Written by McKenna Kelley | Photos by Gabriel Burgos
As one half of Tampa’s most philanthropic couple, Frank Morsani often gives speeches about business and giving back. He has become known for telling listeners to live life in thirds — first you learn, then you earn, then you return.
“I would like to tell you that’s an original thought, but it’s not,” Morsani says with a chuckle.
“I wasn’t going to tell,” his wife, Carol, adds with a laugh.
The Morsanis have expanded that philosophy to include giving time, talent and resources as additional life stages, all three of which they have done in spades in their nearly 50 years in Tampa. After accumulating about 30 car dealerships nationwide through Frank’s business, Automotive Investments, the couple decided it was time to start giving back.
“We’ve always felt, and it’s kind of a cliché to a degree, that we should leave this world a little bit better place than we found it,” Frank Morsani says. “We felt that this community needed a push years ago, and so we decided, well, we have some financial resources. We will endeavor to make that change.”
“All of what we’ve done has started out with something [small], and then they see you’re interested and they draw you into these other projects,” Carol Morsani adds.
The Morsanis’ biggest push in the community has come in the form of a series of donations to the University of South Florida totaling over $40 million, including a $20 million gift to USF’s College of Medicine, which now bears their name. Carol Morsani says their friend, then-USF Provost Carl Riggs, encouraged them to get involved with USF.
“I always thought, ‘Well, it’s a public institution. The state is paying for it, and they don’t need your resources’ — that was a day of enlightenment,” Frank Morsani recalls, laughing. “[Riggs] informed us how it was working, and of course today USF probably receives only 22 or 23 percent of its funding from the state. As we saw that and got exposed to it, we became more affiliated.”
Beyond USF, the Morsanis have donated to the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, the Tampa Museum of Art, the University of Tampa and Moffitt Cancer Center, among other beneficiaries. Carol Morsani also helped found the USF Women in Leadership & Philanthropy organization, which mentors young women and helps bring community attention to the university.
Out of all the gifts they’ve given, the couple says there is one that stands out.
“I’m very proud of the clinic – the USF Morsani Center for Advanced Healthcare,” Carol Morsani says. “So many people come up to us all the time and tell us how wonderful that is, how much they enjoy going out there and how they feel good about the doctors out there.”
“We’re very proud of that and [pleased] that the community is using it,” her husband adds.
The couple also anticipates the community benefiting from the Morsani College of Medicine’s move to Downtown Tampa.
“It’s going to give the community an international presence that we maybe haven’t had before,” Frank Morsani says.
Even counting their immense work in the Tampa Bay community, the couple agrees on their greatest accomplishments – their children and their relationship.
“We’ve been tolerant of each other and supportive of each other [for] 66 years,” Frank Morsani says. “I think we would say that’s our greatest achievement.”
“I wonder — how did we do that?” his wife asks as they chuckle together.
Where does your drive to give back to others come from?
Carol Morsani: [Laughs] I think it’s his drive. He’s had to teach me what to do. Where he got his drive, I don’t know. He’s driven in everything he does. He’s responsible for everything I do.
Frank Morsani: Well, that’s not quite true [laughs]. We’ve always felt, and it’s kind of a cliché to a degree, we should leave this world a little bit of a better place than we found it. We have felt that this community needed a push years ago, and so we decided, well, we have some financial resources. We will endeavor to make that change.
The two of you have donated a little over $40 million to the University of South Florida, a university that neither of you attended. Why did you choose to show so much support for USF?
CM: I think they chose us to begin with. A good friend told us we should get involved.
FM: He was the provost and vice president of academic affairs — Carl Riggs. Dr. Riggs was a good friend of ours and said, “You ought to get involved more with USF.” As a result, we did. I was then the vice chairman of the board at the University of Tampa. I first started with the University of Tampa as the head of the board of fellows, then I became chairman. Because that was a private school, I thought they needed resources and talents, so I got involved. Then our dear friend Carl Riggs started explaining to us about public education and how the states were not funding public education. I always thought, “Well, it’s a public institution. The state is paying for it, and they don’t need your resources.” That was a day of enlightenment [laughs]. He informed us how it was working, and of course today the University of South Florida probably only gets 22 or 23 percent of its funding from the state. Everything else is from philanthropy or fees from the students. As we saw that and got exposed to it, we became closer affiliated.
