Every now and then, Richard Bekesh drives by the house where he grew up in New Port Richey. It must seem like a dream.
His dad worked at a grocery store; his mom in the Gulf High cafeteria. They had three kids. They couldn't afford an air conditioner for the 1,200 square-foot home.
From such a poor background, Bekesh has become quite a success story, growing Spring Engineering Inc. of Holiday into a statewide force. Examples of his firm's work are everywhere, from opulent automobile dealerships like Lokey Mercedes to the beautiful new Pasco High and Pasco Middle school complexes in Dade City.
He calls himself a "novice'' and "naive'' about politics, but quickly admits he's kidding. He's good at it. Movers and shakers from all levels of government are on a first-name basis. Bekesh can write a big check and get others to do the same.
But this 44-year-old architect is much more than a connected, successful businessman. His contributions to this community, particularly children at risk, recently earned him a title that makes him proud: Philanthropist of the Year in Pasco, presented by the Association of Fundraising Professionals Nature Coast Chapter and Community Foundation of Tampa Bay.
Bekesh has contributed money and resources to many charities over the years. But for this honor, he received nominations from Youth and Family Alternatives and Morton Plant Mease Foundation.
George Magrill, among the top advocates in Florida for healthy families and child protection, has run YFA for almost 35 years. He has never had a greater ally than Bekesh, although their relationship didn't get off to the best start. When Magrill built the nonprofit agency's headquarters off Plathe Road in 1989, he chose another architect over Bekesh. But in 2000, when it came time to design the county's first runaway shelter known as the RAP House, Bekesh got the job.
"This was right around the time my son was born,'' Bekesh recalled. "The more I learned about Youth and Family Alternatives, my perspective changed. I realized how lucky we were.''
Bekesh would go on to chair the agency's governing board and design two more runaway shelters in Brooksville and Bartow. The latter opened in 2006. Bekesh donated $50,000 in services, Magrill said.
YFA depends almost exclusively on funding from state and local government. Five years ago, Bekesh set a goal to raise more private dollars. He had been a distance runner all his life, starting at Gulf High School on the cross country team. He ran at Southern Mississippi University and as an Army officer. Now he turned his energy to create the 5K RAP River Run.
Bekesh formed an advisory council to encourage community involvement. Out of that came the idea for the race. Spring Engineering put up thousands of dollars as a title sponsor, and Bekesh convinced other businesses to do the same. He volunteered his staff. Then, of course, he ran.
This past June, 1,200 runners joined him, making the RAP River Run one of the biggest in the Tampa Bay area. Proceeds exceeded $72,000, bringing the total from the four races to $250,000.
Bekesh expects the race to continue to grow, along with a spinoff that helps the runaway shelter in Brooksville. He also has this goal: "Don't let my sons beat me. Eventually, I know they will.''
Bekesh and his wife, Laura, have known each other since fourth grade at Richey Elementary School. They have Nathan, 13, Matthew, 11, and Emily, almost 9. Bekesh drives them an hour to school each morning and considers it the best hour of the day. They listen to National Public Radio and discuss complex current events.
Laura is an equal partner in much of the philanthropy and is named along with her husband on the education center at Morton Plant North Bay Hospital. They gave the hospital $250,000 and recently chaired the One Magical Night black tie event that raised $180,000.
That's serious money in a county reeling from the collapse of the home building business. "I'm relentless,'' Bekesh says, "especially if I believe in a cause. It's easy to write a check. The key is getting others to do it.''
Asked what he would like people to know about him, Bekesh said this:
"I hope people know I'm a good father, a good husband, a good employer who treats people with respect and dignity.''
Another noble goal.