"Father of USF" Sam Gibbons Dies

The long-time Tampa Congressman is credited with being the key driver to starting the University of South Florida.




From USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 10, 2012) – Sam Gibbons - a Tampa legend, admired statesman and a stalwart supporter of education who helped found the University of South Florida – died Wednesday. He was 92.


Sam Melville Gibbons was born in Tampa on Jan. 29, 1920, and went on to serve during World War II, and later dedicated his life to public service.


He returned home to Tampa following the war, and in 1951 was elected to the Florida Legislature, where he served for three terms. During that tenure, Gibbons drafted legislation that gave birth to the University of South Florida. He founded the USF Foundation and served as its first president.


USF President Judy Genshaft reacted with sadness at the news of Gibbon's passing, saying "the USF family has lost one of our true treasures."  The university community is enormously appreciative of the great life and accomplishments of Gibbons, Genshaft said Wednesday.

As a young representative in the Florida Legislature, Gibbons fought for establishment of a university in Tampa in 1956, making him the "father" of the University of South Florida.  He was instrumental in bringing a medical school to USF. That changed the university forever and gave this community the world-class medical care it desperately needed. 

"Both the university and the Tampa Bay community owe Sam Gibbons great appreciation for his vision, his support and his accomplishments," Genshaft said. "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. He was Tampa Bay's great pioneer. "

During the war, Gibbons was part of the first wave of Allied troops during the invasion of Normandy and later fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He attained the rank of Major and was awarded the Bronze Star.


In 1962, Gibbons, a Democrat, was elected to the U.S. Congress and served as representative spanning three decades, retiring in 1996. He was a staunch supporter of education, civil rights and healthcare.


When he made the announcement on March 4, 1996 that he would retire, Gibbons said: “After 34 years in Congress, I am ready to do something new.  God blessed me with excellent health, lots of vigor and an active mind.”

At the time, President Clinton remarked: “Congress has lost a tenacious champion of America's elderly and an unrelenting fighter for health care reform, open markets and free trade…”

In 1997, the new federal courthouse in Tampa was named after Gibbons.

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

Bill Scheuerle, a close friend of Gibbons and the former head of the USF Humanities Institute, said the cantankerous attitude of today’s U.S. Congress has had him recently thinking about Gibbons and his ability to lead and get along.

“Sam had dignity. He was a helper and an advocate of the people.  He crossed the aisle and became a colleague with the opposite party,” Scheuerle said. “He had tact and congeniality. He did not spend his time trying to outwit or denigrate members of the opposite party just because they were of the opposite party. When he was a state legislator he was the same.  That is how he and John Germany were able to start our great USF.  He was a strong gentleman.”


Gibbons recently appeared on WUSF’s Florida Matters with John F. Germany. To listen to the audio of that event, click here.


To view the archive collection on Gibbons at the USF Libraries, click here.


A Timeline on the life of Sam Gibbons from the USF Libraries.