I am sitting across the desk from Gus Stavros, a legendary local philanthropist.
We're in downtown St. Peterburg's Bayfront Tower, where, at 87, Stavros keeps an aging, memory-crammed office. He lives 22 floors above in a home overlooking Beach Drive and Tampa Bay.
How do you boil down the wisdom of so much experience and community giving?
"The most important thing I find is that you must be involved," Stavros says. "And be involved with young people and education. Nothing is more important than education. I learned that a long time ago because my parents, who had little education, convinced me to go as far as I can."
Plaques and photos commemorating Stavros' long life and love of education and free enterprise festoon every wall of the wood-paneled office. Thank-you-for-your-service awards are from area chambers of commerce, schools and charities. Photos show Stavros with past presidents (I see Ronald Reagan, George H.W. and son George W. Bush and Gerald Ford), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and a young Hillary Clinton. There's a shot of Stavros and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner — both grinning, both baseball fanatics. Black and white shots of his World War II buddies are there, along with Stavros' commendations and purple heart from suffering a head wound at the age of 19 on the European front.
On his desk, a Gus Stavros bobblehead jiggles, a recent gift from the Pinellas Education Foundation, which Stavros helped establish. And, of course, there are numerous photos of Gus' first love, his wife Frances. They married in 1948 a decade before moving to Pinellas County. Stavros readily admits it was Frances who early on encouraged his giving time and money to educational causes.
Stavros fans are everywhere. This Thursday, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg will salute him for his longtime support and to raise funds and enthusiasm for USFSP's College of Business to have a building of its own.
"If I have a local hero, a role model, it would be Gus," says Craig Sher, executive chairman of the commercial construction firm Sembler Co., former chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation and a generous donor himself to area schools.
"Gus is literally giving away his fortune while he is alive and that's an admirable way to do it," Sher says. "He wants to encourage the ideas of economic education and capitalism — that you can be and do anything."
Why talk to Stavros now? Because he will soon be giving up this museumlike office, taking a step or two back from the community stage and spending more time with his wife. Because I wanted the opportunity to spend some time talking to someone so beloved by the community who holds 54 years of perspective and memories about this region.
Besides, how often do I get to hear firsthand stories from someone who met Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy (as he introduced his book Profiles in Courage), actors Cary Grant and Debbie Reynolds?
Who else got a job in California after WWII as an extra in the 1947 film The Farmer's Daughter (earning Loretta Young an Academy Award for best actress) and, decades later, attended a wedding at Oprah Winfrey's home?
Stavros is part of that "greatest generation" of aging entrepreneurial business builders and givers here that includes folks like Bill Hough, Tom James, Jean Wittner, Andy Hines, Mel Sembler and Charles Rutenberg. Among many others, they shaped the area through sheer personality, business drive, vision and a willingness to share their wealth.
So here's a question to ponder: Is our next generation of leaders as robust, dedicated and deep-pocketed as those above?
This column isn't long enough to list the educational gifts from Stavros. The Stavros Institute in Largo helps kids learn about business, free enterprise and personal finance. Many readers no doubt know fifth-graders who experienced Enterprise Village or, when older, learned basic money and budget management at Finance Park. His generosity helped create the centers for free enterprise and economic education (both centers since named for Stavros) on the campuses of both Tampa's University of South Florida and Florida State University in Tallahassee. At USF St. Petersburg, donations include the Gus & Frances Stavros Family Scholarship for Entrepreneurs.
I could go on. Let's just say Stavros is very big on helping young people get a good education and an appreciation of capitalism. After all, as a youngster in Crete, Stavros' father Anthony was sold (an economic reality back then) to work as a gardener for an Athens businessman to help support the larger Stavros family. He later fled, came to this country as a teen and eventually started the Twin Diner in Elizabeth, N.J.
Gus Stavros, too, started with little but enjoyed economic success, most notably for starting, growing and then selling his company Better Business Forms.
Now it's time for Stavros to spend more time with wife Frances, his children (Paul, Ellen and Mark) and grandkids, and at least a bit less time on community affairs.
Both Paul and Ellen still marvel at their father's luck in life and personality that draws influential people to reach out and get involved.
"I've never seen a more optimistic man," says his daughter.
In a chair next to me in Stavros' office is a pillow, a gift to Dad from daughter Ellen, with this stitched message:
Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again.
When people come to him, he can't say no, she says.
"Nobody accomplishes things alone," says Stavros, wearing his signature blue blazer adorned with USF and American flag pins.
"I've been blessed," adds Stavros. "I've hopefully got a few years yet in Tampa Bay." Then he laughs. "I'm still a young man."
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]