ST. LEO — Don Tapia had it all — or so it seemed.
He had overcome a childhood in the slums of Detroit to become owner of a multimillion dollar electrical wholesale company in Phoenix. But he coveted something he had always preached about to his family and staff: a college degree.
So he scoured the Internet and found Saint Leo University in the hills of east Pasco, two time zones away. After more research "to make sure it wasn't a diploma mill," he enrolled in the school's online program and secretly took classes. He never stepped foot on campus until he claimed his bachelor's degree diploma in 2005. He fell in love with the Spanish architecture and the lake. A year and a half later, he earned his master's of business administration from Saint Leo — again, online.
A year ago, the 72-year-old entrepreneur and the university's top administrators talked over glasses of wine. The university on Tuesday announced the result of his admiration — a $4-million donation to help pay for a building to house the School of Business, which has offices scattered across the 185-acre campus. The new building is expected to cost $11 million and is scheduled to open in fall, 2011.
Tapia's donation is the largest single, individual gift in the school's 121-year history and the first large gift from an online alumnus. It also ranks as No. 6 for the year, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which tracks charitable donations.
"I would be shocked if any other online student has made a gift to a university anywhere close to this one," said Saint Leo president Arthur Kirk. "He never saw this campus until he graduated, yet he makes this gift to make it a better campus."
University officials say they plan to put Tapia's name on the 50,000-square-foot building, with nine additional classrooms, a large lecture hall/board room, computer labs, and a broadcast technology suite.
Tapia said he's not after any recognition.
"I told them not to name it after me," said Tapia, who has served on the university's board of trustees for several years and has donated $100,000 for a new student union and $100,000 to endow a scholarship. "If somebody else steps up and donates the rest, they can name it for them."
Tapia, of Mexican heritage, spent his early life in a rough area of Detroit. When he was a boy, his father left home. His mother had a bad heart, and he later went to live with an uncle in Indiana.
"You've heard about people having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other," he joked. "I had to have to flock of angels because they had to do shift work."
After graduating from high school, he joined the Air Force, citing it as the only way out of poverty.
He studied flight control, which later led him to a job as an air traffic controller. Eventually Tapia's entrepreneurial spirit would lead him to start his own business, Essco Wholesale Electric Inc., outside Phoenix. He began by selling supplies to contractors, and eventually built a multimillion dollar wholesale company — the largest Hispanic-owned company in Arizona, according to the Hispanic Business 500 list for 2008.
After enrolling at Saint Leo, he would leave work at 3 p.m. each day, never telling anyone he was attending college. Before boarding the plane for his graduation ceremony, he mailed letters to his family telling them what he had done.
"When you have a company of 300 employees, there are certain things they look to you for; everybody (assumes) you have your degree," he said. "I always told my managers they at least had to take accounting."
University officials, who have always touted their far-reaching online program, embraced Tapia after meeting him for the first time at graduation. They asked him to be the first online student to serve as a trustee. (He now serves as vice chairman.) When Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity needed money to start a chapter at Saint Leo, Tapia and another alumnus donated the cash. Tapia was made an honorary fraternity brother. Whenever he visits campus, which is about three times a year, he takes the members to Fleming's Prime Steakhouse in Tampa.
"It's a real pearl there on the banks of that little lake," he said.
Tapia is flying in for the groundbreaking ceremony at 4 p.m. Thursday. On Saturday, Tapia will get another thrill. His 47-year-old son, Mark VanderLinde, will receive his MBA. Also earned online.
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.