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OUR VIEW | Remembrance of a Longboat Key icon

Former Mayor Dr. Hal Lenobel died at age 91.


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It was pretty much a miracle that he lived after what happened in December 2003. But it wasn’t right that he had to live as he did the past dozen years. We were cheated. He was cheated. Because, even at age 79 then, he was still on the way up.

The town of Longboat Key lost a historical icon Sunday. Former Mayor Dr. Hal Lenobel died at age 91.

It was a struggle, these past years. Those who knew Lenobel would agree that he probably would say: “Finally, it’s over. It’s time to join Hazel,” his late wife. “I’ve thought about that,” he told us on a few occasions. 

If you can imagine: 6 a.m. three-hour dialysis sessions three times a week. For 12 years. To keep you breathing, living. Not one to put icing on his comments, Lenobel would say about the dialysis: “It sucks, but what are you going to do?”

Inexplicably, in December 2003, an uncommon inflammation struck Lenobel’s blood vessels — Wegener’s Granulomatosis — destroying his liver and bringing to an abrupt halt what you could call a glorious time for Lenobel.

He was at the apex of his second successful run. Retired from a successful dentistry practice in Long Island, Lenobel had become during the 1990s and early 2000s a Longboat Key celebrity.

It’s not out of bounds to say in the history of Longboat Key, Hal Lenobel will be etched in the record as a statesman … Perhaps he should have been mayor for life.

He began building his notoriety with his weekly golf column in this newspaper, Golf Gambits, in which he regaled the Key’s avid golfers with the arcane rules of golf. Prior to his moving here, Lenobel served as an rules and tournament official with the PGA tour. He also served three terms as president of the Longboat Key Club’s Men’s Golf Association, a position that helped build his notoriety among Key Club members.

And then he started making news. In fact, it almost seemed like it wasn’t news because it was becoming such a regular occurrence: hitting holes in one on the Harbourside courses at the Longboat Key Club. There was one, then his second, a third and another and another. By the time he was forced to give up golf, he had 13. And he wasn’t even a good golfer. 

Average is a fair description. He once joked that one of his best shots was when he hit a tee shot that sliced onto Gulf of Mexico Drive and hit the black Mercedes Benz of then Key Club owner Shane Eagan. He didn’t believe in buying the latest high-tech clubs to help his game.

“The clubs aren’t the problem,” he said. “It’s the golfer.”

Lenobel’s notoriety on Longboat Key blossomed when he entered town politics as an elected town commissioner in 1997. His commission peers elected him mayor after only one year on the commission. And in his first mayoral term, Lenobel helped eliminate commission tensions and create a collegiality that resulted in his fellow commissioners taking the unusual step of electing him mayor for a second consecutive year. He rocketed to such popularity that, after that second term as mayor in 1999, this newspaper editorialized he should be named mayor for life.

Lenobel found his second calling. He was a smart and let’s say crafty politician. He had a way of not offending his fellow commissioners and maneuvering them to move ahead collegially. 

It was his sense of humor — and timing. He had an uncanny knack for letting the air out of a tense balloon by gently pinching it with a perfectly timed comical remark.

Voters liked him also because he typically took well-reasoned positions. He loathed stupid government regulations. Sometimes, he craftily played both sides: While expressing opposition to taxpayers funding the public tennis center, he nevertheless voted in favor of it twice.

His stature and popularity kept growing. As did his involvement as a leader. He became a board member and chair of the Sarasota Bay Tiger Club and well known among the region’s elected politicians. He served as  president and on the board of the Longboat Key Kiwanis Club, chosen once as its Citizen of the Year and an admired senior member along with such club luminaries as the late Gen. Jim Edmundson and Jim Durante. 

Lenobel and Durante, benefactor of the Joan M. Durante Community Park, held court at the Thursday morning Kiwanis breakfasts, talking baseball trivia, a love of both and all teams New York, their hometown. They could tick off starting lineups of the Brooklyn Dodgers and 20th century Yankees like the names of family members. Lenobel was also a big Mets and Giants fan. He loved sports.

And then, out of nowhere, the otherwise healthy Lenobel became stricken. He was never the same physically. 

He gave up golf. He aged. But he maintained his mental acuity, quick wit and a sometimes cynical sense of humor. From 2004 to 2008, he left town politics to try to recover from his illness. 

But by 2008, still a close observer of Town Hall politics, he couldn’t stay on the sidelines. Despite his fragile health, he decided to run for the Town Commission again. No one opposed him. On top of that, after taking the oath, his fellow commissioners immediately elected him mayor, a move that rocked Town Commission protocol and an indicator that Lenobel still carried extraordinary popularity.

He ran again in 2010, drawing an opponent for the first time in seven elections. He declined to campaign. He won by 94 votes. 

Altogether Lenobel served 13 years on the Town Commission, second highest number of years in the town’s 60-year history. He called it quits soon after the love of his life, wife Hazel, died in December 2011. He felt empty. Living without her after 62 years took its toll. On several occasions after her death, Lenobel would say without prompting: “I miss her. Sometimes I think I should just give up.”

But he didn’t. He started a breakfast club at the Coffee Carousel in downtown Sarasota with two friends and two former Sarasota mayors, Nora Patterson and Mollie Cardamone. They met Mondays and Fridays and typically invited local newsmakers and politicians to speak off the record about current events. 

“I can’t believe some of the things they tell us,” Lenobel said at a lunch in 2014 at the Cortez Café — as if to say he couldn’t believe some of the confidential and catty information that came out of politicians’ mouths.

Lenobel loved it. He loved being in the political know. Deep down, you could sense he loved politics — especially the local scene — as much as he did sports. Politics and sports kept his mind engaged until the end. During lunch or breakfast conversations, he would opine on the ineptitude of the Longboat Key Town Commission, Sarasota elected officials, his congressman or the president, be it Bush or Obama.

By the conversation and meal’s end, when he was ready to go home, he would conclude the session with his view of the political world: “Oh well, nothing will ever change.”

Hal Lenobel was far more than a Long Island dentist. Loyal husband. Loving father and grandfather. Caring friend to so many. It’s not out of bounds to say in the history of Longboat Key, he became and will be etched in the record a statesman. During his time in town politics, when he was at the apex of his second successful career and in his second  prime, so was Longboat Key. There is a connection. Hal Lenobel loved Longboat Key. He made it a better place. Perhaps he should have been mayor for life. 

 

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