Kirschner’s decades-long career bridged the public and private sectors, but always emphasized coalition-building and civic improvement.
Before he won a spot on the City Commission and served two terms as mayor, before he led the Argus Foundation for two decades and shaped conversations about the business community in Sarasota, Kerry Kirschner was a vice president at Revlon working out of a high-rise office in Manhattan.
Then, as a father of three in 1976, Kirschner made a major decision: He’d give up his corporate job and relocate his family to the region in which he was raised. They moved to Sarasota that year, and Kirschner shifted to a new career. He purchased Blue Heron Fruit Shippers, spending the next 10 years working a job that involved operating a roadside fruit stand and hauling crates of citrus.
There aren’t many people who would have been cut out for that sort of change, a fact Kirschner’s family is well aware of. It’s a crucial point in Kirschner’s professional origin story in Sarasota, one that highlights many of the qualities that allowed him to succeed in the years that followed. His son, Kent Kirschner, said Kerry Kirschner was unflinching when it came time to do what he believed was right, unattached to traditional notions of status, unafraid of making an unconventional decision, unwavering as he set out to achieve a desired outcome.
Even as Kirschner ascended to positions of influence within Sarasota, the time that he spent building his roots in the community still stood out as a defining period in his life.
“For me personally, the man that I loved and respected and always looked up to the most, first and foremost, was the man who ran a small orange and grapefruit business on the North Trail,” Kent Kirschner said. “He was a blue collar, hardworking, small business owner. That’s the person who gave me the greatest example of what work ethic was.”
Kerry Kirschner died March 4. He was 73.
Kirschner, born in 1946, grew up primarily in Bradenton; his family also lived in Mallorca, Spain for a few years. Kirschner originally attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York before transferring to Georgetown University and personally developing a new major at the school in international business. After graduation, Kirschner took a job in New York, eventually earning executive roles with multinational companies.
Kirschner decided Sarasota was a better fit for his family. But he didn’t give up his professional ambitions. Less than a decade after he moved to Sarasota, Kirschner won a spot on the City Commission. Some of the issues he worked on in that role included establishing the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, forming the Downtown Community Redevelopment Agency, constructing Ed Smith Stadium and recruiting a new team to play there after the Chicago White Sox left town.
Fredd Atkins, also a city commissioner at the time, said Kirschner’s personal history helped him effectively work with people of varied backgrounds to achieve the goals he set.
“He could see the world from all types of different perspectives,” Atkins said.
Kent Kirschner agreed with that part of his father’s character, both professionally and personally. He recalled his father speaking Spanish with Mexican children on his youth soccer team. A cousin who lived with the Kirschners for a few months credited Kerry Kirschner with introducing him to Thai and Peruvian food. His father’s interest in other cultures motivated Kent Kirschner to learn a second language and travel as extensively as possible.
“He had no fear of the world,” Kent Kirschner said. “He embraced the world, and he encouraged everybody else to embrace it the same way.”
After Kerry Kirschner spent three years working in a marketing role with Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, the Argus Foundation hired him in 1994 as their executive director, a role he filled for more than 20 years. Kirschner said he took the job because he felt like a natural fit for a business-focused organization advocating for collaboration between the private and public sectors.
But he also came to his new job with an ambitious outlook. He felt the Argus Foundation placed too great an emphasis on niche issues before he joined, and he believed the organization could become an essential part of the fabric of Sarasota. As executive director, he pushed for the construction of affordable housing and organized an effort to monitor the spending of the Sarasota County School Board. He successfully advocated to change the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority from an elected to an appointed board, which current Argus Foundation Executive Director Christine Robinson said contributed to growth at the airport.
There were some unorthodox elements to Kirschner’s work style. Robinson and others both mocked and marveled at the fact he didn’t have a cell phone, which somehow didn’t prevent him from developing relationships throughout the community. And Kirschner wasn’t shy about taking a position that didn’t align with groups he worked closely with, sometimes to their frustration. Still, they understood that was part of who he was.
“We would have these loud debates over phone calls – sometimes we didn’t agree on issues,” Robinson said. “But when we hung up, we were friends.”
Although that might seem like an unusual trait today, Kent Kirschner said that attitude always influenced his father’s approach to life.
“His whole philosophy was, ‘I don’t care what people are telling me, I’m going to figure it out for myself and decide,’” Kent Kirschner said.
A funeral service for Kerry Kirschner is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, March 7, at St. Martha Catholic Church, 200 N. Orange Ave.
Those who knew and worked with Kirschner said he was legitimately passionate about building a better community, about engaging with his fellow citizens and finding opportunities for collaboration.
“Over and over again, his outlook was: let’s see,” Kent Kirschner said. “Let’s see what we can do. I know what’s good, and I know what’s possible. Let’s see if we can accomplish it.”