George Levy, trophy store owner who helped put Tampa on sports map, dead at 83

The trophy business owner helped bring a new stadium — and the Super Bowl.
Published September 27 2016
Updated September 28 2016

TAMPA — One day around 1995, George Levy walked into the office of Mayor Dick Greco with an idea.

"How do you like this?" he asked Greco, then handed him a drawing of penny sliced in half.

The image would become the signature in a grass roots campaign to persuade Hillsborough County voters to approve a half-cent Community Investment Tax for schools, libraries, roads, police and fire equipment, and other infrastructure. It also would fund a new pro football stadium.

Mr. Levy helped lead the ultimately successful effort that would become a nexus for three of his biggest passions: community, sports and politics.

"Everything he ever did, he put his heart and soul into," said Greco, a friend of Levy's since high school. "There are not a lot of people who are like that, who are 100 percent committed to the things they think are right and do something about it."

Mr. Levy, a retired businessman and philanthropist who played a major role in attracting sports teams to Tampa and in a number of civic causes, died Tuesday morning. He was 83.

The founder of George A. Levy Inc., one of the largest trophy makers in the country, Mr. Levy was diagnosed about six years ago with amyloidosis, said his twin brother, Leonard Levy. The rare disease occurs when amyloid, an abnormal protein, builds up in the organs.

"He had a good fight," Leonard Levy said. "He wasn't expected to live that long."

Both old-school tough and forward thinking, Mr. Levy worked on a number of projects that shaped the Tampa Bay sports landscape in ways large and small, from helping establish the Outback Bowl to his company's design of an NCAA Division I national football championship trophy.

A former chairman of the Tampa Sports Authority, Mr. Levy served with his brother on the Florida West Coast Pro Football Task Force — the group that led the effort to land an NFL franchise for Tampa. The Levy brothers also helped bring the first two Super Bowls to the city.

Mr. Levy championed his beloved Florida Gators and managed successful City Council and mayoral campaigns for his old friend Greco. Along with civic leaders including attorney Chuck Smith and L. Garry Smith, Mr. Levy was part of Greco's inner circle of friends and advisers, informally known as "the Magnificent Seven," and had lapel pins made up for the seven men to wear.

All the while, the Tampa native remained loyal to his roots, contributing to dozens of organizations or serving on their boards, including decades with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

"He had a great passion for the youth," Leonard Levy said.

• • •

One of four siblings, Mr. Levy grew up in South Tampa and graduated from Plant High School.

"It was still kind of tough to be Jewish in Tampa at that time, but he never let that get in his way," said longtime friend and former Tampa Tribune columnist Steve Otto. In fact, Otto said, the experience likely spurred his generosity and compassion for people, especially children.

"He worked with everybody, particularly African-American kids," Otto said. "He'd go out of his way to give them an opportunity."

Mr. Levy graduated from the University of Florida and served two years in the Army. He worked as a sportswriter covering Gator football and as a swimming coach for the Greater Tampa Swim Association.

His tough-love coaching style turned off some parents, but the swimmers loved him, said David Kennedy, a team member who would remain close with Mr. Levy for the rest of his life.

"He said it will make men out of us, and he did," Kennedy said. "There were some guys that turned out really well, and he had a lot to do with it."

Mr. Levy opened George A. Levy Inc. in 1960 on a $7,500 loan and started selling trophies and other awards. He moved the business to Kennedy Boulevard four years later.

Over time, the business grew to serve more than 3,000 regular customers through a team of 55 employees and 30,000 square feet of administrative space, according to the Tampa Bay Business Journal. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce honored the operation with its Small Business of the Year Award. He sold it in 1999.

Mr. Levy's civic involvement expanded even more rapidly. He served as a board member for Boys & Girls Clubs; a chairman of Hillsborough Community College; and the longtime sponsor of the George A. Levy Student Effort Awards at Alexander Elementary School, to name a few. The Aparicio-Levy Technical Center in Tampa is named after him and educator Henry Aparicio.

• • •

In 1987, Mr. Levy was waiting outside a San Diego conference room as NFL owners haggled over the site of Super Bowl XXV. Inside, it appeared San Diego might get the nod to host the game scheduled for January 1991.

As tense discussions dragged on, Mr. Levy saw a brand new penny on the carpet, which he took to be a good omen. He picked up the penny, showed it to a Super Bowl executive and said, "We're going to get it."

In Tampa Stadium on Jan. 27, 1991, the New York Giants defeated the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV.

It was one of Mr. Levy's many efforts to put Tampa on the sports map.

He was in on the talks and the fundraising that brought the Hall of Fame Bowl to Tampa, where it was renamed the Outback Bowl for its Tampa-based restaurant chain sponsor.

He served on the bowl game's selection committee and his company designed the trophies. George A. Levy Inc. also designed the 1996 NCAA championship trophy, won by his alma mater, the University of Florida.

When Greco embarked on successful campaigns to reclaim his old mayor's job in 1995, it was Mr. Levy who kept the gregarious candidate on schedule and the cash coming in.

He brought the same determination and discipline to the effort to pass the 30-year Community Investment Tax in 1996, Greco said.

The tax had failed once. The second attempt included money to pay back bonds for what would become Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It passed with 53 percent of the vote. Many credited the win to the stadium, which opened in 1998 and kept the Buccaneers from leaving town.

The tax has raised $1.5 billion since it was enacted in 1997, with the money distributed among Hillsborough County, the Tampa Sports Authority, the school board, and the cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace.

In 1998, the Tampa Metro Civitan Club named Mr. Levy its Outstanding Citizen of the Year.

The deal to use public resources for an NFL stadium divided the community but the tax also helped meet the school board and local governments pay for essential needs and softened the blow of the recession, Greco said.

"It's one of the most important things to happen in this community," he said, "and George was tremendously involved in that."

Senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

     
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