Kerry Kirschner’s decades-long career bridged the public and private sectors. His role as a dad also defined his life.
He never had a cell phone. He only used email begrudgingly.
But what Kerry Kirschner lacked in modern technology, he made up for with his thick Rolodex, ability to engage in civil discourse with all comers, policy wonkiness and deep-rooted passion for Sarasota. A two-term mayor of Sarasota and longtime leader of the Argus Foundation, a pro-business group, Kirschner used all those traits — sans the modern-day gadgets — to help transform his adopted hometown.
“He loved the community so much,” says Christine Robinson, who replaced Kirschner at the helm of the Argus Foundation after he retired. “He’s had an amazing impact on this county that will last a long time.”
Kerry Kirschner died March 4 after an illness. He was 73.
While Kirschner had multiple roles in the business and civic community, and was an entrepreneur and business executive, several who knew him recall a dad first — a doting father to his four kids: Sean, Kent, Kelly and Katie Haas. Each has grown up to be a successful adult, something Kirschner spoke about often. One son, Kelly, was also mayor of Sarasota.
“All his children grew up to become great leaders,” says Sarasota insurance executive and Argus board member Keith Mercier, who went to high school with two Kirschner children and knew Kerry Kirschner most his life. “That was something he was very proud of.”
Mercier, Florida West Coast President for CBIZ Insurance, played basketball at Cardinal Mooney High School with Kent Kirschner. “He was a great dad,” says Mercier. “He was all about his family. He was always there for his kids.”
Born in 1946, Kirschner grew up primarily in Bradenton; his family also lived in Mallorca, Spain, for a few years. Kirschner originally attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York before transferring to Georgetown University and personally developing a new major at the school in international business. After graduation, Kirschner took a job in New York, eventually earning executive roles with multinational companies. One stint was as a vice president at Revlon, where he worked out of a high-rise office in Manhattan.
In 1976, Kirschner made a major decision: He’d give up his corporate job and relocate his family to the region where he was raised. The family moved to Sarasota that year, and Kirschner shifted to a new career. He purchased Blue Heron Fruit Shippers, spending the next 10 years working a job that involved operating a roadside fruit stand and hauling crates of citrus.
Even as Kirschner ascended to positions of influence within Sarasota, the time he spent building his roots in the community remained a defining period in his life.
“For me personally, the man that I loved and respected and always looked up to the most, first and foremost, was the man who ran a small orange and grapefruit business on the North Trail,” Kent Kirschner says. “He was a blue-collar, hardworking, small business owner. That’s the person who gave me the greatest example of what work ethic was.”
On the government side, some of the issues Kirschner worked on as a mayor and a city commissioner included establishing the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program; forming the Downtown Community Redevelopment Agency; and constructing Ed Smith Stadium and recruiting a new team to play there after the Chicago White Sox left town.
With the Argus Foundation, meanwhile, when Kirschner took on the leadership role there, in 1994, the organization was more reactionary and niche-driven than out in front of policy and civic issues. Kirschner, who led Argus for more than 20 years, guided the organization to a more impactful role. “He was the perfect fit at Argus at the perfect time,” says Caldwell Trust President and CEO Kelly Caldwell, a two-time Argus president who worked closely with Kirschner.
At Argus Kirschner pushed for the construction of affordable housing and organized an effort to monitor the spending of the Sarasota County School Board. He successfully advocated to change the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority from an elected to an appointed board, which Robinson says keyed the airport’s growth.
Robinson, Caldwell and others often mocked and marveled Kirschner not having a cell phone — which somehow didn’t prevent him from developing relationships throughout the community. And Kirschner wasn’t shy about taking a position that didn’t align with groups he worked closely with, sometimes to their frustration. That carried over to the Argus board, says Caldwell, a group of mostly Type A leaders used to getting their way. “He knew when he could push and when he couldn’t,” Caldwell says. “But he was always fair-minded. I learned a lot from him. It’s a big loss for the community.”
David Conway with the Sarasota Observer contributed to this report.