A lavish, enigmatic donor

Published November 29 2018
Updated November 29 2018

This story was originally published on June 29, 2010.

When a well-known philanthropist dies, accolades tend to flow in quickly. Former colleagues and beneficiaries bring tales of humility and timely generosity. It is almost a staple of death when a person has reached the upper rungs of charitable giving.

But reaction was more subdued after last week’s death of retired businessman Doyle McClendon, whose lavish - and usually anonymous - contributions underwrote concerts and helped keep art museums afloat.

Mr. McClendon died in Ocala on July 19 after his motorized scooter was struck by a car. An explanation for his death remains as elusive as much of his life. He was 73.

While some peers and organizations have acknowledged his contributions, others were reluctant to talk about Mr. McClendon. Several former colleagues did not return multiple phone messages left by the St. Petersburg Times. Others spoke only briefly.

"I can’t say anything," said Mary Perry, who knew Mr. McClendon and his former wife, Mary Alice, through their fundraising for the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts.

Mr. McClendon’s family also declined to comment.

"My mother and I feel we have achieved closure," said William McClendon, his son, who lives in Annapolis, Md.

Such silence might have pleased Mr. McClendon, a man with a military background who avoided publicity and implied that he had served in the CIA.

"He once told me, ‘Once you are in the CIA, you are forever in the CIA,’" said retired municipal bond magnate William Hough, who sat on the Palladium Theater and Dali Museum boards with Mr. McClendon. "They have certain secrets."

One of those secrets: At the time of his death, Mr. McClendon appears to have been in financial trouble. He had been sued by multiple creditors, including an art gallery that alleged he had not paid the $3.7 million balance on an impressionist painting.

In February, he was hit with an uncontested $283,000 judgment in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, brought by Shabahang Persian Carpets in Palm Beach.

There are at least two more open lawsuits against him in Marion County, his home since 2009, alleging indebtedness.

There were other signs of trouble. At least two arts organizations say Mr. McClendon - who sold his spy technology company in 2007 for $66 million - promised them large gifts, but never fulfilled his pledges.

How does a man - in the space of three years - go from being a generous multimillionaire to an absentee benefactor who leaves arts organizations in the lurch?

No one seems to know.

Mr. McClendon arrived on the local arts scene in the early 2000s and quickly made an impression.

"He was a successful businessman, and he had the personality to go along with being a successful businessman," said arts patron Dar Webb. "He was confident, he went straight to the point and didn’t fool around."

While some might want their gifts to be memorialized, Mr. McClendon was different.

"He really insisted that we not talk about his gifts in an identified way," said Jim Gillespie, a former chairman and current vice chairman of the Florida Orchestra. "I never asked him why."

But people knew his name. In 2007, he underwrote the Sarasota Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly. A year later, he brought the Cleveland Orchestra and the violinist Midori to the Mahaffey.

He donated 19th century French paintings to the Museum of Fine Arts, as well as the museum’s only painting by Andrew Wyeth.

As a donor, Mr. McClendon could be assertive. He encouraged Mark Sforzini, then a bassoonist with the Florida Orchestra, to leave the orchestra for St. Petersburg Opera.

He told Mark what operas he wanted Mark to do," said Nancy Preis, the opera’s chief financial officer.

Mr. McClendon discouraged the opera from seeking other donors, Preis said - advice that nearly proved disastrous when promised funds failed to appear.

"He stopped writing checks," Preis said. The company made up for the shortfall on its own for the 2009 production of The Merry Widow. Mr. McClendon withdrew his support and resigned as president of the opera’s board, Preis said.

An unfulfilled pledge to the Sarasota Opera Company also caused ripples of concern.

"We have never had so large a gift," said Susan Danis, the opera’s executive director, who described a pledge by Mr. McClendon as "in the seven figures, and not at the bottom."

"And we have never had someone squelch on that much money," Danis said.

Born in Healdton, Okla., Mr. McClendon served for 11 years in the Air Force and three years in the reserves, mustering out as a captain in 1971. He trained as a navigator, then as a data and systems analyst, which gave him skills and contacts he drew on later when he founded defense and intelligence contracting businesses in the Washington, D.C., area.

One venture, McClendon Automation Corp., went belly up. McClendon and his wife went through bankruptcy in 1996, keeping a Tierra Verde condo but not much else. Then they rebuilt McClendon Corp., which offered top-secret technical assistance to clients like the CIA and National Security Agency.

Corporate documents list geospatial imaging, which spy satellites employ, as one area of expertise. The company sold for $66 million to L-1 Identity Solutions in 2007, according to merger announcements.

In 2007, the McClendons bought a $4.2 million painting in New York from the London-based Richard Green (Fine Paintings), putting down a $500,000 deposit. The gallery is suing Mr. McClendon’s estate for the unpaid balance.

Mary Alice McClendon divorced her husband in 2009. Mr. McClendon moved to Reddick, an Ocala suburb.

On July 19, authorities say, Mr. McClendon drove an electric scooter across U.S. 27 directly in the path of two vehicles. One managed to avoid him, the other didn’t. Mr. McClendon was pronounced dead at West Marion Hospital.

Authorities don’t know why Mr. McClendon ignored a traffic signal and went into the street. An investigation could take weeks.

Times staff writer Stephen Nohlgren and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.