CLEARWATER — There are few corners of the community where Debbie White hasn't left fingerprints in her 36 years in north Pinellas County.
She's mentored students in schools, led merchandise sales for the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, delivered flowers to strangers in nursing homes. She's served on the boards of some of the area's most impactful nonprofits, helped launch a women-in-philanthropy program.
As a sales professional selling paper checks, she earned a reputation through her career for turning customers into friends who often overlapped into her community service. Her tireless service earned her the prestigious Ms. Clearwater award on Thursday at the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce's 97th annual meeting.
"Debbie does it for all the right reasons," said Judy Mitchell, chair of the award committee. "Debbie doesn't just get on a board and maybe give a donation. You get her time, her talent."
White, 64, said she learned her drive for service growing up in Genesco, N.Y., and watching her mother, a college professor, give back and becoming the first woman to serve on the Genesco Central School Board of Education.
She followed her father's footsteps into sales after college, and moved to Pinellas County in 1983. A Safety Harbor resident, White joined the Clearwater Chamber in 1985 and worked as its vice president of government affairs for two years in the 1990s.
"This is huge," White said. "Seeing the effect you can make on one person" is what she said drives her to service in the first place.
On Thursday the Chamber also awarded Al Hoffman Jr. its Legendary Leader Award, a distinction given only six times in the past 15 years "to recognize community icons whose impact has changed the face of Clearwater for decades to come," said 2018 Chamber Chair Katie Cole.
Hoffman led a group of about two dozen citizens in the late 1970s who rallied together with the dream of building a world class performing arts center for the community.
The labors and fundraising resulted in the building of Ruth Eckerd Hall in 1983 and its evolution into the third ranked performing arts center in Florida and 18th in the world today.
"If not for Al Hoffman, there would be no Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater," said Alan Bomstein, CEO of Creative Contractors, who presented Hoffman with the award. "He dedicated two years of his life to make the community's dream into a reality."
Hoffman became one of the most influential real estate developers in Florida with his WCI Communities, the largest master-planned community developer in the state now with 38 communities. He served as President George W. Bush's U.S. Ambassador to Portugal from 2005 to 2007 and national co-chair for Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns.
But his passion and political clout is targeted today on gun safety. He formed Americans for Gun Safety in 2018 after the Parkland massacre that killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The organization is pushing for comprehensive gun reform, including eliminating bump stocks, limiting high-capacity magazines, increased support for mental health with a goal of banning assault weapons.
But in accepting his award Thursday, Hoffman deflected attention from himself. He ticked off the names of friends and supporters who made Ruth Eckerd possible with their early contributions and support: Jack Eckerd, Bill and Chris Nodine, Gus and Frances Stavros and many others.
Looking at Ruth Eckerd today, "I really feel it's a great legacy to others of success," Hoffman said.
Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.
Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce's 2019 Business of the Year awards:
Chamber Ambassador of the Year: Carlos Guerrero
Small Charity of the Year: St. Vincent de Paul Community Kitchen
Large Charity of the Year: Clearwater Free Clinic
Clearwater Young Professionals: Habitat for Humanity
Large Not-for-Profit of the Year: Ultimate Medical Academy
Small Professional Services Business of the Year: RedRock Leadership of Clearwater
Large Professional Services Business of the Year: FrankCrum
Small Hospitality Business of the Year: Empower Adventure
Large Hospitality Business of the Year: Bon Apetit Group
Tourism Person of the Year: Lisa Chandler
AchieveHERs Woman of the Year: Stephanie Smith
Phillies All-Star in the Community: not given