Florida Department of Citrus bids farewell to “the nicest man I ever met”

Everette Taylor, the beloved auditor, was 61.

Taylor, sporting one of his famous soccer jerseys, during the 2014 World Cup.

BARTOW, Fla. – Everette Taylor, beloved auditor.

It’s a title full of contradiction. Yet it’s exactly how those who knew him describe his work, and it’s how the Florida Department of Citrus’ interim executive director Shannon Shepp referenced him when she notified industry officials of Taylor’s death Thursday in Lakeland.

The beloved auditor was 61.

As a tax auditor for the FDOC for the past 20 years, Taylor was respected for a job well done. But it was what he brought beyond assessments and contracts that left an impact on those he met.

“He represented the Department impeccably while dealing with packers and processors,” said Marty McKenna, chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission. “But it was his integrity and unique personality that led to his legacy as the most well-received auditor ever.”

As Shepp put it, “He was a valued employee and an even better colleague.”

Everette Taylor began his career at the FDOC in 1995. Prior to joining the Department, he worked for the Florida Department of Agriculture for 10 years and spent three years as a district executive for the Boy Scouts of America. A graduate of Lakeland Senior High School, Taylor went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Hampton University in Virginia and a master’s degree from Atlanta University.

Despite solid academic credentials and decades of experience in the industry, however, it was his approach to his work – or, more specifically, to the people with whom he worked – that marked him as “one-of-a-kind.”

As FDOC’s chief financial officer, Chris Marion put it, “Everyone says the same thing. ‘Everette is the nicest man I ever met.’”

“There is something very special about a person who thinks of others before they think of themselves. Everette was such a life,” said Toni Griffith, an administrative assistant on FDOC’s marketing team.

Andy Taylor, a former FCC Commissioner and current executive at Peace River Citrus Products, Inc., had many occasions to interact with the FCC staffer over the years: “Everette was just a very positive person, and I’m sure that rubbed off on the staff he worked with every day at the FDOC. It certainly made an impression on folks he worked with outside the Department.”

And, indeed, those who worked alongside Taylor understood what an integral part of Florida Citrus industry he had become over the years.

“I just told him last week that the relationships he has built within the industry would be hard to replace when he retired,” said Alice Wiggins, an administrative assistant at the FDOC. “You just mention his name, and everyone says, ‘What a great guy!’”

If a taxpayer had a problem with a form, Taylor never hesitated to help, said Debbie Bright, FDOC’s assistant director of finance and accounting.

“He worked tirelessly to maintain good relations with the industry office personnel and our accounts receivable personnel,” she said.

Within the walls of the Department, Taylor became a friend to all – going out of his way to connect individually on matters more important than business

“From the moment he met you, Everette took the time to find out what you cared about – your family, your hobbies, your favorite teams, or whatever it was that made you smile. Then he made it his business to care about those things with you,” said David Steele, director of public relations. “It seems simple and obvious, but it’s actually extraordinary. I’ve never known someone who was better at loving people in a way that made people actually feel loved. He was like every inspirational bumper sticker or refrigerator magnet come to life. He made us all better, and he empowered us to make the world better.

For Brandy Brown, an FDOC accountant, Taylor was considered family. Her children even called him Uncle Everette.

Everette and Colt, the son of FDOC staffer Brandy Brown.

“He was by far the biggest supporter of my children. He loved them like they were his own,” Brown said. “He was their ‘agent’ for college and the pros – or at least that is what he always told them.”

Other FDOC colleagues shared similar accounts of his engagement with their families.

Bob Caudill, database analyst at the FDOC, said, “He always started each conversation with a question about me and my family; he asked about my son or my wife or my hobby.”

“It was always an important part of our conversation – to share our interest in each other’s family,” recalls Irv Smoot, a senior clerk at FDOC.

“He was always asking about our families… and he would ask about them by name,” said Bright. “His consideration and concern for others was abounding.”

“When he knew one of my kids was sick,” recalls Steele, “Everette would check with me daily until they’d made a full recovery. And then the next day he’d check to make sure they were still doing OK.”

Taylor representing the Oklahoma State Cowboys at a FDOC Halloween party.

“I remember times feeling a little too busy during the day and then seeing Everette’s smiling face come into my office, asking about my granddaughter…” remembers Treasa McLean, senior legal assistant at FDOC. “Needless to say, he made my day.”

Perhaps second only to Taylor’s compassion was his sense of humor.

“We could always count on him for some friendly smack talk and some humorous wit,” remembers former FDOC colleague Eric Boomhower.

Wiggins and others recall Taylor’s pranks with a smile: “He scared me to death jumping at me as the elevator doors opened.”

Lana Shulnes, human resource manager at the FDOC, recalls Taylor’s mischievous claim that he experienced the same reaction when he walked down the street that professional wrestlers enjoyed when they entered an arena.

This playful boast prompted Shulnes and coworker Mimi Williamson to charter the “ET Fan Club,” complete with buttons they faithfully wore around the office.

“For a couple months, any time we’d see him in the halls or in the break room, we would react as typical groupies at a rock concert, with all the holding of cheeks and squealing.”

