By Carlton Reese
Born in Weirsdale. Lived in Weirsdale. Died in Weirsdale. To many, these three sentences likely describe an unaccomplished recluse of sorts – a non-traveled fellow of meager means and ambition.
But for George Albright, Jr., to have been born, lived and died in Weirsdale serves as testimony to a man who lived his entire life dedicated to the betterment of his small, beloved community. Successful, well-traveled and indefatigable in his many charitable efforts, Albright lived with a single purpose: Leave this world a better place than when he found it.
Nearly four years ago, Albright passed away and left behind a legacy not only in his children but in the many markers throughout Marion County and beyond which still wear his fingerprints. From Camp Kiwanis to the success of the local Boy Scouts, from the steeple of the Weirsdale Presbyterian Church to the many start-up homes he helped facilitate for new couples and families in need, Albright’s contributions take the form of not just concrete tangible monuments, but in an infectious goodwill that helped uplift a town.
He was 84-years-old and he left too soon.
In the month of June, we take stock in the fathers which reared us, taught us life’s lessons, showed us the value of laughter and living in the service of others. We show our appreciation for all they do and have done. And although Albright is no longer with us, it seems he is still fulfilling his fatherly duties, not just to his own flesh and blood but to a community that still relies on many of the projects he helped foster.
“Dad literally loved absolutely everybody in this community,” said son Clay. “He was like a surrogate father to so many people and that has been reaffirmed since his passing with just people I come across. There are so many people my age that didn’t have their parents that dad stepped in in some form or fashion.”
Descended from a line of Presbyterian ministers, Albright himself could often preach a few lessons, but without being preachy. Albright’s lessons were taught mainly through example, and many times out of the limelight.
In the late 1960s, a woman who worked for Albright lost everything when her house burned down. That’s when he stepped in to help.
Son George III recalls the episode and the effect it had on him as well.
“There was a house that had recently not been lived in and dad arranged to have the house moved about a half mile to right on the spot where she lost her house.
“I was in middle school and it was profound; something that I’ve never forgotten. He just did stuff like that all the time.”
After the big citrus freeze of the 1980s, Albright was able to turn his real estate acumen into helping low-income families with homes. Taking a listing of 1,000 acres of former orange groves and dividing it into 5, 10 and 20-acre plots at just $500 down and $200 per month, affordable home sites existed where none had before. For those with poor credit, Albright many times stepped in to carry the mortgage himself.
“Most of those people could not have owned a place at all because they didn’t have good enough credit,” said wife Aggie. “He helped so many young couples get places to live and buy property. He just loved helping people and making it possible for people that had a hard row to hoe.”
As a father, Albright was a consummate provider for his family. Having gone to work for National Standard Life Insurance Co. right out of the University of Florida, Albright would retire as the company’s Executive Vice President before moving on to establish Albright Realty, which would garner a financial well-being strong enough to send four boys to college and become successful in their own rights.
With the success of his real estate company and his orange grove business, Albright garnered a hefty prominence in Weirsdale and Marion County as well. From it all, his wealth existed mainly as a means to free him up to engage in the charitable projects he found so crucial.
In joining the Kiwanis Club of Weirsdale, Albright found his calling as a servant of the community. His work in maintaining and improving Camp Kiwanis, founded in 1948, is legendary.
“George was Mr. Kiwanis – that is where his heart was,” said lifelong friend Willet “Bud” Boyer, who worked side-by-side with Albright on most of the projects. “In a small town, you have to have advocates. If people in the community do not take a stand and take hold, these small communities just fall by the wayside.”
The golf tournament that bears his name has been responsible for ensuring the existence of the camp where Albright was a counselor and generations of Marion Countians have grown up. Thanks to George’s diligence rounding up sponsors, volunteers, patrons, food and beverage suppliers and auction items, the George Albright Memorial Golf Tournament to this day is at the top of area golf fundraisers.
Albright’s salesmanship came in handy when it was time to raise money for the Boy Scouts. The annual spaghetti dinner held to raise funds became a special project for George, who was able to use his connections to get most everything donated for free and increase the margins for the sales.
In selling tickets, Albright relied on his sharp business skills to make certain revenues would extend into five-figure dollar numbers. He knew you achieved such lofty goals by selling not one, but 10 tickets at a time.
“And once you got on his hit list, you were never off it,” Clay said. “He’d romance you to get the deal done, but after that, whoever he knew wrote the check he wouldn’t call you and say, ‘hey, can you help me out again this year?’ He never gave you the option of a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ – it was ‘how many should I put you down for?’
