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A giant of generosity

JACK ECKERD - 1913-2004: He built his fortune with his ground-breaking drugstores, then tried his hand at politics, but found his biggest victory in his philanthropy.

Published May 20, 2004

Ruth and Jack Eckerd, in a 2003 photo.
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CLEARWATER - Jack M. Eckerd - drugstore entrepreneur, would-be politician and longtime philanthropist - died Wednesday (May 19, 2004) after a bout with pneumonia.

He was 91.

Best known for founding the drugstores that bear his name, Mr. Eckerd had spent the last four decades giving away much of his wealth to causes close to his heart.

He and his wife, Ruth, have supported St. Petersburg's Eckerd College, Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall and numerous charities in the Clearwater area.

But his biggest passion was helping troubled children. He called them "investments" and quietly set up wilderness camps and other rehabilitative programs that have helped more than 50,000 youths.

In the 1970s, he was a force in Republican politics, running twice for governor and once for U.S. Senate but never winning.

Five years ago, a stroke took away Mr. Eckerd's ability to speak. But dancing eyes, animated gestures and a ready smile allowed him to interact with those around him. He entered Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater about a week ago and died about 10 a.m. with Mrs. Eckerd and all seven of his children and stepchildren at his bedside.

"So many God-given things have happened," said his daughter, Nancy Eckerd Hart. The family's philanthropic foundation previously had scheduled its biannual meeting for Wednesday, so all of the children were in town.

At the end, "we really had some time with him," Hart said. "He was very aware."

As news of Mr. Eckerd's death spread around Florida, friends chimed in with praise.

"Today, Florida lost an icon, an advocate, and a fine and decent man," said Gov. Jeb Bush in a prepared statement. "Jack Eckerd was a man of vision and faith, who used both to transform his industry and the lives of thousands of children."

At its peak, Clearwater-based Jack Eckerd Corp. was the nation's second-largest drugstore chain and the Tampa Bay area's largest locally owned business. Sales hit $5-billion a year.

Mr. Eckerd sold his stock and resigned as the company's CEO in 1986. Ownership passed to the company's employees and other investors until 1997, when J.C. Penney Co. bought out the company.

Last month, after seven years of poor results, J.C. Penney sold 1,200 Eckerd stores to CVS Corp. and more than 1,500 others to the Jean Coutu Group from Canada. After five decades, the name Eckerd soon will disappear from Florida drugstores.

Working on a concept

Jack Eckerd bought three failing Tampa Bay area drugstores in 1952. He had learned the business by working with his father, J. Milton Eckerd, who owned drugstores in Pennsylvania and other parts of the Northeast.

The younger Eckerd wanted to experiment with self-service, a new concept that has since become standard. He retained pharmacists and cosmetics clerks as specialists who would wait on customers. Otherwise, customers were free to roam the aisles, pick out what they wanted and check out with a cashier.

He had expanded to five stores in 1959, when Publix Super Markets invited him to become a partner in a series of strip mall developments, propelling Eckerd Drugs into the big-time. By the time the Eckerd-Publix combination dissolved, he had opened 150 stores.

A risk taker, Mr. Eckerd and a few other merchants successfully defied Florida's "Fair Trade" laws, which let manufacturers enforce minimum retail prices. He desegregated store lunch counters in 1961, three years before the Civil Rights Act required it.

Mr. Eckerd personified the hard-driving businessman. He tried to visit every store and every employee at Christmastime, wandering through backrooms to check for overstocked inventory. He hauled vans full of receipts to his Belleair waterfront home, so he could check the addition long into the night. He demanded that managers work long hours while rewarding them with stock options.

He even kept a personal listing in the Clearwater phone book so customers could call him at home. His children called it "the nut line."

"When it was ringing, it would be somebody just furious that their Popeil Pocket Fisherman didn't work, or something like that," recalled Nancy Hart. "Dad expected you to handle it - take a message, take all the information and get back to the right person. If you answered that phone, you had to follow through on it."

Family support was a key ingredient to Mr. Eckerd's success. He had met Ruth Binnaker Swann on a blind date in 1957. He was divorced, with two children back in Delaware. She was a young widow from a socially prominent Tampa family who had three children of her own.

"He was a very unassuming man," Mrs. Eckerd said last year. "I asked him what business he was in and he said, "the drugstore business.' I envisioned that he was probably a pharmacist."

They married six weeks later and two more children followed.

The political arena

By 1970, Mr. Eckerd decided to run for governor. "He had proven he could take the drugstore business and build it," longtime associate Stewart Turley said. "He wanted to prove he could do that in some other arena."

So he took on incumbent Gov. Claude Kirk in a hard-fought Republican primary. Uncomfortable asking for political contributions, Mr. Eckerd financed his campaign with more than $1-million of his own money, an eye-popping sum in those days. Editorials and opponents suggested he was just a tycoon trying to buy public office.

