SEBRING - Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton will soon join a select group of women that includes former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, singer Gloria Estefon, tennis star Chris Evert and Everglades Advocate Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Gov. Rick Scott crossed party lines and has selected Benton, 64, a Democrat, who is serving her second term in office, and two other women to be inducted this year into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame. The others selected are Dottie Berger McKinnon, a former resident of Tampa who devoted her life to child advocacy, and Louise Jones Gopher of Okeechobee, the first female Seminole Indian to earn a bachelor's degree in Florida.
The induction of Benton, McKinnon and Gopher will occur on March 12, 2014, in the Capitol Courtyard. The event in Tallahassee is open to the public with no admission charge. They will join Reno, Estefon, Evert and Douglas, as well as a few other women inducted over the decades.
Although Benton said she was aware of being nominated, she was quite surprised when Scott actually selected her.
"My first reaction was, 'No way, I'm just a working woman," Benton said. "I'm extremely humbled that I would be considered."
Benton will be the first Highlands County resident to be inducted into the hall of fame since it began more than 25 years ago.
A press release from Scott's office notes that Benton was the first woman elected sheriff in a the history of Florida and is the first female president of the Florida Sheriff's Association. It also notes that Benton created a partnership between the sheriff's office and the community by creating the office's first-ever strategic plan.
Benton said that actually she is the first woman to be elected sheriff during a general election. Before she was elected, 12 women served as sheriff in Florida, but all but one were appointed after their husbands died while serving as sheriff. In the remaining situation, the widow of the sheriff was elected during a special election, Benton said.
"There is some history-making," Benton said in the fact that she is the first female sheriff in Florida to be elected in a general election.
But, she added, "It was never my intent to be a history maker."
Still, Benton said, that gives her more responsibility, as younger women have told her she serves as a role model. She said she's worked to mentor women, as well.
Former Highlands County Commissioner Audrey Vickers, who nominated Benton, said that Benton deserves recognition for being the first female sheriff elected during a general election. But she also said that Benton has done a good job and has a "great reputation."
"I am very happy for her," Vickers said.
Vickers said that when Benton first ran for sheriff in 2004, she heard a man say that Highlands County would have a female sheriff "over my dead body," she said.
"He's been apologizing ever since," she said.