Gators Going Greater

‘Just Good Folks,’ With an Ambitious Goal

Photo: Jesse S. Jones

“It’s time for the next generations to take over,” says Tom Brooks, who with wife Ann is supporting the education of top neuroscience students at UF.

In their parents, Tom and Ann Brooks saw firsthand solid values, generosity – and, later, the scourge of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Now, these big-hearted Gators are committed to being part of the cure for neurodegenerative diseases.

March 6, 2019: It’s the little things you notice when visiting Tom and Ann Brooks’ lakeside home in Leesburg. The platter of homemade fried chicken on the table, napkins at the ready. The peach iced tea waiting to be poured. And the couple’s contagious delight at introducing their newest family members, so to speak.

“A pair of owls out back had babies last month,” says Tom (BSBA ’71), leading guests to his wooded backyard on the lake. “Great horned owls.”

“Two little owlets,” says Ann, pointing to a towering live oak.

There’s rustling, but no greyish owlets peep out.

“Aw,” says Ann. “I was hoping you could see them.”

“The mother and father take such good care of them,” adds Tom.

If Tom and Ann appreciate their feathered neighbors’ parenting efforts, it’s no wonder: Nurturing others is coded in the Brookses’ DNA.

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Our parents were just salt of the earth; there were none better. Whatever they had, they shared with others. If someone was in need, they were there. They set the path, so how could we not follow?

— Tom Brooks —

Ann’s a devoted homemaker and caregiver; Tom’s a retired CPA and treasurer for The Villages who sits on the board of a local bank. Together, this warmhearted couple has raised two proud Gators – Brian Brooks (BSAC ’96) and Amy B. Ceras (BSN ’99) – and given generously to Tom’s alma mater, including to UF athletics, business administration and the Health Science Center.

Their concern for others is poised to have a ripple effect in medical research, thanks to the Brooks/Hagood Family Scholarship they established at the UF College of Medicine. The scholarship supports promising young neurologists and neuroscientists specializing in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and one of their scholars has been awarded new funding by the NIH.

Tom and Ann say they dream of world without Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. All four of their parents fought hard against these diseases, so the couple says they understand the emotional pain families must endure as they care for loved ones and watch them decline.

Giving back comes natural to Tom and Ann; it’s what their parents taught them.

“Our parents were just salt of the earth; there were none better,” says Tom. “Whatever they had, they shared with others. If someone was in need, they were there. When they could afford it in their later years, they made contributions.

“They set the path, so how could we not follow?”

Fishing, Hunting, Reading and Romping

The origins of Tom and Ann’s loving, generous partnership are intertwined with the lush backwoods of Central Florida. Listen to their anecdotes, and you can picture live oaks draped with Spanish moss, cows grazing in verdant pastures, and geese scattering across the sky at the sound of a 12-gauge.

For Tom, the story begins in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky where he was born to W. Paul and Irene Brooks in 1949.

“I’m an only child because my mother believed in quality, not quantity, and my dad said, ‘One mistake is enough,’” he says.

Dad was a newspaperman, and in 1951 the Brooks family moved to Panama City, eventually settling in Leesburg when Tom was 10. There the elder Brooks published The Daily Commercial, but young Tom didn’t take to the smell of newsprint; the Great Outdoors was beckoning.

“Hunting, fishing and sports were everything,” Tom recalls of his early years. “Typical boy stuff.”

“Girls were at the top of the list,” he adds.

“UF gave me a great education and a sense of independence,” says Tom (BS ’71), who started his own accounting firm in Leesburg with a buddy one year after graduation. (Photo: Jesse S. Jones)

Little did he know that 40 miles north, in Ocala, lived the girl who would one day snare him.

Ann Elizabeth was one of five children born to Dr. Charles and Evelyn Hagood, a dentist and a nurse, respectively. When he wasn’t drilling teeth, Dr. Hagood’s passion was gardening, and in 1952, he purchased a 130-acre farm where he raised more than 10,000 house plants. The farm provided ample space for his children to roam.

“We loved swimming and romping all over the farm,” she says. “My mother half the time didn’t know where we were because we enjoyed the outside so much.”

Chores, like feeding the cows, bound the children to the land.

