Winter Garden Mayor John Rees was born and raised in the city he now leads. Apart from his college years taking place in Gainesville as a Florida Gator, he has lived in Winter Garden his entire life. As a matter of fact, there are few things he does outside of the city limits; when speaking to him about restaurants and businesses, he explained, "we have too many good places here and too many good people." Indeed, Mayor John Rees is a Winter Garden man, through and through.
The Mayor's roots trace to Winter Garden as far back as 100 years ago. In the 1920s, his great-great-aunt built a house on Main Street across from the then "Winter Garden Elementary School," a school that was built in 1916. His father was principal at Lakeview High School, and Mayor Rees recalls growing up in Winter Garden during a time where the resident population was no more than 4,000; today, it is well over ten times that amount with annual visitors to the thriving city now in the millions annually.
He recounts, "When we grew up, if you came to the corner at Dillard Street and 50, that was all Orange Grove. So once you left the downtown area, it was all Orange Groves and packing houses. We had more packing houses in Winter Garden than in any other city in the state … it was a very compact small community that was based on agriculture. What really changed that were the freezes of 85, 87, and of course the last killer of 89- that just wiped out the citrus, and when it did, that changed Winter Garden forever."
He and his wife, Linda, have been together since they were 15 years old; they were both raised attending the First Baptist Church in Downtown Winter Garden. They went to college together in Gainesville, deciding to tie the knot just before their junior year and promptly returned home to Winter Garden after graduating. They have been married now for 51 years, and they have two sons and six grandchildren. Mayor Rees started his public service in 1986 as a city commissioner and first became Mayor of the city in 2008.
Since his first entering public office, the city has seen striking changes. Many of which began during his commissionership and others during his Mayorship. As recounted by the Mayor, prior to the freezes of the 1980s, Winter Garden was primarily a citrus town with more orange groves than businesses. The beautiful City Hall building now on Plant was not there and the commissioners would meet at what is now the Winter Garden Police Station. The historic Garden Theatre, which was originally built in 1935, had been closed since 1963, only to be restored to its former glory, which we now enjoy today, starting in 2008. A railroad once shot through Downtown Winter Garden where the current West Orange Trail lays and the buildings were primarily vacant or used for storage.
More recent additions include the children's splash pad and the new parking garage, including some new flat level parking that is currently being built off Main and Plant Streets.
It is not only Downtown Winter Garden that has been a focus for the Mayor; he has also paid attention to the needs of East Winter Garden, an area of the city historically known for low income and a lack of development. For improvements over the years during the Mayor's time in office, you can take, for instance, the "Magic Gym" on Crown Point Road and the Maxey Community Center in the heart of East Winter Garden. In 2018 the city rolled out the "East Winter Garden Plan," which, according to its official report, states a mission to "ensure that change in East Winter Garden diversifies the neighborhood's economy, increases employment opportunities, improves the health of residents, improves homeownership and housing conditions, and upgrades the quality of life," this action is still underway today. In addition, the city has donated land for affordable housing, some of which have already been built.
"You have to get the whole community going … it's getting homeownership there so that the residents own their own homes and feel safe and secure. You want to bring in destinations there, you know where people are coming, and when you do that, it's going to bring dollars into that community and if it brings dollars into the community, it is going to bring jobs into the community. The idea is not to bring more people [into East Winter Garden] but to help those that we currently have living in the community now," explained the Mayor when discussing the "One Winter Garden" concept.
It is evident that Mayor Rees is a great hyperlocal government leader in our community by his actions as a city leader these past 35 plus years. However, when speaking to him, you instantly become aware he is a great man for much more than his official actions.
Mayor Rees is a great and good man. He being a great man, is self-evident by his tremendous and positive hyperlocal government actions in our community, fueling reform where needed and conserving our heritage where preservation is wanting. This makes him great, but there is something else that makes him good.
Several years ago, my brother and business partner Zander and I wrote out what we felt were the core character virtues a person of great distinction should retain and constantly work on. We narrowed it down to Honesty, Integrity, Decency, and Humility. Regarding the virtue of humility, we felt it should be divided into three qualities: Modesty, Respect, and Gratitude. When talking to Mayor Rees, you instantly get the overwhelming feeling that he lives by and excludes each of these virtues and qualities.
His record of honesty and integrity has been on public display for decades. His decency toward others is without blemish and to humility… few I know compare.
When speaking about his achievements, rather than taking credit as many in executive positions are tempted to do, he uses the word "we,"; always showing great modesty and deference to his fellow commissioners, the city manager, and the city staff.
"It's amazing what you can accomplish when you do not care who gets the credit and … you have a better management team when you use 'we' and 'us' rather than 'I' and 'they'" said the Mayor regarding longstanding beliefs he has held on leadership.
His respect toward others, especially those who have run against him in political office, is staggering juxtaposed to the typical politician we see in America today, small city or national government.
"Whether it was Mr. [Theo] Graham or Mr. [Jack] Quesinberry, they were friends of mine … I never ran against a person; I just ran for the seat because I wanted to have input … you know, don't talk about the other guy and what they did wrong- just talk about your platform," said Mayor Rees on his experiences and how he feels local politics should be run.
What is outstandingly clear and probably most prevalent is his gratitude toward his community and others around him. Whether speaking about his wife, former Mayors Bob Barber or Raymond Spears, former commissioner Theo Graham or other officials in the government currently… he is always displaying inspiring humility.
When speaking about his friend and former Winter Garden Mayor Jack Quesinberry, who passed away in 2017, the current mayor stated with great emotion in his voice that Mayor Jack Quesinberry "loved God, loved his family, and he loved his town." I personally believe that this is a perfect description of our current mayor, Mr. John Rees.
We are blessed to have him as our leader in this city, continuing the tradition of Mayors who place gratitude first… loving God, family, and this community.
Article by Austin Arthur
Photography by Austin Arthur
Originally published in Winter Garden City Lifestyle