If you were in Wilton Manors on Friday night you could not have missed the orange cones stretched down the street, in straight lines like soldiers standing in salute; or the number of police cars surrounding The Venue event space that held over 1600 mourners attending the celebration of life for Mayor Justin Flippen. As police stood at every entrance and security checks were done, the line of mourners continued to flow into the space. Black, white, young, old, gay, straight, children from locals schools, mayors of other cities, commissioners, elected officials, city employees, business owners, friends, family and every-day people from all over the county came to pay their respects. Despite fears around the country of the spreading Corona-virus, all talk of politics, disease and division were replaced by hand-shakes, hugs and kind condolences.
Over the past week there has been an article in every paper about Justin’s life, and the flags flew at half mass in his honor. Flippen, only 41, passed away suddenly of a brain aneurysm earlier this month, and the hole he left behind is as big as his charming personality and love for the community. So while I will share some of Justin’s amazing life, I want to share what his community shared.
A Florida native, Justin Flippen was the oldest of five brothers. He had a very close relationship with his family and with his church, and was liked by many. He graduated from Coconut Creek High school in 1996, and went to FAU where he graduated in 2000. He then continued on to the University of Florida Law Program where he graduated in 2004.
Justin was employed by the Broward County Visitor and Convention Bureau, and he worked for the people in many community and political activities. In 2008 he was elected to the Wilton Manors city commission and in 2018 he was voted in by a large margin as the mayor of Wilton Manors. Locals say he was fondly known as “The people’s mayor” and he would have easily been re-elected.
Although I believe many people would have gladly stood up to speak in Justin’s honor, they wanted to keep the service to two hours. But among those speakers were: Justin’s brother, Gregory Flippen, Pastor Patrick Rogers, Rev. Joel Slotnick, Commissioners Julie Carson, Nan Rich, Gary Resnick, Paul Rolli, Vice Mayor Tom Green and a surprise appearance by Congressman Peter Deutsch who spoke fondly of Mayor Flippen.
Commissioner Julie Carson began the opening remarks and the room fell silent. “Although we are beginning the healing process, tonight will be a celebration of his life.” She went on to speak of his many virtues, caring personality, big hugs, and ever present smile. He was very much a leader amongst our family of city employees and government but also quiet and tender. She detailed his efforts on behalf of children, including his book-reading programs and his Women’s History Month initiatives. “Give us the strength to live like Justin did, bold, loud, and with integrity. Together, as a community, I hope we will live his memory into the future.”
Children from Wilton Manors Elementary choir sang America the Beautiful in beautiful tribute, but when the Gay Men’s Chorus took the stage and performed Somewhere Over the Rainbow, there was not a dry eye in the room, and muted sniffles could be heard everywhere.
Gregory Flippen fondly shared his brother’s position on equality, including leading Wilton Manors to ban “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and ending the ban on gay men donating blood. He also shared his love of travel and nature. By the age of 40 he had been to all 50 states and visited over 500 parks and nature spaces. He was a strong supporter of national parks and land preservation, among many other things. Later in the service, Vice Mayor Green mentioned the suggestion that a nature space on the south side of Wilton Manors be named in honor of Justin, and it was met by applause from everyone in attendance.
Friend and mentor Congressman Ted Deutsch shared that Justin’s passing reminds us just how fleeting life is: “If all of us have the opportunity in our years on this planet, however long or tragically short they may be, if all of us can live the kind of life that Justin led — to be the kind of role model, the kind of example that Justin was, if we can do as much in just some small way for our own community that Justin did for his, that would be a tribute to him that we can all be proud of.”
When Vice Mayor Green took the stage he shared the outpouring of supporters from across the country who had reached out to share their condolences to the city and family. There is no question that Justin was the perfect mayor for Wilton Manors. Justin expanded the definition of being a mayor and he had a vision for the city. He was the kind of person that could win an argument just by listening to you.
Commissioner Resnick spoke about Justin’s energy and passion. He was an advocate and the heart and soul of the community. The best legacy a mayor can leave to a city is leaving it better than they found it, and he did.
Commissioner Paul Rolli said Justin had “The talent and skills of 1000 mayors, he will be remembered as a leader who sought solutions by bringing people together to make a positive difference.” Another speaker shared how “Justin was a thumbs-up kind of guy and always gave big hugs!” at which everyone laughed. He participated in daily acts of kindness and believed that public service was the rent we pay to live.
Rev. Joel Slotnick said at one point Justin had considered becoming a pastor, but his love of community pulled him into the political field. “I think Justin pastored a city.” And this could be seen by the overwhelming presence in the room of his supporters.
Friend Scott Strauss said this “Through the years, I was always amazed at just how kind, thoughtful and gregarious he was. He was funny and never wanted to say anything negative about people. These days, that is such a rare quality and so hard to find. Justin was a one of a kind. There is nobody else like him. He never seemed to get really mad or want to talk negatively about people”.
Fellow attendee Richard Hughes worked on Justin’s campaign when he ran for mayor and spoke fondly of Justin “He was just a really nice guy. The way he spoke to people was inspiring and he was such a big part of the community.” David Feinberg, the owner of Sidelines said “Justin was one of the nicest guys, and was so dedicated to Wilton Manors and the causes he believed in. He didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk and you could tell he did it because he loved it.”
A beautiful candle-lighting ceremony concluded the service and the room was quickly filled with lights held by all the people that loved and supported him. The Gay Men’s Chorus performed as mourners exited the building and went out into the night. Wilton Manors felt a little darker despite all of the flashing lights on Friday. But the light and love for an amazing life was felt by all.
In lieu of flowers the family requests that donations be made to the Justin Flippen Memorial Fund.
Kim is a South Florida native with a background in Non-Profit work, Special Events, Public Speaking, Community Outreach, and Development. Oakland Park has been her home for 20 years. She is a creative catalyst who enjoys creating win-win relationships on whatever project she puts her mind to. She is involved in Animal Rescue, Art events, C.E.R.T., and an American Red Cross volunteer. In her spare time, she does photography, writing and the outdoors.