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Tampa Bay officials thank Frank and Carol Morsani for decades of giving

At a surprise luncheon, the philanthropic couple is honored for more than $100 million in donations to local institutions.
 
Carol and Frank Morsani laugh as they address the audience during a surprise event honoring them for their contributions to the area during a luncheon at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, in downtown Tampa.
Carol and Frank Morsani laugh as they address the audience during a surprise event honoring them for their contributions to the area during a luncheon at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, in downtown Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 5|Updated Feb. 6

Local philanthropists Frank and Carol Morsani were the last guests to enter the luncheon Monday in downtown Tampa, sandwiched between University of South Florida President Rhea Law and University of Tampa President Ronald Vaughn.

Frank Morsani had been asked to speak at what he thought was an event to mark Charles Lockwood’s 10th anniversary as dean of USF’s medical school. The 93-year-old had spent more than six hours preparing a speech. But as he and his wife sat down, a video of Tampa Mayor Jane Castor began to play.

They had been invited under false pretenses, Castor said, declaring Monday Frank and Carol Morsani Day in Tampa. Officials from the city, USF, the University of Tampa, Moffitt Cancer Center and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts gathered to honor the couple, who have donated more than $100 million to institutions in the Tampa Bay region since moving to the area in 1970.

Guido Maniscalco, chairperson of Tampa’s City Council, credited the couple “for more than 50 years of building a culture of philanthropy and service in the city of Tampa which drastically improved the lives of our entire community.”

The couple’s $5 million gift in the 1980s for a performing arts center was the biggest in the region at the time.

Carson Rowe, the couple’s grandson, who served as emcee for the event, said he grew up never fully appreciating who his grandparents were in the community. He said he finally understood when he saw the family name on buildings while touring colleges.

“I have witnessed the care and love they put into our family,” Rowe said. “And I’ve also been on the sidelines as they have carefully, thoughtfully and strategically transformed the city and the community, defining what true philanthropy is. Their work is often quiet, sometimes unrecognizable, but often transformational.”

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor appears on the screen via a video feed while honoring Carol and Frank Morsani, whose backs are to the camera, for their contributions to the city.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor appears on the screen via a video feed while honoring Carol and Frank Morsani, whose backs are to the camera, for their contributions to the city. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Patrick Hwu, president and CEO of Moffitt, said the couple’s gifts have supported the careers of women researchers, arts in medicine and other specialized research.

The Morsanis are more than donors, he said. “Rarely have I found a couple so genuine, authentic, talented and humble.”

Judy Lisi, former president of the Straz Center, called the Morsanis community builders, and also her “dear, dear friends for 31 years.”

She remembered starting her job in 1992, when the Straz Center faced challenges and she rallied to meet with board members. She remembered meeting Frank Morsani.

“He said, ‘How do you do, little lady?’ because that’s what he always called me,” Lisi recalled. “And he handed me a check for $15,000.”

His belief, she said, was enough to keep her going.

“He gave me that little bit of hope,” Lisi said. “He introduced me to so many important ideas, people that he was going to bring together to help us.”

His sayings, she said, stuck with her through her career. If there was ever a big problem to tackle, Frank Morsani would say, “It’s like eating an elephant: You take one bite at a time.”

Law, the USF president, said the couple first gave to the university in 1978, stepping up as the state cut back on higher education funding. Their gifts through the years have supported scholarships, the beginning of a football team more than 25 years ago, the creation of USF’s college of medicine building and initial funding for a football stadium on the Tampa campus, among other projects.

“They understand that we have a bold vision, but it can’t be done just by ourselves,” Law said. “It has to be done by all of those around us linking arms so that we can achieve those things and be bigger and better and bolder.”

Vaughn, the UT president, credited the Morsanis for bringing him to Tampa 40 years ago: The department chair position he accepted was endowed by them. Since then, the couple has given to the university in ways that have supported the creation of buildings and programs.

Asked if they wanted to make comments to the audience, Carol Morsani said her husband had a very nice speech prepared about Lockwood.

“We appreciate y’all so much,” she said. “We couldn’t have given to better organizations. We’ve been wondering how to celebrate our anniversary at the end of this week. This is it.” The two will have been married for 73 years.

Frank Morsani, the former chairperson of the Automotive Investments, which owned more than 30 car dealerships nationwide, took a moment to speak, visibly moved by the outpouring.

Later in an interview he said neither he nor his wife were comfortable with their names on buildings or receiving recognition, but felt giving was the right thing to do once they had made enough money. It was their obligation, he said.

“This is such a great city,” Frank Morsani said. “To see the change and positive things that have come and are still coming — a lot of things we’re not going to see on our watch. But that’s OK. It’s all moving in the right direction.”

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.