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David Straz Jr.: A tycoon who could surprise you

Straz was well-known for making transformational donations to the arts and education. He could also show an unexpectedly common touch.
David Straz Jr. [ JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times (2018)]
David Straz Jr. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2018)]
Published Nov. 23, 2019

TAMPA — Tampa’s high society was stunned this week when news broke that banker and philanthropist David A. Straz Jr. had died unexpectedly.

But so were the employees at the Burger King nearest to his South Tampa home.

“No,” a cashier told manager Ana Moreno the morning after Straz died at age 77. "You’re lying.”

Straz was an early-morning regular, and he would take a seat with a view of rush-hour traffic on W Kennedy Boulevard. He was friendly, wished everyone “Merry Christmas” in season and consistently ordered the same, slightly idiosyncratic breakfast: side of ham, side of eggs and coffee.

“If you ever got his total wrong, he would say, ‘No, it’s supposed to be $2.71,’ " Moreno said. “But he was nice. We’re all kind of hurt. I was so sad that he died.”

RELATED: Tampa philanthropist David Straz Jr. dead at 77

Straz made a career building and selling banks, and he amassed a fortune worth more than $400 million by the time he ran for mayor earlier this year. His private art collection included paintings by Impressionist masters and has been valued at $172 million — more than the $168.5 million it cost to build Raymond James Stadium. He owned five homes, two in the Tampa Bay area, and for a final resting place built a $1.1 million mausoleum at Myrtle Hill Memorial Park.

At times, however, Straz played against type. An elegant dresser, he was nonetheless known to take some meetings at his charitable foundation in shorts and a T-shirt. When he ran for mayor, he liked to talk up endorsements he won from the iron workers and nearly 20 other labor unions.

RELATED: David A. Straz Jr. gave a lot to charity. Here’s just how much.

You might think that seeing David Straz’s name on the performing arts center, a dorm at the University of Tampa and the manatee rescue center at ZooTampa would tell you what you needed to know about the man and his ego.

But Straz could surprise you.

• • •

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Straz squared off this spring in what turned out to be a hard-fought mayor’s race.

Straz typically was soft-spoken and reasonable, but campaigning put him in settings where people pushed back. Campaign debates came with interruptions from competitors, moderators and the crowd. More than his opponents, Straz would raise his voice a notch to say he wanted to finish his thought.

On April 11, philanthropist David Straz, left, and former police chief Jane Castor, right, debated each other in an hour-long debate televised by Spectrum Bay News 9 and held at the Tampa Theatre. (Times)

By the time the race was over, Straz’s campaign spent about $5 million, nearly all of it from his own pocket, to flood television and social media with undocumented claims about corruption at City Hall and attacks on Castor’s record as police chief.

RELATED: Jane Castor wins big in Tampa mayor’s race

That’s a long way from where Straz and Castor started.

In 2011, "we were doing a gun buy-back,” Castor said. From the parking lot of the Seminole Heights Baptist Church, police were paying $50 cash for every gun the public turned in and soon were running out of money — a dilemma that made the news.

“He called me on my cell phone and said, ‘This is David Straz. Whatever amount of money you need, I’ll write you a check right now for $10,000. And if you need more, let me know,' " said Castor, who took the money post haste. "That was my first conversation with him. I don’t even know where he got my cell phone number.”

• • •

Jack Barrett met Straz in 1994 at Southern Exchange Bank in Tampa. Straz was chairman of the board. Barrett was a senior lender. Soon after he got there he noticed something odd in the bank’s portfolio:

Loans to soybean farmers in Wisconsin.

Jack Barrett, president and chief executive officer at First Citrus Bank. (Courtesy of First Citrus Bank) [First Citrus Bank.]

“How did these get there?” Barrett wondered. He came to learn that the farmers had done business at a bank Straz once owned in Wisconsin, where he lived before moving to Florida. After he sold it, the new owner didn’t want their business, so they turned to the banker they knew. Straz said yes, even though soybean farms in the Midwest would be the last thing you’d expect to find on the books of a small Tampa bank.

