One of the Tampa Bay area’s top educational philanthropists, Gus Stavros, died Oct. 18. He was 97.
Stavros was part of that “greatest generation” of entrepreneurial business builders and givers, with a willingness to share his wealth and wisdom.
The elder statesman-philanthropist dedicated his energy to education, from K-12 up to various Florida state universities. He might be best known for helping establish what is now Largo’s Gus Stavros Institute, home to Enterprise Village, Finance Park and other economic education programs that thousands of students participate in every year.
He also served on the State University System Board of Governors, which sets policy for universities and is among the most prestigious appointments in state government.
He once said his ultimate goal was to give away most of his money and die poor.
He was born in poverty in New Jersey to immigrant parents from Crete, Greece, who opened the Twin Diner in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in World War II, suffering a head wound at age 19 on the European front. He was educated at Columbia University.
He married Frances Shaw in 1948 a decade before moving to Pinellas County. Stavros often attributed his charitable work to his wife, who died in 2017 at the age of 92. She was the one who encouraged him to give time and money to educational causes, he said.
He started a company called Better Business Forms after they moved to Pinellas County in 1958. He built the Pinellas Park business up to 500 employees, and sold it in 1984 for millions.
“Gus is literally giving away his fortune while he is alive and that’s an admirable way to do it,” businessman Craig Sher said in 2012.
Stavros helped establish the Pinellas Education Foundation, so he was a natural fit to lead the initial fundraising campaign for Enterprise Village. He raised $1.2 million, which was enough to build the Largo facility. It opened in 1989 and was an immediate success.
“The most important thing I find is that you must be involved,” Stavros said in 2012 to the Tampa Bay Times . “And be involved with young people and education. Nothing is more important than education. I learned that a long time ago because my parents, who had little education, convinced me to go as far as I can.”
The Stavros Institute in Largo helps kids learn about business, free enterprise and personal finance. Every year, fifth graders experience Enterprise Village and later learn basic money and budget management at Finance Park. Other education centers named for Stavros are on the campuses of the University of South Florida in Tampa and Florida State University in Tallahassee. At USF St. Petersburg, donations include the Gus & Frances Stavros Family Scholarship for Entrepreneurs.
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He and his wife were also patrons of numerous arts organizations, including Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Palladium, the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, the Dali Museum Order of Salvador, the Mahaffey Theater, American Stage and the Holocaust Museum. They were also financial supporters of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary and the Lutheran Outdoors Ministries of Florida, Morton F. Plant Roebling Society and DeTocqueville Society/United Way.
Pictures on his office wall during a 2012 Times interview reflected his meetings with presidents Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and a young Hillary Clinton also sought his counsel. And he had a shot of himself and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, both grinning as fellow baseball fanatics. Stavros at one point owned 1% of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Shortly before festivities began in 2009 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Enterprise Village, Stavros reflected on how much the facility and its programs meant to him.
“When I see the children here,’’ Stavros said, “it brings me great joy.”
Stavros is preceded in death by his wife of 68 years, Frances, and is survived by his three children, Ellen, Paul and Mark, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
He will be remembered at a memorial service Nov. 12 at 11 a.m. at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Clearwater. In lieu of flowers, the family is asking for donations to the Pinellas Education Foundation or the Gus A. Stavros Centers at USF or FSU.