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Congressman, "Father of USF" and Tampa legend Sam Gibbons turns 90

“Try the Arnold Palmer," Sam Gibbons urges me, meaning a concoction of iced tea and lemonade that sounds about right for lunch with a bay view and a local legend.

We are in the dining room of Canterbury Tower, a waterfront retirement residence to the well-heeled that overlooks Tampa's ribbon of Bayshore Boulevard. We sip our Arnold Palmers among flowered carpets, chandeliers and the occasional silver-haired visitor who stops at our table to chat about Gibbons' upcoming birthday party.

"Surprise party," he tells me, Southern-drawling out the word for the humor in it.

It is hard to believe this man — D-day paratrooper, U.S. congressman spanning four decades, the "Father of USF" and, literally, the reason Tampa is all it is today — is turning 90. ("Oh," he quipped at a recent event for an organization's 75th anniversary, "to be 75 again.")

This day he is in full congressman dress — gray flannels, blue blazer, perfectly knotted tie — but you can see the Florida boy in there, down to the notable ears a reporter once observed "stick out like little satellite dishes glued to his head."

Today is his actual birthday. His "surprise" party is at the Tampa Bay History Center, which also happens to be where his medals are, his Bronze Star and the Legion of Honor he received from France.

He has another sort of medal too: his cricket.

The cricket is a small metal thing, steel spring and brass, that you click with your fingers. It was carried by him and the others in the 101st Airborne Division when they parachuted into France so that once they landed, they could click and find one another in the darkness. Gibbons and his cricket are in Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation. Later, his sons would play with it.

Many museums wanted that cricket, but it's here. Gibbons spent decades in the House of Representatives, but he once told a reporter, "I have never thought of Washington as my home."

I ask about my favorite Sam Gibbons story, born of frustration but making for great theater. In 1995, Congress was talking Medicare reform. Gibbons had taken the proposal home to study, folding over pages where he had concerns. By the end of the weekend, many, many pages were dog-eared.

But debate on the issue was cut off — "a very unkind thing," he says — and cameras caught the scene after he left the room calling the other side "dictators" and saying, "I had to fight you guys 50 years ago."

He says now he couldn't come up with anything more intelligent at the moment, and smiles when he denies any actual yanking of a Republican necktie. The feisty ranking Democrat, CNN called him.

Before that, as a legislator in Tallahassee, he pushed for a state university for Tampa, which got him that "Father of USF" title. And not everyone knows how he expanded his city: He got a free map from a bank, drove around in a Studebaker and drew lines around what the city should include — north Tampa, the USF area, the parts of South Tampa not in the city limits. The Tampa Tribune ran the map, and ultimately it passed.

His wife, Martha — "a wonderful, wonderful lady," he says — would linger at the back of the crowd when he made his speeches and draw a finger across her throat if she thought he had talked long enough. As a young lawyer, he did not make his first run for state office until she gave her okay, and it was she who later suggested Congress. They raised three sons, were married 57 years. Martha Gibbons died in 2003.

He would later wed Betty Culbreath. Both were in their 80s. He had dated her as a young man, squired her to the Colonnade for Cokes with olives in them. But Betty married H.L. Culbreath and Sam married Martha, and the two families' children grew up together. H.L., chief executive of TECO Energy, died within days of Martha.

Gibbons' town has changed and changed again, and few originals persevere — the brick streets he points out as he walks me to my car, the University of Tampa, the Tampa Theatre, the Columbia in Ybor, where he once took Betty on a date when he was in uniform and remembers still how the owner picked up the check.

From Canterbury, he has amazing views. Probably he could see to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge if not for the glaucoma that has him using a cane for balance these days, but he regularly checks MacDill Air Force base to make sure all is well there. He can see St. Pete, where a mayor once gave him the keys to the city, and boats gliding to the port, and Tampa stretching before him.

It is not an exaggeration to say from here, Sam Gibbons can see much of what he has done in a mere 90 years.

Congressman, "Father of USF" and Tampa legend Sam Gibbons turns 90 01/19/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 11:02pm]
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