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Photo by: Sarah Wilson - Sonja and Tony Nicholson, near their Park Avenue office, have turned a lifetime of success into a tradition of giving. The couple has donated millions to the community to help build school buildings and a surgical training center.
Winter Park / Maitland Observer Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 5 years ago

Winter Park couple shares their success

Nicholsons give back
by: Brittni Larson

For Sonja and Tony Nicholson, giving is not an option; it’s a requirement.

It’s hard to go through life in Central Florida without seeing their names somewhere. Because of the Nicholsons, more than 50,000 physicians from all over the world have been able to sharpen their lifesaving skills using incredible, high-tech equipment and robotics at the Nicholson Center. And because of the Nicholsons, students at the University of Central Florida got to ditch portable classrooms for their own building at the Nicholson School of Communication, and football players have the Nicholson Fieldhouse to practice in when it’s raining.

“It’s my hometown, this is where I’ve made my money, this is where I’ve educated my children … and this is where I think all of us need to give back,” Tony said. “To me that’s the most important thing.”

“When you’re successful in the community, that to me is kind of a given,” Sonja said.

Tony moved to Central Florida in 1967 and has explored an array of business opportunities, as an entrepreneur and real estate financier. He founded a magazine, invested in a radio station and financed Broadway shows. But his main career was in real estate development, building more than 3,000 homes and 10,000 lots in the area since 1995. Sonja owns RE/MAX Park Avenue, a boutique real estate agency. Tony’s current main focus is investing in the arts, as a partner in Broadway shows, including “Evita” with Ricky Martin.

They are both at a time in their lives when retirement would be the natural option — Tony is in his 70s — but there’s just no stopping them. Sonja jokes that even after 20 years it’s hard to keep Tony’s feet on the ground when he’s got an idea or heard an exciting investment proposal. And Tony said his seemingly limitless passion for business is only fueled by his want to continue to give — he’s got to make money to give money. And what they’re most proud of are their donations to UCF. The couple donated $2 million back in 1995 to help the school build the communications building on campus. They’ve also given $2 million to the athletics department.

Neither of them went to the school, but both feel like it’s home.

Sonja calls the school her family, and when Tony refers to UCF it’s always “we” and “us,” his booming, no-nonsense personality tempered by the obvious pride he has in what his school has accomplished. He fiddles with a gold, Pegasus stamped ring President John Hitt gave him years ago as he talks about the Knights’ recent football success, and reminisces about his years as George O’Leary’s honorary line coach.

Sonja gushes about meeting Nicholson School graduates when they travel, and how it’s thrilling to see their success. Helping UCF is creating a better future, they said.

“The youth today is what’s going to form tomorrow,” she said.

“What else have you got?” Tony said. “Your kids, that’s the whole world.”

And continuing their dedication to supporting education, the Nicholsons donated $5 million to Florida Hospital to build the Nicholson Center, a $35 million, state-of-the-art surgical training center that specializes in robotics. The Center not only draws the best physicians from all over the world to train there, but is also a deciding factor in keeping them here to provide top care to Central Floridians, Sonja said.

The Nicholsons said investing in both UCF and Florida Hospital is investing in the growth and improvement of their home. Helen Donegan, vice president emerita of UCF community relations, said that kind of insight is what makes them a treasure in Central Florida.

“The citizens are people that work together with a common dream of how their community should be and they know that by working together and being generous with their success and their dollars, that’s what helps a community go into the future,” she said. “They are true citizens.”

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