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One odd duck

A mediocre student who became president of St. Petersburg College, Carl Kuttler does one heck of a Donald Duck. Roll your eyes - a lot of people do. But he gets things done.

By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 24, 2002

[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
When not attending to his duties as president of St. Petersburg College, Carl Kuttler lets loose with his sense of humor. He’s partial to Donald Duck impersonations.

ST. PETERSBURG -- The first line of a story about Carl Kuttler is straightforward: He is a community college president, for 24 years the head of St. Petersburg College.

But where to go from there?

That he's a legendary cheapskate? So much so that he takes foreign dignitaries expecting to be wined and dined to the buffet at Buddy Freddy's?

Or do you start with how this penny-pincher plans to turn down more than a half-million dollars in retirement to stay on the job?

There's the religious element -- he says he ran for statewide office because God told him to -- and the duck element. He is Donald Duck's alter ego. Really.

He owns a Donald Duck suit and breaks into his impersonation for strangers, the best Donald Duck you've ever heard.

Do you start with him taking on an array of projects completely out of character for a community college president, such as brokering a deal to bring Russian artifacts to the struggling Florida International Museum? His friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't hurt.

Or combine them all and end up with what Carl Kuttler is: A community college president who is more than a little nutty, a tilter at windmills who comes up with far-fetched ideas -- and amazingly enough, manages to pull them off almost every time.

The U-Haul gallery

Tarpon Springs artist Allen Leepa was giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars of art his family collected for years.

He offered the donation to a government agency but never heard back. Then he called St. Petersburg Junior College. Kuttler had lunch with him the next day.

A big hurdle was getting the art here from New York. Kuttler and his son, Carl III, flew there one fall weekend and rented the biggest U-Haul they could find. They loaded hundreds of paintings, frames and sculptures stored in a basement in Greenwich Village, and when the truck filled up, they added a trailer. They loaded it with easels and artwork from a Long Island studio, including pieces by Chagall and Picasso.

Kuttler flew home. His son headed south in the U-Haul. They stashed the art in locations across Pinellas County until Kuttler could build a home for the collection, using more than $2-million donated by Leepa and his wife, Isabelle.

The Leepa/Rattner Museum of Fine Arts opened in January at the SPC Tarpon Springs campus.

So what if the job description for community college president doesn't include hauling valuable art. Somebody needed to do it.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "It's one of those stories that will go down in higher education history."

President Duck

Kuttler was 10 when he heard a neighborhood kid imitate Donald Duck. He wanted to do it too, so he locked himself in his bedroom and worked at it for hours on end, driving his mom crazy.

Fifty years later, he breaks into Donald Duck at parties, restaurants, baseball games.

In Syria, dozens of boys and girls on the street didn't speak English, but they knew Donald Duck. In Russia, President Putin's kids climbed on his lap when he turned into Donald Duck.

Kuttler's 2-year-old grandson, Sean, calls him "Pop Duck."

"It's just so much fun bringing joy to kids," Kuttler said. "Every adult has a kid in them."

Donald Duck will sing happy birthday to one of his employees if he's in the right mood. And he's always in the right mood.

Kuttler is goofy, and he knows it. He laughs about it along with everyone else.

"He's quirky and eccentric," said David Armstrong, state chancellor for the community colleges. "But some of the best leaders in any organization are that way."

Not college material

Kuttler earned B's and C's at St. Petersburg High School, where a guidance counselor informed him he was not college material. He had a job waiting at his uncle's meat supply business, but his father, a pastry chef from Germany, convinced him to give school a try.

Kuttler enrolled at St. Petersburg Junior College. He was elected president of the freshman class and then of the student body.

After graduation, he worked as an administrator there, a place he says "puts arms and legs on people's dreams."

The college did not exactly welcome him into the president's office. In April 1978, when the board of trustees voted 3-2 to appoint him, students and faculty reacted by withholding applause.

They worried he cared more about politics than academics, that he wouldn't make changes, that his excitable personality wasn't what they needed in a president. They wanted their president to have a Ph.D. Kuttler has a law degree, though his employees call him Dr. Kuttler.

Complaints continued after he was hired. He didn't delegate. He didn't involve faculty in decisions. He was considered overbearing.

A faculty group formally scolded him in the 1980s for making remarks they said were meant to intimidate them from forming a union.

When a clerk accused one of his vice presidents of sexual harassment, Kuttler settled her lawsuit for $60,000 and transferred her to a job she refused to accept; then he fired her. He was criticized for the college's decision to offer a scholarship to a high school basketball star who had served three years for kidnapping. He took the defeat of a ballot initiative that would have provided millions of dollars for renovations as a personal failure.

But Kuttler steered the school through enormous growth, doubling student enrollment to 20,000. He acquired one of the largest-ever corporate gifts to a community college and created a police and firefighter academy. He hired the first woman and second black person to be college provosts.

Said Martha Campbell, former faculty senate president: "It's not impossible to fault someone with so much passion -- but it's difficult."

A cheap date

Kuttler sends a whopping 1,000 birthdays cards every year, to former bosses, employees and community leaders. That, he brags, is 20,000 cards in 20 years.

For those same two decades, Kuttler has sent a potted plant to every new university and community college president in Florida. Each year, he gives presents to legislators for their birthdays: ties for the men, and scarves, pins, or Kmart crystal for the women.

