BROOKSVILLE — Chief Wendell Dey's booming voice, bulging biceps and barrel chest served him well during two decades in the Navy. But he had another trait that proved vital to his second career as a leader of Central High's Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program.
"He came across as a hardnose but had a teddy bear heart," said Lt. Col. Michael Ralph, the other co-founder of the program. "And he would touch the kids' hearts on a daily basis."
Chief Dey helped start the Central program a decade ago. Since then, he'd become a surrogate father of sorts to many of the 1,000 or so students who have gone through the program, Ralph said.
Many of those students gathered to console one another Thursday after hearing that Chief Dey died late Wednesday of complications from pancreatitis. The 53-year-old been in the hospital for nearly a year, including several months in intensive care, Ralph said.
"We had 300 kids down here hugging and crying for most of the day," he said. "It was pretty devastating for them."
Born and raised in Tarpon Springs, Chief Dey joined the Navy in 1975 and retired after 20 years. His "big personality" made him stand out from roughly two dozen candidates who interviewed for one of Central's NJROTC positions, recalled Dennis McGeehan, who was principal at the time.
"He was certainly a man of character and a man of integrity," said McGeehan, now principal at Weeki Wachee High. "He was a spark plug for the program."
Chief Day thought he could provide a service by working with kids after he retired from the Navy, Ralph said. He had a knack for it.
"If they misbehaved or weren't where they were supposed to be, he would be the first to get their attention and counsel them appropriately, and also the first to pat them on the back or give them a hug when they needed it," Ralph said.
Carly Territo, a senior at Central, recalls the phone call from Chief Dey last year informing her she would be regimental commander in 2010, achieving a goal she set for herself as a freshman.
"All the work he pushed me to do had paid off in the end and he recognized me for that," Territo said. "That meant so much to me."
When Central's color guard stepped in time carrying the flags at ceremonies or parades, Chief Dey kept watch, "pacing in the background like a mother hen over his flock," McGeehan said.
He encouraged cadets to leave a mark on the community, cleaning up a veterans cemetery or collecting for Toys for Tots.
Chief Dey, Ralph and Master Chief Bruce Kennedy, who was hired in 2001, worked together to lead Central's program to the highest ranks of more than 620 in the nation. Programs are ranked according to such factors as community service and cadets' academic performance and extracurricular activities, and Central reached No. 1 in 2006 and has held at No. 2 the past two years.
Chief Dey was proud that Central's cadets represented a cross-section of the student body, with cadets who also took part in other leadership roles in athletics and student government, Ralph said. "He made it happen."
Central's color guard and both drill teams were slated to open the Hernando County Fair on Friday night. They planned to work through their grief for Chief Day, Territo said, adding, "We decided to dedicate it to him."
Chief Dey is survived by his wife, Connie, his daughter, Christina, and his son, Charlie. A memorial service is slated for 10 a.m. today at Trinity Memorial Gardens, 12609 Memorial Drive, Trinity.
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.