TEMPLE TERRACE — Academia was not Jack Belt's first career choice or even his second. He was in his mid 30s before he took his first teaching position.
That first teaching job turned out to be the last job he ever had. For nearly 40 years, Mr. Belt was one of the most popular and most highly respected members of the faculty of the University of South Florida's theater department.
Mr. Belt passed away Sunday (Nov. 6, 2011). He had a heart attack in July and never recovered. He was 82.
Acting was his first love. He had earned degrees in theater from Rollins College and Yale University. As a young man, he worked as an actor in New York City. It was there that he met his wife, Carol, also an actor.
But in the mid 1950s, Mr. Belt changed careers. He became a lawyer and in Tampa had his own firm, Frecker and Belt. He later switched careers again and became president of J. Watson Belt Development Co., a Tampa land development and home building company that his father had started.
But the stage beckoned. After working toward a doctorate in theater at the University of Texas, he came to USF as a teacher.
"I think he did that mostly so he'd have a way to make a living while he was acting," said his son Christopher.
Throughout his career at USF, Mr. Belt was constantly in demand as an actor in productions at the University and on Tampa's professional stages. He was known for a commanding stage presence and an impressive and evocative speaking voice.
"He was a fine actor," said Denis Calandra, his colleague at USF for nearly 30 years. "And, something that's not common in this business, he was very modest."
His roles ranged from Officer Krupke in West Side Story to Weller Martin in The Gin Game, in which he appeared with his wife. In one of his most memorable roles, he combined two of his careers by playing Clarence Darrow in a one-man show about the legendary lawyer.
"As an actor, his discipline and his attention to detail were phenomenal," Calandra said.
As a faculty member, Mr. Belt was popular with both his students and his colleagues at USF.
"He could teach a freshman class like voice and body improvisation to non-majors and have them come out with a buzz of excitement about the creative process," Calandra said. "Or he could teach advanced students."
Calandra recalled that when the theater department took on controversial productions that might have led to negative reactions from the USF bureaucracy or the wider community, Mr. Belt could always be counted on to work on the productions and help fight the political battles that sometimes ensued.
Mr. Belt and his family lived in Temple Terrace from the time he came to USF in 1966. His wife passed away 17 years ago.
"He wasn't one to wear his heart on his sleeve," said his daughter Jennifer. "But if you knew him, you could tell how much he missed her."
Mr. Belt is one in a string of prominent members of the Tampa theater community who have passed away in recent months. Others include playwright Aubrey Hampton, actor-teacher Aniko Farrell, director Mark Hunter and actor Paul Massie, who was a USF colleague and a close friend of Mr. Belt.
Marty Clear writes life stories about area residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.