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Philanthropist Ray Murray, who gave millions to Tampa Bay causes, dies at 85

Known for his affable nature, Ray Murray, left, with wife Nancy Murray, was one of the most prolific benefactors in Tampa Bay.
Published Dec. 9, 2014

When Ray Murray and his wife walked into an arts event in Tampa Bay — or any event, really — he smiled and called everyone by name, hugging and kissing his way through the room.

His warm personality, moral compass and professional connections made Mr. Murray one of the most prolific benefactors to the Tampa Bay community. The former chairman of the Florida Orchestra died Sunday after a battle with cancer, according to his colleagues. He was 85.

In philanthropy that spanned decades, Murray and his wife, Nancy, donated millions to groups including Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Pinellas Youth Symphony, the Tampa Bay Research Institute, the Florida Holocaust Museum and the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, plus more causes for students, abused women and people with substance abuse problems.

His name adorns the Murray Studio Theater at Ruth Eckerd Hall, a small performance space currently getting a major renovation. He was involved with the project until the end, said Ruth Eckerd Hall CEO Zev Buffman, never relaxing attention to details.

"It was never the case of writing a check because he had agreed to help," Buffman said. "He was involved. He wanted to see actual plans, color samples, He wanted to see details as if he owned that building. But he never had any illusions about owning it."

Mr. Murray grew up in Tampa before moving to Clearwater with his wife. He had a knack for mechanics and founded Murray Boat Trailers in 1951. After selling that, he went on to buy and sell a wide array of businesses, building his fortune.

"I never bought a company that was in good shape," he told the Times in 1998. "I always bought one that was in trouble and got in there and switched people around. It always boils down to people, and I'm a people person."

Mr. Murray was board chairman of the Florida Orchestra from 1998 to 2001 and was still considered a vital influence. He and Mrs. Murray first attended a concert in the early 1990s, a time when the orchestra needed help crawling out of debt.

"I think what caught my eye was the volunteer work," he told the Times. "This intrigued me that here were these people working and really giving their hearts as volunteers. Then one night my wife sat me down on the sofa and said, 'Honey, you fix companies. Why don't you help fix the orchestra?' "

In his first year as chairman, the orchestra raised $3 million and began healing. Mr. Murray helped draw in more modest annual donors, which he felt were equally important as million dollar saviors.

"Ray was a person who transformed this organization, and he did so by consistently following the highest of ideals," said Michael Pastreich, president and CEO of the Florida Orchestra.

Mr. Murray and his wife still attended orchestra concerts, Pastreich said, feeling fortunate to have lived to see the turnaround.

For as well-known as he was, he also operated quietly.

When he and his wife read about cuts to a Wimauma after-school bus route, they gave $30,000 to help buy a new bus. He helped get people with drug addictions into rehab. And every year, he and Mrs. Murray played Secret Santa to the orchestra's musicians — though it wasn't much of a secret.

"We got a bunch of envelopes from 'Santa and his lady,' " Pastreich said. "He wanted to help the musicians out around the holidays."

Mr. Murray had several religions in life, he once told the Times, but described himself as a "child of God." Buffman had known Mr. Murray for three years, but their relationship intensified recently. They talked often about spiritual matters, and Mr. Murray tried to help Buffman believe as strongly as he did.

"He is very comfortable where he is right now," Buffman said. "He was a lesson to me personally about faith, about God and about believing."

Mr. Murray liked to hand out a picture of Jesus his mother had drawn in 1940. Buffman stared at the picture Monday. He flipped it over and read from the back. Mr. Murray wrote about accepting Jesus into his heart. He included Bible verses and a message:

If you don't believe that Jesus Christ is who he said he was, you'd better be right. Your friend, Ray Murray.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.

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