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Betty King Culbreath Gibbons dies at age 92

In this 2007 photo, Sen. Sam Gibbons, who died at 92 in 2012, is shown with his wife, Betty Culbreath Gibbons.

Times (2007)

In this 2007 photo, Sen. Sam Gibbons, who died at 92 in 2012, is shown with his wife, Betty Culbreath Gibbons.

TAMPA — Betty King Culbreath Gibbons lived a life of coincidences.

Born in Oklahoma in 1921, she came to Tampa as a small child and lived most of her life here. As a teen, she loved to sail her boat across Tampa Bay.

"My mother was an extraordinary, dynamic and adventurous person," Kay Culbreath Heller said. "She never lost that joy of sailing."

Culbreath Gibbons, a millionaire socialite who married two of Tampa Bay's most influential and best-known men, died Friday. She was 92.

While at H.B. Plant High School in South Tampa, Culbreath Gibbons dated two boys: H.L. Culbreath Jr. and Sam Gibbons. Then she went off to the University of North Carolina and later graduated from Florida State College for Women. She also attended a design school in New York.

On June 6, 1944, she married Culbreath right after he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. Gibbons, meanwhile, was also immersed in the war.

"Ironically, it was D-Day, as the world would discover later that night," said Heller, Culbreath Gibbons' daughter. "And Sam Gibbons, Mother's later husband, had just jumped with a parachute into Normandy, France, and into history."

During the war, the Culbreaths were stationed in Boston, Norfolk, Va., San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., where Culbreath ran Camp David for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Heller said.

While in Washington, the Culbreaths exposed their two small children, Kay and her brother Lee, to the area's rich history.

In 1954, the family returned to Tampa and reunited with Sam Gibbons, who was married with three sons.

"The Gibbons boys were the first children we met when we moved back to Tampa," Heller said. "Both couples had a wonderful time together."

H.L. Culbreath Jr. became an influential business leader in Tampa and served as the chairman of TECO Energy while Betty honed her homemaking skills.

"She had a tremendous eye for arranging a room or a house," Heller said.

She was a member of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, the St. Monica's Guild and the Tampa Yacht & Country Club, and was active with philanthropic groups such as the Chiselers and the Berkeley Blazers.

She founded the H.B. Plant Museum Society and served as its president. Her parents met at what was then the Tampa Bay Hotel after her father returned from World War I. The museum, which occupies part of the former hotel, is now part of the University of Tampa.

"She loved that museum," said Betty Wood, who was a neighbor of the Culbreaths when they lived near Hyde Park.

Another friend, Helen Martin, recalled Monday how much Betty Culbreath enjoyed boating. After their children had moved out, the women and their children traveled to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, sailing between Caribbean islands for a week.

In 2003, her life was changed by another coincidence: H.L. Culbreath Jr. died and, a week later, Gibbons' wife, Martha, died as well.

Gibbons, then a retired congressman, called Betty Culbreath six months later and asked her to dinner. The couple married in 2004 and settled at the Canterbury Tower in South Tampa.

The next year, they took a trip to Normandy. Gibbons showed her where he landed by parachute in the D-Day invasion.

Gibbons, who was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1962 and was re-elected 16 times, died in October 2012 at age 92. During his career, he led efforts to create Interstate 4 and bolster MacDill Air Force Base. Television journalist and author Tom Brokaw once called Sam Gibbons a "quintessential American" of his time whose story led Brokaw on the path to writing The Greatest Generation, a book about World War II veterans.

A memorial service is set for 11:30 a.m. Friday at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, 509 N Marion St. in Tampa.

Contact Elisabeth Parker at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

Betty King Culbreath Gibbons dies at age 92 09/01/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2014 10:34am]

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