Sam Gibbons, congressman and 'true American hero,' dies at age 92

Sam Gibbons was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1952, the Florida Senate in 1958 and to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1962. Before his retirement from Congress, he served as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Through five decades, Mr. Gibbons never lost an election.
Sam Gibbons was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1952, the Florida Senate in 1958 and to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1962. Before his retirement from Congress, he served as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Through five decades, Mr. Gibbons never lost an election.
Published Oct. 11, 2012

TAMPA — Sam Gibbons, a World War II hero who in 44 years as a legislator left a lasting imprint on social programs, world trade, health care and a raft of improvements for the Tampa Bay area, died early Wednesday, his family said.

He was 92.

Mr. Gibbons was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1952, the Florida Senate in 1958 and to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1962. Before his retirement from Congress, he served as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Through five decades, Mr. Gibbons never lost an election.

His sweeping resume includes expanding Tampa's physical boundaries; sponsoring the bill that started the University of South Florida; helping to start the Southwest Florida Water Management District; and lining up votes for the country's first Head Start program.

Later, Mr. Gibbons inadvertently prompted a best-selling book: Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation, about World War II veterans.

"Sam was a seminal inspiration for my writing the book," said Brokaw, who met Mr. Gibbons in a French cafe around the 40th anniversary of the D-day invasion. Brokaw said he was mesmerized by the story Mr. Gibbons told that day, and how those wartime experiences might have shaped his career.

Those who knew Mr. Gibbons best say he went into politics not to win wars, but to make them unnecessary.

"The carnage and the stupidity of trying to make decisions through war was something he wanted to put a stop to," said Clifford Gibbons, his son.

He took nuanced positions over his career. Mr. Gibbons voted for President Lyndon Johnson's anti-poverty program and against school busing; supported the Vietnam War at first and then regretted it; backed rights for women under Roe vs. Wade and bucked protectionist trade policies advocated by labor unions.

"He has been, in my opinion, one of the most outstanding congressmen from Florida we've had," said former Gov. Reubin Askew. "The lobbyists couldn't get to him. You couldn't persuade him to go against his own conscience."

A Democrat, Mr. Gibbons won over colleagues on both sides of the aisle with passion, grit and a self-effacing charm that extended to poking fun at his own protruding ears.

"People will forget your face," he told an audience at the John F. Germany Public Library in July. "They'll forget your name. But they won't forget these ears."

Nor did a string of presidents over 34 years forget Mr. Gibbons' ability to get votes. Mr. Gibbons ran John F. Kennedy's Florida presidential campaign in 1960 and was elected to the U.S. House two years later.

"JFK had him over to the White House and said, 'All right, I owe you,' " said Clifford Gibbons, who has worked as a lobbyist and lawyer in Washington, D.C. "Sam said, 'Okay, I want to start the Head Start program.' "

President Johnson used Mr. Gibbons as a point man for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "LBJ said, 'If you can talk southern and vote northern, that's really what we need,' " his son said.

Legislators both liked and feared him.

"If you had something that was really important to you, you had better try to get Sam Gibbons on your side because you didn't want him opposing you," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young R-Indian Shores.

Despite their political differences, they worked together more than they opposed each other, Young said. They teamed, for instance, to secure funding for the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse in downtown Tampa.

To the northeast, the sprawling campus of the University of South Florida represents Mr. Gibbons' most striking achievement in the Tampa Bay area.

"His legacy is the University of South Florida," said former USF president and state education commissioner Betty Castor. "I know he had a great career in Congress, but he was the person who made USF happen."

Mr. Gibbons pushed the authorization bill for USF through the Legislature in 1956, when he was just a skinny young state representative from Tampa. At the time, Florida had no public university south of Gainesville.

Sam Melville Gibbons was born Jan. 20, 1920, in Tampa, a lawyer's son. He went to the University of Florida in 1938 but left before his senior year to join the Army. He was a 24-year-old captain in the 101st Airborne Division on June 6, 1944, the first day of the Allied invasion of France.