"If it weren't for my wife, Jean, or Carl Kuttler, I wouldn't have one good tie," said state St. Petersburg's Sen. Jim Sebesta, only half joking.

What they don't know is that Kuttler spends as little as possible on the gifts. He tells vendors at flea markets and even retailers at Dillard's that he is buying gifts for the community college and, remarkably, they cut him a break.

He didn't change the fraying, stained carpet in his office for 22 years, until his office flooded and he had to.

"We don't have the budgets the universities have," Kuttler said. "We have to do it on a shoestring budget."

His frugality extends off campus. He takes his wife, Evelyn, to restaurants that have discounts listed in his coupon book. Same for recreation. Sometimes, he takes her for a round of miniature golf.

"I try to roll with the punches," said Mrs. Kuttler, a lawyer in St. Petersburg, "but sometimes I say 'Look. I'm not going where you have coupons.' "

An avid world traveler who established ties with educators and politicians in Russia a dozen years ago, Kuttler earns $164,000 a year but prefers cheap hotels. His wife often won't travel with him, so he vacations with a friend who enjoys pinching pennies as much as he does.

Kuttler loves to spin a good story and has been telling the one about his flight on Air Force Two to London and Paris with U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young. That infuriates his critics who say he spends taxpayer money for things the college doesn't need.

Virginia Littrell, a St. Petersburg City Council member publicly called two of his projects a waste of money. She said he was so angry that he threatened to move into her district and run against her.

"He's a master of acquiring and spending vast amounts of taxpayers' money, and he's not even an elected official," she said. "This is a person who thinks he has an entitlement."

Kuttler, 62, thought he would be ready to retire next summer. He entered a state retirement program four years ago that will penalize him if he doesn't leave.

No matter. Kuttler said he's not ready to retire after all. That decision will cost him a cash payout of $527,000 next summer.

"I haven't sat there and calculated all that because that's not what drives you. I don't have a plan to retire now. I just don't."

And God said 'Run'

In 1974, with no experience in politics, Kuttler said God told him to run for office.

"I have experienced a tremendously real spiritual direction from God to enter the race for state commissioner of education," he wrote.

At the time, he complained that reporters mistakenly assumed he meant God would grant him victory. Democrat Ralph Turlington trounced Kuttler, by an almost 2-1 margin.

A Presbyterian, Kuttler has let his faith guide him through life.

He wrote columns for a local newspaper about life, relationships and prayer. He and his wife worked with other couples on their marriages, in a counseling setting with a religious backdrop. He sponsored workshops that brought together church and community college leaders.

In the 1980s, student leaders accused him of postponing a human sexuality course for more than two years because he had a moral dilemma.

Sallie Parks, a former Pinellas County commissioner who Kuttler hired as a lobbyist, said that Kuttler's Christian beliefs effect his work in a positive way. She said Kuttler hires people like himself, with high moral character, which helps keep the atmosphere free of cursing and inappropriate talk.

Kuttler said he takes Parks' comments as a compliment but said he couldn't hire like-minded people even if he wanted to. "What am I going to do, give them a test? I don't have a measuring stick."

He says faith is integral to who he is, but he keeps it apart from his work.

"It's important to me. It's also personal to me."

Jilted by Her Majesty

[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Kuttler took the J out of SPJC. The quirky president is known as much for his rich panoply of developments at SPC as he is for his thrifty -- some say tightwad -- ways off campus.

Kuttler is everywhere these days.

He expects to begin construction on a $28-million project with the county focusing on technology and business education. He is building a joint library with the city in west St. Petersburg. He hired state Sen. Don Sullivan of St. Petersburg, who helped push legislation to expand the college, and he offered to hire Pinellas administrator Rick Dodge after the county fired him.

"That's Carl," says University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft. "He has a new idea a minute."

People often roll their eyes when they hear Kuttler's latest proposal. A few years ago he helped organize the county's millennium celebration and invited Her Royal Highness the Queen of England. She didn't come. No worries. Kuttler expects a better response from Putin, whom he invited here for St. Petersburg's 100th anniversary.

"All you have to do is look at his campus, and you know he is for real," said former St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer, who accompanied Kuttler to Russia in 1993. "If he says we can get President Putin to come to St. Petersburg, you can't take it lightly."

Many of Kuttler's ideas are turning into reality after months, or even years of planning. Perhaps, most important, he is taking the junior out of the college.

St. Petersburg College, which dropped the word "junior" from its name last year, began offering four-year degrees this fall, an unprecedented step for a Florida community college. He wants to acquire space in downtown St. Petersburg, near the USF campus.

Faculty members there grumble that Kuttler won't quit his plans to expand programs and campuses until he takes over their university too.

"Somebody might step back and say that's the craziest idea in the world," said Richard Johnston, SPC Board of Trustees member and president of the Florida International Museum. "But there's nothing happening that doesn't serve students."

Even on his worst days, Kuttler said, he wants to get out of bed and go to work. After more than three decades, he can't imagine life without the college.

"I know I should play more," he says. "But I get to play at work. I am having a lot of fun."

The Kuttler file

Carl M. Kuttler Jr.

Age: 62

Hometown: St. Petersburg

Education: Associate in Arts degree from St. Petersburg Junior College, 1960; Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from Florida State University, 1962; and a law degree from Stetson University, 1967.

Salary: $164,000

Family: Wife, Evelyn Kuttler, a lawyer; daughters, Cindy, 36, and Erika, 30; son, Carl III, 34.

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