A history lesson with two prominent Tampa old-timers

08/03/12 Janelle Irwin
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In July two prominent figures in Tampa’s history reminisced at the downtown library in front of more than fifty residents. Sam Gibbons and John Germany agreed that politics isn’t what it used to be.

The library is named after Germany who lobbied to have it built. He politely blasted current politicians for their misuse of office for financial gain.

“And it’s just shocking to see how the politicians become very wealthy in a political situation. I’m talking about the fact that if you wanted to do business with the President you used his radio station in Texas to do your advertising with so he gets the rake off. I mean, it’s just something that was almost unheard of.”

Germany, who was retired member of Congress Sam Gibbons' campaign manager, remembers his longtime friend who said politicians are too divisive these days. It’s not at all like he remembers when his political career began in the fifties.

“And Sam said, that the minute that the jet airplane was introduced, all of the members of Congress would fly off to their homes and nobody would be left for the weekend to socialize with so you didn’t become friends with anybody. And that was one of the real downfalls of being able to get compromises in the Congress and I think he’s absolutely correct.”

But they said not all of the changes have been bad. Gibbons is happy that current officials are cleaning up the Hillsborough River and its banks.

“This used to be the most disgusting place in Tampa because it was a railroad terminal – Atlanta Coastlines freight yard and warehouse area and it was full of pigeons and rats.”

Germany was Gibbons’ campaign manager in the early fifties when Gibbons first ran for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives.

“Well, the nice thing about it is, that’s when Sam and I – and more than just Sam and I became friends – it was our wives became friends and we traveled the county together. I mean to tell you, his dad gave him an old Studebaker – which was un-air-conditioned – and we drove the county time and time again. It was wonderful to take into Plant City because I could introduce him around, but we’d go to places you’ve never heard of before.”

The downtown library was named after Germany in 1999 in honor of the work he put into building it. Germany remembered hitting several funding walls before finally getting the idea passed the new mayor, Nick Nuccio. But there was a catch; Germany said he was the one who had to figure out how to pay for it.

“I found a sliver of a bond issue that was backed by the cigarette tax that had not been used. So I went to the Mayor and I said, ‘Mr. Mayor, let’s see if we can do it with this’ and he said, ‘OK Jon’. We went to New York. We sold it to the idea of the bond people and the bankers and it became a reality.”

Gibbons is known, among other things, for his large-scale efforts to expand Tampa’s city limits. The effort was in full swing in 1953 after Gibbons snatched a free map from a bank, drove around town in that old air condition-lacking Studebaker and drew his own lines.

“My father had been in an automobile accident in Tampa at Howard Avenue and Morrison Avenue and he was hit in Tampa and ended up in the county. And with all the confusion with that, I decided we won’t draw the city limits along any middle of the street-type thing.”

Gibbons found an attorney, John Himes, to help him through the legal red to get a bill passed.

“Well, we got all through and it was a bill about – oh, 200 pages long with lots of detail in it and he said, ‘well we have to do certain things Sam, certain legal steps to get it considered by the legislature’ and so he took all those steps. Then finally the bill arrived in Tallahassee while the session was going on and I sat down one afternoon and read and read and read and didn’t find anything in there I disliked and I introduced the bill the next morning.”

Gibbons is also known by some as the “Father of USF” for his push to bring a state university to Tampa. But Germany was part of that fight too. As an aide for then-Governor Leroy Collins, Germany actually moved himself into the Governor’s mansion while the wives were out of town. Together they blew through piles of bills waiting to be signed.

“So Roy said John, come on over and live with me and we’ll get all the work done at night. So, sure enough I did and one of the things that came up was the funding of the University of South Florida and we discussed it and we discussed it and we discussed it. Now you got to understand that these were powerful forces that were against this and that is the University of Florida and FSU. FSU, Roy was right there, I mean, he was in the midst of it. And he kept saying, ‘you know, we ought to have these junior colleges and let them grow’. Well, it was very important that we get this funding through and finally Roy said, I tell you what John, I’ll let it become law but I will not sign it.”

Gibbons and Germany sat in the domed auditorium of the downtown library looking every bit their age. But as they remembered the times they were conquering the world – or at least Tampa – they were young men again. Gibbons said he ran for Congress because his wife said so. The audience laughed. Then he explained why, in his more than 40-year political career, he was never beaten.

“People will forget your face, they’ll forget your name, but they won’t forget these ears.”

And then there was more laughter when Gibbons ditched the inner young man and reminded everyone that he’s actually pretty old.

“You’ll probably be startled to know, but I have decided not to be buried, not to be cremated. I have turned my body over to the education system of Florida to teach students how to carve on people and teach them what they need to know about anatomy and so by the time they get through with me, there won’t be anything left.”

Germany isn’t the only one with a building named after him. The federal courthouse in downtown Tampa is named after Gibbons who is now retired.

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