George Ruppel liked jigsaw puzzles. Castles, seascapes, farm scenes - it didn't matter. The wider and more difficult they were, the better.
His ability to master advanced puzzles mirrored the skills that guided him through a public and influential life. After moving to Pinellas Park nearly 60 years ago, Mr. Ruppel helped establish a machine shop, Modern Tool and Die, and the city's first bank.
Behind his acumen for nuts and bolts and dollars and cents lay a purpose - the idea that businesses and banks exist to help people better their lives. He carried the same ethic into politics and public service, serving as a Pinellas County Commission chairman and sitting on the boards of numerous organizations.
Mr. Ruppel died Saturday at home in Indian Shores. He was 90.
"There seems to be in human nature a great divide," said Dennis Ruppel, his son, "between those who have great mastery of detail and those who really get the significance of what it all means. And my father had this amazing ability to do both."
He joined two brothers in 1952 to build Modern Tool and Machine Co. in Pinellas Park, the same year he moved his family there. The company later changed its name to Modern Tool and Die.
In 1958, he and other investors founded First Park Bank - the first in the city - where he served as president.
Mr. Ruppel wasn't finished. In a campaign statement in 1964, he said he was running for the District 1 County Commission seat because he had been critical of the past several boards and was embarrassed by their ineptitude. He also recommended board members each accept a $5,000 pay cut.
"It is high time that a successful businessman sacrifice of his time to re-establish the county's image in the eyes of our friends and neighbors across the state," he said.
Mr. Ruppel won the seat and was later named chairman. He lost a re-election bid in 1968 in a Republican sweep but was appointed by the commission to head the Pinellas Opportunity Council, a poverty-fighting organization. He also chaired the Pinellas gubernatorial campaign of Reubin Askew and the 1972 presidential run of Sen. Edmund Muskie.
In the 1970s, his interests turned increasingly to banking. Mr. Ruppel and others formed Community Banks in Pinellas and Pasco counties, serving as vice chairman until they were sold in the mid 1980s. He was also a founding director of Marine Bank in St. Petersburg from 1986 to 1998.
"He felt that the whole function of banking was to help people improve their lot in life," said Dennis Ruppel, 64, a lawyer who served on the Marine Bank board with his father. "You only make a loan when you believe it will really help someone."
Mr. Ruppel was born in Sheboygan, Wis., in 1920, in the middle of 13 children. The family moved to Flint, Mich., where he attended Baker Business University for two years. After a stint in the Army Air Corps, where he was trained as a fighter pilot before World War II ended, he returned to Flint and apprenticed in tool and die making at AC Spark Plug. He also worked in the company's accounting department.
His marriage to his first wife, Dorothy, lasted about 20 years. He and his second wife, Sandy, were married in the early 1960s. They built a dream house in Clearwater on a pond, designed by architect Sanford Goldman and modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright's landmark Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.
He seemed equally at home serving on boards: Florida Power Corp. and its parent company, Florida Progress; Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College); the Southwest Water Management District; and, under Askew, the State Pollution Control Board; as well as many others.
Mr. Ruppel remained involved as an owner and director at Modern Tool and Die until its sale in 2008. His family suspects he died Saturday of a heart attack or massive stroke. Almost into the last week of his life, Mr. Ruppel continued to piece his complex jigsaw puzzles together.
His family is remembering a poem that James Kavanaugh, a longtime friend, wrote for Mr. Ruppel's 70th birthday. It includes this stanza:
70's not old, George, sadness is, and few I know of any age can laugh like you do;
Rage is old - and regret - and living in the past;
Your gentle, grateful eyes are forever looking childlike towards tomorrow!
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Born: Sept. 2, 1920.
Died: May 7, 2011.
Survivors: wife Sandy; children Judy Holmes, Karen Broerman, Kim Seidl, Jamie Carpenter, Julie McNitt, Dennis Ruppel and Randy Ruppel; sisters Esther and Ruth; brother Clarence; 18 grandchildren; 10 great-grandchildren.
Service: 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday; 3030 Union St., Clearwater.