After washing the dirt from her hands, Ann would practice the piano – or, better yet, lose herself in a book. Mom Evelyn encouraged all her children to read.

“My mother would always say, ‘You can see the world in a book,’ and I have lived with the philosophy,” says Ann, an avid reader of histories, westerns and books about generations of families.

At age 12, Ann started working in her father’s dental office, a line of work she’d devote herself to full time after graduating high school.

“My father believed in a good work ethic and was a University of Florida graduate,” says Ann, who remembers going to Gator games in the 1950s when the women in the bleachers wore dresses, and the men, a sports coat and tie.

Around his senior year of high school, Tom’s thoughts began to turn from hunting deer to pursuing a degree. His father was willing to cover Tom’s tuition, with one stipulation: “My dad said he’d pay for four years and four years only, which means I had to study for a change,” says Tom.

Tom headed to a local junior college. Afterwards, there was never really a choice between UF and other universities.

“Is there another school in the country?” he jokes.

Choosing a major was less obvious, until the day his father came home from the newspaper office and complained, “The auditors are there, and I’m having to pay them $100 a day.”

“I thought, ‘Good grief, if I could make $100 a day, I’d be a wealthy man,’” says Tom.

That decided it.

“Accounting is my calling,” he says matter-of-factly.

A Muscle Car Romance

In 1968, Paul Brooks pulled up stakes and moved with Irene to Ocala, where he would publish the Ocala Star Banner for 20 years. It proved an auspicious move for his son as well.

Head-over-heels in love: Tom wooed Ann with trips to the beach and the movies in his 289 Mustang (shown in this 1970 photo).

Sitting in the pews of Highlands Baptist Church one Sunday morning, Tom spied two attractive girls up front, a brunette and a blonde. He didn’t know either one, but a feeling came over him.

He tapped his dad on the shoulder and whispered, “You know, I’m going to marry one of those girls.”

That night, Tom went to a youth fellowship meeting and his brunette siren was there. At the end of the event, Tom made his move, asking if anyone needed a ride home.

“I had a 289 three-speed Mustang,” he recalls, “a muscle car – ”

“ – Now you can see, I believed in love at first sight,” jokes Ann.

The next day, Tom quit his surveying job early and made a beeline to Dr. Hagood’s dental office. He strode up to the front desk – “sweaty, dirty and messy” – with a single rose, and asked her out for dinner and a movie Friday night.

“After that, I had her hooked,” says Tom. “A year later, she took a job with a dentist in Gainesville just to be near wonderful me.”

Right Place, Right Time

By summer 1971, Tom was ready to graduate. He credits UF with giving him a “great education” and instilling in him independence and a sense of purpose. (In gratitude for the life lessons, Tom became a founding lifetime member of the university’s alumni association.)

Like many young couples of the time, Tom and Ann set their wedding date for a few weeks after graduation, which, for Tom, was in August. They pooled resources and bought a Dodge Charger (list price, $3,579), anticipating the day they’d drive off with “Just Married” painted on the back windshield and tin cans dragging from the rear fender.

The ink on President Stephen O’Connell’s signature had barely dried on Tom’s UF diploma when Tom was offered a job with one of Ocala’s most established accounting firms. The newlyweds moved back to Ann’s old stomping grounds.

About a year later, his friend, Fred Shaw, invited him to open an accounting practice with him in Leesburg. Shaw & Brooks, PA, opened in 1972, later expanding to Brooks, Wiley, Young, Padgett & Kleiser (Shaw left public accounting around 1977). It became one of the biggest accounting firms in the region, with 30 employees and multiple offices, and Brooks was at the reins for 33 years.

He couldn’t have picked a better time or place for his business.

In the ’80s, Leesburg became ground zero for The Villages, the world’s largest 55-and-over gated community. In time, the community became Brooks & Wiley’s largest client.

As Tom had correctly understood in his teens, accounting was a surefire way to make good, steady money. He and Ann purchased a beautiful home on the shores of Lake Griffin, next door to The Villages, and began raising a family.

In 2006, having put in 70-hour weeks at his own firm for three decades, Tom became an employee of The Villages, serving as corporate treasurer for 12 years before retiring in 2016.

