The Honorable Melvin Sembler

Obituary of The Honorable Melvin F. Sembler

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Mel Sembler, a pillar in our nation and community, passed away peacefully at his home surrounded by loving family on October 31. He was the founder and Chairman Emeritus of The Sembler Company, one of the country’s most recognized shopping center development firms.  His work as a civic and political activist is equally noteworthy.


Born in St. Joseph, Missouri, May 10, 1930, the youngest of four children, Melattended Northwestern University where he received a Bachelor of Science in communications in 1952.It was at Northwestern that Mel met the love of his life, Betty Schlesinger.  After graduation Mel joined the U.S. Army and served at Camp Chaffee, Arkansas.


Married in 1953, the Semblers moved to Betty’s hometown of Dyersburg, Tennessee, after a brief interval in Hollywood where Mel tried his hand in the entertainment world.  It was in Dyersburg that he started his career in the real estate business and built his first shopping center.  Other shopping centers in Tennessee followed and Mel was on his way.


In 1968 Mel and his family, consisting of Betty and their three sons, moved to St. Petersburg.  Mel had taken the position of president of Wagon Ho, a fast food restaurant concept.  He moved the company headquarters to St. Petersburg, but within a few years he left Wagon Ho to start his real estate business and once again began building shopping centers.


In 1986, Mel took a leadership role in the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) when he was elected to a two-year term as chairman of that large and prestigious business association.  As chairman, Mel traveled the world with Betty at his side giving speeches and promoting the shopping center industry.It was at that time that Mel met Nancy Reagan and discussed with her the drug treatment program he and Betty had founded in St. Petersburg.  Thus began the Semblers’ life-long activism in the national anti-drug movement. Mel and Betty would eventually go on to found Drug Free America Foundation, Inc., a drug prevention and policy organization. Through their tireless efforts, countless lives were saved and families were kept whole.


Mel’s journey into politics began when George H.W. Bush first ran for president in 1979. It started with a request from the campaign to lease space at a Sembler center. As Mel learned more about Bush and his platform he became involved in the campaign and the Republican party, hosting fundraisers and promoting the platform. This forged a lifetime friendship between the Semblers and the Bushes. After his election, President George H.W. Bushappointed Mel as United States Ambassador to Australia and Nauru.  He held that post from 1989 to 1993, after which he returned to the U.S. where he served as Florida’s RNC National Committeeman and then Finance Chairman of the Republic Party of Florida and later Finance Chairman for the Republican National Committee. 


Mel’s efforts spanned across political generations. After George W. Bush was elected President in 2000, he asked Mel to serve as United States Ambassador to Italy.  From 2001 to 2005 Mel and Betty lived in Rome and traveled throughout Italy serving as the President’s personal representative.


Politically and personally, the security of the State of Israel and its alliance and friendship with the United States was of critical importance to Mel; he felt it his duty to build as many political bridges as possible. He brought Republican candidates and future Republican presidents to Israel so they could get a better understanding of the nation, its people, its leaders, the daily threats it faced, and its strategic importance to the United States.


Mel Sembler was a success in business and in politics, but the role he cherished the most was husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. His greatest joy was being joined by his sons in The Sembler Company and then welcoming the next generation in the business.  He also cherished his friends, establishing relationships with people from all walks of life, locally and around the world. His only criterion was, “Are you a good person, and are you good to others?” If you worked for or with him, it did not matter; he only thought of you as a friend. Power, title or money never meant anything to him when it came to true friendship. The poet Rudyard Kipling’s expression,“If you can walk with kings nor lose the common touch, then you’ll be a man, my son,” describes the essence of Mel Sembler.


Mel was predeceased by his wife Betty and his sister, Norma Lee and brother Eugene.  He is survived by his sister Delores (Dodie) Krakower, of Houston, Texas; his sons Steve,

Brent (Debbie), and Greg (Liz); and Diane Sembler Kamins (Shelly); his twelve grandchildren, Erin Eichenbaum (David), Mark Sembler (Lauren), Stephanie Sembler, Tayllor Sembler Battle (Bruce), Madison Sembler (Sam Pitasky), Logan Sembler (Alex); Jacob Sembler Abo-Hebeish (Maged), Ezra Sembler, Eve Sembler (Jonathan Mest), Benjamin Sembler, Preston Sembler, and Rachel Sembler; and eight great-grandchildren: Mari and Max Eichenbaum, Calvin and George Sembler, Addie and Dylan Sembler, Judah Sembler-Pitasky, and Ari Mest.


Funeral services were held Thursday, November 2, at 1:00 pm at Temple Beth-El, 400 Pasadena Avenue South, St. Petersburg.  Burial followed in Chapel Hill Memorial Park in Largo.


Shiva Service Information

Shiva Services
Thursday, November 2, 2023 at 7pm
Saturday, November 4, 2023 at 8pm 

The Home of Brent & Debbie Sembler
7741 Hunter Lane
Pinellas Park, FL 33782



If you would like to honor Mel’s memory, please consider a donation to the Drug Free America Foundation, the Florida Holocaust Museum, or The Florida Orchestra.

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