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Furniture chain co-founder Thelma Rothman planted numerous charities

ST. PETERSBURG — Nothing, it seemed, was going to slow Thelma Rothman down. The death of her husband, with whom she founded Kane's Furniture 66 years ago, only hardened her independence.

Her work on the boards of numerous charities, including several she created, never stopped.

Nor did her role change at the company, one of the largest furniture chains in Florida. Just last year, Mrs. Rothman visited all 18 outlets in the state. Employees knew she wasn't there to inspect anyone, only to say hello. Since establishing the first Kane's Furniture in downtown St. Petersburg, the business grew to Clearwater, then to New Port Richey and Tampa.

Charities benefiting sick and needy children also sprouted up apace. The Rothmans became known as one of the Tampa Bay area's most philanthropic couples, both within St. Petersburg's Jewish community and beyond.

Mrs. Rothman, a force of nature like the hundreds of orchids she cultivated, died Tuesday of cancer, her family said. She was 91.

Of the pair, Mrs. Rothman was more cautious than her husband, Maurice. When he wanted to charge ahead, she got him to take his time. Those complementary temperaments allowed them to take a series of calculated risks, most of which paid off. Kane's Furniture, which specialized in medium-priced inventory, prospered in a competitive market known for slim profit margins. The store, first at 733 Central Ave., helped legitimize a burgeoning downtown when it opened in 1948.

To have a store "of any size and reputation" downtown meant that the area was growing, said Sonya Miller, a friend of more than 60 years.

Maurice Rothman, who died in 1997, later said he picked the name Kane "out of thin air," the result of needing a short word to save money on a sign.

Born Thelma Pearlman in Asheville, N.C., in 1923, Mrs. Rothman grew up in her parents' furniture business. In 1943, while on a college spring break, she met Army soldier Maurice Rothman at a USO event and married him six months later.

They moved to St. Petersburg in 1948, the same year they established the first Kane's Furniture store. The store added locations without borrowing money, Mrs. Rothman's family said.

Mrs. Rothman told her three daughters to give back, and they all have. She led by example, chairing the boards of what is now All Children's Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine and its foundation. The Maurice A. and Thelma P. Rothman Chair of Developmental Pediatrics benefits the Children's Research Institute of the University of South Florida.

She donated to the Holocaust Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, and Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Family Services and with her husband launched a foundation to fund other local charities.

She rarely missed a concert of the Florida Orchestra, where she had sponsored two musicians and supported programs to nourish the next generation.

"Her dedication to the Florida Orchestra and our youth activity was virtually unparalleled," said Michael Pastreich, 48, the orchestra's president and CEO.

She befriended others doing the same kind of work. Kay Dillinger, 63, who is married to Public Defender Bob Dillinger and runs the Beth Dillinger Foundation, remembers Mrs. Rothman as a woman with an "understatedly sophisticated" style of dress and for the question she always asked: "How can I help?"

"When I think of Mrs. Rothman," Dillinger said, "a smile always comes to my face, and she makes me aspire to be a better person."

Researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Andrew Meacham at or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.