Tom Fleming was a big man – 6-feet-4, 200 pounds and full of what his friends called “command presence.”
The banker’s direct and flamboyant personality convinced the state to bring Florida Atlantic University to Boca Raton, an amazing achievement in the late 1950s, when North Florida politicians called the shots (they even dared to call the Tampa college “University of South Florida”).
“Tom was the spark plug,” Adelaide Snyder, FAU’s director of university relations, said in 1978.
Fleming, who founded two banks in Boca Raton and was a city councilman and mayor, helped push politically and financially for the college, pouring in both his own money and raising it by using slogans such as “Boca U in ’62; open the doors in ’64.”
After Fleming got his wish – FAU opened in September 1964 – he continued to chair its foundation, helping raise even more money.
“Education is our responsibility,” he said in 1961 when his bank, First Bank & Trust, became the first in the nation to earmark 1 percent of its profits for higher education. “We can’t just sit and gripe about it.”
He attacked all of his passions with similar drive, including his devotion for his alma mater, University of Florida (he also had a masters from Harvard). “Shoot, I didn’t know there was any color combination but orange and blue until I was 25,” he once said.
The Georgia native grew up in Fort Lauderdale and was known for his one-liners and warm heart. He eschewed neckties, had a personal greeting for every employee who passed him in the hall, and scheduled parties and pranks around full moons.
Fleming and his first wife, Myrtle, a member of the pioneer Butts family, also were active in the Butts family bean farm.
He died of cancer at 59 in 1976, leaving an estate of $5 million, a large collection of Florida landscapes painted by famed Fort Pierce artist Beanie Backus (see page 64) and a lasting legacy of higher education in South Florida.
- ELIOT KLEINBERG