Inside the ‘Beacon of Light’ Life & Sudden Death of Trailblazing Mayor Who Suffered Brain Aneurysm

“When I grow up, I want to be a mayor now because I want to finish his road. He was going down a road, and he was helping everybody go down that road, too, and I want to finish that for him.”

Those are the words of 8-year-old Daniel Blenman, honoring his “adopted uncle” Justin Flippen, the LGBTQ activist and trailblazing mayor of Wilton Manors, Florida, who died suddenly of a brain aneurism last week at 41.

Daniel, speaking to PEOPLE alongside his mom, Emily McCrater, says Flippen was “really nice, generous, thankful; he was caring, and he does a lot for the city and a lot for my school and he’s done a lot for people in general.”

In politics, even in a small-town, it’s rare to find a figure who is widely beloved, but that’s what friends and colleagues say about Flippen. McCrater jokes, “People sometimes rolled their eyes — in disbelief — like, ‘Nobody is that nice.’ But he really was that nice.”

“He listened,” she says, “and cared about what everyone thought.”

McCrater, a single mother, became friendly with Flippen years ago. As they grew closer, the up-and-coming politician took Daniel under his wing. “I’m a single parent, so I’ve always told people Justin is part of my village in raising my son. He’s a positive male role model for Daniel, and because of their friendship I’ve been able to open Daniel’s eyes to other things: We marched in the Stonewall Pride parade for the past couple of years with Justin, and we did campaign events with him.”

Flippen’s most visible legacy is with the LGBTQ community, of which he was a part. With his 2018 mayoral win, Wilton Manors became only the second all-LGBTQ City Commission in the country and the first in Florida. Flippen, who was gay, also helped to ban religious conversion therapy in Broward County due to his own experience with the practice.

But McCrater says his efforts went well beyond that. He led the addition of a kid-friendly splash pad to the local Mickel Park in response to many parents’ requests and drove the implementation of the “I Led the Pledge” program whereby students from Wilton Manors Elementary (he nicknamed them “junior citizens”) would tour the police department and lead the Pledge of Allegiance at the Commission meeting.

Daniel got to participate in December and proudly proclaims, “I still have my police badge and the roll call sheet.”

Emily recalls the first year she and Daniel marched with Justin in the pride parade. “I remember getting flak from people on social media, like — why are you putting your kid in that parade?” But instead of responding with anger, Flippen chose another route. “He was so inclusive, but he was also a voice for those that didn’t have a voice. That always inspired me about him: He wasn’t a politician that always had his sights set on one segment of our community, he really was involved with everyone.”

Ben Sorensen, a friend of Flippen’s and a city commissioner in nearby Fort Lauderdale, agrees. “He was someone who was just incredibly passionate about public service,” Sorensen tells PEOPLE, “He was passionate about the idea of: How does everyone get an equal chance? How can we all have an equal opportunity to live the American dream? What are the hindrances to that? One of the hindrances is clearly sexual orientation bias. Another one we would talk about is affordable housing and workforce housing. That’s a hindrance to upward mobility and the American dream. So we talked about, How do we overcome that as cities and offer more opportunities?”

Sorensen, a Navy veteran, also spoke of Justin’s love for his country and his goal to visit every National Park. “When you go to his house, it’s American flags, pictures of National Parks. He genuinely loved the United States of America and felt like there was no greater calling than serving the people of our country,” Sorensen says.

“He [Flippen] never served, but you would think he did because of how effusive and supportive he was of veterans and sacrifice,” he adds.

Norm Kent, another friend and the publisher of the South Florida Gay News, echoes this: “He was a person who put passion and principal above power. He had an infectious enthusiasm for life and loved every minute of his career and job.”

Colleague and friend Raquel Flores calls him “their Superman” and says, “He was a beacon of light.”

“He was the most honest person that you would have loved to have called your friend,” Flores says.

They all agree that Flippen, who volunteered on Pete Buttigeig’s presidential campaign and worked with Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, would have gone even further in his career. (He was already a shoe-in to win re-election in 2020.)

“He had such a bright future ahead of him, and it’s just so sad that the world won’t get to see what could have been,” McCrater says.

A graduate of Florida Atlantic University and the University of Florida Law School, Flippen became Florida’s first openly gay student body president while at FAU.

He began his career as an executive aide in the Broward County government and, in 2008, he was elected city commissioner for Wilton Mayors. (Despite previous reports, Flippen was not engaged to be married, friends say.)

His faith was deeply interwoven into the rest of his life. Sorensen, who is a Presbyterian pastor, remembers discussing religion with Flippen, who was raised a fundamentalist Christian. They walked about forgiveness and accepting even those who don’t accept them. “He took this approach of ‘I don’t want to be judged based on a personal preference or my faith, and equally, I’m not going to judge others based on theirs.’ ”

That philosophy encouraged Sorensen himself, who says, “His grappling with these really significant issues, he was always inspiring. He inspired me to see how he could deal with such heavy, difficult issues and still be so positive, upbeat, so committed. He didn’t waiver or make excuses for who he was and what he believed in. A lot of people, myself included, can feel sheepish if we feel people are criticizing us. But he did not waiver from his core tenants of faith and conviction.”

Flippen died on Feb. 25 of a brain aneurysm while on the way to his City Commission meeting. He’d apparently been on the phone with a friend when he became unresponsive, so the police set up a grid to find his car. Because Sorensen is a police chaplain, he was notified of the event and went directly to the hospital where Flippen was pronounced dead.

“I was completely shaken and finding it hard to believe,” Sorensen says, “I just wanted to be with him and pray for him.”

Sorensen then had to break the news to McCrater. “It was very shocking to us, because I had just seen him on Friday,” she says. When she told Daniel, her son was heartbroken. “He cried and had a meltdown, it was a rough night and rough next day. We didn’t go to school.”

McCrater and Daniel had actually been driving home from the movies that night when they saw a street blocked off with police cars. “It didn’t dawn on me that it was Justin’s car. It wasn’t until Ben called me that I realized I literally just drove by there and had no idea,” she says.

A source tells PEOPLE that on Thursday, Flippen’s mom, stepfather and his father went to his office to collect his things.

“Those that knew him well told them of all the wonderful stories that we shared and how much he loved them,” says the source. “His mom is beyond herself.” (Justin’s brother Nick died in 2001 from a motorcycle accident.)

It’s with the support of Wilton Manors, the town Flippen loved so much, that will get them through this tragedy, McCrater says. “When I dropped Daniel off at school, everyone was there for him, they showed him so much love.”

The school has already erected a sign saying “We love you Mayor Flippen.” A memorial will be held on Friday night in Fort Lauderdale.

“We have big shoes to fill,” McCrater says. “We’re going to come together and mourn, but something good is going to come out of the sadness. I have to believe that.”

McCrater and some neighbors have discussed naming a park in town after Flippen.

Even so, she says, “It seems like no matter what we choose to do, it will never be as big or grand as he was to all of us.”

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