Pensacola businessman and philanthropist Lewis Bear Jr. died early Friday morning at the age of 82.
Bear was a legendary force in Florida politics and specifically in the panhandle, a kingmaker in his own right.
“Heaven got a good one,” tweeted Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. “A pioneer of FL biz, Lewis Bear Jr. was generous & kind. He led the longest family owned Anheuser-Busch distributor in the nation & my family had the honor of working with him 50+ years. My heart goes out to Belle, David, Lewis III, & Cindi. Rest in Peace.”
Heaven got a good one. A pioneer of FL biz, Lewis Bear Jr. was generous & kind. He led the longest family owned Anheuser-Busch distributor in the nation & my family had the honor of working with him 50+ years. My heart goes out to Belle, David, Lewis III, & Cindi. Rest in Peace.
— Jimmy Patronis (@JimmyPatronis) March 3, 2023
Bear was president and CEO of the Lewis Bear Company, which largely drove the region’s economic development. He joined the family business in 1965 before taking the helm in 1990. It is the oldest privately held corporation in the state, according to the Pensacola News Journal.
Bear’s great-grandfather started the business in 1876 as a grocery store, but it later grew into a grocery distributor and then beer distributor for the Anheuser-Busch company.
Bear himself was a member of the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association (FBWA) for more than 35 years, including nearly 10 years as the group’s president. The Association honored Bear’s legacy following news of his passing.
“The Florida Beer Wholesalers Association would not be where we are today without the service of Lewis Bear. For more than 35 years, Lewis has been a force both within our organization and within his community,” FBWA President Jared Ross said. “We thank Lewis for his tireless dedication and know we will continue honoring his legacy and his example for years to come.”
Other tributes quickly rolled in for the pioneering businessman, including from U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.
“Ann and I are heartbroken to learn of Lewis Bear Jr.’s passing, but know that his incredible legacy of service to Pensacola and hard work will continue to shape communities in Northwest Florida for years to come,” the former Florida Governor tweeted.
Papa Bear was an instrumental part of my past 10 years in philanthropy as well as the prominent voice in my political strategy to win my first campaign.
We love you Lewis ❤️https://t.co/gfYlcWpt6I
— Michelle Salzman (@michellesalzman) March 3, 2023
Rep. Alex Andrade called Bear an “undeniable force.”
Lewis Bear had one of the biggest hearts of anyone I’ve ever met. His passion for NW Florida and his sincerity in caring for our community was an undeniable force. He was a good man, and I feel lucky to have known him. https://t.co/ZOdD4B9gwQ
— Alex Andrade (@RAlexAndradeFL) March 3, 2023
He further elaborated in a statement to Florida Politics.
“Lewis Bear could come off like a hard man. In business and in politics, he was. But even when he disagreed with you politically, all he ever cared to discuss was the work he and his family were doing in the community,” Andrade said. “He would drop everything to meet with you if he believed what you were doing would help his neighbors. His heart was massive. He’ll never get the full credit he deserves for the sacrifices he made for Northwest Florida.”
Bear served as an advocate for the people of Pensacola and Northwest Florida, particularly children, and was a powerful booster of local businesses.
Bear and his company, which sold its grocery distribution business in 1995 to focus on beer distribution, founded the Bear Family Foundation in 2002. The foundation has awarded millions of dollars to nonprofit organizations benefiting Northwest Florida, according to its website.
The Pensacola News Journal reports the Bear Family Foundation contributed “easily” tens of millions of dollars, including $4.5 million to a new Baptist Health Care center, $1.75 million for the oncology unit at the Studer Family Children’s Hospital and $1 million to Rally Gulf Coast to fight childhood cancer.
Bear also served as a founding member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida, and his foundation contributed $500,000 to open a new headquarters.
He also served at various times on a number of boards, including United Way of Escambia County, the Pensacola Area Chamber of Commerce, the Pensacola Museum of Art, the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, the University of West Florida (UWF) and others.
Just last weekend, UWF awarded Bear an honorary doctorate, according to the Pensacola News Journal.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Lewis for many years through the FBWA and I know that the impact his legacy will leave is timeless,” said FBWA Chairman Ken Daley.
“Lewis dedicated countless hours and millions of dollars to better the future for his community and paved the way for the culture of giving back that exists within our organization. We could not have asked for a better example of what it means to be a leader and thank Lewis for all of his work within the FBWA and in his hometown.”
Bear is survived by his wife, Belle, and their three children.