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Tampa philanthropist David Straz Jr. dead at 77

The former mayoral candidate who lost to Tampa Mayor Jane Castor earlier this year, died Monday while on a fishing trip in Homosassa. His name, and legacy, are integral to Tampa.
Philanthropist David Straz Jr. and his wife Catherine celebrate in March after he advanced into the Tampa mayoral run-off election. Mr. Straz has died at the age of 77.
Philanthropist David Straz Jr. and his wife Catherine celebrate in March after he advanced into the Tampa mayoral run-off election. Mr. Straz has died at the age of 77. [ TAILYR IRVINE | Times ]
Published Nov. 18, 2019
Updated Nov. 19, 2019

TAMPA — David A. Straz Jr. was already a millionaire when he moved from Wisconsin to Tampa in 1980. Then he spent the next four decades building an even greater fortune — one he shared with his new neighbors.

He spent four decades contributing to philanthropic and artistic efforts across the Tampa Bay region. His name is writ large across the city: The David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, David A. Straz Jr. Hall at the University of Tampa and the David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center at ZooTampa at Lowry Park.

The 77-year-old philanthropist and recent mayoral candidate was found dead Monday near Homosassa, about an 80-minute drive north of Tampa. He was on a fishing trip with close friends when he was discovered early in the morning, said his spokesman Jarrod Holbrook.

Mr. Straz took on an even greater profile when he ran for mayor of Tampa. This spring, he finished second to Mayor Jane Castor. He described himself as a businessman who would help East Tampa and other neighborhoods neglected by previous mayors. He said he knew how to run a business and could make the city more efficient.

He spent millions on the race, including carpeting television with ads showing his smiling face and often holding a broom.

The broom harkened back to his beginnings as a country banker, where he swept the floors himself. He also used it as a symbol of cleaning up what he called waste and fraud at City Hall.

“I love our city," Mr. Straz told the Tampa Bay Times when he entered the mayor’s race in 2018. "And I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to give back to our city financially and culturally over the last few years as a result of my business success. And now I feel a calling to give back talent, leadership and vision to move Tampa forward.”

Castor said the city owed a great deal to the genial banker.

“I’m saddened to hear about the passing of Mr. Straz,” the mayor said in a statement. “David’s indelible contributions to this city will be a part of our cultural fabric for decades to come. My heart goes out to the entire family during this very difficult time.”

Before his foray into politics, Straz had made a name for himself through his charitable works, including donating tens of millions to the city’s performing arts center on the banks of the Hillsborough River in 2009. It was then renamed in his honor.

Performing arts center president and CEO Judy Lisi said Mr. Straz’s impact on the arts will reverberate for years to come.

“David’s commitment to and love of the performing arts and of this community was beyond compare and we cannot thank him enough for the impact he has made on the lives of so many," she said in a statement. “His philanthropic legacy will continue to live on our stages and inspire the hearts and minds of us all.”

His charitable foundation continued to support the Straz Center for the Performing Arts and several other institutions, including Tampa General Hospital, where he served on the board. He made news there in 2016 when, after 20 years serving on the board, he resigned after his fellow board members voted to start paying themselves.

Philanthropist David Straz Jr. celebrates in March after he advanced into the Tampa mayoral run-off election. Mr. Straz has died at the age of 77.
Philanthropist David Straz Jr. celebrates in March after he advanced into the Tampa mayoral run-off election. Mr. Straz has died at the age of 77.

He was a director at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, another institution to which he gave generously. He also supported charitable and educational programs in Liberia and Honduras, for which he became honorary ambassador and consul general, respectively.

Mr. Straz also gave generously to his native Wisconsin, to churches, colleges and his alma mater of Marquette University, which named its college of business after him.

He also used his time, money and influence to improve relations with Cuba, traveling to the island nation several times and supporting efforts to foster cultural exchanges and build business ties with Tampa.

He had never run for office before throwing his hat into the ring in 2018. He vowed to spend whatever it took to win. He spent at least $5 million — shattering previous records for spending in a Tampa mayoral race — hiring a huge campaign staff and dominating TV and radio to make the runoff against Castor out of a field of seven candidates.

Castor, a former Tampa police chief, proved too strong an opponent, besting him with 73 percent of the vote on April 23. At times, the Straz campaign grew negative and conspiratorial as he tried to close the gap with Castor.

But one fellow candidate, former county commissioner Ed Turanchik, said Mr. Straz was earnest in his desire to reform Tampa politics.

“I hardly knew David Straz before the campaign," Turanchik said in a text. “I came to know him to be a big hearted generous person with a genuine passion for honest, good government. My whole family is crestfallen about his passing.”

Mr. Straz was born Oct. 10, 1942 in Milwaukee. He moved to Florida in 1980 after selling his chain of Wisconsin banks. Once in Tampa Bay, he started a second banking chain in Florida, then sold it in 1994 for tens of millions more.

He married Catherine Lowry in 1986. They had met at First Florida Bank where she worked. They had one child, Keebler, currently a law student at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

David Straz Jr. and wife Catherine celebrate their daughter Keebler's debut, center, at the 2015 Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla King's Debutante Ball at the Hilton Downtown Tampa.
David Straz Jr. and wife Catherine celebrate their daughter Keebler's debut, center, at the 2015 Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla King's Debutante Ball at the Hilton Downtown Tampa. [ SCHERZER,AMY | Times ]

They made their home in Beach Park in an art-stuffed mansion that included works by Oscar-Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. The Strazs frequently opened their home to charity events, where guests could view at least part of the couple’s $172-million collection of fine art. He was worth $426 million, according to his campaign finance reports.

The Straz family has asked for privacy and declined to comment Monday. No details about funeral arrangements or a memorial have been released.

Former Tampa City Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin said Mr. Straz’s ultimate legacy will be his spirit of giving.

“His generosity. That’s what I’ll remember him for,” said Capin, who was a key part of his mayoral campaign. She said Mr. Straz was always willing to give money to the city, including the police department, to help underserved children.

Said Capin: “Anytime they needed any money for anything, he was there.”

Times Staff writer Christopher O’Donnell contributed to this report.

The David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Tampa.
The David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Tampa. [ Tampa Bay Times ]