To the business community, he was a genius. To friends, he was a prankster who could make you laugh at the drop of a hat. To North Fort Myers residents, he was the man who took a fading tourist attraction and made it into a family destination.
Tom Cronin was many things to many people. About the only thing you couldn’t call him was an adversary. Cronin died Friday following a prolonged illness at age 78.
People remember him as a man who worked hard and played even harder, living every day to the fullest.
He is also remembered as a family man who loved his children and wife very much.
“Tommy was the absolute love of my life, soul-mate and partner in every sense of the word. He encouraged me and supported my endeavors with love as I did his. Butler and I will miss him every day of our lives,” said Pam Cronin, his wife.
“He lived life with gusto. He had a way of enjoying life to the fullest and then some,” said friend Susan Bennett, who has known him since the 1970s. “If there was a P.T. Barnum for Southwest Florida in the 21st Century, it was Tom.”
And even in death, the show went on.
As scheduled, the flea market opened at the crack of dawn Saturday at the Shell Factory & Nature Park. Fossilfest also went on as planned, with very few of the guests realizing what was happening.
The parking lot was full, as it usually is when a special event happens.
But it felt different.
Staff members, when asked about Cronin, smiled or nodded and turned away. Despite their loss, they put on brave faces and morale was good, all things considered.
Still, when people talked about him, they knew it was a huge loss for the community.
“People are going to miss him. He was a good friend of mine. I’ve known him most of my life,” said Joe D’Alessandro, whose wife and he are godparents to Cronin’s children.
The friend and jokester
When you made friends with Tom, you had to be ready to do all you could to keep up.
“When Tom Cronin walked in a room, everybody wanted to be sitting next to him. He was a magnet. He was engaging and funny and he never met a stranger,” said friend Jon Finstrom. “Everybody knew that would be the most fun place to be.”
When Cronin married Pam in 2005, he had a great idea to add some color to the ceremony, courtesy of Pam’s father, Richard Dunmire.
“I had purchased a shotgun and he told me to bring it to the wedding, which I did,” Dunmire said. “They introduced me and said that Pam’s dad was here and he wanted to make sure this is going to happen. So, they had a shotgun wedding.”
Cronin started a group known as The Gentlemen’s Club, a cadre of men that got together once a month at the Shell Factory, which Bennett said was billed as “bible study.” It wasn’t.
As far as people’s best memory of Cronin, Bennett couldn’t tell you where to start, though she came up with his imitation of Maude Frickert, the Jonathan Winters character, at the Rod & Gun Club, along with his musical talent.
Bennett also remembered at Shell Factory a Groundhog Day celebration when Cronin arrived and dropped his trousers in front of everyone in the media.
“He was such a fabulous impersonator and an even better harmonica player. He was a great musician,” Bennett said. “I just remember fun times. You knew if you went out with Tom, you were going to have a good time.”
Finstrom remembered when Cronin bought his wife a brand-new convertible, and needed her car to go to Fort Lauderdale on business. By the time, they were done it looked like the Bluesmobile from the Blues Brothers.
“By the time we got there, Tom had spilled a Bloody Mary, dropped a cigar under the seat and set the carpeting on fire and someone’s front bumper came off and splatted on her car,” Finstrom said.
D’Alessandro also spoke of how funny Tom Cronin was, especially on the golf course.
“It’s a great experience to be getting ready for a drive and he throws a firecracker behind you while you’re swinging,” D’Alessandro said. “That’ll break your concentration. That’s Tommy.”
Cronin as a businessman was responsible for much of what Fort Myers is known for today.
“Everything he did was pretty much successful. If something failed, he tried it again. He had determination, drive and made things happen,” D’Alessandro said.
Cronin started two banks, Colonial National and Southwest Capital, and ran Cronin Distributors, a beer distributor, for years.
One of his many reclamation projects was Beacon Donegan Manor, a nursing home now known as Beacon Manor Executive Suites. He also rebuilt the Renaissance Executive Center, and Carrell Corners shopping center.
He also worked with a group of doctors to develop Southwest Florida Regional Hospital (now Gulf Coast Hospital) and was its first chairman for 19 years.
He was also chairman of the board at Flordeco Realty and was a partner with CSL&G, Cronin, Simons, Laboda and Goldberg, who were instrumental in the development of Lee County.
Daniels Road was a dirt path from U.S. 41 to the airport, when his group began selling five-acre parcels for $50 down and $50 a month.
His father leased the property where Joe’s Crab Shack is located (Pleasure Pier at the beginning of the last century). Years later, Tommy purchased that property and developed the Chart House.
He even ran for mayor in 1980 but lost to Ilis Solomon, the city’s postmaster by 115 votes, which Cronin later said he was devastated to lose.
He was instrumental in getting City of Palms Park built, which brought the Boston Red Sox to town in 1989, by buying the run-down properties there for the city to buy, and even built Little League fields in Fort Myers near Fort Myers High School.
Cronin also helped found the local United Way, for which he served as chairman, and was also involved with the YMCA, where he was president, Jaycees and the Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary.
He was also president of the City of Fort Myers Planning Board and chairman of the Downtown Redevelopment Agency.
Cronin was a philanthropist, donating, time, talent and treasure to hundreds of local organizations through the years.
