TAMPA — Joy McCann Culverhouse, the widow of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh F. Culverhouse, emerged from his shadow after his death.
She prevailed in a bitter court battle in 1997, seizing a share of her late husband's $380 million estate and becoming a noted philanthropist.
"I feel free as a bird today," she said the day after the court ruling, which awarded her $34 million from his trust and the power to make bequests. "For the first time in my life I can do as I please and I don't have to account to anyone."
Mrs. Culverhouse died of pneumonia Tuesday in Tampa. She was 96.
Born Joy McCann in Montgomery, Ala., she met Culverhouse, an accounting student, during a pingpong game at a University of Alabama fraternity house her junior year in college. They married after graduation in 1942.
Mrs. Culverhouse sewed her children's clothes, later threw lavish parties for Tampa socialites, and supported her husband's lucrative career as a tax lawyer who owned the losing but profitable Bucs.
"Careers are often attributed to the person who has the career. But oftentimes, it's the partner who is behind them that makes it possible," said Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who served as the Bucs' general counsel while Culverhouse owned the team. "She played a huge role in his success by her drive and by being there to give advice."
After 52 years of marriage, Culverhouse died of cancer in 1994. Details about his infidelities came to the fore, and Mrs. Culverhouse's legal battle began "as a matter of principle," she once said.
Four days after a judge began hearing her probate case, she reached a settlement with three trustees, lawyers Steve Story, Fred Cone and Jack Donlan, whom she had accused of cheating her out of her portion of the estate. Culverhouse had directed the trustees to oversee a family foundation that would make donations to his favorite 36 charities.
Of more than 20,000 pages of testimony in the estate trial, many focused on the trustees' management. Depositions also detailed three extramarital affairs Culverhouse allegedly had, including one with Susan Brinkley, wife of broadcaster David Brinkley.
"If I had known about his philandering I'd probably have shot him, and he knew it," said Mrs. Culverhouse, a crack shot who acknowledged having a gun in almost every room of her home.
In her suit she claimed that she had been misled and pressured by the trustees into signing a post-marital agreement in 1993 because she was distraught at news that her husband was dying. She contended that her husband was really trying to cast her off to marry one of his mistresses.
In the years after her victory, Mrs. Culverhouse donated millions to her late husband's favorite Tampa-area beneficiaries, including the University of South Florida, a clinic that studies swallowing disorders and a breast cancer clinic.
"Speaking for all of us at USF she will be greatly missed," said Joel D. Momberg, CEO of the USF Foundation. He said Mrs. Culverhouse's donations were spread across athletics, arts and sciences, alumni affairs, public radio and especially health. "She opened the door for a lot of things at USF to help in the growth."
A lawyer, Mrs. Culverhouse was a member of the board of directors of the National Football League team owned by her husband from 1974 until his death. For a decade ending in 1990, she served as the team's vice president.
"There was a moment in time when she was the most important person in making sure the franchise remained in Tampa," McKay said. "She was very smart and brutally honest. And she was driven and very, very competitive. The Bucs losing in the early years was probably harder on her than Mr. C."
Indeed, McKay said, she hated to lose a single hole in golf. The ninth member of an eight-man golf team in college, Mrs. Culverhouse went on to win several women's state golf championships.
The Bucs' current owners, the Glazer family, said in a statement that they were saddened to hear of Mrs. Culverhouse's death.
"The Culverhouse family will always hold a special place in Tampa's rich sports history as the first major professional sports owners in our community," the statement read. "We appreciate all that Joy and her husband, Hugh, did for the Tampa Bay area."
In the early 2000s, Mrs. Culverhouse made headlines again. After her marriage in 2001 to Dr. Robert M. Daugherty, who had just become dean of the USF medical school, the family foundation's bylaws were changed. Instead of going to her late husband's favorite charities, cash gifts began flowing to beneficiaries with close ties to her new husband. Former beneficiaries and Mrs. Culverhouse's son challenged the foundation's new direction.
In 2006, Mrs. Culverhouse divorced Daugherty, citing an "irretrievably broken" marriage. In 2007, he moved back into her Tampa condo, and foundation money again began flowing toward groups with ties to Daugherty.
In 2009, a settlement required millions to be distributed from the estate to local nonprofits and medical institutions. It barred Daugherty from ever serving on the foundation's board and restored Culverhouse's deathbed wishes.
Survivors include her son, Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr., and a daughter, Dr. Gay Culverhouse.
Times senior researcher John Martin and staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report. Information from Times files was used in this obituary.