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Okeechobee community honors life of Joe Dan Osceola

A ceremony to honor the life of Joe Dan Osceola was held Nov. 17 in Okeechobee. Several members of the Osceola family attended the event, which included a framed Okeechobee High School football jersey with the No. 25, which is the number Osceola wore at OHS. (Courtesy photo)

Before he emerged as a leader in the Seminole Tribe and Indian Country, Joe Dan Osceola made his name known in
Okeechobee as a standout student-athlete. More than 60 years after he graduated from Okeechobee High School – and two years since his passing at age 82 – his legacy in the city was honored during an early afternoon ceremony Nov. 17.

More than a dozen members of Osceola’s family, including his wife Virginia and others from the tribe along with city officials, gathered at City Hall Park in downtown Okeechobee to remember the kid who wore No. 25 for the Brahmans football team and the man who went on to establish a distinguished legacy in leadership.

Lewis Gopher, from the Brighton Reservation, emceed the program, which was sponsored by the Treasure Coast chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). Okeechobee Mayor Dowling Watford was among the representatives from the city in attendance. Many from Osceola’s family traveled nearly two hours from Hollywood and were grateful for the ceremony.

Joe Dan Osceola was a star football player in the 1950s at Okeechobee High School. (Courtesy photo)

“It brought us together as a family. That was very special,” said Jo-Lin Osceola, one of his daughters. “We thank Lewis and [FCA] and the city of Okeechobee and the mayor and everyone else. We really appreciate what they did. We’re so honored and humble. We can’t thank them enough for honoring Joe Dan.”

Born in the Everglades and raised on the Brighton Reservation, Osceola became a role model in the tribe at a young age. He was responsible for plenty of firsts that have helped pave the way for others in the tribe, both academically and in government. He was the first in the tribe to graduate from a public school. In his early 30s, he was elected the tribe’s first president. He also helped form the United South & Eastern Tribes (USET) and became its first president. USET, an intertribal organization, has grown to advocate on behalf of 33 federally recognized tribal nations.

“Osceola was not only a strong and visionary leader for the Seminole Tribe of Florida and USET, his leadership further served as an example for all Indian Country,” read a statement from USET upon his passing in June 2019.

He also served as vice chairman and ambassador for the tribe, the latter a position that led to meeting with leaders from other countries and tribes. He worked in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services and assisted in forming the Governor’s Council on Indian Affairs. The business major in college also became a successful businessman as owner of the Anhinga Indian Trading Post in Hollywood and nearby smoke shops.

In 1998, Osceola became the first in another honor: he was in the first class of inductees in the newly-formed Seminole Tribe Sports Hall of Fame with Harry Billie, Eugene Bowers, Josiah Jones, Coleman Josh, Fred Smith and Howard Tiger.

The idea for the Okeechobee event came about thanks to a meeting over coffee. In October, while sitting in Serenity Coffee Shop in Okeechobee, Gopher and Caleb Cornett, the area director for FCA in St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties, came up with the idea to honor a Seminole athlete to coincide with Native American Heritage Month in November. Soon after, it was determined that Osceola would be an ideal honoree as the first Seminole to be honored by FCA for Native American Heritage Month.

Members of the Osceola family with Okeechobee Mayor Dowling Watford. (Courtesy photo)

On the morning of the ceremony, FCA members did a prayer walk in Okeechobee and prayed for the event. FCA is a national organization that works with athletes and coaches on all levels. Its stated vision is to see the world transformed by Jesus Christ through the influence of coaches and athletes.

“We are focused on a discipleship ministry with engaging, equipping and empowering the current and future generations of coaches and the athletes,” Cornett said.

Cornett said he was not familiar with Osceola other than knowing he was an athlete and had heard he was a Christian. Cornett soon came to appreciate what Osceola did after hearing family members speak about him and watching a video about Osceola’s legacy that is on YouTube.

More than a dozen members of Joe Dan Osceola’s family attended the event that honored his life. (Courtesy photo)

“The legacy of a father that I got to learn and hear about was amazing,” Cornett said. “Here I was thinking we were just honoring an athlete and his accomplishments, and I had no idea that we were honoring a man whose legacy left a community of people with so much more than the game of football.”

As a member of the class of 1957, Osceola excelled in basketball, football and track at Okeechobee High School during a time when only a few Seminoles attended public schools. Early indications of his future leadership came when he was named captain of the basketball and football teams in his senior year. His athletic accomplishments, which included being all-conference in football, helped land him an athletic scholarship. He ran track at Georgetown College – a Christian college in Kentucky – and played semiprofessional baseball in the early 1960s on a Seminole team with players such as Max Billie, Sandy Billie Sr., Eugene Bowers, Bobbie Osceola, Jessie Osceola, Jimmie Hank Osceola, George Storm, Howard Tiger and Jackie Willie Sr.

Joe Dan Osceola, at the far right in the back row, played semi-pro baseball on a Seminole team in the early 1960s. Others in the photo include, back row, from left, Eugene Bowers, Howard Tiger, George Storm, (unknown), and Jessie Osceola; and in the front row, from left, Bobbie Osceola, Jimmy Hank Osceola, Max Billie, Jackie Willie Sr. and Sandy Billie Sr. (Courtesy photo)

During the ceremony, Gopher unveiled a framed Okeechobee High School football jersey with No. 25. Jo-Lin Osceola said her father was a humble man and seldom talked about his days in high school and college. He didn’t keep trophies, but he did display the letters he earned from OHS sports on a wall. She said her dad’s role as a father included being a coach. He started coaching on the Brighton Reservation and later for Optimist teams in Hollywood.

“He was out there with my brothers from T-ball all the way through high school,” she said. “He coached football. He coached me in softball. He was a coach for as long as I can remember. Dad attended all the games.”

A display at the ceremony honors the life of Joe Dan Osceola. (Courtesy photo)
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Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson is senior editor. He has worked for The Seminole Tribune since 2014. He was previously an editor, photographer and reporter for newspapers in Southwest Florida and Connecticut. Contact Kevin at kevinjohnson@semtribe.com.
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