Don Wallace, founder of LazyDays RV Super Center, the largest single-site RV dealership in the world, ranks among Tampa's wealthiest men. Wallace, 59, and his wife Erika, who turns 35 next week, are respected philanthropists whose faces charities long to see at their fundraisers. But earlier this year, Don made a news splash of another kind when he called a news conference announcing the arrest of his sister, brother-in-law and niece for alleged extortion and false police reports that accused him of fathering his niece's baby. He has adamantly denied their claims and says he called the conference to head off the media. Recently, in a wide ranging interview, the Wallaces talked about the status of the case, their new home in Thonotosassa, their kids, Donny, 10, and Lexi, 7, and that big thing in their Bayshore Boulevard driveway. Amy Scherzer, Times Staff Writer
Don, did you ever imagine you would become a millionaire philanthropist?
Don: Thirty years ago I sure didn't see myself having the ability to do what we do now. I don't think we see ourselves as special; it's just the right thing to do, something we ought to do.
How do you choose which causes to help?
Don: You get a lot of requests, more than you ever dreamed, and you have to decide what's important to you. We sat down and put them in order. First thing is at-risk kids and families. Second is medicine and health research. Third, education, which is really tied to kids and families. Fourth is community, giving money for a new park or the Riverwalk. Last is cultural things and art. That's how we allocate our resources.
You mentioned the arts last. Will we see a Wallace Gallery at the new Tampa Museum of Art?
Don: No Wallace Gallery. No matter who you are, there's only so much you can do. We'll support it in some way, but it won't be a leadership gift.
Have you gotten more requests during these economic difficulties?
Don: I haven't seen an increase. You think they'd ask for more; everybody's got to be struggling. But maybe I haven't seen it because we're always asked.
It's unbelievable, and funny, too. They'll leave a gift package on the porch with a letter. Recently a piece in (another) paper said I got a refund on a Trump Tower condo, and I got a call saying you got this money back and ought to be able to help us. And it wasn't me. It was another Don Wallace.
Erika: We get letters from prisoners who want money for better representation. We get letters from couples wanting to get married here, you know, make my fiancee's dream come true.
Does faith play a role?
Don: As you know, we are Jehovah's Witnesses. (The congregation) is always our No. 1 priority. Doesn't mean we need to write a big check — nobody gets a salary — but there are bills that need to be taken care of.
Erika: As Jehovah's Witnesses, we're very concerned about our neighbors. Makes us more sensitive to the needs of the community.
Tell me about the home you're building on Lake Thonotosassa. At around 40,000 square feet on 200 acres, it's likely the largest in the county.
Don: We'll farm and raise cattle on 160 acres, and the house is on 40 acres. Our idea is to build a place where our kids and their friends could hang out with lots of things for them to do outside. They can get on a boat and waterski, ride motorcycles and GoKarts and four-wheelers, and play ball and ride a horse and watch a cat be born. Lexi wants to get some pigs. All that kind of stuff.
Erika: Donny and Lexi rarely get on a bike, there's so much pedestrian traffic here. And we don't want mall rats.
What about school — public or private?
Don: We're undecided about Lexi next year, and this is Donny's last year at Gorrie (Elementary) anyway. We've thought about Tampa Prep.
You've hosted huge parties at your Bayshore home. Will you sell it?
Don: I honestly don't know. (Construction in Thonotosassa) will take another 21/2 to three years. We might want someplace in town.
You buy, sell, trade Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches. Where does this passion for speed come from?
Don: I bought my first car in seventh grade. I have somewhere between 30 and 40 now, here and at the (historic Hyde Park fire station he owns) and in Ybor. The most fun part is selling them. People who grew up when I did were into cars. I started drag racing when I was in high school, then road racing.
What's the big purple thing parked in your driveway?
Erika: It's more like black, cayenne and taupe. It's a 45-foot — 65 feet when you add the car and tow bar — motor home. We drove from Yosemite to Vancouver this summer, three weeks, in it. I love driving it. Only problem is you can't back up.
Don, sometimes you wear a pain patch or back brace for chronic pain. What happened?
Don: I got a compression fracture water-skiing in high school. I went over a ski jump and landed on a dock in my skis. Then in 1987, I fractured the same vertebrae again. They injected some kind of cement and it got better for a while.
Surgery on it in September 2002 was one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made. I've had a couple more surgeries and I live with it. Could be worse, couldn't it?
Where does the case against your sister stand?
Don: Very shortly I would expect formal charges to be filed against them. That's all I know and all I ought to say.
What have you told your children?
Erika: They understood the allegations. They've met the child, played with her at a wedding. She's 6 now. Really she's the little victim in all this.
Don: We let our kids know it was painful to go through, but doing it like that was the right thing to do. The right thing is always the hard thing to do.