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Legislator's wife, adviser, confidant

Martha Gibbons, her husband says, was an indispensable figure in a career that spanned four decades.

Published October 2, 2003

TAMPA - Politics never was in the dreams of a young Martha Gibbons.

The former Martha Hanley, daughter of a successful Tampa businessman, had her life mapped out, and it centered on her husband, Sam, a young lawyer in his family's well-connected firm.

They had just built a house in South Tampa. They had one son and another on the way.

Suddenly, change was in the air. Her husband wanted to go into politics - which in Florida in the years after World War II meant investigations and scandal.

"Oh, this isn't a very good thing to get involved in," she told her husband. "Public life doesn't seem the most comfortable thing to me."

Her husband downplayed the risks and the time involved. The Legislature met only once every two years, he pointed out.

Finally she agreed, setting in motion a career that took her and her husband to the top levels of Tallahassee and Washington. When the war hero and bay area Democratic lawmaker retired in 1996 after four decades in the Legislature and Congress, Martha Gibbons was at his side, as usual.

Mrs. Gibbons, the indispensable but little-known part of the long-running political success story of her husband, died Wednesday (Oct. 1, 2003). She was 80 years old.

Mrs. Gibbons succumbed to cancer discovered after she suffered a minor stroke in January 2002. She had surgery to remove her duodenum in December 2002 and was released from Tampa General Hospital in January. In August, she thought she was having a heart attack and went to the cardiologist, who found the cancer had spread to her liver. She underwent chemotherapy but doctors told her continuing it might kill her, so she ceased treatment.

"She knew it all, we had no secrets," Gibbons said. "She faced it well, bravely."

Mrs. Gibbons died at home, the house they built in 1949.

"The truth is she managed most of my campaigns, mostly right out of this house," Gibbons said.

The couple was married 57 years - they wed at the First Baptist Church of Tampa. A lifelong Tampa resident, Mrs. Gibbons attended Plant High School and graduated from Florida State College for Women, now Florida State University.

She also lived and worked in Washington during her husband's political tenure. She was president of the Congressional Club, the International Friends Club and the Florida House Foundation.

As her husband's adviser and confidant, her public poise and analytical mind made her an ideal political wife.

"I know one thing, Sam would be the first to admit he wouldn't know what he'd have done without her," Charles Rangel, the New York Democrat who took over Gibbons' leadership role on the Ways and Means Committee, once said.

Rangel said her style complemented her husband's. And while "everyone loves Martha," Rangel stressed, she was no pushover.

He recalled a speech he made slightly critical of her husband's value-added tax plan. Afterward he got a call from Mrs. Gibbons.

"She said, "I saw you on TV and you were not too kind about the VAT,"' Rangel recalled. "She was paying attention. I thought that was one of the most beautiful rebukes I've ever gotten."

In spring 1996, Rangel spent the weekend with Gibbons at a Ways and Means Committee retreat. The next Monday, Rangel heard about Gibbons' retirement announcement.

"Sam," Rangel said later, "we sat together and you didn't say anything about it."

"I hadn't talked to Martha yet," Gibbons told him.

The Washington couple became familiar to everyone simply as Sam and Martha. In his office there are two desks. One for him, one for her.

"I've led a miraculous life - Martha was always with me," Gibbons said. "She was my lover, my chaperone, my guardian, my mentor and always kept me out of trouble."

When the attendants put Mrs. Gibbon's body in the hearse, her husband was there.

"She still had a smile on her face," Gibbons said. "This is a moment of great celebration. She lived such a wonderful life."

Mrs. Gibbons is survived by her husband, three sons - Clifford, Mark and Timothy - their spouses and seven grandchildren.

A service will be at 4 p.m. Friday at the Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church, 3501 San Jose St.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to one of the following organizations: the Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church Building Fund, 3501 San Jose St., Tampa, 33629; H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, 12902 Magnolia Drive, Tampa, 33612; Sam and Martha Gibbons Alumni Center, University of South Florida, 4202 E Fowler Avenue, Tampa, 33602; or LifePath Hospice and Palliative Care, 3010 W Azeele St., Tampa, 33609.

- Information from Times files was used in this obituary. Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Dong-Phuong Nguyen contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 2, 2003, 02:49:35]

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