THONOTOSASSA — A Harvard graduate, A. Bronson Thayer was once described by a reporter as "affable and erudite, with the aura of an absent-minded Ivy League professor."
But the Long Island native was also a canny businessman who built a successful bank from scratch, became one of Tampa Bay's most prominent civic leaders and served as president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Bankers Association.
Mr. Thayer, who died Christmas Eve at 77 after a battle with prostate cancer, "loved being a Floridian," said his wife, Stella Ferguson Thayer, a lawyer and co-owner of Tampa Bay Downs. "We came down here in the early '70s, so he really saw the growth and development of the state and he found a state that he could be very involved in both at the local level and statewide."
Mr. Thayer was a board member and past chairman of WEDU, the local public television station. He served on the Florida Council of 100, the boards of the Tampa Museum of Art and the University of South Florida Foundation and was director of the Bok Tower Gardens Foundation. Along with his wife, Mr. Thayer was named 2014 Citizen of the Year by the Economic Club of Tampa.
The couple were close friends of Richard Corbett, who moved to Tampa Bay on their suggestion and went on to develop International Plaza.
"It really helped change the entire face of Tampa," Corbett said Monday of the upscale shopping center, "and Bronson and Stella were such a strong influence in making that happen."
Mr. Thayer, son of a textile company executive, was born in Mineola, N.Y., and went to Harvard as an undergraduate. He was working for a Wall Street firm and getting his MBA at night at New York University when he met his wife-to-be, a student at Columbia's law school.
"We both loved travel and were interested in many of the same things, maybe a bit of adventure," said Ferguson Thayer, whose father, Chester Ferguson, then headed Tampa-based Lykes Bros. Inc.
With their marriage in 1969, Mr. Thayer joined one of Florida's most powerful and influential families. He became chairman of First Florida Banks, part of the $1 billion Lykes empire that included Peoples Gas, a meat-processing plant and a Dade City citrus plant that produced Sunkist orange juice.
In the early 1990s, Lykes began to shed its holdings and sold the large-though-money-losing First Florida to Barnett Banks of Jacksonville. Temporarily out of the banking business, Mr. Thayer started a mortgage services company and a firm that provided financial advice to individuals and private investment groups. He thought he had hit the big time again when one of the groups bid for the Tampa Bay offices of Glendale Federal, a California thrift that wanted to pull out of the area. The deal would have put Mr. Thayer at the head of an institution with nearly $1 billion in deposits — making him an instant player in the market. But Glendale sold to Barnett.
Those times in the 1990s frustrated Mr. Thayer, he told the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) for a 1999 story. When his partners were ready, the financing was not.
"Maybe we were early on some things or late on others," he said.
But Mr. Thayer was not about to be exiled forever from the business he loved. He assembled a board full of old friends and area business executives that included Lawrence Dimmitt of Clearwater's Dimmitt Chevrolet and Eric Newman of J.C. Newman Cigar Co. In 1999, Thayer's new Bay Cities Bank opened with one branch in Tampa's West Shore area.
By last year, Bay Cities had grown to six branches and had loan production offices in Sarasota and Tampa Bay. In June 2015, Home BancShares, parent of Arkansas-based Centennial Bank, said it would acquire Bay Cities' parent, Florida Business BancGroup, and merge Bay Cities into Centennial in a stock-and-cash deal worth $101.6 million.
Mr. Thayer had stepped down as chairman in 2014 after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, his wife said. He continued to travel, including to Germany in September for a cancer treatment not available in the United States.
He also underwent treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he died early Saturday with his wife of 47 years by his side.
Corbett, who had prostate cancer, too, said Mr. Thayer retained his optimism throughout his illness. "His feeling was, I can beat this, and he kept active," Corbett said, adding that he and his wife, Cornelia, "shared many good times" with the Thayers. Among them were trips to Saratoga, N.Y., where both couples owned horses that raced at the historic track.
Corbett knew Mr. Thayer from Harvard and later hired Stella Ferguson Thayer and her father to represent him when he was negotiating to buy land in 1979 from the Hillsborough Aviation Authority. That would be the eventual site of International Plaza, which opened on Sept. 11, 2001, the same day as the terrorist attacks.
Throughout his adult life, Mr. Thayer retained close ties to Harvard, serving as president of its national alumni association and being actively involved in the bay area Harvard Club. He was instrumental in setting up scholarship and outreach programs for high school students outside the Northeast.
"He continued to be very, very dedicated to encouraging young people both in their education and careers," his wife said.
Corbett called Mr. Thayer "thoughtful and unique."
"He was outgoing, he was selfless and he made a tremendous impact as a business and social leader throughout the entire Tampa Bay area and the state of Florida."
In addition to his wife, Mr. Thayer is survived by his daughter, Susannah, of Boston, two granddaughters and two brothers. Funeral arrangements have not yet been made.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.