Philanthropist R. Kirk Landon drove an old wood-paneled station wagon for years, and was known to turn up at business meetings with his tie in his briefcase. Though the walls of his Coral Gables office showcased paintings by Jasper Johns and Frank Stella, nearest his desk sat an abstract sculpture of the city created by Miami-Dade County schoolchildren from scrap materials.
Landon loved kids, showering his support on schools, youth centers and reaching up to the higher echelons of education.
Landon, the former chairman of American Bankers Insurance Group in Southwest Miami-Dade, died at 85 at his Gables home Tuesday night. His generous spirit touched many, as he donated millions of dollars to schools, arts groups, health institutions and a long list of South Florida’s charitable organizations.
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“Mr. Landon had an innate humility and modesty that made him even more interesting as a human being and more, shall we say, likable and approachable. That is a characteristic that is not often found among people who are so accomplished,” said Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg, whose school was one of Landon’s passions.
“He made it easy to have a conversation and a joie de vivre and zest for life that was contagious,” Rosenberg continued. “I used to tell him he suffered from neonate — the quality of childlike curiosity and enthusiasm. That is Kirk. Kirk was always engaged. That is the loss part. That is not replaceable.”
In 2004, Landon made the single-largest individual donation in Florida International University's history to create the R. Kirk Landon Undergraduate School of Business. His gift: $5 million. His gifts also helped fund the $15 million R. Kirk Landon Fieldhouse that is tucked into the school’s $50 million football stadium.
“They’re producing tomorrow’s leaders,” Landon told the Miami Herald.
Plus, “They asked.”
“He always answered the phone whenever we would call him for advice or for help,” Rosenberg said.
Promoting education became the retired executive’s mission after he sold American Bankers to Fortis Group in 1999. His stock holdings at the time were valued at $140 million.
While he headed American Bankers as CEO from 1980 to 1999, a company his father founded, he created a preschool for employees' children. The company opened a public school at its corporate campus in Cutler Ridge in 1987. An alumnus of Georgia Tech, he helped build a day-care center at the university. Landon earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial management at Georgia Tech in 1950 before enrolling in the Navy.
At the same time he ran American Bankers he was chairman and director of the Miami branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta from 1991 to 1998. A year later he became an independent director of Lennar Corp.
Landon, born Robert Kirk Landon in Scarsdale, N.Y. to Kirk and Dorothy Landon on April 27, 1929, also gave $5 million to the student union at Barry University, where he was a board member, and a $1 million gift to the University of Miami's School of Nursing.
David Lawrence Jr., the retired Herald publisher and now school readiness advocate, remembers going to Landon to raise money for the first vote on The Children's Trust in 2002.
“Kirk wasn't sure this was a good idea, however well intentioned it might have been. Then when the next election, in 2008, came up, he gave $100,000, accompanied by a warm admission of ‘You were right.’ Kirk never minced words, and he certainly could be more than straightforward, but there was so much warmth and love in his soul. I loved him,” Lawrence said.
In 2011, the Miami Transplant Institute honored him with its Humanitarian Award.
“In the end, you can leave your money to the government, your children or charity,” Landon, who was not a transplant recipient, told the University of Miami. “[T]here is only so much you can leave to your children. The Miami Transplant Institute is something we need here in South Florida. It deserves support.”
Said UM President Donna Shalala: “Kirk Landon was a giant in this community, deeply concerned with education and the well-being of others and a smart and principled businessman. He was a great friend of the University of Miami and especially provided leadership support for our School of Nursing and Health Studies and the Miller School of Medicine.”
Landon pledged $1 million to the expansion efforts of the South Dade YMCA in 2005. In 2011, the Association of Fundraising Professionals awarded him its Lifetime Achievement award. He also served on the board of the Zoological Society of Florida, Arts for Learning and Chapman Partnership. His Landon Foundation pumped millions into the community.
“I don't believe in foundations living forever,” he said in a 2003 Herald story. “Give the money away.”
And so he did — sometimes with strings.
In 2011, Landon, a board member and major donor of the Miami City Ballet, reportedly pressed former artistic director Edward Villella, then 75, to retire and withheld a cash infusion until Villella agreed to leave the organization, financially struggling at the time.
“He was a brilliant individual and supporter of the ballet. He stepped up to the plate when he was needed and he was a great guy as far as I’m concerned,” said longtime Miami City Ballet board member and donor Ron Esserman.
“He would tell me things that I needed to hear even if I didn’t want to hear them,” added FIU’s Rosenberg. “I personally have lost a dear friend.”
More often than not, Landon just gave.
Said Trish Bell, chairman emeritus of Chapman Partnership, a group formerly known as Community Partnership for the Homeless:
“Kirk Landon was a longtime, strong board member, recruited to the board by his dear friend, Alvah Chapman. Kirk was an immensely generous donor and an especially wise adviser in his role as chairman of our investment committee. We honored Kirk in 2012 with the highly prestigious Alvah H Chapman, Jr. Humanitarian Award.”
Landon is survived by his children Kathleen Staley and Chris Landon, his grandchildren Kirk Staley, Angela and Robert Spears, and his partner of 18 years, Pam Garrison.
Said Garrison: “He had a heart of gold and it must have had my name on it because of how he treated me.”
A viewing will be from noon to 8 p.m. Sunday at Stanfill Funeral Home, 10545 S. Dixie Hwy, Pinecrest. Funeral services will be at noon Tuesday at Plymouth Congregational Church, 3400 Devon Rd., Coconut Grove.
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