Cronin won 13 civic awards, the most notable of which are: Citizen of the Year, Freedom of Brotherhood from the NAACP, Hadassah Service Award, President’s Award for YMCA Capital Fund Drive and Outstanding Young Man of America. He was also an honorary mayor of North Fort Myers
There were also many unpublicized things he did for charity, which was the way he wanted it.
“He was generous and he did so without much fanfare. He did many things for many charities that many people didn’t know about,” Finstrom said. “If you could get him to come to your charity events, it helped the event because his enthusiasm was contagious.”
The Shell Factory
What Cronin became known for the most in his later years was the owner of the Shell Factory & Nature Park, which he bought with his wife, Pam, in 1997 for $1.6 million.
At the time, it wasn’t the jewel it is today. There wasn’t much more than a small store, a few animals, a fudge kitchen and a small assortment of shells. The air conditioning didn’t work and the roof was leaking as upkeep had been lacking.
“The reason he bought it was to preserve it for the people here. He knew it wasn’t possibly a good investment, he also knew what he wanted to do,” Dunmire said. “He didn’t necessarily want a tourist attraction, but a place for the local people to come.”
The size of the place made it impossible to put in carnival rides or a roller coaster, so Cronin had to use some imagination to make it work.
What he did was nothing short of amazing, but considering his experience in buying and rehabbing old properties, it should have been no surprise.
The Cronins added tens of thousands of square feet in retail space, including a restaurant, year-round Christmas shop; several free museums, from fossils to taxidermy to a highlight of the Kennedy assassination; revamped the Fun Park and added a zip line, added a dog park with a dock diving pool, and created the Nature Park with more than 450 animals.
With the park he also started the Nature Park Foundation, which has helped maintain the park and provided buses for local school children to take field trips there.
“Schools couldn’t get the buses. They are very costly. Tom raised money for the buses and gets them there free,” D’Alessandro said.
In 2006, Cronin was one of the first recipients of the Junonia Award, designated by the Lee Visitor and Convention Bureau, to recognize individuals who demonstrate leadership, commitment and dedication to the local tourism community.
Cronin also started marketing the attraction less for tourists and more as a family destination, loading the calendar with special events such as Gumbofest, Bike Night, a flea market and dozens of other events.
“He would attend all the trade shows and come back all excited. He would pursue putting those things in,” Dunmire said. “He wanted to provide something different, like the zip line.”
The result was five straight years of double-digit growth. That growth slowed somewhat in 2017 because of Hurricane Irma.
“We weathered Irma great. The big issue would have been the loss of roofs. That would have really done some damage. We can replace trees and signs,” Cronin said in January at his office. “We recovered quicker than the Naples Zoo.”
Even as his health declined, he still worked as much as he could and never complained. He usually drove his golf cart around during outdoor events or used his walker like he did at the Renaissance kickoff in 2015.
After plowing millions into the place, Cronin said that pretty much all the major renovations have been completed. It was now about maintenance and enhancements.
“Our long-range plan is pretty much completed, so we go into this year ready to do business. It’s about letting people know we’re here. Many people still don’t realize what the Shell Factory is. There is still a lot to be gained,” Cronin had said.
One of the things he worked on, but won’t be able to see, was to bring the Budweiser Clydesdales to the Shell Factory on Thursday.
“He was telling us the Clydesdales were coming and he was really proud of that because he was in the beer business and that Budweiser would bring the horses,” D’Alessandro said. “He’ll just have a different view of it.”
People involved with the Shell Factory will miss the man who brought the landmark back in a time when many “old Florida” attractions were closing.
“He really was a visionary and it shows at The Shell Factory and especially the Nature Park. I don’t get close to many people but I grew to care very much for Tom. As I said before there were days when you might get annoyed with him but the next day you just want to hug him,” said Rick Tupper, CFO and marketing director at the Shell Factory.
“It was truly an honor to work with Tom Cronin, I looked forward to our daily meetings and or phone calls. He always had wonderful new ideas which I loved brainstorming with him and the rest of our executive committee then we all helped make his ideas a reality for him,” said Anne Sheridan, general manager of the Shell Factory.
Cronin was born in Hartford City, Ind. to Thomas E. and Pauline R. Cronin on Feb. 23, 1939. He went to St. Francis Xavier Catholic School through junior high and graduated from Fort Myers High School in 1956.
One of his favorite stories (he has a letter as proof) was that the principal said that he was not college material and would most likely not go on to accomplish much in life.
Cronin served in the U.S. Army where he held top secret security clearance, received a Good Conduct Medal, and graduated from classes in microwave radio, equipment repair, business law and real estate, which would be the first step of a lifelong career.
Survivors include his wife, Pamela J. Cronin; his son, Thomas R. Cronin, Jr.; daughter Constance Martine Cronin; sister and brother-in law, Mary and Harry Rubin; nieces and nephews, Brenda and George Brinque, Denise and Trey Sones and Dennis Peterson; numerous loving great nieces, nephews and other relatives.
He preceded in death by both his parents.
At his request, a happy celebration in the form of an Irish Wake will be held in his honor on March 1, at 5:30 p.m. at his beloved Shell Factory and Nature Park.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Nature Park Environmental Education Foundation, 2787 N. Tamiami Trail, North Fort Myers, FL 33903 which is where Tommy would like his ashes spread so he may spend the rest of time with the creatures he loved and cared for.