The Right Prescription for Ringling College Students
By Gayle Guynup / Portrait by Matthew Holler ’11
The story of Debbie and Larry Haspel could go something like this: Doctor and nurse meet. Doctor and nurse fall in love. Thirty-five years and six children later, doctor and nurse live happily ever after.
That is certainly part of the story. But there is so much more.
These local philanthropists have been involved with Ringling College of Art and Design since 2013. They have supported the College and its students through its Avant-Garde events, and, in 2020, they made a gift to Ringling College’s Student Health Center to establish a student resilience program. With their mutual backgrounds in healthcare, this gift has great meaning for both the Haspels and the students who have benefitted from its services.
Larry is originally from New York and moved to Chicago for medical school. Debbie was born and raised in Chicago. As his career progressed, Larry got into hospital administration and he became the CEO of a hospital system. At the time, the nurses were considering unionizing, and Larry was asked to go out and listen to their concerns. Debbie attended one of those meetings. Debbie was taking a negotiation course in law school, so she offered to assist. As Larry tells it, “The meeting was not going very well. Debbie stepped in and brought the nurses’ message down to a level we could all understand. I was thankful, and more than a little impressed,” Larry said, adding that he noticed she was very cute as well as very eloquent.
“Ultimately, we started dating and it led to a wonderful romance and our marriage of almost 35 years,” Debbie said. The couple has six children, one boy and five girls (though they lost one of their daughters a few years ago). The Haspels lived in Chicago until they moved to Sarasota when they retired to be closer to Debbie’s parents.
Though they had been frequent theater and concert patrons in Chicago, they moved to Sarasota for the golf and “had no idea what a cultural jewel Sarasota was,” Larry said.
They first became involved philanthropically with the Jewish Housing Council (now Aviva). “I went to lunch with Nate Benderson, and the rest was history,” Larry said. It was through Nate that the couple met Warren Coville, who encouraged them to get actively involved on the boards of various arts organizations. Debbie started with the Sarasota Ballet, and Larry with the Asolo Repertory Theatre.
It was when Wendy Surkis started fundraising efforts for the Sarasota Art Museum that they first met Larry Thompson, president of Ringling College of Art and Design.
“Our daughter had attended the Rhode Island School of Design, which was one of the top design schools in the country – at least until Ringling came along. Our son-in-law went there, too, and he became an Academy Award-nominated film director. He did a couple of Tim Burton films. He came down for Christmas and asked if we could go see Ringling College,” Larry explained. “Larry Thompson came in the day after Christmas and gave us a personal tour of the entire campus. My son-in-law said, ‘I teach at Cal Arts and I direct films, and I can tell you right now this is the best art school in the nation, probably one of the best in the entire world.’”
And that’s how their relationship with Ringling College was born. The Haspels started attending events and learning more about Ringling College. “There were many ways we could have become involved, but the issue of mental health was one that really resonated with the two of us,” Debbie said.
“College is stressful, under the best of circumstances. But art, with all the critiques and public scrutiny, is packed with pressure. It can be very tough on your self-esteem,” Debbie added. “We thought one way we could help was to make sure that these kids could actualize all of their amazing potential, without getting derailed. We never could have anticipated how COVID-19, with its social isolation, would make these services even more crucial to the students’ well-being,” Debbie said.
“You want to make a difference in a positive way, in a way that might really change someone’s life. You can’t change the world, but if you can make someone’s world a little easier, that’s what it is all about,” she said.
They continue to marvel at how Ringling College of Art and Design has become a creative hub for the entire community. “The leadership at Ringling College has an out-of-the-box mindset, and is always looking for creative and innovative ways of doing things. Also, when they get involved in doing something, they get the best possible leadership,” Larry said. “It’s really quite impressive. These kids really are getting a world-class education, and have bright futures ahead of them.”