INTERBAY — It was the story of many men of his generation. The Great Depression forced Lee Bentley to quit school and go to work. When the United States entered World War II, he eagerly joined the Army and served his country.
Mr. Bentley was in his late 30s before he could start college and begin to build his career. Despite his late start, he became one of Tampa's most prominent bankers and civic leaders. He helped shape Tampa by financing businesses and projects that have become integral elements of the city.
He died March 4 at home. He had been diagnosed with cancer in November. He was 91.
Mr. Bentley lived virtually all his life in South Tampa and attended Plant High School. When he was 16, he rode his bike to the grand opening of a restaurant called the Colonnade, and he remained a regular customer for 75 years.
He would have loved to have gone straight to college after Plant, but family obligations came first.
"His family lost everything in the Depression," said his wife, Laura Mickler Bentley. "He didn't go to college because he had to work."
Back then, Tampa was still a small town where everybody knew everybody, his wife said. When war came, Mr. Bentley used his local connections to get into the Army.
"His eyes were bad," his wife said. "But he was involved with the Merrymakers Club and there was a general he knew (who) got him into the Army."
Mr. Bentley's vision problems kept him out of active combat, but he served in England with the Army Air Corps' finance department.
When he returned home to Tampa, he worked at First National Bank as a teller. His wife-to-be was a college student who took a summer job there.
"I always called him 'Mr. Bentley,' and then one day he told me to call him Lee," she said. "He was just the nicest man. Never said a bad thing about anybody, even the bad eggs."
A few years later, after she finished college, they began dating. They married and remained together for the next 56 years.
After they married, Mr. Bentley finally finished his education, attending the University of Tampa and earning a banking degree through a University of Louisiana program designed for veterans. Earning the degree took him four years. He was able to complete most of his course work from home, with an annual two-week trip to Louisiana.
He would eventually serve as president of the Second National Bank of Tampa, a director of First Florida Banks and chairman of the First National Bank of Clearwater.Mr. Bentley actively involved, often in a leadership role, with almost all of Tampa's most prestigious business, civic and cultural groups. He was chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce's Committee of 100, a trustee of the University of Tampa and of Jesuit High School, director of the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony, president of the Merrymakers Club, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla King LXVI in 1979, commodore of the Tampa Yacht & Country Club and first chairman of the Centre Club of Tampa.
Even though he worked long hours and was busy with so many organizations, Mr. Bentley always had his family at the center of his life, his son said.
"He may not have been demonstrative, but he was always there for us, for me and then for his grandsons," his son Micklir Bentley said. "I could always come to him when I had something I wanted to talk over."
He and his wife also found time to indulge their passion for world travel, especially after his retirement. They capped their travel experiences with a trip around the world on the Queen Elizabeth II in 1998.
He was in good health until just before Thanksgiving. He woke up in pain, and doctors discovered cancer so advanced that they couldn't treat it.
"He worked hard all his life," his wife said. "He was strong and sturdy and kind."
Besides his wife and his son, Mr. Bentley is survived by two grandsons.
Marty Clear writes life stories about people who have died recently. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Mickler Bentley is the son of Lee Milton Bentley, a Tampa banker and civic leader who died March 4. Mickler Bentley's name was misspelled in an article Thursday.