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At memorial service, former Congressman Sam Gibbons hailed as Tampa's 'favorite son'

TAMPA — The memorial service for Sam Gibbons was held in a church where, in his last days, the statesman sat in a wheelchair by the organ, singing with all the gusto he could find.

It was his church, Palma Ceia Presbyterian, named for the neighborhood that Gibbons helped Tampa incorporate into its boundaries.

Across the street was Plant High School, his alma mater, and many miles to the north, the University of South Florida, an institution that Gibbons helped establish.

He was Tampa's "all time favorite son," concluded fellow native E.J. Salcines, a former Hillsborough state attorney and appellate judge.

"Sam's fingerprints and his footprints are all over this city," former USF president Betty Castor said.

Gibbons was a World War II hero who parachuted behind enemy lines on D-day, a state legislator who helped Tampa grow, a congressman who started the nation's preschool Head Start program, and a grandfather whose seven grandchildren called him "Papa."

"What project are you working on now?" he often asked when he saw people he knew.

He died on Oct. 10 at age 92.

The nearly 600 people who packed the pews Saturday included mayors, city council members, civil rights leaders and members of Congress.

They heard not a list of Gibbons' accomplishments but a description of the forces that had made them possible.

He was raised during the Great Depression, when survival depended on sharing. He had a backbone forged by the golden rule. His empathy came from witnessing wartime suffering, family and friends said.

His cousin, Monsignor Robert Gibbons, said Sam Gibbons would tell of seeing his parents and extended family empty wallets around a table just after the 1929 stock crash and pledge to share the combined $100. In middle school, he ate lunch at his grandmother's house. Her blessing always ended the same way: "Lord make us ever mindful of the needs of others."

Those experiences led him, as a legislator, to always serve hot dogs and hamburgers at every in-home meeting, no matter how insignificant, said Tom Sullivan, a friend.

He was an optimistic man, his family said.

Before he parachuted into Normandy, he replaced some canisters he carried with Schlitz beer cans, which he opened upon landing as he waited to regroup.

When he returned to Europe years later, he brought two Schlitz cans with him and left them in a nearby village to commemorate his survival, said Salcines, 74, who worked on Gibbons' campaigns as a boy and developed a lifelong friendship.

When President Bill Clinton heard about the story, he surprised Gibbons with a silver tray of Schlitz cans during a shared flight upon Air Force One, said George Franklin, a Gibbons family spokesman.

It was a lighthearted memory of otherwise grim days at war. Gibbons' conversations with NBC's Tom Brokaw inspired the news anchor to write The Greatest Generation.

Some years ago, when a concentration camp survivor thanked him for his service, Gibbons apologized.

"I'm so sorry it took us so long to get to you," Salcines recalled him saying.

When a German woman thanked Gibbons for helping free her city from German occupation, he apologized again for leveling the city with bombs during the operation.

He had that sort of humility.

In the civil rights era, he donated his federal office space in Tampa to the city's newly appointed community relations commissioner. James Hammond, who is black, recalls that men of color didn't get accommodations downtown. Gibbons stepped up.

Later, Gibbons secured federal funding for Hammond to start 12 preschool education programs that became the impetus for Head Start.

"Sam was my hero," Hammond said. "He's still my hero today."

He was also a hero to Tampa Cubans, who relied on Gibbons for visa waivers to get relatives out of Cuba after Fidel Castro took over in 1959, Salcines said.

Gibbons, who worked on John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in Florida, was on the Capitol steps on Jan. 20, 1961, when Kennedy uttered the famous words, "Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."

Two years later, Gibbons walked up the same steps as a freshman congressman with that theme in mind, said Robert Gibbons.

He practiced what he preached, his grandchildren said. When he was discouraged by slow service in a Tallahassee restaurant, he walked into the kitchen, saying, "I'm going to go in the back and make my own breakfast."

"If it wasn't done right and there was no other way to do it, he'd do it himself," grandson Cody Gibbons said.

He did not suffer fools or pretension, said the Rev. John DeBevoise, Gibbons' pastor. But he made people feel as if he genuinely cared about them.

In the back of the church on Saturday, a busload of seniors from Canterbury Tower filled two pews. They came from the retirement home where Gibbons lived with his wife, Betty Culbreath Gibbons. They talked of Gibbons' gregariousness. He talked to everyone and looked forward to long lunch and dinner conversations.

From childhood until his death at Canterbury Tower, people said, Gibbons was the same, consistent man who seemed like everyone's Tampa neighbor.

Jean Turner, 84, knows. She lived across the hall from Gibbons in Canterbury Tower.

She also went to school with him as a child.

"He was so friendly you thought he was one of your best friends, passing him in the hall," she said.

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@tampabay.com.

Hundreds of mourners, relatives and dignitaries filled the South Tampa church Saturday for Gibbons' memorial service including:

"I'm going to remem­ber the joy he took in serving the public. He was the epitome of a public servant. He lived a wonderful American life."

Pam Iorio, former Tampa mayor

"He loved representing folks. He always put them first. That's why he was beloved."

Former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis

"He was a good friend, a good Democrat and a good advocate for all people. He didn't look for fights, but he didn't run from them either."

Pat Frank, Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court

"Having held some of the same positions he held, I can certainly tell what he went through to bring the University [of South Florida] to reality. It was very clear he saw USF as his legacy."

Sam Bell, former state representative

"I started getting quarters from Sam when I was a little girl and he brought his dad to see my father, a masseur. Then I grew up, and he helped my employer get millions for the university. So, from quarters to millions."

Kathy Betancourt, former USF associate vice president for government relations

"At 92, he was a joyous human being who lifted everybody up. He personified the best of the 20th century."

Kay Culbreath Heller, step-daughter

"Sam had what I call a degree of social mobility. He was at ease among poor folks and rich folks. He was not pretentious, he was straightforward and a good listener and considerate of other people whether he agreed or not."

Terrell Sessums, former state House speaker and former Gibbons aide

"It's what you do between the time you were born and today. People of this town really realize what he meant to us."

Dick Greco, former Tampa mayor

Compiled by Times staff writers Justin George, Shelley Rossetter and Amy Scherzer.

At memorial service, former Congressman Sam Gibbons hailed as Tampa's 'favorite son' 10/20/12 [Last modified: Sunday, October 21, 2012 12:19am]
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