TAMPA — In his younger years, Bob Samuels did all he could to enjoy the fast track.
He partied with bachelor buddies on Fire Island and Rio de Janeiro, enjoying the booze and the women.
Monday mornings he was back in Manhattan, breaking racial barriers as a black banking executive.
Whether carousing or working, Mr. Samuels exerted an iron focus and deft social instincts that helped him work his will.
A self-described outsider who grew up in poverty, he excelled at organizing. His New York City Urban Bankers Association let other African-American professionals know that they were not alone, even when only white faces surrounded them.
After retiring to Tampa and being diagnosed with prostate cancer, Mr. Samuels vowed to at least dent the disease and end the embarrassment some men feel in talking about it. Before he was finished, he had emerged as a national leader, shaking up audiences in scores of motivational speeches and raising hundreds of millions of dollars for prevention and research.
Mr. Samuels, who founded the Florida Prostate Cancer Network and the National Prostate Cancer Coalition, died Sunday, 18 years after his diagnosis, his family said. He was 74. An initial prognosis had given him just five years to live.
"He was recognized not only as an advocate in Florida, but nationally as well," said Dr. William Dalton, who three months ago left his position as chief executive officer of Moffitt Cancer Center to head up M2Gen, a Moffitt biotechnology company.
Dr. Julio Pow-Sang, his urologist at Moffitt, called Mr. Samuels "more than somebody who was involved" in cancer prevention. "He was always ready to talk to men, to navigate the complexities of prostate cancer and give them hope."
As a spokesman for awareness of a preventable disease, he took calls from frightened strangers and answered an estimated 300 emails a week. Mr. Samuels also enjoyed his associations with the wealthy and powerful and the considerable recognition for his cancer-fighting efforts. On a designated "me wall" of his former Town 'N Country home hung dozens of photos of Mr. Samuels with high-profile figures such as George Steinbrenner, Colin Powell, Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg, Al Sharpton and Lou Rawls.
His website lists 74 awards and distinctions. He titled his self-published memoirs, released last year, Don't Tell Me I Can't — My Life as a Pioneer.
"A lot of times it looked like he was promoting himself, but he was promoting issues and causes," said Lillie Samuels, 59, his wife since 1996.
He was born Robert Bizzell in Philadelphia in 1938, the only son of a 16-year-old unwed mother who later changed his name to Samuels. A grandmother raised him. Mr. Samuels served in the Air Force, then worked for a financial services company. He moved to Manufacturers Hanover Corp. in 1969 while also attending banking schools, including Rutgers University's Stonier Graduate School of Banking.
Over the next dizzying decade or so, Mr. Samuels excelled both at banking and partying, closing down discos at 4 a.m. and reveling in Brazil. He married briefly and divorced, fathering three sons with three women.
Along the way he started a networking group, the New Yorker Club, frequented by businessmen and politicians.
Mr. Samuels retired in 1992 as vice president of Global Financial Institutions Group, part of Manufacturers Hanover (now folded into JPMorgan Chase & Co.).
He retired to Tampa in 1992. In 1994, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent surgery and prayed for truth. "He asked the good Lord how much time he had left," said Lillie Samuels. "The good Lord told him, 'Enough to make a difference.' "
Mr. Samuels started the Florida Prostate Cancer Network in 1994, bolstered in part by the advocacy of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, a fellow prostate cancer survivor. In 1996, he enlisted developer and GOP fundraiser Al Austin and others for help in launching the National Prostate Cancer Coalition.
"He was a wonderful individual," said Austin, another prostate cancer survivor. "He was very dedicated to help people understand that prostate cancer is treatable."
Around the same time, he visited Rep. C.W. Bill Young in Washington, D.C., asking for an increase in the Department of Defense cancer research budget. Young told Mr. Samuels he would look into it.
Not satisfied with that, Mr. Samuels hired a lobbyist to bombard Young's office with phone calls, letters and faxes urging the increase in funding, Mr. Samuels wrote in his book.
"About a month later I got a phone call from the congressman. 'Bob,' he said, 'I get the message.' "
The result: an annual $85 million to the Department of Defense Prostate Cancer Research Program.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.