LAND O’ LAKES, FL – Sherri Marie VandeSande Lonon, a longtime newspaper and digital editor who was dedicated to community journalism in the Tampa Bay area, died after a short battle with cancer. She was 46. She covered the area as an editor and reporter for the Tampa Patch news sites for six years.
Sherri is survived by her husband of 19 years, Terry; daughter, Chelsea, 18, and daughter, Ashley, 12; in-laws, Sharon and Jere Lonon of Land O’ Lakes; brothers and sisters, Steve VandeSande (Gail) of Largo, Bill VandeSande (Beth), Ed VandeSande (Anne), Pat Gomula (Michael), and Bob VandeSande (Elizabeth) of Plant City; sister-in-law, Lena Fernandez (Tim) of Land O’ Lakes; and numerous aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by her parents, James and Rose VandeSande of Zephyrhills, and her infant son, Seth Gabriel.
Sherri was born in Rochester, N.Y., on Aug. 18, 1971. Upon her father’s retirement 12 years later, her parents, her brother Bobby and she moved to the Tampa area, eventually settling in Land O’ Lakes. She graduated from Land O’ Lakes High School when she was 16 and enrolled at Hillsborough Community College. Aside from a brief stint in the Carrollwood area, Sherri spent the rest of her life in Land O’ Lakes. She married Terry Lonon, who she first met in high school, on March 7, 1998.
Sherri majored in history at the University of South Florida. While in school, she aimed to become a journalist. With no experience, Sherri approached the executive editor of Sunbelt Newspapers, Preston Trigg, in 1991.
"One day, Sherri shows up on the office doorstep on a Monday looking for a job," Trigg said on her Facebook page. "She had no clips or degree, just an extremely thin resume. Said she wanted to be a reporter. Not a chance I told her. No experience and no openings. So, I come into work on Tuesday, and there she is at the office door. ‘Did you think about giving me a job?’ she asks. No, I said, ’cause it’s not happening.
"So Wednesday comes along and there she is again on the freakin’ doorstep. ‘You know, I am going to come here every day until you give me a job,’ she said. ‘Feel free,’ I replied, ‘it’s not happening.’
"I hired her on Thursday."
Her friends at Patch witnessed that same grit and determination.
"Sherri embodied the best of Patch and journalism. She was a hell of a writer. She was deeply committed to local news and to her community," said Patch CEO Warren St. John. "She was a profoundly generous colleague. She had a wicked sense of humor and was a relentlessly positive person whose reflexive response to any Patch news was always simply, ‘Outstanding!’ We are going to miss her spirit and her gifts so incredibly much."
When Hurricane Irma struck Florida in September 2017, Lonon provided round-the-clock coverage of the storm’s progress and the community-level impact to her faithful readers. "With no power at times and stranded in her own home working from her phone, Sherri kept a keen eye on developments and kept her readers in touch with the latest need-to-know alerts and information. We were awestruck by her efforts," said Patch Editor Dennis Robaugh. "Her dedication and passion knew no bounds. We will miss her wit and experience dearly."
There was little that happened in the Tampa region that Lonon didn’t race to cover, from sinkholes that swallowed homes to monster alligators stalking across golf courses and the public’s love for Snooty the manatee. But in the midst of the mayhem that was often the Tampa Bay-area news cycle, she shared a very personal insight with Patch readers: the loss of their stillborn son.
"Sherri wrote a powerful story when Florida became the first state in the country to issue official certificates when parents ask for them after losing a child in a miscarriage," Patch regional manager Deb Belt said. "For Sherri it was balm on a 9-year-old wound she and her husband had suffered. Her words shared the dashed hopes and dreams they had for their baby boy."
And when Orlando and the country were rocked by the June 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub, Lonon worked for days without pause to keep Patch readers nationwide updated on the tragic attack, the victims and the aftermath in the ensuing weeks and months.
Sherri first worked as a reporter for the Plant City Courier, and moved around within Sunbelt Newspapers. She eventually landed in northwest Hillsborough County, where she became the editor for the Carrollwood News and the Town ‘N Country News. Sherri also was the first editor of In The Loop after it was acquired by Media General, which covered the Lutz and Land O’ Lakes areas, as well as the Northwest News, which covered the Citrus Park, Odessa and Westchase areas.
Sherri briefly left journalism when an opportunity came to work as the community relations coordinator for the Hillsborough County Water Department from 2002 to 2004. She came back to Sunbelt Newspapers and its northwest Hillsborough weekly papers in 2004.
As Media General folded most of Sunbelt Newspapers weekly editions into the Tampa Tribune in 2008, she was named an editor for the combined community newspapers. During this time, her in-depth articles of the Chinese drywall issue’s impact on local residents gained national attention.
Sherri then moved to Patch in November 2013, where she became the online editor for 23 sites around the Tampa Bay area for the national network of hyperlocal community websites. During that time, she led an RV tour and canned food drive around the Tampa Bay area that netted more than two tons of food for the Feeding Tampa Bay food banks. Sherri left Patch during its transition between owners in 2014 but soon returned to her job as the regional editor for Tampa Bay.
Throughout her journalism career, Sherri never wavered from her commitment to provide quality, unbiased journalism to the communities she served. Whether it was with Sunbelt Newspapers, the Tampa Tribune or Patch, Sherri understood the importance of community journalism and passed on her knowledge to many journalists who worked for her over the years.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the family’s GoFundMe campaign to help pay for medical bills and to assist the Lonon family. Plans for a memorial service will be announced at a later date.
Photo of Sherri Marie VandeSande Lonon, courtesy of the family