TAMPA, Fla. — Former U.S. Rep. Sam M. Gibbons, who served 17 terms in Congress and rose to head the powerful Ways and Means Committee before his retirement, died late Tuesday or early Wednesday at a Tampa retirement home, according to his son. The elder Gibbons was 92.

Tim Gibbons said his father died "peacefully at the retirement home, where the two had chatted Tuesday night while looking out over Tampa Bay.

"He was fine, there was no indication of anything," Tim Gibbons said.

Elected in 1962, Gibbons never lost an election and was among the Tampa Bay region's best-known politicians. He is considered the "father" of the University of South Florida for pushing through legislation to create the school while serving in the Florida Legislature in the 1950s.

The alumni center at the university bears his name, as does the federal courthouse in Tampa.

"If it hadn't been for him, we probably wouldn't have the University of South Florida," said Bob Martinez, a former Florida governor and Tampa mayor. "And Tampa, to a great degree, is the size it is because of the actions he took as a member of the Florida Legislature. He left quite a government legacy."

Gibbons retired from Congress in 1997 at the age of 76, having served 34 years.

A paratrooper who landed behind enemy lines on D-Day during World War II, Gibbons went to Washington during the Kennedy Administration, after winning an open seat in 1962.

President Lyndon Johnson turned to Gibbons in the 1960s to help steer many of this "Great Society" initiatives through the House, telling Gibbons, "You vote Northern and talk Southern."

Appointed to the Ways and Means Committee in 1969, he became known for promoting free trade, believing that nations that trade with each other don't fight each other.

Gibbons rose to the panel's top spot after longtime Chairman Dan Rostenkowski's political and legal troubles forced him out in 1994. Some in Congress thought Gibbons was too congenial to handle such a hard-hitting task, but he proved to be a steadying hand.

After retiring, Gibbons remained in Washington, working with his sons in a lobbying firm.

"This is a great place," Gibbons said after announcing he wouldn't seek re-election in 1996. "I have never considered it work. This is a kind of service that is joyous, as far as I'm concerned, and I have enjoyed every minute of it."

Born Jan. 20, 1920 in Tampa, Sam Melville Gibbons was the son and grandson of prominent lawyers. He was a junior at the University of Florida when the United States entered World War II.

He was awarded a Bronze Star and other medals for his valor. He and his "cricket" – the small metal noisemaker given to D-Day paratroopers so they could find one another after the landing – were featured in Tom Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation."

Gibbons returned to Tampa to earn a law degree and marry debutante Martha Hanley. When he entered political life with a run for the Florida House of Representatives in 1952, she became his partner in that realm, too. She kept a matching desk in her husband's Washington office.

After Martha Gibbons died of cancer in 2003, Gibbons married widow Betty Culbreath, whom he had dated in high school.

In addition to his wife and son Tim, Sam Gibbons is survived by two other sons, Cliff and Mark.

Associated Press writer Gary Fineout contributed to this story from Tallahassee.

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