In addition to USF, the Morsani Foundation primarily funds education, the arts and health care. How did you decide to focus on those areas in particular?
FM: When we went to Oklahoma State University, my wife was in the school of interior design. She always enjoyed, and still does today, the visual arts. We got involved originally with the [Tampa Museum of Art].
CM: We built two or three [iterations of the] museum. It was first in a Quonset hut — a World War II rounded metal building.
FM: [It was] behind the University of Tampa. It used to be the old fairgrounds.
CM: That was their art museum. Finally they decided to build another one, so we helped build that one. I was on the board several times with the art organizations that are associated with it.
FM: Then they built a new museum, and then they built a new museum [laughs]. We moved out of the Quonset huts at the University of Tampa, then to Curtis Hixon Hall and now the one in they’re in now [next to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park].
CM: I was involved with the Chiselers at the University of Tampa [an organization that supports the restoration and preservation of the old Tampa Bay Hotel], doing those kinds of things. You start small and then they ask you to do something else and get involved some other way, so that’s how we’ve gotten into the arts, more or less.
How about health care?
FM: We were involved a long time ago with the Judeo-Christian Health Clinic. They needed a new building, and we got involved with that. Then also I was the vice chairman of St. Joseph’s Hospital. We were involved in healthcare, and then later on Carol was on the foundation board of Moffitt. It’s kind of evolved.
CM: All of what we’ve done has started out with something [small], and then they see you’re interested and they draw you into these other projects [laughs].
FM: The tentacles [laughs]. It’s like an octopus.
Mrs. Morsani, you are an honorary chair of the USF Women in Leadership & Philanthropy program. How did you get involved with that organization?
CM: They asked me — Julie Gillespie [USF’s associate vice president for development], and our first executive director, Juel Smith, an instructor and founder of the Institute on Black Life at USF. The two of them came to me, and they wanted somebody who was involved with USF, and they wanted somebody who was in the community — mainly, I say, South Tampa. That’s where a lot of old-time Tampanians live, and they were not contributing to USF. Even to this day, [they’ll say], “Oh, I was just out at USF. I didn’t know it was out there. I had never been out there to see it.”
We were trying to get those women out there to contribute, to see what USF was all about, to see how they could help women — I think women are making strides now, but for a long time they weren’t — and see how they could get involved. Football, basketball — that’s a good way to get them out there and see what’s going on. That was the initial idea. We tried to plan a program where we could get them interested in the different aspects of USF, like the medical part of it, sports, all this kind of stuff that could give them a reason to come out, to help and to contribute. It seemed to have worked; they have 300 members.
FM: When she started there were six of them. She’s been the chairman ever since it started.
CM: Yeah I don’t know how I got the honorary [title]. I guess they didn’t know what else to call me [laughs].
Can you tell me a little bit about what the organization does?
CM: They’re into mentoring. They’re trying to get the community to know all about USF.
FM: I think a big thing is the scholarship program. How many scholarships do you give in a year now?
CM: I think 10, last year. When we started, we gave one. That’s all we could afford. The foundation gave us a little help money-wise, but most of the time we were supposed to have our own money. And that was a problem at the time.
FM: They also have scholarships for faculty.
CM: We have two scholarships for faculty, [including] one for a junior faculty member, like political science professor Susan MacManus. We gave her one last year. She just came out with a new book, and we had a big party for her to get people to come and buy her book. Also, years ago we got USF St. Petersburg to start their own chapter over there and also down in Sarasota. Early on, Juel Smith, Julie Gillespie, myself and a few others, we went to these other schools and told them what it was about and wanted to help them form a chapter. Everybody is so territorial that we wanted them to know that if they raise money they would get to use it. We cooperate with them and have a lot of things together so we can learn about what they’re doing and they can learn about what we’re doing.
Do you have a favorite gift you’ve given, or a favorite memory from one of your gifts?
CM: I have something I’m more proud of than anything else. I’m very proud of the clinic — the USF Health Morsani Center for Advanced Healthcare. So many people come up to us all the time and tell us how wonderful that is, how much they enjoy going out there, how they feel good about the doctors out there. They feel like they’re well cared for when they out there. That seems to touch the most people; though I guess the medical school will [touch more] when it gets built and grows.
