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By BETSY BOLGER-PAULET
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000
Thomas H. "Tom" Esslinger, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County for 22 years, died Friday (Oct. 27, 2000) at his home in Town 'N Country. He also was the executive director of Hernando County Big Brothers Big Sisters, which will celebrate its fifth year this month. He was 67.
Mr. Esslinger's death came unexpectedly, according to Barbara Pacheco, president and CEO of United Way of Pinellas. He served on the United Way Board for many years as his organization's representative and was a popular speaker.
"In fact, he (Esslinger) had spoken at a United Way employee meeting Thursday night. His wife told me that he had gotten up early Friday morning to work on his computer. She heard a sound from his office, went in and found him slumped over the keyboard."
Pacheco said that after a heart attack several months ago, Mr. Esslinger said he was going to retire in January.
Mr. Esslinger became executive director of the Pinellas County Big Brothers Big Sisters in 1978 and moved to Tampa from West Palm Beach, where he had served five years as executive director of the Palm Beach County Center for Family Services.
"Tom was a wonderful man that devoted his life to serving children," said Gail Gendrau, director of operations for eight years of the Big Brothers Big Sisters in Largo. She is serving as Pinellas County interim executive director.
"He was an innovative leader in the field of childhood services," Gendrau said. "He developed standards and measurements."
"He was respected nationally by Big Brothers Big Sisters, of which there are more than 500, as a leader in the movement," added Donna McGill, director of community affairs for the agency.
Theresa Dvorak, who schedules speakers for United Way, said Mr. Esslinger had become the most requested speaker for their annual campaign.
"He could always be counted on to speak at the really early morning talks. He would go out and do 5 a.m. calls and never complain. He did them enthusiastically. He spoke with tremendous passion and with humor, and was down-to-earth. He spoke so any audience could relate," said Dvorak.
Born in Florence, Ala., Mr. Esslinger attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., on a football scholarship and played on the Vanderbilt football team. After serving in the U.S. Air Force for four years, he returned to college and graduated from the attended the University of Denver and graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology-psychology. He earned a master's degree in 1965 from Florida State University.
After earning his degree and before joining the Palm Beach County agency, he worked with Jewish Family and Children's Services, Miami Beach. He was a Methodist and an avid tennis player.
Survivors include his wife, Janella Stephens; two sons, Mark, Denver, and Thomas Jr., Sioux Falls, S.D.; a brother, Sam Jr., Florence; three grandchildren, Jeffrey Esslinger, Denver, and Chandler and Chase Esslinger, both of Sioux Falls; two nephews, Bill Esslinger, Tampa, and Sam III, Fontana, N.C.; and three nieces, Emily Rogers, Atlanta, Nancy Brock, Ooltewah, Tenn., and Mary Esslinger, Pensacola.
Private family services were held Sunday with Blount, Curry & Roel Funeral Homes & Cemeteries, West Hillsborough Chapel, Tampa, in charge. A public memorial service is being planned by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County.