TAMPA — Sally Lowry Baldwin couldn't have lent her talents to the Lowry Park Zoo at a better time. Once regarded as one of the nation's worst, the zoo reopened in 1988 after a major overhaul that doubled its size, improved animal environments and added a volunteer program that would persuade people from all walks of life to undergo nine weeks of training and put in at least 120 hours per year.
Mrs. Baldwin signed on that same year and, with her considerable business acumen, helped structure the education and fundraising programs that turned around the zoo named after her grandfather, former Tampa City Commissioner Dr. Sumter Lowry. Her contributions have helped ensure that the zoo will survive well into the future.
Mrs. Baldwin, one of Tampa's most visible philanthropists and civic leaders, died Friday, seven years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She was 81.
"She was the first lady of the Lowry Park Zoo," said Craig Pugh, the zoo's executive director and chief executive officer. "She set exceptionally high standards for those with whom she worked, but no higher than those she set for herself."
Family and friends describe Mrs. Baldwin as a forceful, gracious woman with a keen sense of humor and an ability to convince people across a social spectrum to work together.
"She was not a hard person to approach," said Trey Baldwin, 55, her son. "For me, she was very warm and authentic. You don't get any more authentic than my mom. She would tell it like it is."
Sara "Sally" Lowry was born in Tampa in 1931 and grew up near MacDill Air Force Base. She met Walter Baldwin at Plant High, and the two later dated at the University of Florida. She taught elementary school after they married, then devoted her time to raising four children.
Mrs. Baldwin simultaneously nurtured a passel of interests that inevitably led to leadership positions in groups including the Girl Scouts, the Junior League of Tampa and the Guilders for the Tampa Museum of Art. She played a good game of tennis, grew orchids and ferns and read widely.
Over the years, she also accumulated an impressive commercial real estate portfolio. She served for 27 years on the board of Tampa Electric Co.
However, Mrs. Baldwin may be remembered most for her role at the center of the zoo's renaissance. She chaired the Zoological Society, the non-profit group that operated the newly structured public-private partnership with the city of Tampa. (Previously, the zoo had been operated by the city.)
In 1988, the year the zoo reopened, she and her friend Mason Lykes launched Karamu, an annual invitation-only black-tie fundraiser. Even more significant, Mrs. Baldwin was a leader of the Lowry Park Zoo Endowment Foundation, created to defray operating costs of the zoo and promotion of its institutional priorities. Former Gov. Bob Martinez helped her raise funds for the foundation, her family said.
"Sally recognized that a strong future depended on having a strong endowment foundation," said Pugh. "That summarized her very keen sense of business, to take the long view that all of this is something much bigger than ourselves and is going to outlast us."
The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Lowry Park Zoo Endowment Foundation.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.