The 22nd annual Chili Cook-off was held this weekend at Lake Sumter Landing, and as usual, it was a huge success as a fundraiser for the Rotary Club of The Villages.
But many of the participants probably have no idea how the Rotary Club came up with idea that’s been such a huge success for so many years. They probably don’t know it debuted in 1998 when The Villages was much smaller and completely contained north of County Road 466. And they most likely have no idea that the event that has raised thousands upon thousands of dollars for charity was the brainchild of a man named Pete Wahl.
For those who aren’t familiar with Wahl, in addition to being a very dedicated Rotarian, he served as a government official in Florida’s Friendliest Hometown for more than 20 years – at a time when the community was going through some tough growth issues.
Wahl was hired to head up The Villages Community Development Districts in 1995 when Florida’s Friendliest Hometown wasn’t much more than a trailer park that was starting to embark on site-built homes across U.S. Hwy. 27/441 from the Historic Side of the community. Prior to taking on that role – one that wasn’t exactly clearly defined at the time – Wahl had served as county administrator for Lake County and in Brevard County’s government.
Of course, when Wahl became manager of the community development districts, The Villages was a much different place than it is today. The golf cart bridge crossing U.S. Hwy. 27/441 was just two years old. And the Publix at what would eventually become the La Plaza Grande shopping center still had Villagers buzzing – especially those on the Historic Side who could use the new bridge to shop at the state-of-the-art grocery store.
When Wahl came onboard, County Road 466 was a two-lane road and vacant land galore existed west of Morse Boulevard. Spanish Springs Town Square was still mostly in the development stages – Villages lore has it that Developer H. Gary Morse drew it out on a napkin one night at the dinner table – with Katie Belle’s and the old Church on the Square soon to become popular destinations for Villagers.
But Wahl oversaw the development of Spanish Springs one building at a time, because in those days, Morse simply didn’t have the money to build the majority of the town at once like he later did with Lake Sumter Landing and Brownwood.
Eventually, Janet Tutt, who was Marion County’s deputy administrator, came aboard and Wahl moved over to serve as manager of the Sumter Landing CDD. He retired about three years later, in 2008, when Tutt was named to be the sole district manager.
But Wahl, a graduate of the University of Texas, didn’t completely retire, as he became a projects director for Morse. In that role, he held responsibilities for overseeing growth on various projects in the southern end of The Villages.
Along the way, Wahl entrenched himself in the community and made a huge difference in many ways. In addition to his many contributions as a Rotarian, he served with The Villages Regional Hospital’s Foundation and raised money for the Moffitt Cancer Center when it came to The Villages. And in July 2017 Wahl was named vice chairman of the Lake-Sumter State College Board of Trustees and now serves as the chairman, having been on the board since 2014.
One of Wahl’s bigger jobs after officially retiring was to join forces with State Rep. Marlene O’Toole in 2013. O’Toole hired Wahl as a legislative aide working out of a new outreach office near the Sumter County Courthouse in Bushnell. The Villager clearly saw the benefits of having Wahl on her team, given his long history of service in both The Villages and Lake County.
“Pete knows everybody. He knows how to get things done,” she said at the time.
Wahl also enjoyed a spot as one of the roasters when Lt. Nehemiah Wolfe retired from the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office in 2015. As the jokester that many who knew Wahl would appreciate, he tempered his remarks, feigning fear because so many people in the room – including the roastee – were wearing tasers and side arms.
After being term-limited as a state representative, O’Toole lost a close State Senate primary race to Republican rival Dennis Baxley in August 2016. She served out her term as a state representative and later was appointed to the Central Florida Health board of directors. Wahl, who lives in The Villages, retired again and has enjoyed spending time with his wife, Nancy, a retired kindergarten teacher.
Wahl’s daughter, Molly, and her husband, Keith Davison, have two children, so the man who has been so generous with his time and money over the years for so many great causes in The Villages is now thoroughly enjoying what is surely his favorite role of all time – being “Papa Pete” to two young grandchildren.