When I heard he was gone, two pictures of Sam Gibbons stuck with me.
There must be a million photographs of him, the Tampa boy who became a respected statesman, the Washington congressman with the prominent Southern-boy ears who won the ear of presidents, the man who helped shape the hometown his heart never left.
But the image of what they called the “brawl in the hall” sticks with me, maybe because it was like him, and not.
In 1995, he was a mere 75 years old and in the U.S. House of Representatives. The subject that day was Medicare reform, about which he cared greatly, except debate was cut off. He would later characterize this as “unkind,” but back then he was mad and more descriptive.
“Dictators,” he called the other side. “I had to fight you guys 50 years ago.” Described in a news report as “normally a courtly septuagenarian,” Gibbons reportedly grabbed a handful of Republican necktie. “Delicious gossip for weeks in Washington,” a report said.
To me, that was him, a “courtly” politician who also believed fiercely in getting things done.
How do you chronicle the life of someone who lived at least three legacies, maybe more? He was an Army officer in World War II. He championed trade, worked with eight U.S. presidents, stood with Kennedy in Tampa days before the assassination. He was a state legislator. He brought us home a state college, the University of South Florida, and was named the school’s father. The federal courthouse downtown bears his name a somewhat risky proposition when the person is alive and still has the potential to embarrass you, as politicians will, but I don’t think anyone worried about Sam Gibbons.
Age did not stop him. His son Cliff, a Washington lawyer, said his father was planning to do TV spots for President Obama because he was passionate about fighting “misinformation about healthcare.” The Public Broadcasting Service was interviewing him about Kennedy.
“He had a full plate. I needed a scheduling secretary to talk to him,” Cliff said last week, when the news of his father’s death was hours old, still stunning and fresh. His voice was choked, but you could tell he was smiling, too.
Sam Gibbons had lately been talking up early voting among the silver-haired residents of the tony Canterbury Tower retirement residence on Bayshore Boulevard where he lived. He loved it, knew everyone, told his son it was “like going back to a Plant High reunion,” school to sons and daughters of prominent South Tampa families.
I met him there for lunch two years ago in the dining room with its sweeping bay views. He held my chair and we sipped a Southerner’s mix of sweet tea and lemonade and he talked politics and family and how Tampa grew up.
He was game for a photograph, so in his blue blazer and tie made his way across Bayshore Boulevard with the help of his cane and the photographer’s arm. Then he stood tall on his own. As the camera clicked, he smiled and said something funny I wish I could remember. That’s the image I have of Sam Gibbons, legend at 90, his shoulders back, his city spread out behind him and still a lot to do.
Sue Carlton is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.