Kirk beat him, but lost to Democrat Reubin Askew.

"I probably would have been re-elected if there hadn't been a primary fight, because we were just a little party, we had to have all the Republicans and some of the Democrats," Kirk said Wednesday. "Just out of the blue he ran, so fine . . . that's part of life."

His political appetite whetted, Eckerd won the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in 1974, then lost to Democrat Richard Stone. In 1978, Republicans pitted him against Bob Graham for governor, but it was not to be.

"While not ultimately successful in the political arena, he was successful in so many other ways," Askew said Wednesday. "He was a giant."

In Mr. Eckerd's era, the Democratic party dominated Florida politics. Curt Kiser, a former Republican senator from Pinellas County, remembered that Mr. Eckerd told party leaders during the 1978 campaign that, win or lose, he would help build the Republican Party.

"The ballots had hardly been counted when he started to live up to what he committed to," Kiser said Wednesday. Mr. Eckerd, Kiser and a few others formed a small group to recruit GOP candidates and prepare them for campaigning. Later, Mr. Eckerd served as director of the U.S. General Services Administration under President Gerald Ford. In 1981, his old foe Graham picked him to run a state program that taught job skills to inmates by creating prison businesses. "He was a great American, and for much of that life, he was a great Floridian," Graham said Wednesday. "As a candidate, he was always insightful, focused on the issues that make a difference to Florida families, and positive in his message. In spite of our competition - in fact, in many ways, because of that competition - Jack and I formed a friendship which lasted over 30 years."

Giving back

Done with business, done with politics, Mr. Eckerd turned full time to philanthropy, working out of a Clearwater office.

"It keeps the adrenaline flowing," the Wilmington, Del., native once said. "If you don't have problems, it isn't any fun. I never want to retire."

He and Mrs. Eckerd created the Eckerd Family Foundation with about $30-million. Family members research which projects they want to support, often looking to leverage Eckerd dollars with matching grants. Rather than just doling out interest, the foundation is designed to give away all the money within a decade.

Eckerd Youth Alternatives combines $35-million in Eckerd money with juvenile justice grants to rehabilitate thousands of at-risk children. Since 1968, the not-for-profit agency now run by the Eckerds' children has grown to 18 wilderness camps in seven states as well as early intervention and mentoring programs.

During the early days, the Eckerds would open their Belleair home at Christmas so campers and staffers could celebrate with dinner, presents and carols. During political campaigns, Mr. Eckerd's advisers noticed the photo-op potential of such scenes.

"We begged him to use those things more, but he felt strongly he didn't want to exploit those kids," said speechwriter H.E. "Buz" Rummel. "It was not a very good political position to take."

Mr. Eckerd's $10-million gift rescued then-Florida Presbyterian College from insolvency in 1971, said former president Billy O. Wireman. Wireman asked Eckerd to lend his name to the college, hoping that a conservative businessman's image might attract more supporters. Over the years, the Eckerds gave other gifts totaling at least $10-million more.

"He really understood that when people are fortunate and had been given a lot, that they should reinvest that in the ongoing society," Wireman said Wednesday. "You don't hear that much anymore."

Mr. Eckerd's mother died suddenly when he was 10. His father sent him to Culver Military Academy to toughen him up. In World War II, Mr. Eckerd logged 2,000 hours flying time piloting bombers.

He was a passionate sailor, winning the Nassau Cup trophy in 1967 aboard his 52-foot yawl Panacea. He was also a deeply religious man who believed that God acted in his life. He was a member of the First United Methodist Church of Clearwater. Survivors besides his wife include seven children, William Eckerd, Bozeman, Mont.; Rosemary Lassiter, Wilmington, Del.; James Swann, Merritt Island; Kathy Swann Brooks and Terrell Swann Clark, both of Tampa; Richard Eckerd, Asheville, N.C.; and Nancy Eckerd Hart, Clearwater; 17 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

There will be a gathering of friends from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Sunday at Roebling Hall, Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church, 110 S Fort Harrison, Clearwater. A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Monday at the church.

The family suggests memorial contributions to Eckerd Youth Alternatives-Scholarship Fund, 100 N Starcrest Drive, Clearwater, FL 33765.

Moss-Feaster Funeral Homes & Cremation Services, Fort Harrison Chapel, is in charge of arrangements.

- Staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report, which includes information from Times files.


"The word "great' is overused. It is, however, unquestionably appropriate to describe Jack Eckerd." - U.S. Sen. Bob Graham

"Florida lost an icon, an advocate and a fine and decent man." - Gov. Jeb Bush

"He was a great business leader who understood the social responsibility of wealth. He had a great sense of civic duty; you don't hear that much anymore." - Billy O. Wireman, former president of Eckerd College

"Jack Eckerd was a true gentleman, who led his life with great dignity, guided by spiritual values manifested in his daily life." - Eckerd College president Donald R. Eastman

[Last modified May 20, 2004, 01:02:41]

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