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  1. Life & Culture

Tampa philanthropist Elaine Shimberg remembered as a ‘renaissance woman’

She made her mark through writing, a love of theater and giving back.
Hinks and Elaine Shimberg at a theater event in 2007. The couple met in 1960 and were married the following year. “I took one look at her and knew she was special,” Hinks Shimberg said of his wife, who died on Wednesday at age 84.
Hinks and Elaine Shimberg at a theater event in 2007. The couple met in 1960 and were married the following year. “I took one look at her and knew she was special,” Hinks Shimberg said of his wife, who died on Wednesday at age 84. [ Times (2007) ]
Published Apr. 15
Updated Apr. 15

Elaine Shimberg stood 4 feet, 11 and three-quarter inches tall, but it was hard not to notice when she walked into a room.

Her energy filled the space, those who were close to her said after Ms. Shimberg — a writer, actress, mother and philanthropist — died Wednesday in Tampa. She was 84.

“She would brighten up any room,” said Judy Lisi, a close friend and the CEO of the Straz Center for the Peforming Arts, where the 130-seat black-box theater is named for Ms. Shimberg and her husband, Hinks.

“She was a real renaissance woman,” Lisi added. “How one person did all of this is pretty amazing. And she made all of it look easy, too.”

Ms. Shimberg was born in Yankton, South Dakota, in 1937 and grew up in Iowa before earning her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University. It was where she first studied theater, and later speech and psychology.

She moved to Tampa in 1959 to join her parents, who had moved there. In an oral history project recorded for the University of South Florida’s 50th anniversary project, Ms. Shimberg, who with her husband was a donor to the school, said “those days, girls went where their parents were.”

Early in life she had wanted to be a doctor, her daughter Kasey Shimberg Kelly said. But her pediatrician discouraged her, asking why she would want to take the place of a man in medical school who needed to support his family. At the time, gender quotas were still in place.

Instead, Ms. Shimberg followed her other passion of writing.

At the age of 7, she wrote Elaine’s Good Short Stories. She later wrote more than 25 books on medical and family issues, five children’s books, hundreds of magazine articles for publications like Reader’s Digest, Men’s Health, Seventeen and others.

She freelanced for the Tampa Tribune and the then-St. Petersburg Times, and wrote for commercials and the greeting card company, Hallmark. She was working on multiple books at the time of her passing.

When she moved to Tampa, Ms. Shimberg first worked for WALT Radio, a daytime rock station, and later WFLA.

In 1960, Mandell Hinks Shimberg threw a party. He was a Korean war veteran who went to Columbia University for business school and had moved to Florida to start building projects in South Tampa and Town and Country a few years earlier. Ms. Shimberg was invited as a blind date for another guest, but things changed when she met the party’s host.

“I took one look at her and knew she was special,” Hinks Shimberg said Thursday.

They went on their first date on Dec. 23, 1960, and were married by October of the following year. They would have celebrated 60 years of marriage this year.

The couple’s marriage, as well as their love of community, is something that inspired all five of their children, said their son Scott Shimberg.

“To give back in both time and treasure, that’s a legacy that lives on with all of us,” he said. “A very important lesson we’ll always have.”

The Shimberg children remember her creativity, vivaciousness and love of being a mother. She wanted a big family — 12 kids, her daughter Kasey said. Instead she had five children, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Every evening, the kids had two hours of “rest time,” Scott Shimberg said. It was time they stayed in their rooms while their mother wrote.

Her first published book came out in 1979, titled How to be a Successful Housewife Writer.”

Many of her other books focused on health issues, such as chronic heartburn and irritable bowel syndrome, which led her to be interviewed on the TODAY show and on Oprah Winfrey’s AM Chicago.

“She had a passion for taking very complex medical issues and turning them into lay language that ordinary people could understand,” Scott Shimberg said.

Ms. Shimberg and her husband later donated to the University of South Florida, where the health sciences libraries she’d said she found helpful in her research are named after the couple.

Rose Bland, director of the Shimberg Health Sciences Library, frequently worked with Ms. Shimberg, helping her look up queries in databases for her research as recently as this week.

Bland remembered Ms. Shimberg as down-to-earth and inquisitive, always curious about other people and delving deeper. She was passionate that medical researchers, clinicians and students had access to the latest information through the library, where she and her husband started an endowment.

“I’m so grateful we have that,” Bland said. “That’s a permanent testament to supporting that people have access to the latest information,” she said. “It gives me comfort knowing she’ll always be a part of the library, helping us stay on top of the leading edge of medicine.”

The couple had given to the university since the 1970s, when they started scholarships for theater students, a shared love.

Ms. Shimberg also was one of the founding members of USF’s Women in Leadership & Philanthropy program, and the couple started a football endowment and donated in other ways to the school. She received an honorary doctorate degree from USF in Humane Letters.

A breast cancer survivor, Ms. Shimberg and her husband also gave the founding gift to create the Shimberg Breast Center at St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital. She previously served as chair of the St. Joseph’s Hospital board of directors and helped start the Philanthropic Women of St. Joseph’s, a group working to support good health for women, children and families.

She was the first lay person to serve on the Florida Medical Association’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs.

Lisi, the Straz Center leader, said she first met Ms. Shimberg when she was being recruited for the CEO job in 1992. Lisi had her doubts about being a woman and moving to the South, but Ms. Shimberg quickly put her at ease, she said. And it ended up being a big factor in her taking the job.

“We just hit it off,” Lisi recalled. “She was so wonderful, so smart, such a great sense of humor, just made me feel so welcomed. ... I don’t think Elaine ever met a stranger.”

Her children remembered her warmth and thoughtfulness, never forgetting to write a thank you note, another trait they said they hope to pass to their children.

That warmth is something that the Tampa Bay community felt, Lisi said. “We were so lucky to have her. This community would not be the same without her.”

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BIOGRAPHY

Elaine Fantle Shimberg

Born: Feb. 26, 1937

Died: April 14, 2021

Survived by: Husband, Mandell “Hinks” Shimberg; children Scott Shimberg, Kasey Shimberg Kelly, Andy Shimberg, Michael Shimberg and Betsy Shimberg; 10 grandchildren, one great grandchild.