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Steinbrenner offered help to local causes, large and small

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: July 11, 2013 at 06:48 PM
TAMPA -

A little here, a lot there, a gargantuan amount there, there and there.

No one really knew how much George Steinbrenner gave through the years to his adopted hometown of Tampa - probably not even him.

Surely it was in the millions; that much can be tallied by his public donations to school athletic departments, the struggling Florida Orchestra, the Gold Shield Foundation he established for families of public servants killed in the line of duty.

But Steinbrenner, who died Tuesday in Tampa at age 80, was known to step in with the cash to cover a funeral for a good man whose children couldn't afford one, a family who'd lost everything in a house fire, or just a kid who needed a dentist to fix his bad teeth.

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco says the controversial New York Yankees owner and billionaire often called him to find out more details about something he had read in the newspaper, seeking a quiet way to help.

"We got to see the whole person," Greco said Tuesday. "And New York didn't know that."

Joe Voskerichian, executive director of the Gold Shield Foundation, said the Steinbrenner he knew was hardly the irascible hothead familiar to Yankee fans.

"He was very generous and caring," Voskerichian said. "People didn't always see that sensitivity, but it was there."

Lanness Robinson, athletic director for Hillsborough County schools, witnessed Steinbrenner's largesse repeatedly through the years through donations both big and small.

"If you're asking me about the things he did privately, I can't tell you that, because I specifically promised him I wouldn't," Robinson said. There were many such benevolent acts.

One of Steinbrenner's public causes was ensuring that young teenagers could continue to participate in sports when the district switched from junior highs to middle schools in 1998.

"He put the money up to help get the middle school sports programs established," Robinson said.

Remembering how much his youth coaches meant to him - but only in retrospect - Steinbrenner was behind an annual event that came to be known as the "Coaches Prom."

"He felt this was an underappreciated group of people who only got appreciated after the fact," Robinson said.

Private and public school coaches eagerly anticipate the 21-year-old event, at which they can win cash prizes and a car.

Steinbrenner also replaced stolen equipment for the Interbay Little League, pitched in on rings for the University of Tampa's first national baseball championship and paid for lights at the old Red McEwen Field so the University of South Florida baseball team could play night games in the 1970s.

"When I think of George Steinbrenner, the first word that comes to mind is champion," says Plant High School football coach Robert Weiner. "He was a champion in the sports world. And for those of us in Hillsborough County, he was a champion of youth sports."

But Steinbrenner loved more than baseball. As a boy growing up in Ohio, he marveled at the wonders of his state fair and at the sounds of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Harold Van Schaik, longtime bass trombonist with The Florida Orchestra and its players' committee chairman, remembers well when Steinbrenner came to the rescue in 1996 with a $1 million donation to keep the group afloat. Musicians weren't being paid and the future was bleak.

"It was looking like we would cease to exist," Van Schaik said. "His was the lead gift in a major capital campaign that saved the orchestra."

Steinbrenner also started a 20-year tradition of free orchestra concerts for disadvantaged children at Christmas. He sat in the midst of the crowd, singing along and watching the faces of enraptured children.

"You could tell he felt like a big kid at those moments," Van Schaik said.

In 1993, when Steinbrenner gave another cash donation to the orchestra, he told The Tampa Tribune:
"There are more kids today hearing gunshots than an orchestra, and that's the wrong message. So those who have the ability to rally and come forward have to come forward and say this is worth preserving."

Raised on a dairy farm, Steinbrenner believed in the benefits of introducing children to nature and agriculture. He was asked in 1994 to join the board of the Florida State Fair Authority at a time when it was $3 million in debt. He worked with the staff and board to make it more efficient, and by the time he resigned in 2001, the fair was $4 million ahead.

"Even after he left, he went to the fair whenever he was in town," said Liz Compton, spokeswoman for the state Agriculture Department. "It was near and dear to him. He would walk the fair and pick up trash and throw it away."

In 1991, he and his family pledged $500,000 to help build a separate pediatric emergency center at St. Joseph's Hospital.

Steinbrenner's soft heart for children also peeked through in extensive donations to the Boys & Girls Club of Tampa Bay, and when, in 1998, he wrote a check to replace $10,000 in instruments stolen from Gwen McCree's School of Music in East Tampa.

"A good man gone," says McCree, 70, who still teaches at her school. "Even though it was a criminal act that brought us together, he showed me hope. When bad things happen, good can come out of it."

McCree's sister, Jackie Davis, a retired Hillsborough County school administrator, will never forget Steinbrenner's generosity.

"Those are the things that angels do," Davis says. "They come by and help you when you least expect it."


Reporters Michael Sasso, Scott Carter, Katherine Smith and Michelle Bearden contributed to this report. Reporter Donna Koehn can be reached at (813) 259-8264.

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