Warren Grymes Jr., who took Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Florida from the brink of bankruptcy to a multi-million-dollar organization that was one of the nation’s top affiliates, died at his Jacksonville home Saturday after a long battle with kidney cancer. He was 68.
“He was one of a kind in a lot of ways,” said Cheryl Grymes, his wife of 18 years. “When he got an idea of what he wanted to do, he wasn’t going to quit until it happened. He had a commitment to children and to our city. He and the organization were going to do the best they could to help our kids grow up and be successful.”
By all accounts, he did that when he became CEO of the troubled nonprofit in January 2004. It matches at-risk youths ages 5 to 21 with adult mentors in eight area counties. In 2003, the national office was threatening to close the Northeast Florida affiliate because of its failure to comply with child safety standards, funding problems, leadership instability and other issues.
When he retired in June, the number of students served annually had risen from 350 to almost 1,200. About 98 percent maintained or improved their school attendance, 94 percent maintained or improved classroom behavior and 93 percent were promoted to the next grade level, according to a Times-Union story in June. It became one of the top 30 affiliates in the nation out of a network of more than 400.
During his tenure, her husband was a Big Brother to three youths, Cheryl Grymes said.
On Mr. Grymes’ Facebook page, multiple tributes spoke about his humor, his warmth, generosity, big smile, honesty and inspirational manner.
“Our city is a better place because of him,” former Mayor John Peyton said in a Facebook posting.
His wonderful, sometimes irreverent, sense of humor and his honesty were just two things that made him special, said Cheryl Grymes, a Duval County School Board member who is the nonprofit’s vice president of fund development. They laughed a lot with their Brady Bunch blended family of her four daughters and his two sons.
Mr. Grymes was born in Whitman, Mass., in January 1949 and grew up in Baltimore, Md. He moved to Jacksonville at age 14 and graduated from Jacksonville University with a degree in history in 1972. He served in the Naval Reserve from 1972-77. He was in the travel business with Delta Airlines and as a partner in Avondale and Akra Travel and opened several Chef’s Market gourmet specialty stores.
His business acumen helped him turn around Big Brothers Big Sisters, Cheryl Grymes said. He brought in board members who knew how to raise money and brought stability to the organization, established consistent standards and innovative programming.
“At times, he just pushed, pushed, pushed,” she said. “He loved the work. It was his favorite job.”
Cheryl Grymes said her husband, one of six children, had incredible parents, who instilled in them a strong work ethic and the importance of caring for others.
“There were many many people who would come to him looking for a job, and he was always willing to help,” she said. “He really thought his role as a leader was to help others become leaders.”
Through the years, he served on more than 15 nonprofit boards and was active in various civic groups. He also coached baseball for 25 years and the American Legion Post 283 baseball team to a state championship in 1993. Mr. Grymes received Jacksonville University’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2013 and was a member of the Leadership Jacksonville class of 2007.
Matt Carlucci, who served on the City Council from 1987-94 and 1999-2003, said Mr. Grymes was an investor in people, including Carlucci’s own life. When he ran for mayor a number of years ago, he said Mr. Grymes quit his job to work full time on his campaign. Carlucci lost that race, as well as a run for the state senate. But Mr. Grymes gave him the confidence to successfully run again for the council, he said.
“I loved him,” an emotional Carlucci said.
He said Mr. Grymes was a perfect match for Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“He was a very well-connected business leader,” Carlucci said. “He was at a point in his life that he wanted to give back in a big way.”
In addition to his wife, survivors include sons Warren Grymes III and James Grymes; daughters Leah Donelan McDermott, Jessica Donelan, Stephanie Donelan and Rachel Donelan; five grandsons; three granddaughters; one great-granddaughter; and five siblings, Steve Grymes, Debbie Bolger, Wade Grymes, Dennis Grymes and Leslie Kuhn.
A celebration of his life will be at 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23, at the Jessie Ball duPont Center, 40 E. Adams St. Visitation will be at 2:30 p.m. and after the celebration until 4:30 p.m.
Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128