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The man behind the million

Photos show a Dunedin man who kept to himself in life but gave everything to the arts in death.

By SHEELA RAMAN
Published October 18, 2006



[Special to the Times]
Oskar Elbert served in World War II where he was a POW twice. Henry Dicus, his lawyer who arranged the $1-million donation, said being captured contributed to Elbert's lifestyle.

DUNEDIN - Oskar Elbert knew few of his fellow townspeople. And not many of them knew him.

But on Tuesday, a group that included some of the city's most prominent citizens were on hand to honor Elbert's $1-million bequest to the Dunedin Fine Art Center.

"We should probably be calling him Oskar Elbert," said Gail Gamble, the Art Center's president. "But here at the Art Center, we just call him Oskar because we feel he's a real friend of ours."

Elbert, who died last year, donated his entire estate to the center. Art Center members have since been looking at his effects - including photographs, citizenship papers and job papers - to unlock the mystery of his life.

At the lunch ceremony, the Art Center revealed a photographic timeline of Elbert's life. It depicted Elbert's many faces: a young Czech boy, a World War II POW, a real estate salesman and finally a retiree. The photos show his love for dogs and travel. Elbert hand-printed some of the photos shown at the end of the timeline.

These prints strongly suggest that Elbert was an artist interested in photography, according to Art Center members.

Some of Elbert's neighbors remember him as an arrogant man, who kept to himself, but that doesn't matter to Art Center members.

"He may have been impatient and grumpy, but in spite of that Oskar was artistic, and that's what we care about here at the Art Center," Gamble said.

Of Elbert's donation, $700,000 will go into the Art Center's endowment, bringing it to $1.3-million, while $300,000 will be set aside for the next Art Center renovation, which will include a digital photography studio in honor of Elbert.

A date for the renovation has not been set, said George Ann Bissett, executive director.

The Art Center presented a special plaque to Elbert's lawyer, Henry Dicus, for helping steer Elbert in the direction of the Art Center when he was trying to figure out which nonprofit should receive his money, and for ensuring that the estate ended up safely in the Art Center's hands.

Dicus said he remembers Elbert telling him that he considered every day he lived after World War II to be a great blessing, since he probably should have died in the war after being captured twice. Perhaps this is why Elbert chose an unconventional life of adventure and travel, Dicus said.

"It's great to be here and see this tribute to him," he said. "He was such an interesting guy."

Commissioner Deborah Kynes said she felt sad that nobody ever really knew Oskar. "But this is a sad and happy occasion," she said. "At least he's making a big difference here."

Commissioners Julie Scales and Julie Ward Bujalski were also present to honor Elbert.

The Art Center also honored several attorneys who helped start the endowment. It recognized John Hubbard, Jack Freeborn, Greg Gracy and Harry Cline with plaques for their contributions.

As lunch was wrapping up and guests were munching on key lime pie and sipping coffee in small groups, they remarked about what a character their posthumous friend Oskar was.

Terri Seeber, assistant manager of Old Harbor Bank, had seen Elbert around when he was alive. She said she opened his bank account when she worked at South Trust Bank.

"He may have been a little grumpy," she said. "But he always seemed like such a gentleman at the same time."

Sheela Raman can be reached at sraman@sptimes.com or 727 445-4158

[Last modified October 18, 2006, 09:06:22]


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