by Andrew Meacham, Tampa Bay Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER — Larry Dimmitt Jr., the colorful auto dealer, developer and philanthropist whose decisions both reflected and helped shape the growth of Clearwater, died Wednesday at his Belleair home.
He was 97.
In 1952, Mr. Dimmitt took over a dealership his father started in the 1920s and oversaw its expansion, leading to the current Dimmitt Chevrolet and Dimmitt Cadillac on U.S. 19.
A shrewd investor, Mr. Dimmitt was choosy about the properties he bought, and even to whom he sold. For example, he once turned down an offer to sell downtown property to a buyer who planned to use the space for mini-warehouses because he envisioned a more glamorous retail and residential complex where his old dealership had stood.
He gave just as carefully, his contributions benefiting hospitals, schools and churches. In 2005, the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce honored Mr. Dimmitt with its first lifetime achievement award.
“He was one of those obvious leaders within the community,” said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. “He worked hard, and he enjoyed life to the fullest.”
A proud local product who grew up when downtown Clearwater was two blocks long, Mr. Dimmitt wore seersucker suits in the summer and crisp dark suits in the winter. He laced his rapid speech with expressions such as “boy howdy!” or “hot dog!” and could sum up his approval in a word: “Whoopee!”
“The best thing was to get seated next to Larry at an event and just let him tell you stories,” said Clearwater contractor Alan Bomstein.
Born in 1914, Mr. Dimmitt moved with his family from Georgia to Clearwater in 1924. His father, Lawrence Dimmitt Sr., bought a Ford dealership at Drew Street and Garden Avenue. The business moved to S Fort Harrison Avenue in 1931.
Mr. Dimmitt ran track at the University of Florida, according to nephew Mike Sanders, and served in the military in North Africa during World War II. He started a family with wife Betty Jane, a talented artist.
Within a decade of taking over the business from his father, Mr. Dimmitt developed satellite used car lots in Pinellas County, supplied in part by rental car companies he had acquired.
He handled disappointment with aplomb — including the rainy days that mired his annual car sale for 21 years in a row.
“If you need rain,” he advised local growers in a half-page newspaper advertisement, “let me know and I’ll put on a sale.”
In 1976, he weathered a tougher loss when Betty Jane Dimmitt, 53, died of cancer.
He eventually rebounded by continuing an adventurous lifestyle that included scuba diving, snow skiing and traveling to most continents on the globe.
In the late 1980s, Mr. Dimmitt and his sons moved their Cadillac and Chevrolet stores to U.S. 19, in keeping with a wider commercial migration away from downtown Clearwater. Still, he did his best to help downtown recover, taking out a full-page ad in 1997 to help sell two large tracts.
“I’m proud of (downtown Clearwater),” he said at the time. “I want to see it sparkle again.”
To Mark Klein of Klein & Heuchan Realtors, the size of the ad was unprecedented — but so was Mr. Dimmitt’s overall style.
“He could recite poetry to you one minute, and be very business-oriented in the next moment,” Klein said.
Many will remember his generosity. Mr. Dimmitt paid for gymnasiums at St. Paul’s School and Berkeley Preparatory School, the carillon bell tower at Episcopal Church of the Ascension and four annual scholarships for Eckerd College students.
“He was certainly one of the leaders for his generosity,” said Clearwater lawyer Ed Armstrong.
Mr. Dimmitt was even willing to take his pioneer spirit into space — literally. In the mid 1980s, he put down a $5,200 deposit with a Seattle company offering a “space voyage.”
Three years later, citing the Challenger accident, the company pushed the expected launch date from 1992 to the late 1990s or 2000.
“I’m not sure I can hold out that long,” Mr. Dimmitt said in 1989. “That is awful old.”