“These were honorable, good people,” said Barrett, now the president and chief executive officer of First Citrus Bank in Tampa, “but they weren’t easy, no-brainer loans.” By agreeing to move their loans to Southern Exchange, Straz “didn’t have anything to gain, and he had a lot to lose.”

RELATED: David Straz died of natural causes, leaving charity worth $72 million

Twenty-five years later, when Barrett introduced Straz at his election-watch party on the night Straz would lose the mayor’s race, he talked about how someone comes to take a risk like that.

“When he feels an injustice, senses an inequity, he will come out of the bleachers, put on his helmet, buckle his chinstrap and take the path of maximum resistance,” Barrett said. “Who does that and why? The answer is David Straz, because class never runs scared.”

• • •

Another thing about Straz, Barrett said, was his low-key sense of humor.

Once, a disgruntled shareholder spent much of a board meeting making demands about changes he wanted at Southern Exchange. Straz listened patiently at the end of the boardroom table, thanked him and said, “I think we might have to put that to a shareholder vote.”

That ended the debate, because Straz owned more than 90 percent of the shares.

Another time, a visiting businessman invited Straz for a night out.

“Let me call Catherine,” Straz said. “I have to check with her first.”

Really? the guy asked.

“Only if I want to stay married.”

• • •

Dr. John Sinnott knew Straz well from Tampa General Hospital, where Sinnott has held a wide range of medical and leadership positions. Straz served on the hospital’s governing board, including as its chairman.

Straz was well-read with wide-ranging interests. He was a pilot. He could talk authoritatively about Cuba, where he worked for decades to develop cultural exchanges, or Liberia, where he made a couple of trips a year, had many friends in government and small business, and paid to renovate two colleges.

David Straz Jr. welcomed Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to Tampa International Jet Center in November 2007 not long after then-President George Bush presented her the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House. Sirleaf arrived with Straz, honorary consul to Liberia, and visited with his family while his jet was fueled for the flight on to Monrovia. [TIMES (2007)]

But “he never got into discussions unless he knew what he was talking about,” Sinnott said. Once, when doctors were discussing ways to reduce mortality at the hospital, Straz declined to weigh in.

“I have to rely on my experts for advice, and that’s you," Sinnott recalled Straz telling the group. “You need to tell me what’s best for our patients.”

• • •

Straz, of course, could dine anywhere he wanted, at Bern’s storied steakhouse or any of-the-moment restaurant. But a couple of times a month, what he wanted was the Press Box, a low-slung sports bar on S Dale Mabry with pool tables, video games, framed sports memorabilia and TVs showing games over the bar.

For 15 or 20 years, he came in, sometimes with his wife, for drinks or dinner.

“A regular customer,” Press Box owner Walter Hill said, who would chat with anyone. He could talk sports, but also Tampa history and what he thought the future of the city could be. He liked the chicken wings, though his favorite was the sloppy joe.

Walter Hill of the Press Box. (Times | 2006) [JULIE BUSCH | Tampa Bay Times]

“He made comments that a good sloppy joe is hard to find, and that some places don’t even serve them anymore,” Hill said.

RELATED: An outpouring of gratitude for Tampa philanthropist David Straz

Hill, 56, had known Straz, a longtime friend of his family’s, since Hill was a Boy Scout in Troop 22. Straz did a lot for the scouts behind the scenes, Hill said. One time, someone broke into a trailer belonging to another troop and stole or vandalized the equipment just before a camping trip. Straz quietly replaced the items so they could make the trip.

“He did a lot for the community that he didn’t need his name on.”

• • •

Despite his wealth, Straz didn’t fritter money away, no matter how minor the expense.

One time, former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and Straz were in Aspen, Colo., during a snowstorm.

“We got out of our car, and we had to walk a block or two to get to the hotel where we were having lunch,” Greco said. “It was very cold, and I was in a hurry. I looked at him. He’s not moving.”

The reason?

“He was trying to figure out how long we would be gone to the minute,” Greco said. "He didn’t want to overpay the meter.”

Times staff writers Charlie Frago and Paul Guzzo contributed to this report.

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