June 23, 2004
He's been called St. Francis by some, but he came within 24 votes of being called Sheriff.
It was 1980 when New York transplant Frank Bierwiler challenged the encrusted power structure of Brooksville's good ol' boy political network that pretty much ran Hernando County a quarter century ago.
Bierwiler, now 66, was an unlikely candidate in those days to take on the incumbent sheriff, even with a law enforcement background as a New York state trooper and time as administrative assistant for the local sheriff's office.
"I had a couple strikes against me," he says. "I was a Catholic Yankee from New York."
He also walked with the help of a steel crutch after being stricken with multiple sclerosis in 1974 that forced his retirement from the New York State Police and a later move to Spring Hill for the warmer climate.
But the bare-knuckle politics of Hernando County in those days worked to make sure the upstart candidate didn't unseat the long-time sheriff.
Shortly before the election, the sheriff's office ended an undercover drug investigation earlier than planned that just happened nab the son of someone connected to Bierwiler's campaign.
Also, he says, there was the convicted felon and a comatose hospital patient who voted for his opponent.
With only absentee ballots left, he led by 116 votes. But his opponent made up the difference and pulled ahead by two dozen votes.
"I think it was stacked so he was going to lose," says Tom Mylander who was elected sheriff in 1984 and is a long-time, close friend of Bierwiler.
It was that defeat, though, that led Bierwiler into the role that earned him the name of St. Francis.
While knocking around in part time jobs, Bierwiler was asked by the Rev. John McNulty, monsignor then of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, to start a Daystar charity in Hernando County.
Deeply religious, Bierwiler had been active in the church and community for years and had the contacts and good will to organize volunteers and donations.
He also felt an obligation to repay a promise he made just after the multiple sclerosis left him paralyzed from the waist down for nine months.
"When you're on your back and can't move, you make promises. I made a promise to the Lord. If you've got something planned for me, I'll do it," he says.
When Daystar started in 1983, housed in a ramshackle garage with broken windows, a side door hanging on one hinge and leaky roof, it was about the only charity in the county. The checking account had just $85.
The first person to ask for help was a woman with four children whose electricity was about to be turned off. She needed $79.
"It was like the Lord was testing me at the time," Bierwiler says. He paid the whole bill.
A year after Daystar opened, Mylander was elected sheriff and hired Bierwiler as the department spokesman. But he still put in long hours at Daystar, organizing volunteers, running its thrift shop and rounding up donations.
Even now, he chokes up talking about some of the people. There was the man who got his first pair of shoes.
"I can see him walking to the car with a baby in his arms, proud as a peacock," Bierwiler remembers.
And the family whose car broke down while traveling through the county. A few weeks earlier someone had donated a car to Daystar. The charity gave them food, the car and paid for insurance and registration.
In 1997, the remission of his multiple sclerosis ended and Bierwiler lost the use of his legs and had to use a wheelchair.
"He always said 'If I ever got in a wheelchair, I'm done'," Mylander says. "That was probably one of the reasons he got out of Daystar. He couldn't hold up his own end."
Bierwiler retired and closed Daystar last year. In 20 years, he says, accountants told him the charity raised and donated $9 million.
Now, he says, there are about nine charities in the county to take up the work.
"This little over 20 years has been the best ride," he says. "When you go home at night and know you've helped someone pay their electric bill or their rent, it's rewarding.
"I could have gotten into another business and we'd be sitting prettier than we are now, but you can't put a price on what we did. I wouldn't trade it for a million dollars."
He now stays home with Maureen, his wife of 41 years. Their three children and nine grandchildren live minutes away. The youngsters visit frequently.
He shakes his head when the nickname of St. Francis -- his given name is Francis -- is mentioned.
"It was an honor to be called that, naturally. But it's more of an honor to help people."
In Mylander's view, Hernando County likely came out ahead when Bierwiler lost the election.
"He probably did as much or more for the county than if he'd been sheriff."
Bierwiler agrees he probably wouldn't have had the time to start Daystar if he'd received 25 more votes in 1980.
"I wanted to be sheriff very badly, but the Lord had different plans
for me," he says. "He knew exactly what he had planned for me. I didn't
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