Before his passing last week at age 84 from cancer, Castaway Cove resident and former Vero mayor Richard “Dick” Winger made his mark on his adopted hometown, fighting to “Keep Vero Vero,” to protect the Indian River Lagoon and to maintain city roads and utility infrastructure.
Winger was a friend to all animals, from bees and bats to dogs and cats. An avid sailor, he shared his love of the sport with local youngsters and used his pulpit as mayor to promote sailing to anyone who would listen.
Whether he was on the popular side of a contentious issue, or fighting an uphill battle against the conventional wisdom, Winger proceeded with equal fervor, battling for two decades for what he thought was right for the city.
First elected in November 2011, Winger served two full terms on the Vero Beach City Council, and was mayor from November 2013 through November 2015.
Then when the city found itself struggling with several complex issues, from the establishment of a stormwater utility to the planning of the Three Corners project and the new wastewater treatment plant, Councilman Joe Graves resigned with nearly eight months left in his two-year term. Winger offered his services again and was appointed to serve out the remainder of Graves’ term until November 2021.
Riomar resident Vice Mayor Rey Neville remembers getting to know Winger in 2019 when Neville began campaigning for Vero Beach City Council.
“He was extremely generous with me when I was first starting out in my campaign with ideas and that sort of thing. He was an extremely cordial, nice man,” Neville said.
Then Neville and Winger unexpectedly served together as colleagues on the council for seven months.
“We selected Dick to replace Joe Graves because of his experience, and when we worked together on the council, he was extremely thoughtful and a creative guy, an expert problem solver,” Neville said. “He was always focused on the welfare of the city. He was a great guy and I will miss him.”
City Clerk Tammy Bursick worked alongside Winger from the time he joined the city’s Finance Committee in 2010 to the end of his final stint on the council in 2021, and then kept in touch over the past year as Winger’s health began to fail.
“I know that Dick fought hard with his battle with cancer and was always happy knowing that his family and friends were cheering him on,” Bursick said. “I worked with Dick for many years and the one thing that always stood out to me was his respect. He always respected me and I respected him. I also loved his sense of humor.”
During his tenure on the council and afterward as a private citizen, Winger stood up for the city staff and supported raises and benefits to appreciate and keep good people. While he was on the city council, Winger tried to brighten the employees’ offices with a furry friend in tow.
“We both love animals and he was always telling me about his cat who was always his best friend, especially when it came to nap time. He also owned a beautiful dog who he would bring to City Hall for all of us to pet,” Bursick said of Winger, who was a big proponent of the Vero Beach Dog Park.
“That dog started out as a small puppy and grew to be a huge dog, but so lovable and meant so much to Dick and Bobbie,” Bursick said.
Winger had a wide range of hobbies, passions and life skills that he talked about from the dais during council meetings, and thanks to his bee-keeping tales, he became the city’s unofficial “bee man” when needed.
“When I would get calls from people at City Hall who had beehives and didn’t know what to do with them, I would always direct them Dick. He was always making honey and needing beehives to do that,” Bursick said. “He also got into having bats as one of his hobbies. Not sure how far that went.”
An economist by training, Winger enjoyed a career as an executive with several major multinational corporations selling mostly food products and commodities, and he kept working long after the typical retirement age, in part because he never stopped looking forward to the next adventure.
“When Dick was not tending to all of his animals, he was still working, which consisted of a lot of traveling,” Bursick said. “I was always asking him if he was ever going to retire, he would say no because he loved what he was doing.
“Dick will be missed, but never forgotten,” Bursick said.
Winger had been spending time in Vero Beach since his parents moved from Pennsylvania to Central Beach in the mid-1980s.
In 2002 Winger inherited their home on Conn Way, and in 2004 he and wife Bobbie bought riverfront property on Indian Mound Trail and built a home there where he could keep his sailboat moored on the lagoon.
In 2009 when Charlie and Chris Pope co-founded the Youth Sailing Foundation, “Dick was involved right from the beginning,” Charlie Pope said.
Winger taught sailing to kids for nearly two years as the program grew. Pope said his dream was to have 10 sailboats and 10 sailing students, but now the Youth Sailing Foundation supports 85 sailboats and 300 students, with lessons seven days a week and a summer camp that sold out this year. Winger, Pope said, believed in the mission from the beginning.
“He had attended a summer sailing camp in Wisconsin, and he enjoyed it and supported what we were doing. Dick was a real asset to us,” Pope said. “He would promote us and it was a real help for us because we operate off of donations. We don’t charge the children for the lessons.”
Pope said Winger made quite an entrance each time he arrived at the facility on the south side of the Alma Lee Loy Bridge to teach a class of budding sailors.
“He would show up in his sailboat that he kept at his house, he had about a 14-foot boat. The children would see him sail up and tie off and then walk over to teach,” Pope said. “It got them very excited about learning how to sail.”
Pope said the sailing community is mourning one of its own and that he and wife Chris will be attending Winger’s memorial service, which will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Vero Beach.