Epilogue: Former committeewoman Gail Samples' life bound Brooksville's past and present

The longtime Hernando County GOP leader died last month at 81.
Published December 13 2018

BROOKSVILLE — At age 75, Gail Samples sat in her living room and stamped thousands of envelopes stuffed with campaign mailers.

The year before — 2011 — she'd heard that her friend John Emerson planned to run for property appraiser and offered up her skills. Samples' husband, Les, held the same position for 21 years.

The former state GOP committeewoman had been around civil service long enough to know what Emerson needed to do to win the Republican primary. As he remembered it, she happily took over.

"She told me what to do," he said, "and I did it."

For Emerson, who won the election and holds the office six years later, the moment seems pivotal.

For Gail Samples, it was one of many stitches in a life that bound the Brooksville she grew up in to the one that exists today. The thread of her life wound through long-gone institutions: A.G. Fridy Jewelers, her family's business that closed in 1979 as one of the oldest in the county; the Cottage Dinette, a U.S. 41 hangout with a rock-and-roll jukebox din where she met Les. It wove through golf course clubhouses and hospital boardrooms. And it helped move the county's Republican Party from a scrappy minority to a dominant majority.

It's strange now to those who knew her — her very absence in a place where she was such a presence.

"It's kind of like part of your family goes when you find out Gail passed away," Emerson said.

Samples died Nov. 23 after a brief illness. She was 81.

Born in 1937, Samples survived a childhood bout with polio. After college, she went onto a career at Lykes Memorial Hospital — before it was Brooksville Regional — and eventually chaired the board there.

She also took up golf, a sport she played late into her life. Tom Hogan Sr., a longtime Republican state committeeman who worked alongside Samples, said her prowess on the course despite polio's lingering effects was indicative of her defining trait: perseverance.

"She didn't take anything lightly," he said. "If she had a task to do, she did it, and she knew what she was doing when she did it."

The same trait informed the work she did throughout the early 2000s as a committeewoman, Hogan said. She immersed herself in issues of ballot security and absentee voting, on which she became a "guru," he said.

Samples came at her work tenaciously, Hogan and others said, not out of a desire for political recognition but to make Hernando County a better place to live.

"Not in a haughty way, not in a fashion to demean anybody, but more from the standpoint of having an evangelical zeal," said her friend Bruce Snow, a local attorney. "(It was) not so much based on dogma, but on what she thought people needed to do to make their county, their state, their country better."

Emerson remembered her constantly working from party headquarters: making cold-calls, sending mailers, trying to flip on-the-fence voters.

"Those kind of effects made it where the Republican Party got so strong in Hernando County," he said.

She volunteered on campaigns and offered advice to local Republican candidates even after she stepped out of the political eye, her friends said. She saw the party's dominance as a step forward, not an endpoint. When Emerson saw her last, about three months ago, he said she already was talking about the 2020 elections.

"Oh, no," Hogan chuckled. "A job is never done with her."

For all her intensity, she also was open and gregarious, Emerson said, a "southern lady" who made room at the dining table for friends who happened to stop by around dinner time.

Her death leaves a void, Snow said, one he hopes others will fill with civic action. Hogan said he misses being able to pick up the phone and call her.

Emerson was in Virginia when one of Samples' sons called to say she was sick and wanted to see him, he said. He planned to visit her when he returned, but she died the day before his plane landed. He wanted to thank her one last time.

Sometimes, before Samples died, Emerson would drive by her house and glance at her driveway. If her PT Cruiser was parked there, he knew he could pull over and knock on the door, and they'd sit at her dining room table and talk.

But most of the time, he said, the car wasn't there. She was out of the house. She had much to do.

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

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