SEMINOLE — The city was only 10 years old in 1980 when Juanita Gesling was elected its first female mayor; it was during an era in Seminole’s history when it had a “strong mayor” form of government and the top elected official ran day-to-day operations of the municipality that then had 4,586 residents.
Gesling died Aug. 16, 2020, in Plano, Texas, at age 87 after a long battle with primary progressive aphasia, a neurodegenerative disease that affected her ability to speak.
"Mayor Gesling was an accomplished woman balancing her public service with her business interests of real estate, investments and land development in North Carolina," current Mayor Leslie Waters told Tampa Bay Newspapers.
Gesling served on the Seminole City Council from 1977 to 1982, including a stint as the city’s fourth mayor from 1980 to 1982.
She resigned as mayor in 1982 to run unsuccessfully for the state Legislature.
During her years on the City Council, City Hall relocated to Seminole City Park on Ridge Road in 1977, Fire Station 31 was built on 88th Ave. North in 1978, and Osceola High School opened in 1981. Seminole had a strong-mayor form of government from 1970 to 1995. Under the current government, the city manager is responsible for day-to-day operations.
“She was mayor in the early years of our city … the population was much less, and the budget was much less, but (there were) major challenges in building infrastructure, strengthening city services, hiring and retaining staff, overseeing the city budget and council duties,” Waters said. “As the current mayor, proudly following in her footsteps, I salute her impact on our city. My thoughts and prayers are with her family at this very sad time."
Optometrist Dr. Claude McMullen recalled Gesling as being “a very unique and independent woman; she was the city’s first female mayor, an innovator who struck out on her own to get things done. As mayor, if she saw something that needed to be done, she took it on and did it.”
He told Tampa Bay Newspapers “she had a great sense of humor and was very well-liked.”
Gesling grew up in Ohio and moved to Florida as a young mother in 1957. Throughout her life, she owned several different businesses in Clearwater, St. Petersburg, and Seminole. One of her many businesses was the Lake Seminole Campsite where 60 year-round residents lived.
She sold the property to Home Depot in 2005 and told the Tampa Bay Times at the time, "We're concerned about these people. But we're getting to the age where we need to do what they're doing. We need to retire."
She had homes in Redington Shores and Plano, Texas and traveled throughout the U.S. by motor home. She visited several European countries, as well as Australia and New Zealand, and took many Caribbean cruises. “She loved spending time with her son and his wife, her granddaughters, and her great-grandchildren,” an obituary noted.
She is survived by her son, Steve Davis, and his wife, Robin; granddaughters Stefanie Davis Jacobs (John) and Kelly Davis Feil (Steve); and five great-grandchildren.
A celebration of life will be scheduled for Sept. 26 at Sylvan Abbey Memorial Park. Donations in her memory may be made to the National Aphasia Association, P.O. Box 87, Scarsdale, NY 10583 or online at www.aphasia.org/donate.