FM: I agree with her. We’re very proud of that and that the people in the community are using it.
Your family first moved to Tampa in 1970, where Mr. Morsani eventually bought a Mercedes-Benz dealership and began his career. Why have you stayed in Tampa for now close to 50 years?
CM: Can you believe it? [laughs]
FM: I got in business here, and it was just natural to stay here.
CM: We had already moved around enough. We have two daughters, and our oldest daughter went to every year of high school in a different school in a different state. We figured maybe we better quit pushing them around [laughs]. They cooperated greatly. I can say they never caused us any problem. It was just time to settle down.
FM: Once we set up our business here, it was just natural. It was an evolution; it wasn’t a revolution.
CM: It might have been if we hadn’t quit moving [laughs].
Downtown Tampa is about to embark on a period of massive expansion and growth, and USF’s Morsani College of Medicine is expected to be a big part of that. How do you see the medical school fitting into the vision for downtown?
FM: I think the presence will certainly be a great part of the economic engine for our region, from the pharmaceutical industry to the medical device industry. It’s going to give the community a presence internationally that we maybe haven’t had before.
CM: It certainly changes the face of downtown. Of course Mr. Vinik has an awful lot to do with that.
FM: He’s wonderful.
CM: He’s certainly devoted to Tampa, isn’t he?
FM: He’s devoted to this community. We think he’s a good friend, or we try to be a good friend to him, because he’s done a wonderful job. Our community is so fortunate to have a man of his caliber and stature —
CM: And vision.
FM: — and vision to be a part of our community.
Mr. Morsani, tell me about your philosophy for living life in thirds. How did you come up with that idea?
FM: Well I say, “learn, earn and return.” I would like to tell you that’s an original thought, but it’s not [laughs].
CM: I wasn’t going to tell [laughs].
FM: We happened to be in a meeting one day, and this gentleman said that he was talking to someone — an elderly gentleman — and he told this gentleman, “You know, I discovered a long time ago the three things that really help me.” This was a fellow who was giving money, but he wasn’t giving it here. They were from someplace else. He told us that story, so we latched on to it in our philanthropic endeavors, and we’ve been preaching it.
CM: Really it’s a phrase that works for anyone. Anybody who has resources could live by that, don’t you think?
FM: Yes. As I’ve said, “learn, earn and return” — that’s what life is. I’ve given quite a few talks, and that’s what I tell people. We know young people are just coming into [earning money], so you just give a little bit. You can give it by volunteering. You give your time, then your talents and then your resources. You have those three things as well. You have time, talent and resources, and as we go through life that’s how we are. So “learn, earn and return” is a correlation.
CM: I think you’ve expanded the original saying. You’ve kind of filled it out so it has more meaning.
What is your greatest achievement so far?
FM: I think our relationship. We’ve both been tolerant of each other and supportive of each other.
CM: We’ve been together a long time.
FM: A long time — 66 years. I think we would say that’s our greatest achievement [laughs].
CM: I wonder — how did we do that [laughs]?
FM: Our two daughters — we encouraged them to be independent women, and they have been, and we’re proud of that. One has been married 40 years, the other one 37 years.
CM: And we have two grandchildren.
FM: We’re just pleased that our daughters are very fine women. I think that’s what all parents want.
CM: They’re good citizens.
Who in the Tampa Bay community do you admire?
CM: Well we’ve already talked about Vinik.
FM: Mr. Vinik and his wife, Penny.
CM: Judy Genshaft. I think she’s done wonderful things.
FM: Yeah, and I think Ron Vaughn, the president of the University of Tampa. Judy Lisi, the recognition that she’s brought to the [Straz Center].
CM: And all those people have been role models, self-starters, new people — everybody’s new to this area.
CM: Bob Martinez.
FM: Bob Martinez is a good friend of ours.
CM: And he is a local, so I can’t condemn them all [laughs].
FM: There are so many people of great stature who are really working to address the needs of the community. The circle has gotten very large, fortunately. That’s a good thing. That’s what positive about our community. That circle [of giving] has now become quite large. The larger that circle gets, the greater the asset is for the community.
CM: It’s hard to come up with people off the your head.
FM: Sandy MacKinnon. I could go on and on.
CM: So many people have come on board and made a difference.