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For generosity and leadership, an honor

David Kennedy came to the Florida State Fairgrounds to honor a friend Monday.

His wife, Liz, told him that Tampa Metro YMCA chief executive officer Bob Gilbertson was going to be named the Tampa Metro Civitan Club's Outstanding Citizen of the Year.

It was all a ruse to get Kennedy to attend the annual Governor's Day Luncheon. Knowing how much he cares for the YMCA, she said the white lie was the only way she could get him to the event.

It was actually Kennedy who was to receive the prestigious Citizen of the Year award, but he had no idea. So they gathered up Gilbertson, who was in on the joke, and walked into the special events hall with many of the city's top business and political leaders.

Only when presenter Sheff Dowdy began describing the recipient did Kennedy realized the award was intended for him.

"You really got me on this way," Kennedy said after receiving a standing ovation.

With his wife, kids, grandchildren and friends on hand, Monday proved to be a "this is your life" moment for David Kennedy. Not only does he join an illustrious list of past honorees - with names like Frankland, Fowler, Carlton, MacInnes, Lambright, Brorein and Lowry, the list reads like a Tampa map - but he shares the award with Liz, who was named Citizen of the Year in 2003.

"He does things more quietly than I do, and he's more behind the scenes," she explained. "But I've learned my generosity through him."

Although Kennedy, 64, has played key roles with the Children's Board, the Child Abuse Council and the Conn Memorial Foundation, his work with the YMCA may best illustrate his civic leadership.

In the early 1980s, the local YMCA was at a crossroads. Thanks to a generous grant, it had an opportunity to build a state of the art facility in downtown Tampa. That idea seemed to make perfect sense to Kennedy. After all, the downtown Y was the place that helped nurture Kennedy after his father passed when he was 16.

George Levy, who was his swimming coach at the YMCA, would grow to become a mentor. His swimming experience would help him gain entry to Andover Prep and then Princeton. Levy would go on to be the best man in his wedding with Liz. Levy also won the citizen award in 1998.

Kennedy became actively involved in the YMCA and eventually joined the board because he wanted to give back to an organization that had played an integral role in his life. He was pushing for a huge downtown facility to salute his childhood influences - until he had a change of heart.

"At some point, my business sense overtook my emotions," said Kennedy, president of Kennedy Frost Investments, a real estate development company. "I realized we could serve more people by effectively spreading out as opposed to building a monument in downtown."

So instead of one downtown facility, Kennedy helped guide the YMCA in investing in branches in suburban areas. Today, there are more than a dozen branches and facilities, and YMCA membership has gone from 2,000 to more than 130,000.

That's just one example of the community-shaping leadership Kennedy has displayed, but after receiving the award, he remained gracious.

"I'm not sure I feel as deserving as some of the past winners, including and in particular my wife," he said. "My wife has always been the leader in terms of social service."

Such humility belies Kennedy's approach. Dowdy likened his friend to a duck who looks calm while swimming on top of the water but is furiously paddling underneath.

Lucky for us, that paddling has moved the community in a positive direction.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at hooper@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3406.

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