March 15, 2023
The University of South Florida community is deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Samuel P. “Sam” Bell, who is considered the “father” of the USF College of Public Health. He and his wife, former USF president Betty Castor have been deeply connected to the University of South Florida’s growth and success for decades.
"Sam Bell was a champion for USF. From his strong advocacy that led to the creation of our College of Public Health to his generous philanthropy that supports many of our students and programs, Sam’s impact is felt every day at USF. On behalf of the USF community, I extend my deepest condolences to his wife Betty Castor, a former USF president, and their entire family,” USF President Rhea Law said. “I was also fortunate to work closely with Sam during my time with Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. His smart, thoughtful and caring approach to public policy was tremendously beneficial to our law firm and our community. He will be missed.”
Bell represented Volusia County in the Florida House of Representatives from 1974 to 1988, where he was instrumental in pushing legislation that created the state’s first accredited public health college in 1984.
During his time in the legislature, Bell recognized a dual problem. He saw there were public health issues affecting Florida communities, such as infant mortality, tuberculosis and the need for clean drinking water. He also saw employees in the state’s county health departments were aging with no one in line to continue their work.
He lobbied to create Florida’s first college of public health to train a new generation of public health professionals, with USF chosen as its home due to its unique combination of having an urban setting and a medical school.
Over the next four decades, Bell watched the college grow from his words on a page to an internationally respected entity. According to U.S. News & World Report’s 2022 rankings, the USF College of Public Health is now the No. 1 public health college in the state and No. 16 nationwide. Bell served as the first and only chair of the dean’s advisory board.
“The College of Public Health exists because of Sam Bell. Everything we stand for is because of him. Sam Bell was a champion of champions. Everything he did, he did for good,” said Donna Petersen, dean of the College of Public Health and the university’s chief health officer.
The College of Public Health was the first of many USF projects Bell took an interest in. His contributions have played a crucial role in lifting USF to become a major player on the national and international stage.
An avid public radio listener, Bell served on the board for WUSF Public Media. He was a board member for the USF World Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies, bringing prominent international speakers to campus, and the Center for Urban Studies. Bell also served on the USF Foundation Board of Directors.
Among his many philanthropic contributions to the university, he endowed scholarships for the USF School of Music, the College of Public Health and women’s basketball. In conversation about the dozens of students who benefitted from his generosity, he spoke with pride about “our students” and “our graduates.”
An avid supporter of all USF women’s intercollegiate athletes, he and his wife, Betty Castor, could be seen cheering for the Bulls at nearly every women’s basketball home game.
In recognition of his distinguished service to USF and its community, Bell was awarded an honorary degree in 2009 as well as the university’s highest honor to a non-alumnus, the Class of ’56 Award, in 2018. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate of law from Flagler College and the Outstanding Member of the House Award from the Miami Herald.
“It is hard to describe the sheer magnitude of Sam Bell’s contributions to the University of South Florida,” said USF Foundation CEO Jay Stroman. “Through his philanthropy, his service and his advocacy, Sam Bell leaves a legacy that will endure for generations. We couldn’t be more appreciative of his unwavering commitment to leave this world a better place than when he entered it.”
Beyond USF, Bell was at the forefront of progressive policies, programs and laws that ensure Floridians, particularly children, have access to quality, affordable health care. His work with the nonprofit Institute for Child Health Policy resulted in Florida Healthy Kids, a government subsidized insurance plan that became the model for the national Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Thanks to Bell, Florida led the nation in efforts to regulate tap water temperatures to prevent scalding deaths. His work resulted in subsidized adoptions of children with special needs and established a network of neonatal intensive care units to ensure the youngest, sickest patients had the very best care.
Bell was born in West Virginia, moving with his parents and younger brother to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, just as he began high school.
He attended Dartmouth College and Duke University School of Law, then joined a Daytona Beach law firm. He spent the next four decades practicing civil law, becoming partner in several firms, including Pennington Moore Wilkinson Bell and Dunbar, now Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney.
Bell met Castor when both were serving in the state Legislature. They married in 1989, creating a family of six children and, now, 10 grandchildren.
“We were so fortunate to be the beneficiary of his foresight, his wisdom, his passion and his generosity,” said Petersen. “Our hearts are broken, but in his honor and memory, we will honor his legacy every way we can. We are forever indebted to this amazing human being.”
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