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Philanthropist Shirley Long is Mrs. Clearwater for 2012

CLEARWATER — Shirley Long, a local philanthropist whose millions in donations benefited medical charities and helped build the city's Long Center, was named Mrs. Clearwater during the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce's 90th annual meeting Monday.

The widow of Harris E. "Zip" Long, a bank magnate who died in 2001 at the age of 88, Long was given the chamber's highest award for her years of endowment and service to agencies like the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens, the Florida Orchestra and Morton Plant Mease.

Like most winners of the Mr./Mrs. Clearwater award, given since 1958, Long's award was kept secret until the chamber's soldout banquet at the Sheraton Sand Key. Her twin daughters, Laurie and Leslie, flew from their homes outside Nashville to surprise her on stage.

"People don't usually give me a surprise," Long, 79, told the crowded ballroom as she donned her honorary green blazer. "I like to surprise people. I'm the giver, not the taker."

Long grew up in Arlington, Mass., a suburb outside Boston, and moved to Clearwater in 1963. Beginning with a job at the now-defunct Gulf-to-Bay Bank and Trust Co., founded by her future husband, she rose through the ranks to become one of the first female vice presidents of Exchange Bank and Trust of Clearwater, overseeing personnel.

Harris Long had by that time bought and sold dozens of banks across Florida and Iowa, buying his first with winnings from gin-rummy games in the Navy during World War II. He opened five new banks in Dunedin, Largo, Holiday and Pinellas Park, each with their own presidents, in the years before branch banks were common.

Shirley Long retired in 1979. The Longs married two years later, and from that foundation the couple grew into philanthropy.

In 1988, the couple gave $1 million to help build a proposed Belcher Road training complex with classrooms, a gymnasium, a therapeutic pool and an Olympic-sized pool housed in glass. Speaking to the Times then, Mrs. Long said the center would host a "magnificent pool where champions of every kind will gather."

As fundraising continued, the Longs became chief donors, giving another $1 million. Upon the center's opening, in 1990, it was christened the Long Center in commemoration of their gifts.

Two decades later, the center remains one of the city's most popular recreation complexes. It has also grown: The Aging Well Center, for seniors, and the Sunshine Limitless Playground, for children with disabilities, opened there within the last decade.

But one of Long's proudest achievements started with UPARC, housed at the Long Center. The center's mission of "mainstreaming the developmentally challenged" with exercise and social help has been, she said, a terrific success.

The Longs' giving didn't stop there: They endowed nursing scholarships at Morton Plant Hospital, gave $140,000 in scholarships to the University of Florida's "Lady Gators" golf team and spent $100,000 on surgical equipment for Tampa's Shriners Hospital for Children.

Long also serves as chairwoman of the Morton Plant Mease Foundation's Spirituality and Healing Committee, where she underwrote the C.A.R.E. Channel. Patients across the Morton Plant campus can tune to the channel for soothing images and calm symphonies, salves for the disoriented mind. At night, the channel broadcasts the stars.

For Long, who lives at the Belleair Country Club near the hospital, she said the channel is another instance of "the joy of giving, something I feel is my blessing." But it also provides her another important gift.

"I've had so many of my friends who have passed away there," Long said. "I was told they were watching it all the time."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or