A legacy built over a century of caring for others


“Money in itself is not valuable. It is only how you use it to improve the quality of life that really matters.”


If Hazel Bryson’s smile didn't capture your heart, her positive attitude, her sense of fun, and her sincere desire to help others won you over in no time. During her lifetime which spanned the 20th Century, Mrs. Bryson taught thousands of children and inspired family, friends, and the broader community with her commitment to the ethical high road.

Born in Worth, Illinois, on April 15, 1903, Hazel Phillips was raised in Oak Lawn, a small town south of Chicago. Her father was a successful contractor and residential developer, and her mother was a homemaker who sang for 60 years in the church choir.

She attended the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, graduating in 1928 with a Bachelor of Philosophy and a master's degree in history and a minor in Spanish. “I wanted to teach history because I wanted to help my students understand the importance of democracy. I studied Spanish because I believed that better communication between peoples would increase the likelihood for world peace.” During the summers between her college years, Hazel attended the National University in Mexico City, the University of Havana in Cuba, and the University of San Marcos in Lima, Peru. Living with local families, many of whom could speak no English, she honed her Spanish language skills and developed a great appreciation for different cultures.

Mrs. Bryson at the elementary, high school and university levels for 30 years and held a number of offices in support of education, including director of the National Education Association.

Although a teacher by training, the depression years molded her  into an entrepreneur. When her father’s contracting business collapsed in the early 1930s, Mrs. Bryson took charge: She converted their big, rambling farmhouse into four rental apartments. Local farmers leased space in the family barn. She bought a second-hand concrete mixer for $75 and leased that to do-it-yourself neighbors and business people. She started a company that leased well-drilling equipment to surrounding farmers.

She married Olaf Polky in 1956. By this time, she had changed careers and was now an insurance broker. After only three years of marriage, her husband had a fatal heart attack. Soon after, she suffered severe injuries from a fall and was hospitalized for six months. Within a few days of her accident, she was working for her insurance clients from her hospital bed. “It doesn’t matter what happens to you in this life, it’s how you react to it that counts,” she said.

In 1960, she married Joe Bryson, a fellow insurance broker. They both loved entertaining, gardening, dancing and traveling and discovered Sun City Center in 1968 as part of their search for a retirement home.

Mrs. Bryson continued her lifelong practice of living each day to the fullest. “I begin every day by reminding myself that ‘This is the day that the Lord has made, Let us rejoice and be glad in it.’ That sort of gets me on the right track,” she said before her death in 2003 at 100.

She made a habit of donating half of her income each year to charity. For many years, she helped support a blind couple and their five sighted children. The couple worked as missionaries on a Navajo Indian reservation, and Mrs. Bryson bought them their first house. “They had never owned a house, and they gave their lives to the Navajos. The least I could do was help them.”

The Community Foundation of Tampa Bay gave her the opportunity to give locally. She said she established the Hazel Bryson Fund at the Foundation “to downplay selfishness, greed, and ethnic hatred and meet the needs of deserving people.” She believed that “philanthropy is important because not all people have the same opportunities in life.”

She saw many needs in the Wimauma and Ruskin area—especially education of children. Among her contributions were endowed scholarship funds at several African-American church-related Southern colleges.

A great deal of generosity and a never-ending supply of love were packaged in this energetic lady. Mrs. Bryson said she believed “God has put us on this earth to make it a better place to live.” Her fund with the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay will continue her work in perpetuity.