TAMPA — In the 20 years since he brought Sykes Enterprises' headquarters to downtown Tampa, founder John Sykes' name has been emblazoned on an iconic downtown high rise and graces the University of Tampa business school.
Now, it's in the history books.
Hearing his name called Thursday as Tampa Metro Civitan Club's 2012 citizen of the year shocked Sykes. He joins a prestigious list of men and women who have left an indelible imprint on the area.
Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Dottie Berger MacKinnon introduced Sykes, calling him a "godly man." She summed up his life and business career in three words: ethics, values and entrepreneurship.
Sykes, 76, is retired from the company he founded, which operates call centers and customer contact management systems around the world.
But even at the height of his career, there was time to mentor elementary school students in a high-crime area. He also supports the Feeding America Tampa Bay food banks, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, the American Heart Association, and the Judeo Christian Health Clinic, among other community services. And he helped lead the push for a countywide mass transit plan that was ultimately rejected by voters in 2010.
Law enforcement projects, including funding a new gymnasium and sending children of police and fire rescue personnel to college are among Sykes' interests, MacKinnon said. He sponsors an annual luncheon to honor the county's first responders.
Sykes' $10 million donation to the University of Tampa in 1997 changed the future of the private college. He added $28 million more in 2000, said to be the largest gift ever given to a Florida university at that time.
"God has blessed us to give back," Sykes said. "The greatest service is to give ourselves. It's easy to give money."
The announcement had another element of surprise: Sykes' daughters Kathy McChesney and Karen Stroker, both of Windemere, were kept hidden at the Florida State Fairgrounds special events center.
"The ride home with Susan is going to be interesting," Sykes said, nodding to his wife in the crowd of 800 civic and business leaders who joined Gov. Rick Scott for the Governor's Day Luncheon. "I want to know how many more secrets she has."
Skyes said his "greatest joy is living in a community with so many fine people. The beauty of the Tampa Bay area is it's large enough to support events and such but remains small enough to be a homey city."
His other business ventures have included JHS Capital, a financial and wealth management business; and Tampa's NorthStar Bank.
In March 2010, Sykes helped launch Prepared Insurance, a homeowners insurance firm in Tampa.
"No one is more deserving," said Al Austin, a Tampa civic booster who was the 2002 Citizen of the Year. "He's one of a kind, not only generous with his time but his resources."