LARGO — Gus Stavros calls himself "sports nut."
That explains the Tampa Bay Rays lapel pin that adorned his black dress jacket Wednesday.
"I actually own 1 percent of the team," Stavros said.
Stavros speaks fondly of the team's memorable 2008 season. But the truth is, he gets a far greater satisfaction from another of his endeavors — the Gus Stavros Institute, a state-of-the-art learning complex that houses Enterprise Village and is dedicated to educating students about the free enterprise system.
"This is the greatest thing I have," Stavros said. "It has been such a success."
Stavros, 83, spent Wednesday afternoon with scores of sponsors, supporters and local dignitaries to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the institute. They were joined by his wife of 60 years, Frances, who is heavily involved in career education.
At the institute, "reality became better than a dream," said Stavros, beaming from ear to ear before cutting a cake that honored the occasion.
That dream was hatched two decades ago. Then-associate Pinellas County school superintendent Howard Hinesley called Stavros and proposed creating a place where students would learn about profit and loss, a day's work for a day's pay, real-world economic education, career opportunities and ethics. The facility, named Enterprise Village, was modeled after the Hallmark Cards Learning City in Kansas City, Mo., which Hinesley (now the school superintendent in Cartersville, Ga.) had just visited.
"My parents were from Crete," Stavros said. "My mom had no education. My father had a third-grade education but taught himself how to read and write in two languages. I always understood the value of an education."
The selection of Stavros to spearhead the project — he founded the Pinellas County Education Foundation to fund and develop enhancement programs the school system could not pay for — turned out to be a wise move. Stavros was a well-known and respected member of the business community who had great success as owner of Better Business Forms, a multimillion-dollar company that was posting revenues of $90-million when sold in 1989.
"He opened doors that we couldn't," Hinesley said in a 1998 Times interview.
As Stavros, now chairman emeritus of the foundation, recalled, "I had the contacts." Stavros had been a Pinellas resident since 1958. He was a New Jersey native, Columbia University graduate and World War II veteran.
Stavros encouraged business leaders to join the foundation's board of directors and — in a much more difficult task — persuaded companies to contribute $50,000 to be part of Enterprise Village.
At the Hallmark Cards Learning City, fictitious businesses were used. But at Enterprise Village, Stavros wanted to replicate smaller versions of local businesses in a mall-like building.
"One key to making this successful is that Gus wanted it to be real businesses with real people," said Ditek chairman and chief executive Bob McIntyre, a past chairman of the foundation.
Under Stavros' leadership, the initial fundraising campaign raised $1.2-million, which was enough to build the Largo facility. It opened in 1989 and "was an immediate success," Stavros said. "From the start, kids said, 'When can I come back?' ''
Today, more than 30,000 students train at the institute each year. Every fifth-grader in a Pinellas public school (and some from private schools) visits Enterprise Village to learn real-life lessons. Eighth-graders attend Finance Park, which was added to the facility in 1996 and educates students about financial management.
"I remember my kids (who are now 26) really got excited about this when they came," said Peggy O'Shea, Pinellas School Board chairwoman. "What a grand idea."
Shortly before Wednesday's festivities began, Stavros took time to reflect. About the facility. About the programs. And about how much it all meant to him.
"When I see the children here,'' Stavros said, "it brings me great joy."