Tampa’s cultural and educational institutions have blossomed, but the needs of its social welfare charities also have grown. From museums to universities to shelters, all of these places share one commonality: They benefit from local philanthropy.
Visit enough of Tampa’s nonprofits and you will see some repetition in the names of the foundations supporting them: Conn, Falk, Saunders and Duckwall. These families created the first local foundations to bolster the region’s welfare, educational, cultural and spiritual institutions. So who are they? Among them you will find an interesting mix of talents and passions with one goal: to make Tampa better.
Fred & Edith Conn
Tampa’s oldest family-created foundation is The Conn Memorial Foundation, founded by Fred and Edith Conn in 1954. Although they never had children, their foundation always focused on youth and family charities.
Fred Conn was born in 1881 in Russellville, Ohio. He followed his father into the lumber industry, but he was involved in, and invested in, a variety of enterprises. He moved to Tampa in 1928 and operated his businesses from downtown’s Wallace S. Building, eventually adding investment specialist to his job titles. In 1953, the Tampa Civitan Club named Conn Outstanding Citizen of the Year.
The Conn Foundation has donated millions of dollars to hundreds of charities in Tampa and throughout the country. The Conns were early donors to the Boys Club (now the Boys and Girls Club), the University of Tampa (UT) and the American Red Cross. The couple and their foundation’s successors worked tirelessly to make sure their recipients have the know-how and abilities to successfully manage their institutions. Fiscal responsibility and resourcefulness were important for the Conns; thus, those traits are sought in grant recipients. With the couple’s legacy in mind, almost $35 million in assets to manage and hundreds of grant applications yearly, the foundation could hardly operate any other way.
David & Mary Irene Falk
Following in the Conns’ footsteps, David and Mary Irene Falk created their foundation to further philanthropic efforts in Tampa. Although there’s no definitive date of establishment, an article announcing the purchase of the Park Theater (soon to be renamed the Falk Theater) in 1961 said the foundation had been around “for a number of years.” The $35,000 spent on the theater on behalf of UT was among the largest gifts given to the school at that time.
Unlike the Conns, the Falks were born in Tampa to prominent families. David was the son of Offin Falk, O. Falk’s Department Store owner. David took over the business and added several others to the family portfolio. Mary Irene’s Tampa connections ran even deeper, as she was born into the pioneer McKay family. The two held business and social connections that opened opportunities, but also came with civic responsibilities.
David passed away in 1960, but his wife and brother-in-law kept his legacy alive through the Falk-Mandel Foundation. Likely established during David’s lifetime, the foundation received a large gift ($50,000 – worth nearly $500,000 today) from Falk’s estate after his passing. UT continued to be the main recipient of the Falks’ donations. They also issued grants to the Tampa Kiwanis Club scholarship fund and other education-based charities.
Over time, the foundation’s name changed to the David A. and Mary Irene Falk Foundation. The Falks never had children, so family and friends continued their legacy following Mary’s death in 1995. In 1997, the foundation folded its assets into the Community Foundation, an umbrella organization founded in Tampa in 1990 to encourage local philanthropy; the David A. and Mary Irene Memorial Fund still provides grant funding for important causes around the city.
William & Ruby Lee Saunders
Like the Conns and Falks, William and Ruby Lee Saunders never had children but hoped their foundation would support youth in Tampa (and in the Saunders’ native Virginia). They incorporated their foundation three days after Christmas 1956.
The Saunders were born near Roanoke, Virginia – him in 1881 and her in 1896. William got an early start in the investment securities and small loan business, moving between Richmond, Norfolk, and Roanoke as opportunities arose. In late 1926 or early 1927, William moved to Florida – first to Ocala and by 1929 to Tampa. Ruby Lee taught school in Virginia before moving to North Carolina, and then Montgomery, Alabama, where she worked for the Farm Security Administration.
William expanded his companies during the 1930s and early 1940s and Ruby Lee made her way to Florida. In 1946, they were married and she became his business partner.
Although they confined their charitable giving while alive to their college alma maters and a few Tampa organizations, their foundation was the primary beneficiary of their estate upon their deaths. The Saunders Foundation has given more than $24 million to over 250 institutions, mostly in the Tampa Bay area.
Frank Edward Duckwall
The only bachelor and non-businessperson of the group is Frank Edward Duckwall, a physicist and founder of the Frank E. Duckwall Foundation. He worked in the optics industry in Indianapolis, creating new ways to make optical lenses for eyeglasses and obtaining a U. S. patent for one of his designs.
Duckwall moved to Florida around 1970 to run an optical company. Although not trained in business, he grew his fortune by investing. Desiring to help those in need, Duckwall created his foundation in 1983. Starting small, he eventually made larger donations, including $5,000 in the 1980s to help the Tampa Museum of Art acquire Joseph Noble’s antiquities collection.
The Duckwall Foundation received around $8.5 million when Frank passed away in 1993, vastly enhancing the foundation’s ability to award grants to worthy causes. Those grants have now totaled over $15 million benefiting more than 300 charities in all six Tampa Bay counties. The foundation focuses its grants on projects that have permanence and will benefit many people over an extended period of time.
Tampa’s philanthropic community has never been bigger than it is today. In addition to the older foundations covered here, which all now are considered independent foundations, several other families and family foundations have donated vast amounts of time and money to local nonprofits. The Ferman, Corbett, Lykes, Straz and Touchton families, plus the Dorothy Thomas Foundation, Lowry Murphy Foundation and Vinik Family Foundation, have helped to create, cultivate and grow dozens of area cultural and charitable organizations. They and many others certainly helped make Tampa a better place.