Hal Lenobel scored 12 and a half years on the commission and 13 holes in one on the golf course.
Hal Lenobel spent his career as a dentist having one-way conversations with patients as he drilled away in their mouths.
But in his retirement years, he realized he had missed out on actually conversing with people.
In his second career — his unpaid 12-and-a-half years on the Longboat Key Town Commission — he developed a reputation as a consensus-builder who didn’t always speak but never failed to listen to all sides before making a decision.
“When he finally would speak, everyone would listen, and he would hit the problem right on its head and have a solution for it,” said Michael Welly, former general manager of the Longboat Key Club and Resort. He met Lenobel shortly after he was hired in 2004, when Lenobel gave him a tour of the Key Club’s golf courses because he wanted to be sure Welly had his priorities straight.
“He loved to be a healer, and he found that he could make his mark on humanity more in the business world than in the medical world,” said Lenobel’s son, Jeffrey Lenobel.
Lenobel, who served as mayor three times during his commission tenure, died Sunday. He was 91.
His 12-and-a-half years on the commission constitute a record topped only by Howard Ridyard’s 23 years on the dais. His 13 holes in one on the golf course likely add up to a Florida amateur record and earned him the nickname “Hole-in-One Hal.”
He spent his career working six days a week, traveling between his offices in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Long Island, N.Y., before retiring to live full time on Longboat Key in 1993.
Although Lenobel had never sought public office before he ran unopposed for the commission in 1997, his decision to become a commissioner wasn’t necessarily surprising — nor was it surprising that, “it really became his life,” according to Jeffrey Lenobel.
“Was I shocked? No,” said Jeffrey Lenobel. “I would have been shocked if he didn’t do it all the way. He didn’t do anything halfway.”
Born May 15, 1924, in Brooklyn, Lenobel attended New York University, where his true passion was playing on the varsity basketball team. He joined the Navy after graduation, uncertain about his career. The Navy made the decision for him, sending him to dental school.
In the Navy, Lenobel never learned to swim. (Decades later, he told the Longboat Observer that he had never learned to swim and didn’t intend to learn.)
But he did discover his lifelong passion for golf during a dental clinic assignment on Saipan in the West Pacific, where men stationed there built a makeshift course.
When he returned to Brooklyn, he built a reputation for dating lots of girls, including Ann Italiano, who went on to change her name to Anne Bancroft and become a Hollywood star.
But it was the pretty young girl named Hazel who had Lenobel so smitten that he proposed on their third or fourth date. The couple married in 1949 and had two children, Jeffrey and Sandy. Their marriage spanned 62 years until her death in 2011.
Lenobel built a successful dental practice but still found time to pursue golf, leading several golf associations and committees. He was also an avid sports fan, who bought his family season tickets for the New York Mets, Rangers and Islanders, among others.
In 1969, Lenobel’s brother, Milton, called him and told him he’d purchased a condo on Longboat Key.
“I had two questions for him,” Lenobel told the Longboat Observer in 2002. “One, what was a condo? And two, where was Longboat Key?”
But six months later, Lenobel flew to the Key and signed a contract for a Longboat Harbour unit. It became the Lenobels’ vacation home for 23 years before they moved there full time in 1993 to retire.
Lenobel became a member of the Men’s Golf Association board at the Longboat Key Club and president of his 300-unit condominium association.
Later, when former commissioner Marge Sagman prepared to step down, she invited Lenobel to run for the seat. He accepted and ran unopposed.
Many who served with Lenobel on the commission say they didn’t always agree with Lenobel but always respected him. He cast the dissenting vote in many 6-1 decisions, but he always believed he was doing what was right.
“Hal Lenobel always put Longboat Key first in every decision he ever made, even if it was not a popular decision,” said former Mayor Jeremy Whatmough.
Former Mayor Ron Johnson, with Lenobel during an eight-year period in which the new Town Hall, Public Safety Complex and Public Tennis Center were constructed, said Lenobel’s personality kept the commission working together.