“If you ever got on his fundraising hit list, it was like the mafia – you could never get out of it.”
Such was Albright’s dedication to making his projects work: he expected everyone around him to share his enthusiasm and dedication to the cause. That white-knuckled will is the reason many ballfields, basketball courts and parks exist in Weirsdale, why libraries and food halls bear his name and why many children born to unfortunate means went on to achieve great things thanks to Boy Scout scholarships in which he played a major role.
Boyer recalled one of Albright’s methods of fundraising included a little bit of good-natured shaming. At one point, Albright went to community banks to raise money for the Boy Scouts and, of course, all pitched in . . . except one.
Albright could not stand for a lone holdout so he immediately went to leaning on the executives out of town.
“George takes the bull by the horns and calls the chairman of the board of this bank in Birmingham, Ala.,” said Boyer. “In essence he tells him what a cheapskate he is and that every other banker had given him some money and he just wanted him to know that his bank was the only piker in the bunch.
“The chairman of the board sat down and wrote him a check for $100 and sent it to him.”
Relentless in his efforts, George Albright simply could not accept ‘no’ as an answer.
“If you said ‘no’ to him, that was just a challenge. It was like waving a red flag.”
Not simply blessed with keen sales and business acumen, Albright’s engaging personality allowed him to cultivate important relationships including quite a few in some very high places.
In the 1950s, Albright attended the University of Florida, which was the place to be in terms of rubbing elbows with the state’s future movers and shakers.
“Dad grew up or went to college with the people that were going to run Florida for the next 30 years,” said son George III, a former state legislator and currently Marion County Tax Collector. “Ninety percent of the politicians that were in office from the 50s to the 80s went to the University of Florida and he knew all those people.
“It helped me immensely when I got (to the state legislature). There were a lot of people there that knew my dad and liked my dad: Gov. (Lawton) Chiles, Bill Gunter (former state treasurer and insurance commissioner) and (former governor) Ruben Askew.”
Those relationships came especially valuable when Albright became involved with the Life Giver Law in the mid-1990s. Spearheaded by Glenn Lane, the law was sought to streamline an outdated system of organ donations and transplants utilizing microfilm instead of computer technology and subsequent data bases.
Albright was recruiting Lane for Kiwanis membership when Lane explained the archaic system that was costing lives through its inefficiency. At that point, Albright could see how he could help.
“He said, ‘Kiwanis is exactly what you need! We’ve got people in every part of the state, and in politics – my son serves in the Florida legislature and serves on the Health Committee!’” said Lane, who became involved with the organ donor cause when his son needed a liver transplant at an early age. “He was right. He knew every aspect of the state and he was the catalyst behind the bill.”
The law created a computer registry pregnant with greater efficiency for matching donors with recipients and became a model for which other states would copy. The number of lives saved that would have otherwise been lost is incalculable.
The connections, the business savvy, the sharp sales skills and the catching personality all made George Albright a valuable commodity himself. His dedication to the Kiwanis service organization led him from local chapter president all the way to president of the Kiwanis International Foundation.
This position took him to all corners of the world where he was responsible for raising millions of dollars for children’s causes and more.
“I think his whole life was around Kiwanis, and mine,” Aggie said. “He loved people; he never met a stranger. It seems like he could meet a person and within the conversation he would ask three or four questions and he always had something in common.”
“How does a little boy go from Weirsdale to the University of Forida to travelling the world as an emissary for Kiwanis so quick?” rhetorically asked George III. “Weirsdale is a tiny place and it’s getting to be tinier. But it’s amazing to me how many people grew up here in the last 80 years and gone on to do great things not only in the state, but in the country and the world.”
In total, it was a life spent serving a small community he loved so dearly and trying to make things better. He used his business skills to not only accumulate personal wealth, but to improve the things around him, including people.
“He said, ‘you always leave things better than you find it,’” Clay said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re borrowing a piece of equipment. If I borrow your utility trailer and it has a broken taillight, it’s going to be fixed before I bring it back to you.
“The saying about him is kind of like the way he left his community. Hell or high water he was going to make sure the community was left in better shape than he found it.”
The parks and ballfields of Weirsdale, the mentor programs at Stanton-Weirsdale Elementary, the continuation of Camp Kiwanis, the Life Giver Law and the boy scouts who went on to successful careers and servants of their own communities are just a small fraction of elements that include George Albright’s efforts. He had a hand in it all and so much more that made Weirsdale, Marion County and the state of Florida a better place than he found it.
To this day Albright remains not just a pillar of a community, but a father to it as well. Everywhere around us are reminders of his presence, and in that sense, perhaps he has never left.