Don Eslick, a community organizer who was instrumental in incorporating Estero as its own government entity, died March 16 at the age of 88.
Eslick retired in 1999 to Estero from the Chicago area after a career in education as Illinois’ assistant superintendent of schools and in government as director of legislative research for the Illinois House of Representatives.
Eslick, who earned a degree in economics from Purdue University and an MBA from the University of Chicago, also served for three years as a navigator and in electronic countermeasures as an officer on a B-47 crew in the U.S. Air Force.
After arriving in Estero, the avid golfer began organizing 37 different gated and non-gated communities in the Estero area, creating the Estero Council of Community Leaders.
“He did anything but retire when he arrived to Lee County,” former Lee County commissioner Ray Judah said. “He rapidly recognized Lee County [which] was experiencing dramatic and explosive growth. He saw the need for the community to become increasingly engaged with the Lee County government to address that growth.
“Don was always very inclusive. He was very bright. But he also had a wonderful demeanor. He was very rational and composed in his discussions with developers.”
The Village of Estero incorporated March 17, 2015. By then, Eslick had relocated with his wife of 58 years to Collier County. He was never an elected official, but many said Estero’s incorporation would never have happened without Eslick.
“Don was instrumental in getting the village incorporated,” said outgoing Estero Mayor Katy Errington, whose last day in the elected position was Monday. “Without Don’s leadership skills, we would not be anywhere where we are today. He had the inspiration and vision to see Estero as a place that could lend itself to a better quality of life. And to make this area a beautiful area. He wanted to maintain control of the things we wanted to see happen with building and construction.”
People gravitated toward Eslick, said Nick Batos, a friend for 20 years and the first elected mayor of Estero.
“He and a few others who came down here saw the area that was basically an empty area between Naples and Fort Myers,” Batos said. “He saw the vision of what Estero could be. He was able to get people together and get people involved. He had a unique way of doing that.”
Eslick fought to prevent the Density Reduction/Groundwater Recharge area, an 80,000-acre swatch of land off Corkscrew Road, east of Interstate 75, from being changed. Those efforts, ultimately, were unsuccessful, Batos said, but his efforts to create Estero have lasted.
“Unfortunately, in 2015, that changed with the county changing the rules and allowing high density in what had been a very low-density area,” Batos said. “We all wish we could have been more successful with that. Corkscrew Road, from I-75 out to Bella Terra, there were 5,000 homes there. From 2015 to today, the county has allowed either the building or the zoning of an additional 25,000 homes. It’s going to be a very dense area.”
In 2012, the Lee County commission, which then included Judah, named the bridge spanning Estero Parkway over I-75 as Don Eslick Bridge.
In 2015, newly reelected county commissioner Cecil Pendergrass asked his colleagues to vote on changing the name to Estero Community Bridge. Pendergrass later cited a state statute prohibiting the naming of buildings and roads after living persons, even though the county still has other buildings named after people living.
Pendergrass could not be reached for comment this week on whether he would seek to rename the bridge in Eslick’s honor following his death.
Even after losing a bridge named for him, Eslick didn’t complain, said Bob Lienesch, a longtime friend and fellow organizer of Estero.
“A TV reporter is interviewing him,” Lienesch said. “My recollection is somebody asked him, ‘How do you feel about this.’ He smiled. He chuckled. He said, ‘It was a nice ride while it lasted.’ Who has the ability to take that kind of unfortunate treatment and smile about it?
“You know why people loved Don? Because he was the most humble man I’ve ever known. And he never said a negative word about anybody. I never heard Don ever call anybody anything negative.”
Steve Sarkozy, village town manager, called Eslick the forefather while some just called him Mr. Estero.
“Don was a true visionary,” Sarkozy said. “He knew how government operated. When he came down here from Illinois, he really was instrumental in protecting the best interests of what is now the Village of Estero.”