Sam Gibbons, former U.S. congressman, World War II veteran and “father of USF” is remembered
as more than a legislator at USF.
As a state representative in 1956, Gibbons, who died Wednesday morning at the age of 92, sponsored the bill to create Florida’s fourth university – the University of South Florida.
“He’s kind of the founding father of the University,” former USF President Betty Castor said. “Were it not for him, we might not have this university here. … It was a time when there were only three public
universities in Florida, and they were all north of Gainesville. That’s why we wound up with the name University of South Florida, because we were the first public university south of Gainesville.”
Gibbons, who spent more than 30 years in the federal House of Representatives before deciding not to seek re-election, sponsored bills that created the Head Start program for education and supported some of the earliest versions of Medicare and many social reform programs in the era of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
A paratrooper during World War II, he was the last remaining Congressman who landed in Normandy on D-Day.
But Castor, who said she knew Gibbons since the 1970s, said USF will always remember Gibbons differently.
“He did a lot in his many years in the Congress, but his real legacy for a lot of us will be that he is the founding father for USF,” she said. “He had a national influence, but he took care of his home base, the neighborhood.”
After initially sponsoring the bill to create USF, Gibbons and his family remained involved at USF, visiting the campus often and even donating his entire collection of legislative papers to the USF Library after his retirement.
“He just loved USF and the fact that he had a hand in creating it,” Castor said. “I think he always knew we would be a major national university, because Florida is changing very quickly. He could sense that USF would grow. I’m not sure in the very beginning that he ever thought the university would grow to 45,000 students. As he visited the university in the last few years, he was very proud of the institution.”
USF President Judy Genshaft said Gibbons was Tampa Bay’s “great pioneer.”
“Both the university and the Tampa Bay community owe Sam Gibbons great appreciation for his vision, his support and his accomplishments,” she said in a USF News release. “He had the vision to fight for these great institutions to build this community. He was the founder and best friend of the University of South Florida. And he had a great vision for the powerful role of a university in building a community.”
Castor said after Gibbons stepped down from Congress, she asked a close friend of his to try to convince him to come to USF, where he could have an office of his own in the Library, but Gibbons instead joined his son in a lobbying firm.
He continued to visit, she said, and she often enjoyed his storytelling and sense of humor.
“He had a strong sense of humor,” she said. “He could laugh at himself, and he had a great belly laugh. When you heard him laugh, you wanted to laugh, too.”
Castor said Gibbons was saddened in recent years to see the increased partisanship in politics.
“I thought he was very courageous,” she said. “He always voted for what he wanted and what he thought was best.”
Gibbons was known for crossing party lines as chairman of the House’s Ways and Means budget-writing committee, authoring bills with members from all parties.
Darlene Corcoran, graduate program specialist in the department of philosophy, said she remembers Gibbons as one of the few “good guys” in politics.
Corcoran said she met Gibbons in his D.C. office in the 1980s and remembers him as friendly and trustworthy. When her family was dealing with an IRS issue that caused unnecessary hassles for her mother, Corcoran said Gibbons was able to help.
“Mom called Sam Gibbons, and he cleared it all up,” she said. “It was really nice. He was always accessible. I know another member of our family had some legal something going on and needed advice, and Mom said, ‘Call Sam Gibbons.'”
Gibbons, she said, would always remain in her memory as a rare specimen of politicians.
“We don’t have legislators like that anymore,” she said. “With all of the politics now, we see a lot of infighting and lack of cooperation, and it seems like politicians are bad guys. Well, they’re not all bad guys. There are the good guys too. Sometimes, that’s hard to find.”