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Ruth Eckerd dies

Published July 19, 2006

[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
A family memorial service is planned for Saturday in Highlands, N.C., to celebrate the life of Ruth Eckerd.

Ruth Eckerd, a philanthropist and wife of the politically prominent drugstore millionaire, has died at age 84.

Mrs. Eckerd, for whom the performing arts complex in Clearwater is named, died Tuesday night at her summer home in Highlands, N.C.

In a joint statement, Robert A. Freedman, chief executive of  Pact Inc., and Kathy Short Rabon, executive director of the PAC Foundation, the two organizations that govern the hall, said, “Mrs. Eckerd was a great leader in the arts and many other organizations that help make this community a great place to live. We are proud to carry on her vision of the arts through the facility that bears her name.”

A family memorial service is planned for Saturday in Highlands. Other arrangements are pending. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made in Mrs. Eckerd’s honor to the PAC Foundation for the Ruth Eckerd Hall Education Program; Eckerd Youth Alternatives and Community Pride Childcare.

Mrs. Eckerd was born to wealth in Tampa, the youngest child of Florida pioneer Richard Binnicker, who built a prestigious career as a banker and bond consultant on an eighth-grade education.

Her first job was as a teller in her father's bank after studying for two years at Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee (now Florida State University).

As the Gasparilla Queen of 1941, the former Ruth Binnicker became a Tampa society belle and married James T. Swann, whose family owned a cigar works and citrus groves.

In a St. Petersburg Times profile in 2003, she was described as ""pure old Tampa … daughter of a prominent banker, petite, stylish, a Southern Democrat back when "if I had been a Republican, I probably would have been one of two Republicans in Florida.'''

Tragedy struck in 1953. Swann died of a heart attack at the age of 32, leaving her with three children.

Four years later the young widow accepted a blind date and found a new life. She met Jack Eckerd, a rising drugstore magnate who was also a divorced father of two. To charm her children he swung by his feet on monkey bars in the back yard … and fell on his head.

"He was a very unassuming man,'' she recalled in the 2003 profile. "I asked him what business he was in and he said, "the drugstore business.' I envisioned that he was probably a pharmacist.''

After a six-week courtship they married and moved into a stately old colonial home in Belleair overlooking Clearwater Bay. They had two children of their own.

They reared their family, her husband, best known as the founder of the Clearwater-based Jack Eckerd Corp., was putting his mark on more than drugstores with gifts totaling $12.5-million to Florida Presbyterian College. His generosity led trustees in 1972 to rename the St. Petersburg school Eckerd College.

Both Mrs. Eckerd and her husband shared their wealth with others.

Their personal involvement and financial commitment was reflected in the naming of the $13-million multipurpose arts center at the Richard B. Baumgardner Center for the Performing Arts. Sponsors opted to name it Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Asked in a 1985 interview how she felt about having a building named after her, she replied: ""It's a funny feeling, really. I tease my husband that for years I was known as the wife of Jack Eckerd. Now people ask him if he is Ruth Eckerd's husband,'' she said, genuinely amused.

"The name was a surprise my husband arranged,'' she said.

Jack Eckerd died in May 2004.

The soft-spoken woman found herself drawn into politics as her husband, a Republican, ran twice for governor, losing in the 1978 general election to Democrat Bob Graham and in a 1970 primary to Claude Kirk, who ultimately lost to Democrat Reubin Askew. Mr. Eckerd also ran
unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1974, losing to Democrat Richard Stone.

In the campaign against Graham, Mrs. Eckerd criss-crossed the state seeking votes for her husband. In rigorous dawn-to-dusk schedules, the petite Mrs. Eckerd lugged slide-show equipment and photographs of her husband candidate and handed out almost 50,000 campaign
cookbooks containing her husband's favorite recipes.

She also did extensive volunteer work for a string of wilderness camps launched in 1968 as the Jack and Ruth Eckerd Foundation. By 1993, its 25th anniversary of caring for troubled youngsters, Eckerd Family Youth Alternatives had grown into a $32.5-million-per-year, 850-employee, seven-state operation.

"The camps are very much a mutual interest,'' she said in 1985, explaining that she and her husband had "his'' and "her'' charities.

 Considered one of Clearwater's best known couples, she and her husband were honored in 1989 by the Mental Health Association of Pinellas County as community leaders.

Among her most treasured activities, she said in 1989, were omelet parties that she and her husband and four other couples started about 1968. The annual affairs raised more than $1-million for the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens.

She also had served on the boards of the University of South Florida Eye Institute, Neighborly Senior Services, whose programs include Meals on Wheels, and PACT Inc., the organization that manages Ruth Eckerd Hall.

In 1991 she and her husband were honored as Child Advocates of the Year by the Gulf Coast Division of the Children's Home Society.

Information from Times files was used in this obituary.

[Last modified July 19, 2006, 17:09:29]

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