief Kerry Koen, Johnny Pun, Fred Glass, Robert Stevens, Toby Rubin, Mike Swigert, Brian Bollan, Dwayne Fernandes, Craig Hartmann, John Battiloro, Mike Wise,  John Palermo, Wayne Yoder, Russ Accardi, Mike Wigderson, John Tomaszewski, Eddie Robinson, Tom Whatley, Paul Shersty, Tom Quinlan, Chuck Jeroloman, John Evans and many others went to work elsewhere or if we failed to remain competitive and let them go elsewhere.

I wish there was a way to formally honor these unsung heroes—people who went the extra mile, accomplished the nearly impossible and made a true and lasting difference.

If you want a special village—you need to create an environment in which people can flourish and reach their potential.

Like everything, it begins and ends with leadership that empowers, encourages and builds trust and relationships. From those essential elements you get accountability and performance. Innovation occurs and excellence flourishes in an environment where people feel safe to grow and are motivated to achieve.

It’s magical when it happens.

We were lucky to see it, but even if we came later, we are here because of the work of these unsung men and women. I hope and trust we will never forget that.




What We Often Don’t See Is What Matters

the-iceberg-of-successI saw a great graphic the other day. (Look above).

The picture depicts success as an iceberg with only the good stuff visible on the surface.
But just below is what it took to achieve success. The trials, tribulations, setbacks, false starts, hard work, good habits and more that few see. But it’s the struggle that is essential for achieving success.
While the graphic is probably aimed at individuals, I think it also holds true for cities and other things we strive to build.
There are so many things that don’t appear on the surface. So many hurdles that few get to see.
And so it has been with Delray Beach and Boca Raton.
First Boca.
I moved here in 1987 and I remember the old mall on US 1. It wasn’t a very nice mall, but it had a bookstore and so I went there often.
I worked for a newspaper at the time headquartered on East Rogers Circle and it was a fairly desolate place back then. There were few places to eat, we had to drive to Tom Sawyer’s or into Delray where there was a restaurant sort of underground at Linton Towers. We sometimes went to Rosie’s Raw Bar, Dirty Moe’s  or to a barbecue joint on Linton and Congress.
Boca was always pretty with beautiful parks. But there was really no downtown. The best restaurant may have been La Vielle Maison. West Boca began to boom and often we would venture to Wilt’s or Pete Rose’s Ballpark Cafe and yes we saw Wilt a few times and Pete a whole lot. He did his radio show from the cafe which was attached to a Holiday Inn on west Glades.
Boca was a pretty nice place back then but at the risk of offending some folks, I like it now too.
Although I knew many of the city folks and elected officials through the years I wasn’t privy to the struggles they most surely dealt with.
I was too absorbed with Delray’s journey first as a reporter and later as an elected official.
And dear reader, there were some titanic struggles and make or break decisions to make.
When I think of the 80s, the first thought that comes to mind is crime. The town felt dangerous.
I remember walking into the old Phoenix at Atlantic and A1A as a naive 22 year old new to town hoping to shoot some pool and grab a beer. I actually wondered whether I would make it out intact.
Then there was the time I was assigned a “man on the street” interview and when I stopped a guy on Atlantic Avenue he turned around and ripped the sleeve of my shirt clean off. We both stood there shocked. It was a perfect tear, not sure how he did it and I guess he surprised too, because he ran off. I can’t remember whether he answered my question. Probably not.
I went to police briefings and neighborhood crime watch meetings and heard a litany of horror stories.
Back then, there was a major drug dealer in town named Deniz Fernandez. His network of dealers were brazen and actually hung a pig’s head off a street sign as a warning to cops. When he finally went down as a result of a task force consisting of Delray police and federal agents, the scope of his astonishing empire was revealed: 10 homes, acres and acres of property, a few businesses and duffel bags full of drugs were seized.

 Fernandez owned a place locals called “The Hole,“ a notorious crack house on Southwest Ninth Avenue in Delray Beach.

During the summer of 1987, the group`s business reaped an estimated $50,000 a day in gross profits by selling individual doses of crack cocaine for $10 a rock, according to federal agents and police  who worked on the investigation.

Check out that number, $50,000 a day in $10 increments.

When undercover Delray officers closed in on him on a dirt road wear of town, he brandished a blue steel revolver and pointed it at them before ditching the weapon. Germantown Road, steps from a popular Ford dealership, was Fernandez’ turf and drivers were brazenly hailed to pull over and buy crack rocks. When  officers showed up the dealers dispersed in seconds disappearing into the darkness. Our city was literally an open air drug market.

Once a month, the Sheriff’s fugitive task force came to town and teamed up with our officers to round up literally scores of felons who failed to show up in court or were on the run.
We rode with Charlie Comfort of PBSO, Lt. Jeff Rancour and the late Johnny Pun in an effort to find as many of the  worst offenders before word spread on the street that the warrant task force was out and about.
Augmenting those efforts, was the legendary or infamous–depending on what side of the law you were on–tact team also known as the jump out crew. They were tasked with fighting and disturbing street level drug sales which was rampant in parts of Delray. This is where I first met a young Jeff Goldman, now our chief and really amazing officers such as Mike Swigert, Don West, Eddie Robinson, Chuck Jeroloman, Toby Rubin and John Battiloro.
Mad Dads was active back then. They were citizens determined to reclaim their streets from drug dealers.
I saw K-9 officers like Skip Brown and Geoff Williams deploy their dogs in pursuit of dangerous criminals and a slew of incredible detectives solving one horrific crime after another. Legends like Bob Brand, Robert Stevens, Tom Whatley, Craig Hartmann, Dwayne Fernandes, Casey Thume, Brian Bollan were only a few of the people who labored long hours below the success iceberg.
John Evans, Terrance Scott, Robyn Smith, Tom Judge, Shirley Palmer, Randy Wilson, Marc Woods and Jeff Miller were road patrol cops who made a big difference. Vinny Mintus was a fixture in Pineapple Grove which was far from gentrified in those days. Very far. Tom Quinlan and Glenn Rashkind kept our beach safe and everybody knew their names.  There were more. So many more.
While police and fire lived most dangerously, in every department at City Hall there were people toiling below the success iceberg struggling with financial issues, code enforcement challenges and even zoning problems–all trying to find a formula to  unlock success. They found it. And that should give us comfort as we read about today’s challenges, which include a crushing heroin epidemic.
Our community has risen to challenges before, they will again.
Meanwhile, I appreciate the present because I saw the hungry years. And that’s what gives me and others civic pride.