A forceful advocate for progress in the public and private realm, Gil Waters shared his vision with Sarasota in a variety of capacities.
Gil Waters' devotion to the causes he believed in helped build the John Ringling Causeway in Sarasota, spurred a crucial decade of growth and laid the foundation for a billion-dollar company, FCCI Insurance Group.
Waters played a variety of roles within the community: reporter, business leader, city commissioner, developer, activist, philanthropist. No matter what he was doing, one thing never changed — his unwavering passion, say people who knew him. “Everything he did was due to helping the community,” his wife, Elisabeth Waters says. “When he saw something somebody needed, that was his drive.”
Gil Waters died Jan 4. He was 90.
Waters was born in Pennsylvania and attended high school in New York before moving to Sarasota in 1949. A Yale graduate and U.S. Navy veteran, Waters spent his early years in Florida as a reporter for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and at the head of his own public relations firm.
A 1957 meeting with local construction leaders steered Waters toward a new career path. After taking a job with what would become the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, in 1959, he helped found FCCI Insurance. Today, the company holds $2.2 billion in assets and employs 820 people, including 400 in its Lakewood Ranch headquarters. It had $791 million in revenue in 2016.
Until his departure in 1985, Waters pushed FCCI to pursue continued growth in the workers' compensation insurance field. Today, FCCI CEO Craig Johnson credits Waters with aggressively expanding the services the company offers. “It just seemed like he was always a step ahead of everybody else,” Johnson says.
Waters' involvement in the business community also took on a civic bent. In 1958, he served as a member of the Volunteer Architects Downtown Improvement Committee, a group that recommended a series of projects designed to enhance downtown Sarasota. Those projects included the construction of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, the expansion of Fruitville Road and Ringling Boulevard to four lanes and the relocation of City Hall from the bayfront to First Street.
In the '90s, Waters honed in on another major project he believed would benefit Sarasota: the construction of a fixed-span bridge connecting downtown to the barrier islands.
Today, the Ringling Bridge is an iconic piece of Sarasota architecture. Yet when Waters began his campaign, it was a divisive proposal, with more detractors than supporters.
That didn't deter him. Waters had a notoriously blunt approach to communications. He was direct — which was occasionally a detriment to fostering a cordial working relationship with others, his friends and colleagues say. But by stating plainly what he genuinely felt, he also won supporters.
“He was effective because he worked with facts,” says Marty Rappaport, Waters' co-chairman on the Good Bridge 2000 committee. “He did whatever it took to get the job done. He wasn't bashful.”
A celebration of life for Waters will be held from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Jan. 31 at Michael's On East in Sarasota.