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Florida Icon: Sam Gibbons

Editor’s note: On Oct. 5, five days before he died, Sam Gibbons was interviewed by Florida Trend’s Art Levy. Gibbons, dealing with balance problems, sat in a wheelchair, but was otherwise strong and energetic during the nearly two-hour session. He spoke about growing up in Tampa, his role in the 1944 D-Day invasion, his friendship with John Kennedy and his career in public service, which included 34 years in the U.S. Congress and 10 years in the Florida Legislature. Gibbons said he was happy and his only regrets weren’t big enough to even talk about. “I don’t have anything to cry about,” he said. “The only thing I worry about is tomorrow.”

» The war made me a very serious person. I became more interested in the welfare of those around me.

» Politicians seem to be having a harder time today. I don’t know how much of that is self-inflicted. I really think it’s the unlimited amount of campaign money that’s the problem.

» The first time I ever appeared in a newspaper was in a fishing column. The guy wrote about the two 10-pound grouper I caught in about 20 minutes out in front of my grandmother’s house in Haven Beach, by Indian Rocks Beach. About 100 yards off the front of her home was a reef, a little reef that was just loaded with fish. I’d paddle out there in a canoe. They ran my picture holding these two 10-pound grouper. That was my first public appearance.

» When I went to Congress, Florida had about 3 million people. By the time I got out of Congress, Florida was up to about 18 or 19 million people. Florida was addicted to growth, but a lot of the temporary prosperity that comes about from growth just isn’t here anymore.

» In 1942, I became dissatisfied with the work I was doing in the Army, so I joined the parachute troops. It worried the dickens out of my parents, but I sure knew I would be no worse off than I would be in the regular infantry.

» My father was a lawyer. There are 13 or 14 lawyers in the Gibbons family. I’m number seven.

» I landed in a pasture. I was all by myself. I had a general understanding of where I was, but I didn’t know exactly. When I got out of my parachute harness and got rid of the other stuff I didn’t need, I turned over on my belly and started crawling toward the nearest fence line. About halfway, I ran into a very warm cow pie. Ha! I said, ‘Oh’ – I won’t say the next word I said – and then I realized, well, I’m lucky because if there are cows in this field, it sure isn’t mined, and land mines were one of the things we were worried about.

» Dishonesty gets me angry.

» When I went to Washington, I had the friendship of the president, the vice president and all of their staff. You can’t express what an asset that was. One of the mayors of Tampa — and I won’t tell you who it was — he said to me one time, ‘Sam, you’re getting me so much money. I never dreamed there was this much money available at the federal level.’

» When I was a kid, I liked to dig holes, but they weren’t permanent. Nothing’s permanent in the Florida sand.

» I still like to help people. I try to help them make decisions. When people stop by to chat, they always leave with a little advice.

» Our health care system today is a mess. When I was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in 1994, I got the first health care bill approved in committee and got it to the House floor for vote, but then President Clinton decided he couldn’t push it through into the Senate and so we dropped the thing. That’s a frustration. You end up with a lot of frustrations when you’re in Congress.

» I don’t think we really know who killed John Kennedy. I think Lee Harvey Oswald is the one who fired the shot, but I think the plot was deeper than that. I talked to quite a few members of the investigating committee, and they said that when they started their hearings on investigating the assassination, the FBI came in with one hard line: There was one person; his name was Lee Harvey Oswald; he’s dead; and we don’t think there was anyone else involved. Well, I don’t know.

» The governor, I’d rather not get into that topic. I pray for him. Florida doesn’t need a bad governor. We have enough problems without one.

» War stinks. It really not only smells bad, but it stinks. I think one of the more important things that Americans must understand is that we are only 4% of all of the people on Earth — 4%! We are not big enough to run the whole world. We’ve got to have allies and friends. Countries that trade together don’t fight each other, so I always tried to promote commerce with foreign countries.

» We met at 8:30 Monday morning at MacDill Air Force Base and I rode with President Kennedy in Tampa. I never dreamed Tampa was such a good Democratic town until I went with him on that motorcade. People came up and stood in lines and waved at him and yelled. I kept waiting to hear a ‘Hey, Sam!’ He told me how pleased he was at the reception. Tuesday at 2 a.m., we were back in Washington, and I said goodbye to him on the White House lawn. There was a nice limousine waiting to take me to my home. The president and I shook hands and I thanked him for including me in his entourage. I guess ‘good night’ was the last thing he said to me. Four days later, he was dead.

» Like most people who are 92, I have good days and bad days. Today is a good day.