CEO and political aide Dennis Ross handled the tough jobs

Dennis Ross of Gulfport died Sunday from a brain aneurysm. He was 69. For more than 20 years starting in the 1970s, he empowered a Tampa mayor, a Florida governor and a U.S. president. He’s credited with helping save the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay from budget devastation.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times (2005)

Dennis Ross of Gulfport died Sunday from a brain aneurysm. He was 69. For more than 20 years starting in the 1970s, he empowered a Tampa mayor, a Florida governor and a U.S. president. He’s credited with helping save the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay from budget devastation.

GULFPORT — Dennis Ross threw himself at life like a one-man army, mowing down challenges in politics, business and social services as if he thought he were superhuman.

At times he almost seemed so.

For more than 20 years starting in the 1970s, Mr. Ross worked a sorcerer's magic to empower a Tampa mayor, a Florida governor and a U.S. president.

The former chief executive officer of Jim Walter Homes Inc. also fought valiantly for the Florida Board of Regents, stepping in as its chairman, and later helped save the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay — also as CEO — from budget cuts that nearly sank it.

To win most of these battles and survive the losses, the former Marine relied on his sharp mind, a confident humor and a rock-steady belief in his causes.

Eventually, he conquered the toughest opponent of all — his own depression and alcoholism augmented by a son's suicide.

Mr. Ross, a thinker and a doer who helped save countless lives while resurrecting his own, died Sunday in his Gulfport home of a brain aneurysm. He was 69.

"He was a pro-business, pro-capitalism Democrat," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who met Mr. Ross when both worked on President Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. "At that time, you didn't see too many CEOs like that."

Politicians saw Mr. Ross as a fix-it man, a realist.

While serving as then-Gov. Bob Graham's deputy chief of staff in 1980, he managed the governor's responses to a massive immigration of Cuban refugees known as the Mariel boatlift and the collapse of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge simultaneously.

Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio got to know Mr. Ross in the early 1980s, when she was running for City Council.

"He was very supportive of me," Iorio said. "When you went to see him about an issue, he was the kind of person who was on it before you left his office."

Born in Tampa, Mr. Ross graduated from Chamberlain High School and the University of South Florida, where he studied philosophy. He served in the Marine Corps and its reserve, starting out his career as a schoolteacher and social worker.

In the 1970s, Mr. Ross directed the county's Children's Services Department, then served as assistant administrator for Hillsborough County and the director of administration for Tampa.

"The kid was just brilliant," said Jack Espinosa, a former county administrator's spokesman. "He was totally dedicated to what he was doing. Everybody trusted him."

In the 1980s, Mr. Ross joined the Jim Walter firm and quickly rose to the top. Then his 22-year-old son, David, died from suicide in 1987.

"It was a complete devastation to him," said Lorraine Ross, his wife of 14 years.

Mr. Ross appeared to rebound, stepping up his volunteer work with the Crisis Center.

Meanwhile, he served as Florida deputy finance director for both of Clinton's presidential campaigns, chaired the Florida Board of Regents and sat on numerous boards.

He steered a Jim Walter subsidiary, Celotex, to record profits. In 2002 he became CEO of the Crisis Center.

Everyone around Mr. Ross got better — except himself. The suicide contributed to a severe depression and the dissolution of his first marriage. His drinking worsened. He suffered fits of uncontrollable crying and suicidal thoughts — steps away from his own crisis counselors he never consulted.

The situation peaked in 2003, when Mr. Ross was arrested on a weapons charge on Nebraska Avenue following what he described as a traffic altercation. A pretrial diversion program kept the charge off his record.

Mr. Ross stayed sober after that — and relatively happy, his family said. He rallied the Crisis Center, reeling from government cutbacks, by expanding its ambulance fleet.

Mr. Ross was reading the newspaper in bed Sunday when he collapsed. His wife said he died of a burst blood vessel in the brain.

"We were all exceedingly saddened by it, but at the same time we are proud," said David Braughton, who succeeded Mr. Ross as president and CEO of the Crisis Center in 2007. "His willingness to face his own demons with humility speaks to the stature of the man."

"I think the Crisis Center is his legacy," Braughton said.

The center, on solid financial ground thanks to the work Mr. Ross did, helped 185,000 people last year.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@sptimes.com.

.BIOGRAPHY

Dennis Michael Ross

Born: Jan. 27, 1942

Died: Oct. 30, 2011

Survivors: wife Lorraine; daughter Katie Trabert; stepson Brian Aulisio; sister Chris Ross; three grandchildren.

Service: Private.

CEO and political aide Dennis Ross handled the tough jobs 11/02/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 3, 2011 12:01am]

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