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May 27, 2018

Florida Trend's Floridian of the Year

Fla. Newsmakers of 2009

People who made an impact in business, economy, science, environment, government, education, sports, philanthropy, media and our fallen soldiers.


The most notable philanthropists aren't always the biggest givers or those who end up with their names on buildings. In 2009, two low-key Florida residents exemplified the best motives and displayed the most generosity relative to their means. Both men lived simple lives but displayed extraordinary generosity as they neared death.

» Lawrence E. Ruf

Lawrence E. Ruf
Lawrence E. Ruf [Photo: AP]
Lawrence E. Ruf, who died at 95, had a long career with Exxon, starting in the mailroom and working his way up to become a company accountant. He was smart with his money, always skimping and saving. In retirement, he and his wife moved to Manatee County's Riverview Landings neighborhood, where they continued their frugal ways. Ruf dressed plainly and, according to his nephew, he "drove the cheapest car you could get." After his wife died, and with no children to leave the money to, Ruf decided he would leave his $2.2-million estate to 26 charities — one for each letter in the alphabet, he once told Marilyn Howard, executive director of the Manatee Community Foundation. Depending on the performance of Ruf's portfolio, the estate will generate about $335,000 a year until it's exhausted, according to the Philanthropy News Digest.

The money began arriving in the latter half of 2009 — at a time when it was particularly needed. "All the non-profits are hurting," Howard says. "Contributions are down. Needs are up."

Ruf's money, which will be doled out in annual increments to each charity, came as a "pleasant surprise" because many of the non-profits had already set their budgets, Howard says. For Bradenton's Hope Family Services, the money meant an endowment fund that the domestic violence shelter didn't have the money to start otherwise. At State College of Florida, the money enabled students in the dental hygiene program to clean the teeth of needy children for free. Other groups that benefited include Manatee County Habitat for Humanity and the Manasota Lighthouse for the Blind.

"He was a caring man," Howard says. "It was important to him to do good."

Jack Wilkinson
Jack Wilkinson [Photo: Gainesville Sun]
» Jack Wilkinson

In June, Jack Wilkinson, a 96-year-old former math teacher and peanut farmer, announced he would leave $2.5 million to Central Florida Community College to build a permanent campus in Levy County. Wilkinson died three months later. In announcing his gift, he explained that he didn't have a wife or children and didn't need the money that he had so carefully saved over the years. "It was a pleasure," he said, "to be able to give it for education."

Wilkinson, who earned his teaching certificate from the University of Florida, taught for 45 years in Levy County. He told the Gainesville Sun that in addition to his teaching salary and farm income, his frugal lifestyle allowed him to amass his fortune. "I lived a simple life," Wilkinson told the Sun. — Art Levy

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