By virtual force of will, a tough and determined Al Austin dramatically changed the region’s commerce and politics.
But Austin, who died Wednesday night at 85, also quietly changed a lot of lives.
The real-estate developer oversaw the transition of the sleepy West Shore area into a bustling business center. The resourceful Republican activist helped his once near-irrelevant party become predominant in Florida. And he spearheaded the effort to bring the Republican National Convention to Tampa, enduring heartbreaking disappointments before landing the 2012 event. It was gratifying to see Austin get a chance to address the joyous crowd when the convention opened.
But we knew another Austin, one who away from the limelight would patiently spend hours counseling shaken men who had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Austin had been successfully treated for the disease and subsequently worked to inform men about its threat and to raise research funds. He also was always available for a heart-to-heart talk about the disease, which many men are reluctant to discuss.
That was just one of the many causes to which Austin devoted time and energy. He worked on behalf of the Hillsborough Red Cross, Easter Seals and the Tampa Heart Association. He was an unstinting supporter of the University of Tampa and a founder of Tampa Preparatory School.
Austin was a proud Republican, but no harsh partisan. He worked effectively with Democrats to benefit the community, and was a stalwart in the effort to save MacDill Air Force when it appeared it was on the chopping block.
Austin was known as a steely, if not intimidating, businessman. But there was a big heart behind that gruff exterior. Whether leading big community campaigns or providing personal counsel, Al Austin always found time to help others.