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Thomas Terrell Sessums, former Florida House speaker, dead at 89

The Tampa attorney was remembered as a bridge builder instrumental in the development of Florida education and USF.

Thomas Terrell Sessums, former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and longtime champion of improving public education in Florida, died Saturday at 89, his family said.

Word of Mr. Sessums’ passing quickly spread throughout the state with tributes on social media to the lifelong public servant and philanthropist.

“Florida has lost one of our most dedicated leaders and a true champion of public education and higher education,” U.S. Rep. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, wrote in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “He served his country and community with honesty and commitment.”

Mr. Sessums, a longtime Tampa lawyer, served as a state legislator from 1963 to 1974, marshaling legislation that created the State Fair Authority, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission and the Tampa Sports Authority.

Before joining the state Legislature, Mr. Sessums was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and served in both Europe and Africa. After completing his tour of duty as a captain, he returned to the University of Florida, where he earned his law degrees and met his wife of 55 years, the late Neva S. Sessums. A longtime public school teacher in Hillsborough County, Neva Sessums died in 2013. They had three children and five grandchildren.

In a post to her Facebook page, daughter Sandra Sessums Slayton remembered her father as a “bridge builder” who sought to “do all the good you can.”

Related: Tampa Metro Civitans honor Sessums as Citizen of the Year

Terrell Sessums was an active member in a number of community organizations, served as special counsel to the U.S. Senate and was a member of the Federal Judicial Nominating Commission of Florida. According to the Florida Bar Association, Mr. Sessums remained a member in good standing until the day of his death and was a member of the firm Furth Salem Mason and Li.

But friends and colleagues said he is perhaps most remembered for his unflagging commitment to improving education throughout his Tampa Bay community. Mr. Sessums served as speaker of the House from 1972 to 1974 and used the platform to support the rapid evolution and of the University of South Florida with a series of significant expansions in its early days.

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With heavy hearts, we mourn the passing today of Mr. Terrell Sessums. As Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and a member of the Florida Board of Regents (predecessor of the BOG), Sessums played a key role in establishing the University of South Florida and the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. From the beginning, Sessums was heavily invested in our university’s success. He served on the USF Foundation Board of Directors, was a Foundation Member of USF’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter and taught as an instructor in the Judy Genshaft Honors College. Sessums was also a member of the John & Grace Allen Society and the Legacy Society for his generous gifts to the Judy Genshaft Honors College, the Morsani College of Medicine and the USF Libraries. A veteran of the U.S. Air Force and a fierce proponent of equitable education, Sessums was a true public servant who will forever be remembered and honored by the USF community for his extraordinary leadership and service. He would have turned 90 years old on June 11. Rest in peace, dear friend. @usouthflorida @usfhealthmedicine @usfhonors @usflibraries

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He used his leadership position to grow USF’s Honors College and was instrumental in laying the groundwork for USF Health and its College of Medicine. In his later years, Mr. Sessums served on the USF Foundation Board of Directors and an instructor in the Honors College. Sessums Mall on the university’s Tampa campus was dedicated in his honor in 1999.

Mr. Sessums also presided over the University of Tampa’s board of trustees and served as chairman of the state Board of Regents, the former governing board of Florida’s university system.

As a state legislator, Mr. Sessums authored the Florida Education Finance Program, ensuring more equitable financing for school districts.

Sessums Elementary School in Riverview was named in his honor in 2003.

“He joined our PTA during his last visit to our school,” the staff at Sessums Elementary posted to Twitter on Saturday.

Due to precautions necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus, funeral arrangements had yet to be announced Sunday.