Former Florida lawmaker Sam Bell, stepfather of Kathy Castor, dies

Bell experienced an “unexpected health complication” Tuesday night, according to Castor’s office.
Sam Bell, left, stands next to his wife, Betty Castor, on the balcony of their Bayshore condo on Nov. 2, 2004, in this Times file photo.
Sam Bell, left, stands next to his wife, Betty Castor, on the balcony of their Bayshore condo on Nov. 2, 2004, in this Times file photo. [ Times (2004) ]
Published Mar. 15|Updated Mar. 23

Sam Bell, a former longtime Florida lawmaker and a champion of children’s health, died Tuesday night, according to U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, his stepdaughter. A statement from Castor’s office said he suffered “an unexpected health complication.” He was 83.

Bell, a Democrat from Volusia County, served in the Florida House for 14 years and was in line to be speaker until he lost reelection in 1988. Bell is survived by Betty Castor, his wife of 34 years. They have six children and 10 grandchildren, according to the statement.

Bell, who held the powerful position of appropriations chairperson, got to know Betty Castor when she was a state senator from Tampa in the Legislature. They didn’t immediately hit it off.

“They would get into these duels over who could support their local college and universities (in the budget),” Rep. Castor said in an interview, chuckling. “They were competitors. But eventually, that turned into respect and love.”

Bell strongly supported the career of his wife, a former state education commissioner, Hillsborough County commissioner and the first female president of the University of South Florida.

During his time in the Legislature, Bell sponsored laws to require certain health screenings for newborns as well as car seats for children, Rep. Castor said.

Ralph Haben, a Democrat from Manatee County who was House speaker in the early 1980s, said Bell was a “legislative giant” who not only had good ideas but also the know-how to make them reality.

“If he believed in something, by God, he believed in it and you were not going to dissuade him,” Haben said. “He’d give you that look, like, ‘You know what I’m about to say is correct, you really ought to just believe me.’”

The strength of his convictions earned him a nickname among lawmakers, Haben said: “Bull Bell.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who served with Bell in the Florida House in the ‘70s, said during a session when lawmakers were debating possibly demolishing Florida’s Historic Capitol, Nelson quipped that he would stand in front of the bulldozers himself if he had to.

“With a big grin on his face, (Bell) walks over to me with a toy bulldozer in his hands and instructs me to ... lay down,” he said. “He winds this toy bulldozer up and of course I complied, much to the laughter of all the members.”

After he left the House, Bell was a longtime lobbyist who remained passionate about children’s health.

“He will be missed as a friend but he will be missed as a public servant who operated on honor and integrity,” Nelson added. “He was a role model for what we need today.”

Bell also founded the University of South Florida College of Public Health and was considered the “father” of what was the first college of public health in the state. He was chairperson of its advisory board from 1984 until last year.

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Donna Petersen, dean of the College of Public Health, said the college is forever indebted to Bell.

She said he established scholarships and partnerships with two towns in Uganda so USF students could travel and do work there. In 2021, he created a fund to help faculty better communicate health information to Spanish speakers.

“He was just a good, kind, caring person who saw things in the world that needed changing and would say, ‘Well, let’s change it,’” she said.

Petersen said she’s been flooded with emails from people who remember his smile and positivity.

“Someone wrote to me this morning and they said, ‘He was a champion who made other champions,’” she said. “He left us with something very precious, and we will take care of it.”

Times staff writer Divya Kumar contributed to this report, which also includes information from the News Service of Florida.