Until a few weeks ago, David A. Straz Jr. was not a household name in Tampa. To be sure, the retired banker was known in business and social circles as a generous contributor to good causes. He has served on the boards of Tampa General Hospital and the University of Tampa, where a residence hall is named for him.
Straz's relatively low profile was about to change when he asked Judy Lisi, president and chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, to have lunch with him and his wife, Catherine Lowry, at the Palm Restaurant in early September.
Straz, 67, had donated to the center's annual fund drive in the past — most recently, $37,000 in 2008 — but now he and his wife had decided to up their commitment.
"My heart started beating,'' Lisi said, recalling the lunch, also attended by Bill Faucett, director of endowment and planned giving for the center. "I thought this could be a big moment.''
Straz told Lisi and Faucett that he and his wife had talked things over during the summer, which they spent in Straz's hometown of Milwaukee. The couple had decided "to accept their largest ask,'' Straz said. "We wanted to do something in a very significant way.''
Lisi and Faucett were "speechless,'' Straz said. "Judy was in tears. We had a good bottle of sauvignon blanc. Judy usually doesn't have any wine with lunch, but she did that day.''
The Strazes made what the center called the largest individual philanthropic gift to a cultural institution in Tampa Bay history. The amount was not disclosed when it was announced in November, but it was probably around $25 million.
"I don't want to discourage people from giving more,'' Straz said, explaining why he declines to say how much he gave. "If you disclose an amount, that might have an impact on what someone else might do.''
And now the financier has his name in lights with the renaming of the center as the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
"That was not my idea,'' Straz said of the new name, though donations have landed his name on other buildings, including the college of business administration and a residence hall at Marquette University, his alma mater in Milwaukee.
"I agreed to allow them to put my name on the center to perhaps encourage others to come forward and do similar things,'' he said.
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The first thing that catches your eye in the Straz house is the crystal chandelier hanging inside the front door.
"That's a Strauss chandelier,'' said Straz, greeting a guest on a weekday afternoon. "We have three of them.''
In some ways, the glittering chandeliers are mere footnotes to the treasures of the Straz residence, a vast pink-orange Mediterranean-style palazzo in the Beach Park neighborhood. The two-story, six-bedroom property, which includes a pool, tennis court and guest house, is enclosed by a wall and high-security gate.
Straz and Lowry are sophisticated art collectors, and it is bedazzling to take in all the pictures on their walls, mainly French impressionists and post-impressionists. One of Degas' famed paintings of ballet dancers hangs near the grand piano. There's a Monet farm scene in the house's small elevator off an inner courtyard. Another Monet hangs above the fireplace.
The Monets and the Degas are part of a collection that also includes paintings by Pissarro, Picasso, Renoir, Matisse and Cassatt. The value of the collection is "well into nine figures,'' Straz said.
Then there are the rococo porcelain figures from Dresden, Germany; the whimsical Judith Leiber luxury handbags, which Straz enjoys giving to his wife on special occasions, like a Teddy Bear bag to mark the birth of their 14-year-old daughter, Keebler; the French tapestries.
"It's fun,'' he said while giving a tour of his artwork. "It's fun to live around all these beautiful things.''
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Straz made his fortune by starting up and selling chains of banks, first in Wisconsin, then in Florida, shrewdly exploiting the wave of bank mergers over the past 30 years. He bought his first bank in 1967, just two years after graduating from Marquette with a degree in finance. That farm bank in Grand Marsh, Wis., grew into First Bank Southeast, a 26-bank chain sold for $55 million in 1994.
He moved to Florida in 1980 "to get out of the cold winters'' and settled on St. Pete Beach, where he bought First Gulf Beach Bank & Trust — he still has an ashtray with a painting of the bank on it. Another acquisition was Southern Exchange Bank, a chain he sold to First National Bank of Florida of Naples for $150 million in 2003.
Nowadays, Straz spends a lot of time on his philanthropic efforts, which include several projects at schools in West Africa. They have come about because of his role as honorary consul general in the United States for Liberia.
Straz makes annual donations to nonprofit organizations, primarily educational and arts institutions, through his family foundation, which has assets of about $50 million. (Total gifts last year: $2,026,116.) He does all the investing himself and has posted average annual returns of about 10 percent since 1993.
The foundation's mission statement says beneficiaries must have a balanced budget. One exception is the Metropolitan Opera, which received $375,000 last year but had a deficit. Straz is a director of the Met, often taking one of his two jet planes up to New York for lunch and an afternoon board meeting, returning to Tampa in the evening.
"I recognize what an important institution that is for the whole world," said Straz, whose taste runs to light opera. "But if I strictly followed our mission statement, and they're aware of this, then they would be off the list.''
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Straz dates his emergence in Tampa to 1994, when he and his wife moved from Belleair Shore to the Beach Park mansion, which they bought for $3.2 million. It's one of six residences they own, with the others in Pass-a-Grille; Milwaukee; Aspen, Colo.; Highlands, N.C.; and Nevis, West Indies.
Straz had been introduced to Lowry, a Tampa native, by a friend at First Florida Bank, where she also worked. When the couple wed in 1986, he was 44 and had never been married. "I worked seven days a week in the bank and devoted all my time to work,'' he said.
Lowry is an old family name in Tampa, and Catherine, 53, is board chairwoman of the Lowry Park Zoo. However, she is not a descendant of its namesake, Gen. Sumter Loper Lowry. She comes from another Lowry family.
"Biologically, we're not related,'' Lowry said. "This has been a confusing issue because of the similarity of the name and the proximity of social circles. It's like the Murphys in Ireland. There are a number of Lowry families in the Tampa Bay area.''
Indeed, several speakers referred to Lowry's old Tampa family connection when the Straz gift was announced in a ceremony at the performing arts center. Straz himself wasn't completely familiar with the family tree until recently. "I know all the Lowrys, and I just figured they were all part of the same crowd,'' he said.
Straz has made close friends in clubby South Tampa, such as Stan Harrell, a retired health care company owner, who introduced the Midwesterner to "the gentlemanly Southern sport of quail hunting'' on his South Georgia plantation.
"David had never shot a shotgun in his life until he began shooting with me,'' said Harrell, 75. "When he undertakes a new adventure, he's not going to be mediocre at it. He studied the art of shooting and has become quite good at it.''
Every June, Straz organizes a fishing expedition for a group of buddies, often including Harrell and former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco. They fly into a fish camp in Canada near the Arctic Circle and catch trophy-size northern pike.
Straz has kept details of his gift to the center quiet. "David is a very private person,'' Harrell said. "I've known about the gift for a while, but I never knew, and still don't know and never will ask, the size of it. All I know is that him stepping up like that may be a good omen for other people in our community to do the same.''
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.