“We had a lot of disagreements along the way, but Hal had a sense of humor to use in a hard spot to diffuse the tension during disagreements,” Johnson said.
Former Town Attorney David Persson remembers Lenobel for his well-known wit.
“The joke we used to make before meetings was, ‘Whose turn is it to make the lasting witty joke at today’s commission meeting?’” Persson said. “And Hal’s jokes were always much better than mine.”
“He could put people at rest very quickly and puncture the pretentiousness that pops up at commission meetings,” Persson said.
Lenobel’s fellow commissioners selected him for mayor in 1998 and 1999.
But Lenobel’s service extended beyond the commission. He served as president of the Kiwanis Club of Longboat Key and chairman of the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club. For many newcomers, he was an unofficial ambassador for the Key.
Vince DeLisi described how Lenobel introduced him to many friends, along with public service. Lenobel criticized the commission’s frequent creations of subcommittees, but whenever he was outvoted and had to make a committee appointment, he knew whom to appoint: DeLisi, who went on to put his knowledge as a chemist to use on a water advisory committee.
“These involvements gave me the opportunity to get involved in civic affairs that I otherwise would not have done,” DeLisi said.
In December 2003, while still serving on the commission, Lenobel was diagnosed with Wegener’s Granulomatosis, which destroyed his kidneys and forced him to undergo dialysis three times weekly for the rest of his life.
Lenobel continued to serve until he reached term limits in 2005; he later returned in 2008 and was appointed mayor again.
Later, in 2010, he faced his first challenger, when Commissioner Phill Younger ran against him. Lenobel opted not to campaign or raise money, saying he would run on his record.
Lenobel won the race, and the commission appointed Younger to a vacant at-large seat two months later.
“After my ill-fated attempt to run against the island legend for his commission seat, Hal and I formed a friendship that had nothing to do with politics,” Younger said. “Being able to know him and know about him over these last several years has enriched my life. I will miss him.”
During his second commission stint, Lenobel was sometimes in the minority. It was a tumultuous period that included the resignation of longtime Town Manager Bruce St. Denis in 2011.
He was one of two commissioners who voted against removing the late Police Chief Al Hogle from the interim town manager role after Hogle put a department head on paid leave after two employees informed him about a hostile work environment.
“I just want to say that in the 12 years I’ve served on the commission, this is the first instance of a kangaroo court I’ve ever participated in,” Lenobel said at the time.
Lenobel was also the only commissioner to oppose overhauling the town’s comprehensive plan and zoning codes, a process that continues today, saying in 2012, “Your existing comprehensive plan has been used for so many years, and we have ended up with an Eden-type island.”
Votes of confidence
Later in 2012, Lenobel resigned, citing health issues and the recent death of his wife, Hazel.
Then-Mayor Jim Brown tried to persuade Lenobel to finish out his term, but he insisted he could no longer contribute.
Asked about his proudest accomplishments on the commission, Lenobel wouldn’t name a specific vote or idea. His greatest accomplishment, he said, was that in 12-and-a-half years, never once did he vote against his conscience.
The man who did nothing halfway told the Longboat Observer at the time that he didn’t plan to attend commission meetings and followed through: He even declined to say whom he wanted to succeed him, saying he would let his fellow commissioners do what they thought was best.
Brown said his respect for Lenobel only grew after he resigned from the commission.
“We became great friends even though we disagreed on a lot of town issues,” Brown said. “What I learned more than anything from him as a mayor is to listen to the discussion and everyone else before you say anything.”
Welly reflected on Lenobel’s life in a series of email exchanges with Jeffrey Lenobel earlier this week.
“I mentioned to him that his family was his first love,” Welly said. “But Longboat Key was right there in second place.”
Lenobel is survived by his children, Jeffrey Lenobel and Sandy Robinson; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
At his request, there will be no services. Memorial donations can be made to the Vasculitis Foundation, vasculitisfoundation.org.
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