BELLEAIR SHORE — Tuesdays, Bernie Powell had a standing appointment with his friend, Carroll Cheek — the ultimate power lunch.
They hit Bob Heilman's Beachcomber. They'd talk about finance, charities, latest projects. They'd collaborate, deciding where to donate, who needed their help.
Mr. Powell was polite and wry. When they puttered off in Cheek's Jaguar, he'd laugh — what were two old guys doing in a fancy car with the top down?
"He was just a fine owl to me," Cheek said. "He was my buddy. We had the same feeling about giving back to the community. He and I both felt that if we happened to accumulate a couple dollars, whatever we had, we were custodians of it. It wasn't something that belonged to us."
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Bernie Powell, philanthropist and former owner of the Belleview Biltmore Hotel, died Thursday at home in Belleair Shore. He was 96.
Mr. Powell was born in Detroit. He graduated from law school at age 22 and went on to open his own firm.
In 1946, he and a partner bought the Biltmore, a run-down Victorian hotel that housed soldiers in training during World War II. It was dilapidated and crumbling. A cab driver wished him luck, calling the place the "biggest white elephant on the west coast of Florida."
Mr. Powell just saw hope.
"There is something about that hotel that has charm," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 2005. "I felt it right away."
He transformed the Biltmore into a glamorous destination. He wintered there with his family.
"We had a wonderful time growing up at the hotel," said his daughter, Kathy Strong. "My sisters and my brother and I were able to run wild and use it as a giant playhouse."
Her father was a celebrity on the grounds. Dapper and charming. Family dinners took hours because he would get up to greet guests who came by his table. He remembered all their names.
He was an astute businessman and a tough negotiator. He made a point to listen to advice, even if he had no plan to take it.
"He was the kind of person who was easy to get along with," said his friend and lawyer, Roger Larson. "Even the people he negotiated with. He did not steamroll anybody."
His sense of humor was self-deprecating. He loved to tell stories, speak in exotic accents and make Catholic jokes to priests from his Catholic church.
He didn't curse. When he got angry — really angry — he said "Holy birds!"
"When he said that, I knew he was frustrated," Larson said.
In 1981, tragedy struck the family. Christy Powell Higgins, his daughter, died at 35 of breast cancer. It devastated Mr. Powell.
"She was so sweet and so good and so pretty," he told the Times.
He began donating to Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, first by the thousand.
"It was a way for him to deal with the pain that he was feeling and a very positive way of giving back to the community," said Holly Duncan, president of the Morton Plant Mease Foundation. "I think he really felt the healing power of giving."
It was only the tip.
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In 1990, Mr. Powell sold the hotel for $27.5-million. He devoted his life to philanthropy.
His daughter had formed a support group before she died. To continue her work, Mr. Powell donated money to establish the Powell Cancer Center, a Morton Plant treatment and counseling facility that opened in 1995. At the time, his gift was the biggest ever from a living donor.
The next year, he and Cheek donated funds to create the Cheek-Powell Heart and Vascular Pavilion at the hospital. And when Mr. Powell realized nurses needed care for their kids, he and his wife, Mary Ann, donated $1.65-million for the Mary Ann and Bernard Powell Child Care and Learning Center.
They loved to visit.
"They would sit in the rocking chairs and rock the little children," said Philip Beauchamp, Morton Plant Mease Health Care CEO.
At home, it was the same with his great-grandchildren.
"The children loved them and would crawl all over their wheelchairs," said Strong, 67.
Mr. Powell's newest great-grandson, Alexander, was born an hour before he died.
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Mr. Powell had a favorite saying: "He who gives while he lives always knows where it goes."
In all, his donations to the hospital foundation totaled about $10-million, Duncan said. That's not counting his other charitable causes — Salvation Army, Ruth Eckerd Hall, Hospice of the Florida Suncoast, and his church, to name a few.
He wanted causes to be maintained after he was gone. So he set up a foundation.
His donations won't stop for years.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.