Fred Fisher gave millions to Clearwater causes, urged others to follow

The philanthropist, who died last week, was known for his large donations to youth programs and higher education.
Former Clearwater City Commissioner Sue Berfield, left, and Fred Fisher keep track of a fundraising effort for the swimming pool under construction at the Long Center in 1989.
Former Clearwater City Commissioner Sue Berfield, left, and Fred Fisher keep track of a fundraising effort for the swimming pool under construction at the Long Center in 1989. [ Times (1989) ]
Published Oct. 2|Updated Oct. 2

Philanthropist Fred Fisher used to joke that people dreaded his phone calls. Quite often he’d be asking for a donation to one of the many charities he supported or organizations he helped create.

“When I call my friends,” Fisher told the then-St. Petersburg Times in 1990, “they are no longer fearful of what I’m going to say. They are terrified.”

One of the keys to his persuasion was the example he set. Fisher grew up poor in Illinois, launched his own accounting firm in Tampa, co-founded the nation’s largest homebuilding company in 1969 and made enough money to retire at age 49 in 1980.

He spent the rest of his 43 years volunteering his time and giving away his fortune while encouraging others to do the same, resulting in some of the most resonant philanthropy in Tampa Bay and the state.

Fisher died on Sept. 25 at his St. Petersburg home, according to his wife, Aleta. He was 92.

Fred Fisher holds a plaque honoring him as Mr. Clearwater in 1993, an award bestowed by the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce.
Fred Fisher holds a plaque honoring him as Mr. Clearwater in 1993, an award bestowed by the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce. [ DAMASKE, JIM | St. Petersburg Times ]

Fisher was well known for countless public endeavors, like launching Clearwater for Youth in 1972, a nonprofit that gives children access to sports and mentorship. He raised $15 million to build the Long Center, now a city-run athletic and recreation center. He raised $10 million to get Ruth Eckerd Hall out of debt in its early years, started a drug rehabilitation clinic and was a founding member of St. Paul’s School, also helping those organizations with planning.

But he gave even more privately, including to individuals he met who were struggling to pay bills. The total Fisher donated to people and organizations is unknown because he wanted it that way, but it exceeds tens of millions of dollars.

“He was such a giver but he was also precise in everything he did,” said Jeanie Renfrow, first vice president and market manager of Valley Bank, who met Fisher in the 1980s when she was a teller who cashed his checks but turned into a lifelong friend. “His life’s work was about helping others and having an impact on people.”

In 1985, Fisher donated $6.8 million to his alma mater, the University of Florida, for its school of accounting, which now bears his name. Determined to outdo his record donation, he chaired a campaign that raised $392 million for the university by 1991, the first such fundraiser for a public school that became a blueprint for higher education philanthropy.

“He had patience, persistence and pragmatism, and those are not words that you hear routinely in fundraising,” said Holly Duncan, who spent 45 years in development with organizations across Tampa Bay. “He was incredibly bright and he had incredible insight into people’s motivations.”

Fisher grew up in Joliet, Illinois, and got his first job at age 8 at a drive-in, according to an obituary he wrote before his death. After his family’s home went into foreclosure when he was 12, he worked jobs like plucking chickens and making hotel beds to help his mother. He dropped out of high school at age 17 and was drafted into the Army in 1954, where he served two years and earned a GED.

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He graduated from the University of Florida in 1959 and moved to Tampa to work as an accountant. In 1966, he formed his own firm, Fisher, Morrison & Co.

Fisher’s life changed in 1968 when an accounting client, Arthur Rutenberg, introduced him to a New Jersey businessperson looking to launch a nationwide development company. They formed the U.S. Home Corp. with Fisher as chief financial officer, going on to become the largest homebuilder in the country, with a presence in at least 17 states.

Fisher became an entrepreneur and was a minority owner and director of five commercial banks and two insurance companies, his obituary states.

Within 12 years of U.S. Home’s launch, the company’s sales reached $1 billion, according to a University of Florida biography. Fisher retired in 1980 and began the next phase of his life as a full-time volunteer and philanthropist.

During his work with U.S. Home, Fisher helped turn 1,500 acres of cow pasture into the Countryside development with houses, parks and a mall.

Merrett R. Stierheim, Clearwater city manager from 1967 to 1973, remembers being impressed with Fisher’s intelligence and eagerness to collaborate as he laid out plans for the development at City Hall to annex Countryside into the city.

“Just a remarkable human being who accomplished so much in life,” said Stierheim, who stayed close friends with Fisher even as he moved on to work in Miami-Dade County government.

When the Clearwater Police Athletic League was discontinuing a youth football program in 1964, Fisher and three fellow Kiwanis Club members committed to picking it up. They formed a conference to allow the kids to compete with teams from across the state and expanded into baseball, soccer and other sports. In 1972, they created a nonprofit called Clearwater for Youth and began raising money with celebrity banquets that attracted names like Bear Bryant, Hank Aaron and Joe DiMaggio.

In 1990, Fisher raised $15 million, including at least $1 million of his own, to build the Long Center as a base for Clearwater for Youth and the community with an Olympic-sized pool, a gymnasium and a program to teach children to swim.

The effort was inspired by personal tragedy. In 1962, Fisher’s 4-year-old son, Mark, drowned in a pond in Tampa, leaving a lasting impact.

“Anybody who reads his story, he’d want them to say, ‘Wow, what can I now go out and do to make the community better?’” said Paige Fisher Simpson, one of his four surviving children.