Frank Stern

FORT MYERS, Fla. (Nov. 4, 2015) – Frank Stern was one of those self-made millionaires who never dressed the part or lived extravagantly. He even avoided driving on toll bridges to save a dollar – literally.

Every dollar Stern saved – more than $4 million during a 14-year span – was endowed to a donor-advised fund at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation upon his death at age 95 in February 2014.

“It is people like Frank who inspire us in our work to do everything we can as effectively and efficiently as possible to create change in our region,” said Sarah Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.

Stern followed a low-key and healthy lifestyle, and he remained active in his businesses until a few years before his passing.

“I think he took the bridge once or twice,” said Larry Sickler, a long-time supervisor for FTE Developers, one of several local businesses operated by Stern and his brother Ed Stern. “He never went across the Midpoint Bridge because he didn’t want to pay the toll. He always said, ‘I can get where I want to go without paying a dollar.’”

“Frank was really into investing and making sure his money did a lot of good when he was gone,” said Michael Davis, a financial advisor who met Stern 12 years ago and helped him plan his charitable giving. “Frank was extremely frugal, and he wanted to make sure he didn’t run out of money.”

Stern made his fortune in real estate investment and development during the first wave of seasonal residents to Fort Myers and Cape Coral in the mid 1900s. He discovered Southwest Florida after his father, a butcher, retired to the area and started purchasing land.

“Frank never had anything handed to him,” said Sickler. “Every dollar he had he gained by working hard.”

Born in Wisconsin, Stern tapped into his entrepreneurial spirit in high school, renovating and selling Ford motorcars. He was working toward a business degree at the University of Texas during the onset of World War II.

“He figured if he volunteered, he would get a better job,” said Charles Marble, a long-time friend and Stern’s caregiver. “He didn’t want to be in the infantry, so he went to flight school.”

Stern was stationed in England and flew unarmed recognizance missions into enemy territory.

“He was like Forest Gump because he witnessed a lot of history,” Davis recalled fondly. “Frank had so many stories about the war in Europe. He even took a picture of one of his friends with Churchill and Eisenhower. He was a real gentleman and very interesting to talk to.”

He retired as a major in the U.S. Air Force and was active in its reserve program for 20 years. He established his permanent roots in the Fort Myers area in the 1960s. He never married or had children.

Stern was committed to giving back to the community where he’d made his fortune.

“He was thinking about starting his own foundation until he learned the Southwest Florida Community Foundation was right here and basically doing the same thing,” Marble said. “Frank donated to a number of projects but would never accept a plaque or have anything named after him. That wasn’t Frank’s style. He was not looking for accolades from anyone.”

And he left a never-ending legacy for Southwest Florida.

“Frank was a fine man. He was honest and fair, a very good person,” said Sickler. “Once he opened up, you’d see all these great qualities. We started off as business partners and ended up as family.”

As leaders, conveners, grant makers and concierges of philanthropy, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation is a foundation built on community leadership with an inspired history of fostering regional change for the common good in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Community Foundation, founded in 1976, connects donors and their philanthropic aspirations with evolving community needs. With assets of more than $93 million, the Community Foundation has provided more than $61.2 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves. Last year, it granted more than $2.9 million to nonprofit organizations supporting education, animal welfare, arts, healthcare and human services. It also granted $782,000 in nonprofit grants including more than $551,000 in regional community impact grants and additional $450,000 in scholarship grants.

For more information about the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, call 239-274-5900 or visit