A little more than two weeks before a divisive presidential election, in an era when politicians often are held in low esteem, hundreds of people packed Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church on Saturday to honor the tall man with big ears who stood above the fray to get things done in Tallahassee and Washington.
Befitting the legacy of a public official who worked hard to represent all his constituents, Democrats and Republicans; blacks, whites and Latinos; veterans and civilians came to say goodbye to former U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons, who died Oct. 10 at age 92.
"The city lost its favorite son," said former judge and Hillsborough County state attorney E.J. Salcines during a passionate eulogy at the South Tampa church where Gibbons and his family spent many Sundays.
The Rev. John T. DeBevoise, the Gibbons family's longtime pastor, presided at Saturday's service.
Though Gibbons was not overtly religious, his life was informed by faith and family.
Monsignor Robert C. Gibbons, pastor of St. Paul's Catholic Parish in St. Petersburg, recalled an early lesson his late cousin enjoyed telling.
"It was the broiling hot morning of July 17, 1929," Pastor Gibbons said. There was a run on banks the previous day and the old Citizen's Bank, which was represented by the Gibbons' family law firm, was cleaned out. The law firm's money was gone. The family's was, too.
Sam Gibbons was 9 years old.
"The family all gathered around the conference room table -- grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, including my father," said Pastor Gibbons. "And Sam, the first grandchild. They were all opening their wallets and putting what they had out on the table and they counted it up."
It all came to a little more than $100, said the pastor. But more important than the money was the lesson Sam Gibbons learned that day.
"Not every man for himself," Pastor Gibbons said. "Rather a philosophy of commitment to the group, for the good of the whole."
As each speaker took the microphone and addressed more than 600 people filling the church pews, it was clear that through the battlefields of Europe, scores of elections, eight presidents and nine mayors, Gibbons stayed true to the lesson he learned watching his family cope with the opening moments of the Great Depression.
"Sam Gibbons was passionate about this community, not just the white community, but the black community as well," recalled Jim Hammond, a civil rights leader and namesake of the James A. Hammond Elementary School.
"Jim Hammond, what can I help you with?" he recalled Gibbons asking.
"Sam, I have a passion to help, particularly black kids in this community who come to school unprepared and don't graduate – that's still going on today."
Hammond said he told Gibbons he needed money to start a preschool program, "to get kids started early in life so they can come to school prepared."
Gibbons came up with more than $600,000. Hammond used the money to launch the forerunner of the national Head Start program, which Gibbons also championed.
Betty Castor, a past president of the University of South Florida, lauded Gibbons for the university he helped establish, the Veterans Administration Hospital he placed across the street from it, and the medical school he pushed for in Congress. She also remembered his role in helping create Tampa International Airport and the Port of Tampa.
The list of Gibbons' accomplishments – he served in the state Legislature, then in Congress from 1962 until retiring in 1997 – is voluminous. A staunch advocate of peace through trade, he helped create the North American Free Trade Agreement and a dispute settlement procedure with the World Trade Organization, and also authored legislation creating individual retirement accounts.
But before all of that, Castor said, Gibbons was responsible for making Tampa what it has become, with legislation he pushed through Tallahassee allowing the city to annex Palma Ceia, the Interbay Peninsula, East Tampa and the Port of Tampa.
"By Sam's one bill, the population of Tampa more than doubled," said Castor. "Now they would all brag that Tampa was the fastest growing city in Florida and maybe the nation."
The ceremony had many light moments. Gibbons parachuted behind enemy lines the night before the invasion of Normandy and fought across Europe in World War II, and is credited with inspiring Tom Brokaw to write about "the greatest generation." But his grandson, Cody, recalled one of the family's favorite war stories:
While flying to the drop zone over Normandy, Gibbons decided to swap out equipment, Cody Gibbons said. "He had a gas mask canister and he thought, 'If I need this, we are not going to make it anyway… Might as well fill it with beer.'"
The audience erupted with laughter.
Salcines also offered humorous recollections.
"It was said that when Sam spoke, everybody listened," said Salcines. "Well, on the contrary, Sam was a good listener and communicator. A people person. He told me one time, 'Junior, I have to listen to so much that God has given me these big ears.'"
After Gibbon's son, Cliff, thanked those attending the service for helping his father accomplish so much, an Army honor guard fired a ceremonial volley, and presented flags and the spent shells to Cliff and his brothers, Mark and Timothy.