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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Steve Otto Columns

Otto: This Schlitz is for you, Sam, and Queena

Twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall, the SS American Victory goes out into Tampa Bay. The former World War II merchant steamship is now a mariner’s memorial and museum and well worth a visit next time you’re down at the Port of Tampa Bay. It’s berthed behind The Florida Aquarium.

On Saturday the ship’s backers are holding a fundraiser, taking it out for what is being called a “Greatest Generation” cruise, with plans to honor the late Congressman Sam Gibbons, whose support was important to many things around here, from the University of South Florida to Tampa International Airport.

I don’t know that Gibbons was much of a sailor, although for years he led the charge in a series of port deepening projects.

Gibbons was a 16-term congressman, holding the seat now occupied by Kathy Castor. His influence and accomplishments are reflected today in institutions such as the Sam Gibbons Federal Courthouse in downtown Tampa.

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But Gibbons might best be remembered as a 24-year-old captain on June, 6, 1944 — 70 years ago next month.

It was about 1 a.m. that fateful morning when Gibbons, a member of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles,” jumped into the darkness some 800 feet above the French countryside.

He took the plunge with the same gear as everyone else on the plane except that he had removed his gas mask from its case and substituted two cans of Schlitz beer for the mask.

A true hero, he rounded up his scattered troops that night and went on the offensive. Later he would be at the Battle of the Bulge.

For several years I was fortunate to sit with a group that included Gibbons at the former Valencia Garden restaurant. Not many weeks passed without someone coming up to ask about the beer. I’m not sure Gibbons ever gave the same answer twice. But the more I think about it, the more I believe taking along the two cans was a good idea at the time.

Seating is limited for Saturday’s event. You can call (866) 468-7630 for information.

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Last week’s column updating you on Queena, the now 24-year-old woman who was savagely attacked outside the Bloomingdale Regional Public Library six years ago and left to die, brought a huge response. But one I particularly liked came from East Bay High School.

You’ll recall Queena was set to graduate from that school, heading to the University of Florida with everything in front of her. Today, still unable to speak or walk, she goes through daily therapies, struggling to improve.

None of the students now at East Bay was there when Queena was on campus. But all of them know her story, and many continue to offer support.

Emily Hird is a student at the school. She is part of a group planning the third 5-kilometer run to support Queena. Here’s a little of what she wrote: “I cannot express how thankful I am that you are willing to help us with this event. The ‘5K4Q’ is Saturday, May 17, at E.G. Simmons Park in Ruskin. We will also have a raffle and a one-mile run for fun. Queena will attend the event and last year even rode her therapy bike across the finish line.”

You don’t hear enough good about what happens in our schools these days. I know this note made me feel a little better on an otherwise gloomy day.

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