The year was 1998. Tana Sandefur and her late husband, John, sat captivated as they watched their first performance — one of many they would see throughout their lives — at Circus Sarasota. After the show they decided to dedicate themselves to helping revive the artform that is the foundation of Sarasota.
The organization was a natural draw for Sandefur, who was considered a ringmaster of sorts in the community. Vibrant. Outgoing. Caring. Fun. All are words Sandefur’s friends and colleagues used to describe the woman whose vivacious personality attracted people into her circle — a circle that extended to numerous organizations throughout the community.
Sandefur, 81, died Sept. 27.
The Sandefurs first moved to the area in 1981 from Ohio; they lived on Longboat Key until the Marina Tower condominium was built in 2000 in Sarasota. The Sandefurs moved off the barrier island and officially became residents of the city in which they were philanthropically entrenched.
Circus Arts Conservatory (formerly Circus Sarasota) founder and CEO Pedro Reis remembers when the Sandefurs first got involved. He said they both helped connect people in the community with the nonprofit organization and encouraged friends to become circus goers as well as donors.
“She really helped us,” Reis said. “She loved the circus and would do whatever she could to help the organization. We’re grateful to both of them, Tana and John.”
Sandefur served on many community boards, including the foundation boards of Safe Place Rape Crisis Center, The Pines of Sarasota and The Community Foundation of Sarasota. She also served on the board of trustees at The Ringling Museum of Art, was a chairperson for Women Speaking of Women's Health and Money and committee member of Circus Sarasota as well as a member on the WEDU board and Symphony Board of Sarasota. She was president of the Sarasota Ballet, was a Goodwill Ambassador and was honored by The Salvation Army.
Giving back to the community was never about receiving kudos for Sandefur but rather making sure everyone felt included. Current President and CEO of Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center Olivia Thomas remembers Sandefur for her sense of humor and her desire to always include everyone. Thomas recalls when she served on the SPARCC Board of Directors.
“She decided that we were going to do something different for a fundraiser at SPARCC, so we had a birthday party for Elvis,” Thomas said. “She just thought of so many cute details. She made it look great with vintage cars, and all the menu items were things that Elvis would have eaten. People came dressed in Elvis-era costumes. It was the ‘Elvis party,’ and it was all Tana’s idea.”
The Sandefur residence was always open for gatherings for friends and family. Celebrating was always a treat for Sandefur, who often hosted guests at her Marina Tower home. Her friend of more than 20 years, Alice Rau, said hosting parties was just another one of the ways Sandefur helped bring people together.
“They would have their holiday events in their condo every year and included so many people,” Rau said.
“A lot of us met each other through their events.
“She brought people together people from all walks of life whom she knew and were involved in various things, but she felt we needed to know each other.”
Sandefur’s charitable work in Sarasota and love of connecting people indeed created a ripple effect that will have a lasting impact on the Sarasota community.
She was preceded in death by her parents and her husband, John E. Sandefur. She is survived by two daughters, Jane Taylor and Debra Sandefur; three grandchildren; and one nephew and one niece.
A celebration of her life was held Sept. 28, at The Ringling Museum of Art.