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Dwayne Hawkins, Crown Automotive founder and philanthropist, dead at 85

While expanding the St. Petersburg business across three states, he shared his time and money with nonprofit organizations across Tampa Bay
Crown Automotive chief executive Dwayne Hawkins, pictured here in August 2019, started out in the tire business and got hooked by cars after making his first sale. He died Christmas Eve at 85.
Crown Automotive chief executive Dwayne Hawkins, pictured here in August 2019, started out in the tire business and got hooked by cars after making his first sale. He died Christmas Eve at 85.
Published Dec. 30, 2020
Updated Dec. 30, 2020

It was never the cars that fueled Dwayne Hawkins’ drive for success.

In fact, his sons say their father — founder and CEO of Crown Automotive Group, one of the largest automobile dealerships in the southeast — wasn’t really much of a gearhead. He favored station wagons over muscle cars.

“We had a Pontiac Safari handle-side wagon we rode around in, which is borderline child abuse,” quipped his son Kevin. “I don’t remember ever seeing a GTO in the driveway. But it wasn’t about the cars. He wanted to accomplish something.”

In his 85 years, Mr. Hawkins racked up accomplishments. The self-effacing, humble, generous patriarch of the Hawkins family died of natural causes on Christmas Eve. What he leaves behind, his family said, is a legacy of love — for hard work, making the most of his time, and helping others find their road to success.

Mr. Hawkins built St. Petersburg-based Crown Automotive Group from the ground up, into 21 auto dealerships across Florida, Ohio and Tennessee. During his 52 years in business, and while watching his four children achieve their own success, Mr. Hawkins kept working and giving back.

He was inducted in March into the Tampa Business Hall of Fame and was honored by the Tampa Bay Lightning during a January game as the hockey franchise’s 24th Community Hero of the season. The recognition came with a $50,000 donation that Mr. Hawkins passed on to the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, Florida Dream Center, Starting Right, Now, and Christian Home & Bible School.

Mr. Hawkins was a longtime member of the board of directors for both the Pinellas Education Foundation and the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. He funded 15 Take Stock in Children college scholarships and through his dealership, paid for seven Habitat for Humanity homes in the St. Petersburg area.

Crown Automotive has been a sponsor for 12 years of Finance Park, an interactive learning village that helps thousands of Pinellas County middle school students each year learn the importance of good financial health. The dealership has also packaged more than 200,000 meals from its showrooms for the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, Florida Dream Center and the Pinellas County School District.

Mr. Hawkins spent eight years on the board of the Moffitt Cancer Center Foundation, establishing the $600,000 Hawkins Stem Cell Endowed Chair in 2012.

His lifelong love, his family said, has always been philanthropy. Perhaps that’s because his keen memory never allowed him to forget his humble beginnings.

“He was the embodiment of the American Dream,” Kevin Hawkins said.

One of three brothers, Mr. Hawkins grew up poor in a small farming community outside of Birmingham, Ala. He got his first taste of the automotive industry while working for Goodyear Tire and Rubber and became a tire dealer before leaving the business behind when his National Guard unit was called up to serve in Germany during the Cold War’s Berlin Crisis of 1961.

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When he came back to the states, he was ready for a change. When he was offered a job as a salesman at Doug Wiley Pontiac in Birmingham, he jumped at the opportunity.

He sold a car his first day on the job, Mr. Hawkins told the Tampa Bay Times in 2014. It was a 1962 Pontiac Catalina that went for about $2,800 and his commission was around $125 commission. He was hooked, not by cars but by people — and the joy of putting on a new suit, laughing with new friends, making someone smile.

His business philosophy was simple, he said: “Don’t just be in the business of taking their money and not giving back.”

Dwayne Hawkins

Born: Nov. 6, 1935

Died: Dec. 24, 2020

Preceded in death by wife, JoAnne Pheil-Hawkins, who passed away in 2016 at 73. Survived by four children — Kerry, Kenny, Kevin, and Karla — and by a number of grandchildren.

Services pending