Outside the citrus industry, Taylor made an impact, too.

Don Selvage, a Lakeland City Commissioner, fondly recalls his first encounter with the prototypical servant-leader, shortly after Selvage was elected to the Commission: “I received an e-mail from Everette Taylor, asking to meet with me. I agreed to have a cup of coffee with him… That initial meeting led immediately to a friendship bond.  Everette and I shared the same interests in helping those less fortunate among us.  But Everette wanted to do more than just talk about the problems, he had a plan.”

The plan, it turned out, was to serve senior citizens and the community’s young people by connecting the local Future Farmers of America high school students with seniors who had knowledge of gardening in a project to create a network of urban gardens in Lakeland.

“Everette’s vision was to link elders who had the knowledge of gardening with young people who could tend to the planting and maintaining of these gardens,” recalls Selvage.

“We took the idea to others and the concept resonated with two very important people – Shannon Lanier of Lakeland Vision and Alice O’Reilly from Volunteers in Service to the Elderly (VISTE). We formed a team that developed a plan to build the first urban garden at VISTE, which we were able to accomplish, thanks primarily to Everett’s vision and drive.”

According to Selvage, Taylor later expanded the concept into elementary schools, with students growing tomato plants that were then donated to seniors at a Lakeland Public Housing community.

Alice O’Reilly, the recently retired executive director of VISTE, recalls that initiative fondly and describes Taylor as someone to count on.

“Everette was the kind of volunteer that just quietly did his part and never wanted fuss around him. He just always knew when you would need him,” O’Reilly said.

His impact didn’t stop with his designated volunteer duties. In typical fashion, Taylor served as a cheerleader for VISTE staff as well.

“Out of the blue Everette would send an email saying, ‘Hey, how are you?’ It would come at a bad moment and just lift you up,” O’Reilly said.

The cheerleader role was a natural fit for Taylor.

“Every time – and I mean every time – I had a presentation… Everette would send me an email letting me know that he was sure I would do great,” remembers Michael Schadler, FDOC’s director of international marketing. “And he would usually add a comment about how he had arranged the Husky band and cheerleaders to be there for me, referring to my alma mater, the University of Washington. I’m going to miss those emails so much.”

FDOC’s chief economist, Dr. Marisa Zansler, echoed Schadler’s experience, having received numerous emails of encouragement and wishes for good luck at presentations. And the way he worded his notes, Zansler says, “compelled me to read the email with his actual voice sounding in my head with every word.”

Steele recalls similar emails, before, during and after big presentations. “No matter what was going on, if you were out of the office, Everette made a point of sending a note of encouragement, letting you know he was in your corner – and that he knew you were going to do a good job. Knowing Everette was like having your own personal pep band, following you through life.”

The miracle of Taylor’s life may have been his ability to treat every person whose life he touched as though she or he were his favorite.

“His ability to keep up with the goings on with my life led me to believe that Everette and I had built this unique-to-me friendship,” chuckles Sarah Nix, program manager for FDOC’s international marketing team. “But his passing has shed light on the fact that Everette had maintained a ‘unique and special’ friendship with everyone in the office. All along I thought I had a special relationship with Everette, but so did everyone else.”

Such was the magic of the beloved auditor, the nicest man we ever met.

Everette Taylor is survived by his wife, Clara Denise Taylor, son, Ahmad Taylor, and daughter, Rafia Taylor. A viewing for Everette will be 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Friday at New Bethel AME Church in Lakeland, with the service to immediately follow. New Bethel is located at 2122 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in Lakeland.

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Other reflections on the ‘Beloved Auditor’

“Everette Taylor was one of those selfless individuals who never thought of himself first; he always considered others first.  He was a humble person dedicated to his community and to his fellow citizens.  We have lost a good man and I was blessed to have known him.” – Lakeland Commissioner Don Selvage

“He would deal directly with the staff here at Florida’s Natural, but he would always pop his head in to say hello. I was greatly appreciative of that and he always did so with a smile on his face.” – Bob Behr

“Everette was always a source of jokes and good-natured ribbing…He put two kids through college. He was always really proud of that. It’s a loss. He was a good guy.” – Andrew Meadows

“I always knew I could rely on Everette to be the smiling face of the FDOC.” – Bob Caudill

“Everette was our ‘Good Will Ambassador.’” – Valerie Barnhardt

“He never changed and always had a smile on his face.” – Kay Southerland

“My family is blessed to have had Everette in our lives.” – Brandy Brown

“Everette made a difference in this world and made it a better place.  I am proud to have called him my friend.” – Lura Rixman

“Everette’s kind and compassionate interest in the lives of his friends and colleagues is a testament of how taking a little of your time to kindle a friendship can be the bright spot of a person’s day. For knowing Everette, I am a better person. My heart goes out to his family and friends.” – Sarah Nix

“RIP, ET – we will always be your fans.” – Mimi Williamson

“Everette was not only a friend but also a mentor.  I’ll always have fond memories of our friendship.” – Irv Smoot

“I will miss Everette for his kind heart, happy disposition, supportive nature, and his brilliant insights about life and how we are all in this world together.” – Dr. Marisa Zansler