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University of Tampa lands $28-million gift

Businessman John Sykes and his wife donate the money for a new building.

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 28, 2000


TAMPA -- On Tuesday, businessman John Sykes lost almost half a billion dollars.

On Thursday, Sykes stood on the steps of Plant Hall at the University of Tampa and announced that he and his wife are giving the school $28-million, thought to be the largest single gift ever to a university in Florida.

Those two experiences in a single week might give others whiplash, but Sykes' life is full of contradictions.

He attended ministerial school but dropped out to attend business school. He dropped out of business school but became a multimillionaire.

He's a relative newcomer to Tampa, having moved his company, Sykes Enterprises, from Charlotte, N.C., in 1993. Yet he has adopted his new hometown wholeheartedly, donating $2-million to the local United Way and leading the committee that will bid to make Tampa the site of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

After his donation was announced Thursday, Sykes, 63, said he doesn't want the size of his gift to discourage others from donating.

"It isn't the amount, it's the spirit in which it's given," he said.

The $28-million will fund a nine-story building on campus that will house a student center, dormitory and conference facility. It should be completed by the fall of 2001.

It's not the first time he has given generously to UT. In 1997, Sykes donated $10-million for a College of Business building to be named for Sykes and a chapel with a multi-cultural center. The chapel has yet to be built, but construction on the business building is under way.

"For so long, (the university) has had to make do with makeshift buildings and hand-me-downs," Sykes said. At the ceremony Thursday, he and his wife, Susan, wore gold pins depicting the minarets of Plant Hall.

University officials pulled out all the stops to provide a setting for the announcement.

They hired the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton to handle arrangements. Classes were dismissed early so students and faculty could attend the 4 p.m. ceremony.

Officials refused to hand out press kits until 10 minutes before the ceremony was to start and only after reporters swore they wouldn't tell anyone what was coming.

During the wait for the event to start, a band played. Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, former Gov. Bob Martinez and other dignitaries took seats flanking the podium set up on the portico of Plant Hall. When the announcement finally was made, a giant banner was unfurled: "University of Tampa thanks John and Susan Sykes."

The Sykeses attached one condition to their latest gift: that trustees name the new student center after university President Ronald Vaughn, whom Sykes praised for bringing more energy and credibility to the school.

Vaughn, a former business school dean and marketing professor at UT, took over as president in 1994. Enrollment had fallen below 2,400, the school had a $1-million deficit and alumni support was slim. There was talk that the University of South Florida might have to take over the campus.

Enrollment is up to 3,300 this year, and the school has embarked on an $80-million capital campaign for construction of more dormitories, a library expansion and the buildings the Sykeses' gifts will provide.

Thursday's announcement came two days after Sykes lost $486-million on paper, caused by a steep drop in the price of stock in Sykes Enterprises. The company provides technical support call centers for clients such as Gateway, Apple and IBM Corp. Sykes, however, still is a multimillionaire, with a majority of the stock in his company, a luxury suite at Raymond James Stadium, a Gulfstream jet and a horse farm.

Sykes said he and his wife believe their material success is a blessing from God, and they want to share that blessing with others.

He said they also want to help their chosen hometown develop its full potential.

Said Al Austin, a West Shore developer and co-chairman of the university's capital campaign: "There is no great city in the United States that doesn't have a university as part of its downtown."

None of the Sykes children or grandchildren attended the University of Tampa. But their choice of the school as a beneficiary of their generosity fits with their philanthropic interests in children, families and education. Along with their United Way donations, they also have donated to the Crisis Center of Hillsborough County. They fund scholarships for the families of police officers and gave $5-million to Queens College in Charlotte, where Sykes attended business school.

The $28-million almost doubles what is thought to be the previous record for a single cash donation to a university in Florida. Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton received $15-million from the Schmidt Family Foundation.

Linda Gibson can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or gibson@sptimes.com.

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