DADE CITY – When county Administrator John Gallagher offered to organize a blowout retirement party at Saddlebrook Resort, Ann Hildebrand shot down the idea with a stare.
Two years ago, she was the honored guest at a roast to celebrate seven terms on the County Commission. "I figured that was enough," she said.
Her colleagues disagreed.
"I know you didn't want us to make a fuss," said Commissioner Ted Schrader. "But too bad."
Instead of swanky Saddlebrook, Wednesday's party was more modest: grocery store sandwiches, cake and iced tea in a small conference room in the historic Pasco courthouse.
The celebration was muted, but Hildebrand's last commission meeting after 28 years in office was no less nostalgic.
In a county now used to honoring longtime officials who are retiring, Hildebrand's send-off felt palpably different. As she stood blushing, a packed crowd showered her with sustained applause and a few congratulatory whistles.
The meeting attracted some of Pasco's biggest public figures, including Property Appraiser Mike Wells, who brought a picture of his friend smiling as they were sworn in as commissioners on the same day in 1984.
Wells and Hildebrand were key cheerleaders of a bond issue two years later to build parks and libraries. They brought a cartoon raccoon mascot "to every civic association that would let us in the door," Hildebrand recalls.
"When that issue passed, that changed the face of Pasco," Gallagher said. "To me, that was a major turning point in this county, where people started to consider it home instead of being from someplace else."
Wells recalled heated battles over the county's first impact fee on development, building a water and sewer system from scratch and the decision to locate the county landfill in Shady Hills.
"Realize, it was almost medieval times in those days," said Wells, who served two terms on the commission. "There was literally no money to do anything except to make payroll and keep the doors open."
A moderate Republican, Hildebrand has long focused on social services. She serves on boards of several organizations, including the Good Samaritan health clinic and the PACE Center for Girls.
She wants to be remembered for her work to include Pasco into the overall region through groups such as Tampa Bay Water and a relatively new regional transportation agency.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, a longtime friend who ran each of her campaigns, said her biggest legacy is the regional water authority that helped calm the "water wars" of the 1980s. She was a founding member of the group's board in 1998.
"Pasco and Pinellas were in court against each other," he said. "Pinellas was pumping the heck out of lakes up there.
"A lot of the accomplishments on water policy for the Tampa Bay area were a result of her," he said.
Hildebrand, 74, recently bought a home near Auburn, Ala., near a vacation cabin she's owned for years. A new buyer closes on her Gulf Harbors home soon. The move will allow her to be closer to her two sons, Lance and Clay.
In a few months, she plans to buy a small condo where she can spend a few months each year in Pasco when the weather is nice.
"I think I'll just become a snowbird," she said.
Her last meeting included discussions about several weighty issues, including the long-stalled Ridge Road Extension, a push to create a tourist sports park with hotel taxes and an idea to build an elevated toll road on State Road 54.
During a lighter moment, she posed for a picture with her fellow commissioners. Someone said something that made her laugh.
When she sat down, she wiped away tears with both hands.