Mr. Gibbons jumped out of a C-47 the night before the invasion. He landed in a field, unsure of where he might find Americans or stumble upon German soldiers. He and other paratroopers used small metal "clickers" to find each other.

One click was code for, "Here I am." Two clicks in reply meant, "We're here, too."

He left the service after five years, having earned a Bronze Star and four battle stars.

He returned to the University of Florida and graduated with a law degree.

He married Martha Hanley in 1946. They had three sons. In 1952 he campaigned for the state House of Representatives, driving around Hillsborough County in an old Studebaker. He was elected to the state Senate in 1958.

Mr. Gibbons credited his wife with furthering his political career.

He told the library audience recently that they were crossing the Howard Frankland Bridge when it happened. "Martha said, 'Why don't you go run for Congress, Sam?' So I did. That's how it happened. It was that fast and that quick."

As the first representative of a newly drawn Tampa-based district, he defeated a conservative Democrat to win the seat in 1962. He served 17 terms.

In June 1984, he visited France for the 40th anniversary of the D-day invasion. At some point, he and his wife wandered into a cafe, where he met Brokaw.

"It was a cold, rainy day," Brokaw recalled. "This big rawboned guy came in and said, 'Tom, I'm Congressman Sam Gibbons.' "

Mr. Gibbons talked about how he had landed behind Utah Beach 40 years earlier. He produced the clicker he still kept in his pocket. He reminisced about being one of just 600 who was not killed or wounded in a battalion of 2,000.

"His voice got softer," Brokaw said. "His pauses got longer. You could see he was struggling to control his emotions."

Brokaw said Mr. Gibbons struck him as a "quintessential American" of his time, whose story led him on the path to writing The Greatest Generation.

"World War II had a tremendous impact on me," Mr. Gibbons said. "I felt one reason it started was people didn't know how to work together."

Back home, Mr. Gibbons worked publicly and behind the scenes for civil rights, Medicare and free trade and was especially proud of pushing through a dispute settlement mechanism within the World Trade Organization.

He also did much to improve the Tampa Bay area, including successful efforts to create Interstate 4 and on behalf of MacDill Air Force Base. While local leaders and Rep. Young did much of the work to save MacDill in the 1990s, Mr. Gibbons stepped in at a key moment as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn recalled.

Times changed when Republicans won control of Congress in the 1994 elections. Mr. Gibbons lost his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees taxes, Social Security, Medicare, welfare and health issues. His unhappiness at the prospect of seeing decades of work undone led to memorable confrontations.

During a budget hearing in 1995 involving a far-reaching Medicare bill, he threw the Republican's printed agenda on a table. "This is pure railroad," he shouted over the chairman's gavel. "You're a bunch of dictators, that's all."

He stormed out but continued the argument in the hallway with Rep. Bill Thomas, at one point tugging on Thomas' tie.

Mr. Gibbons in 1996 decided not to seek re-election, despite the urging of President Bill Clinton to stay on. He joined Clifford Gibbons in a law practice. His wife died in 2003.

He later married Betty Culbreath, the widow of former TECO Energy chief executive H.L. Culbreath.

His death came unexpectedly, after he celebrated his anniversary with his wife. His family checked on him after he didn't show up for breakfast Wednesday. They found him in bed unresponsive, and he was pronounced dead at Tampa General Hospital.

If there is a story to best sum up Mr. Gibbons' influence, it might come from former Rep. Jim Davis, who succeeded Mr. Gibbons in Congress.

While campaigning, Davis knocked on a door at the end of a long, dirt road in the Florida country. When he introduced himself, the woman who answered said she was voting for Sam Gibbons.

When he told her Mr. Gibbons had retired, she replied: "I don't care. He's my congressman. I will write in his name."

Along with his wife, Betty, Mr. Gibbons is survived by his sons Clifford, Mark and Timothy Gibbons; and seven grandchildren.

Times researchers Natalie Watson and John Martin and staff writer Marissa Lang contributed to this report, which includes information from Times files, Congressional Quarterly's Politics in America and the New York Times.