A trio of well-connected Sarasota business executives, over lunch one day in 1982, decided they could no longer stay quiet against what they considered an unfriendly business environment. They specifically geared up to contest a proposed two-year moratorium on new construction.
The potential ban failed. And the three executives and friends kept the momentum. They launched a pro-business organization, the Argus Foundation, which still exists today.
One of those executives was Wendel Kent. A World War II veteran and Cornell-educated civil engineer, Kent had both worked for the city of Sarasota and started and ran several successful businesses. Fellow Argus co-founder Charlie Stottlemyer says Kent truly shined in times like those — where he could both galvanize others toward a cause and work behind the scenes.
Kent died Jan. 27. He was 92.
“He was always involved. He made a tremendous contribution to this area,” says Stottlemyer. “But he was a low-key guy. He wasn't one to brag.
“He had a love affair with the city of Sarasota from the moment he got to town.”
A Champaign, Ill. native, Kent got to town in 1959. He found a job with the city of Sarasota engineering department, where he worked for longtime city manager Ken Thompson. He later founded Wendel Kent & Co. Inc., a highway construction firm. He also went on to own and operate a paving company, Gator Asphalt, and an aggregates mining company, Quality Aggregates, on the site of what is now Lakewood Ranch in east Manatee County.
Organizations Kent supported beyond Argus include the Siesta Key Chapel, the Sarasota Bay Rotary Club and the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. He was a board member of the Selby Foundation, and was a board member for two area community banks.
Like Stottlemyer, Sarasota attorney Dan Bailey, who represented Kent and served on boards with him, was awed by his friend's penchant for quiet giving. Bailey recalls one time Kent, a major supporter of Riverview High School in Sarasota, heard rival Sarasota High was in need of a golf cart for security personnel. Kent cut a check to Sarasota High for the golf cart. He never told anyone, and only the principal (who later told Bailey) knew about it.
“He was a champion of all that was good,” Bailey says. “He'd see a need and he would meet it.”
Kent also championed young business leaders. Multiple Sarasota area executives, including Kevin Hicks with Gator Grading and Paving and Fred Derr with Frederick Derr & Co., worked under and with
Kent. Derr started his career in 1967, when Kent hired him as an estimator at Wendel Kent & Co. Derr became president of the company in 1984 and acquired ownership of the business in 1986.
Stottlemyer says Kent was devoted to his wife, Evelyn, his three sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and dozens of friends. Wendel and Evelyn Kent met at Cornell in 1946 and were married for 59 years, before Evelyn died in 2010.
“He was someone that one or two times a month you could call him, and say, 'Let's get together for lunch,'” says Stottlemyer, “and he was always there for you.”