You would need a pretty big eraser to imagine what Tampa Bay would have looked like had former U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons not committed his life to public service. Gibbons, who died Wednesday in Tampa at the age of 92, was an institution who over a half-century in Tallahassee and Washington represented this region with grace and dignity. His legacy is an example of what public servants can accomplish when they put the greater good above their own interests.
Gibbons had a drive and a sense of obligation and decency that marked his entire public career. He traced his first lessons in leadership to parachuting into German-occupied France on D-day. Returning home, the Tampa native earned a law degree at the University of Florida and went into politics. As a member of the Florida House in the 1950s, he pushed to build a new public university in the Tampa area — a dream realized in 1956 when the state approved building the University of South Florida on a World War II-era bombing range in north Tampa.
Gibbons relished being known as the "Father of USF," and for having created a university that gave middle-income people and those already in the workforce a chance to earn a college degree. And he lived to see the university grow into a major economic engine for the region and one of the nation's leading research institutions.
Gibbons also had a hand in improving this nation and this region in innumerable ways throughout his 44-year career. He battled the Pork Chop Gang to redraw political power away from rural Florida and to the fast-growing urban areas. In Congress, he was a strong supporter of Medicare, Head Start, abortion rights, antipoverty programs and voting rights for blacks and other minorities. As he grew in seniority and influence, Gibbons became a vital defender for the Tampa Bay area, protecting its major assets, from MacDill Air Force Base and local veterans' facilities to the highways, ports and airports. His championing of free trade — which often pitted him against organized labor and his own Democratic Party — gave this region a competitive edge in the ever-global economy.
For someone who embodied the greatest generation, Gibbons' greatest legacy was looking out for the generations coming after him. Behind the passion with which he defended those who had no voice was a grace and courtliness that seems almost impossible in today's toxic partisan atmosphere. He knew his community, reflected well on it, and his work will have a positive impact for generations to come. No public servant could wish for more than that.