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Man of few words speaks volumes with gift to USF

Dave Scheiber

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A $2.7 million gift to the University of South Florida's College of Nursing will provide holistic support for nursing students through the Tom A. Tiedemann Scholarship Fund in Nursing. Photos provided.

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In life, Tom Tiedemann was known for his generous spirit and humble manner, his desire to help friends and causes, and his goal of improving the lives of the people he cared about.

He arrived quietly from Texas one day some 15 years ago at Bethel Lutheran Church in Clearwater. A diminutive senior citizen with silver hair and glasses who called little attention to himself, it didn’t take long for Tiedemann to make his presence felt and enhance the little church in a big way.

When the roof needed repair, he was the first person to scurry up a ladder and figure out how to patch the leak, even though he was over 70. When it came time for a $2 million renovation, he took the lead, drawing on his career as a skilled engineer. He provided invaluable leadership while painstakingly poring over the design. When Bethel’s board needed a chair, he volunteered to manage tricky construction and facilities issues.

He came to the Tampa Bay area to care for his elderly mother. When she died, he had no other known living family members. He’d never married. If he wasn’t at home, Tiedemann was invariably at the church pitching in, any way he could, on matters small and large.

“I would say the church was Tom’s family,” says Jeannie Hughes, Bethel’s longtime administrative assistant, who became one of his closest friends.

Now, in death, Tiedemann has a new family: The University of South Florida. True to form, he has made a significant impact with his generosity.

“We are deeply grateful for Mr. Tiedemann’s investment in our students,” says USF President Rhea Law. “It means a great deal that he entrusted the University of South Florida with carrying on his legacy in a way that generations of students will benefit from his philanthropy.”

When he died in March 2023 at age 84, his final wishes became public. Tiedemann had signed a gift agreement in 2016 laying out his plans for deferred gifts to USF. He wanted them distributed equally among three scholarship funds: for the College of Engineering, the USF Health College of Nursing and the School of Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation Sciences.

The value of the gifts at the time was approximately $2.7 million.

Tom Tiedemann

Much about late donor Tom Tiedemann is a mystery, but not his wish to help people.

“When Tom passed, I called the USF Foundation and said I have a client who has left a significant amount of money to the school, and from there, I was put in touch with Marion Yongue, associate vice president of development,” says Michael Vanhorenbeck, Tiedemann’s financial advisor and good friend from church. “Tom was a person who simply wanted to do good when nobody was looking.”

Now the attention and expressions of gratitude are coming his way.

“The world always needs great engineers, nurses and physical therapists. Their professions touch the lives of nearly everyone on Earth,” says USF Foundation CEO Jay Stroman. “I am inspired by Mr. Tiedemann’s legacy and generosity. Gifts like this one continue to bear fruit at an incalculable scale.”

His gesture to benefit the College of Nursing, likely flowing from the care he received as a patient, is a source of deep appreciation.

“This generous gift allows the USF Health College of Nursing to provide holistic support for our trailblazing nursing students through the Tom A. Tiedemann Scholarship Fund in Nursing,” says Usha Menon, PhD, RN, FAAN, FSBM, senior associate vice president of USF Health and dean of the College of Nursing. “This scholarship enables recipients to prioritize their studies without the burden of navigating the increasingly expensive landscape of education costs.”

Tiedemann’s wish to benefit physical therapy is tied to the rehabilitation treatment that eased the pain in his mother’s back, helping her regain her mobility, and to the treatments he received.

“Mr. Tiedemann created a relationship with the school after he had a positive experience with physical therapy,” recalls Douglas Haladay, PT, DPT, PhD, MHS, and director of USF’s School of Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation Sciences. “I met him sometime in 2021, and I remember he was very thankful for what physical therapy had done for him. He was a very soft-spoken and unassuming man. You would never have had any idea that he had the capacity to give the way in which he did.”

The results of this gift will be far-reaching for students at the school. “It’s going to make a huge impact because the funds are going into student scholarships,” Haladay says. “We hope to give several students a year scholarships that will provide partial rides the entire way through. That would be the first time we’ve been able to do that. And it would last in perpetuity.”

Tiedemann’s interest in supporting the College of Engineering is no surprise, given his long and successful career as an engineer, including working for NASA in the early years of the space program. 

“He spent many a Thanksgiving and Christmas at our house,” Hughes says. “He never bragged about anything. I just remember having nice conversations — and that he and my husband, both being pilots, liked to talk about flying quite a bit.”

He lived in Chicago, Minnesota, and Houston before moving to Pinellas County. Vanhorenbeck remembers their first meeting vividly. He had just spoken at a church meeting about the need to get one’s affairs in order. The pastor addressed spiritual matters, and Vanhorenbeck talked about the importance of financial planning. 

“Tom immediately came up to me afterwards and asked to make an appointment with me,” he recollects. “He started talking to me about his desires — he had no family to worry about. Over the years, we did a great deal of planning and investing and I got to know him very well. He would help any cause he believed in and gladly assisted fellow parishioners. He was just a very kind and intelligent man, and even though he was quiet, he had a very funny, dry sense of humor.”

Despite health problems, he remained active in the church until 2023. He enjoyed participating in the church’s singles group dinners, relished trouble-shooting church repairs and logistical problems, and was a presence throughout the week. Vanhorenbeck met with him the first week of March 2023 and said Tiedemann was optimistic and feeling better. He talked about selling his house and moving into an independent living facility. 

But two weeks later, Tiedemann passed away. At his funeral service, memorial cards included the war poem High Flight, touching on themes of death and transcendence. 

“Tom was active and vibrant right until the end — always looking for things that needed fixing,” Vanhorenbeck remembers.

“We all miss him a great deal,” Hughes says, a year after Tiedemann’s death. “He was such a kind-hearted person, so committed and so capable, and a wonderful friend.”

Dave Scheiber is a freelance writer and author who lives in St. Petersburg.

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