Taking Care of What Matters

Tom and Ann have traveled the world, but they have plenty to occupy themselves closer to home. One is tending a 545-acre farm – with deer, turkey, pine trees and ponds – they bought in Georgia.

The four grandkids drive Tom’s F 250 truck all over the farm while Ann camps out on the front porch, chatting with neighbors – “good country folk” – or curled up with a book.

The couple also has spent many years taking care of infirm family members. Both of Ann’s parents succumbed to Alzheimer’s, as did Tom’s father to Parkinson’s. Currently, Tom’s mother has end-stage Alzheimer’s, and Ann’s brother John is living with AD.

“My grandfather also had Parkinson’s,” adds Ann. “So it’s not our first rodeo, you know, dealing with these diseases.”

For 10 years, Ann oversaw her parents’ care, moving them from facility to facility as the Alzheimer’s progressed. Seeing loved ones struggling with basic tasks – talking, eating, getting dressed – “well, it really gets to your heart,” says Ann.

Not all facilities provided the same level of care; if something wasn’t right, Ann would speak up.

“You want the best for them when they are not all there mentally,” she says. “You’re their advocate, for sure.”

Treatable, Curable and Preventable

A few years ago, Tom and Ann created a scholarship fund at the UF College of Medicine to aid in the fight against AD and PD, and have been making contributions ever since. Boosted by matching funds from the McKnight Brain Institute, the scholarship supports graduate students in the neurosciences, funding their research and enabling them to graduate without student debt.

The two current recipients are on the research teams of Dr. Todd Golde, an Alzheimer’s specialist and director of the UF McKnight Brain Institute. Golde’s goal is to make neurodegenerative diseases “treatable, curable and preventable.”

Ph.D. candidate Marshall Goodwin has received the scholarship since last year. In Dr. Golde’s lab, he develops antibodies that bind the destructive proteins that aggregate in the brains of people with AD and PD, a skill in high demand in the biomedical industry.

“If successful in mouse models, these potential therapeutics could move into clinical trials,” says Goodwin, 25, who after earning his doctorate in December plans to work for a company that develops therapies for AD and PD.

Scholarship superstars: Marshall Goodwin (left), develops antibodies that bind to tau proteins in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients; Hunter Futch (second from left) studies the effects of stress and stress hormones on neurodegenerative diseases. (Photo: Jesse S. Jones)

Twenty-six-year-old Hunter Futch (BS ’15, PhD ’19) is partway through UF’s intensive M.D./Ph.D. program, which admits only a handful of students. As a researcher, he studies the impacts of psychologic stress and stress hormones on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

“The Brooks/Hagood scholarship has allowed the lab to fund experiments that would have been otherwise impossible to perform,” says Futch.

The promising results of those experiments helped win him a pre-doctoral fellowship from the NIH, to focus on neutralizing stress hormones with vaccines. The NIH funding will continue to support him when he returns to medical school this fall.

Tom and Ann have taken the two young researchers under their wing, receiving regular updates on their work via phone or in person.

“I have to say, the Brookses are some of the most kind and generous people I have ever met,” says Futch.

Adds Goodwin: “Their support really does make a difference.”

I have to say, the Brookses are some of the most kind and generous people I have ever met.

— Hunter Futch, recipient of The Brooks/Hagood scholarship —

“Just Say, ‘They Were Good Folks’”

The afternoon visit with the Brookses is winding up. The owls are stirring, and those last few pieces of fried chicken are looking lonely on the platter. Goodwin and Futch can remedy that.

Before giving their visitors a hug goodbye, Tom and Ann pause to ponder their own legacy. What do they want people to remember them for?

“To me, it’s simple,” says Tom. “I just want them to say, ‘They were good folks.’

“They were good folks and fun to be with, and treated everybody right and treated everybody equal.’ If they can say that about us, I’m done.”

They’ve already got that covered.

To support neuromedicine at UF, please contact Stephen Figueroa, sfig@ufl.edu or (352) 273-7986.

A message from Tom and Ann for potential donors: “For years, we have shunned publicity and the limelight because our scholarship fund is not about us, but the future. Then we thought, ‘If our story can inspire others to contribute, we want to share it.’ We hope it will have this effect on readers.”