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$1 million surprise: Dunedin Fine Art center to grow with help of bequest

DUNEDIN

Louis Flack had two great loves: art and his late wife, Valerie. Much to the surprise of directors at Dunedin Fine Art Center, he decided to pay tribute to both of them after he died by making the center his sole beneficiary. "We had no idea in our wildest dreams he would leave us $1 million," said George Ann Bissett, the center's executive director.

The mission of the center, which has an annual budget of $1.2 million, is to educate people about the arts through exhibitions and classes. The money will help the center expand and renovate its children's wing and add a clay lab and a new gallery named in Flack and his wife's honor.

The center plans to break ground on the $1.5 million wing in August. And Flack's gift was the catalyst for the campaign to build it, Bissett said.

Flack's friend and attorney, John Hubbard, said Flack told him why he wanted to support the center the way he did.

Flack and his wife, Valerie, were avid photographers. The center, which offers photography classes, gave them an opportunity to hone their skills, said Hubbard, who handled the settlement of Flack's estate. The couple also enjoyed attending events at the center, he said.

"He wanted to help other people who had an artistic impulse," said Hubbard, who described his friend as honest and thoughtful. "A lot of this comes from his wish to honor Valerie. He was in love with that woman until the moment he died, and deeply in love with her."

Flack, whose estate was settled this month, died Oct. 15, 2008. He was 77. His wife of 38 years died in 1994 at the age of 57.

Flack and his wife specialized in nature and close-up flower photography. Matt Muskovac, a fellow member of the Photographic Society of America, said the couple grew their own flowers and mounted them in perfect arrangements. Their favorite was Oriental poppies, because they are especially photogenic, he said.

"They would try to get a bud just before it popped. They did not use fancy studio lighting, instead they would shoot outside in the early morning, with the flowers back-lit and a homemade reflector providing the main light," Muskovac said.

Flack joined the Suncoast Camera Club of Clearwater and the Photographic Society of America in 1979.

He began entering international photographic exhibitions the next year. He had more than 2,100 slides exhibited in 22 countries, according to a short self-penned biography he wrote in 2001.

"The number of awards he and Valerie won was astounding," said Ken Hannon, associate executive director of the center. Hannon estimates that the couple earned hundreds of them from contests throughout the world.

Flack's interest in photography bloomed several years after he retired from the Army in 1973. He had enlisted in 1952 and worked his way up to lieutenant colonel.

A heart condition, which plagued him for years, cut short his military career, Hubbard said.

"He loved the military. One of the great unhappinesses in his life was when he had to retire for health reasons," Hubbard said.

Flack moved to Dunedin after his retirement. He was hired as the city's assistant city manager in 1974, the same year Hubbard became Dunedin's city attorney.

Flack only served one year. He had to step down because of his health. He later worked for a short while as Pinellas County's director of management and budget.

"He had to be very careful. He had a lot of difficulty breathing," Hubbard said.

After his wife's death, Flack made annual contributions of $500 in Valerie's honor. Bissett recalls that about three years ago, Flack contacted her and they had a long talk. He was asking Bissett what the center does with donations and what sort of things the center wanted to do in the future.

She told him about the children's museum and how crowded things were. He asked if she ever thought of expanding. She said, yes, but that it took money to do so.

"I never asked him for a big gift," Bissett said.

And she had no idea that his will, prepared about four years earlier, already named the center as his sole beneficiary.

Flack lived pretty frugally, Hubbard said. His home sold for $155,000 in November. The contents of the house were sold for $165,000, and the rest of his contribution was cash, Bissett said.

Flack, who had no children, also remembered his niece and nephew before his death, Hubbard said. He was able to save up a nice sum of money because of his Army pension and some "very good investment decisions," Hubbard said.

Flack's gift is monumental for the center, which is holding a luncheon today to honor him, Bissett said.

She wishes she knew Flack's intentions so she could have recognized his generosity before his death, she said.

"God, I hope he and Valerie are up there knowing how much this means to us," Bissett said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

$1 million surprise: Dunedin Fine Art center to grow with help of bequest 03/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 11, 2010 7:46pm]
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