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Remembering Betty Sembler

Betty Sembler, matriarch, drug prevention advocate, and philanthropist, dies at 90

Betty Sembler
Betty Sembler

Betty a pillar of our community and a trailblazer in drug prevention and treatment, died peacefully Wednesday, February 16, 2022, surrounded by her husband, Mel, and their loving tight-knit family. Services were held Friday, February 18, 2022, at Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg. Betty and Mel raised a beautiful family, built a business, helped support local, State, and Federal Republican candidates and elected officials. Along the way, most fell in love with Betty. It was easy for friends and foes to recognize her sincere passion for drug prevention, drug abuse research, and treatment. She was a tireless supporter often saying that “prevention is not the only answer, but it is the only treatment that we know actually works each and every time that it does work”.

Betty Sembler was born August 8, 1931, in Memphis to Gilbert and Fay Etta Schlesinger. She grew up in Dyersburg, Tennessee, where she developed an infectious personality that combined a southern belle charm, a brilliant mind which left many dazed. She was a powerful woman with a disarming wit and a great sense of humor. This personality served her well throughout her life and allowed her to make a positive difference in the lives of so many others.

Betty graduated from Northwestern University in 1953. It was there that she met Mel Sembler and began what she referred to as a great love story—a 69 year love story. The couple and their three young sons moved to St. Petersburg, Florida in 1968. As the family grew, Betty became more involved in her community and began her decades long advocacy for drug treatment and prevention. Her tenacity and expertise led her to meet with Nancy Reagan and convince the First Lady to make the drug prevention issue her own and helped launch the “Just Say No” campaign. Betty and Mel would eventually go on to found Drug Free America Foundation, Inc., a drug prevention and policy organization committed to developing strategies that prevent drug use and promote sustained recovery. She also supported basic and translational research into addiction as a disease of the brain.

Throughout her life, Betty had many close friends that were like family and she often referred to them as “framily.” She always counted her blessings and considered herself “lucky.” Betty gave unconditional love to all members of the family and their partners, always referring to daughters-in-law as simply daughters and this was also true of grandchildren and their partners. All were welcomed and accepted into the family with great love. Betty is survived by her husband, Melvin Sembler; her children, Steve Sembler, Brent Sembler (Debbie), Greg Sembler (Liz) and Diane Sembler Kamins; her grandchildren, Erin Eichenbaum (David), Mark Sembler (Lauren), Stephanie Mariniak (Justin), Madison Sembler (Sam Pitasky), Tayllor Battle (Bruce), Logan Sembler (Alexandra), Preston Sembler, Jacob Sembler, Ezra Sembler, Eve Sembler (Jonathan Mest) and Benjamin Sembler; her great-grandchildren, Miriam, Max, Calvin, George, Adeline and Dylan; and her brother, Victor Schlesinger (Arlene); and sister-in-law, Dodie Krakower.

Betty and Mel supported and became close friends with President George H.W. Bush, Barbara Bush and their sons, President George W. and Governor Jeb Bush and countless others. Betty joined her husband when he was twice called to serve our country as Ambassador. First, President George H.W. Bush appointed Mel to Australia in 1989 and George W. Bush appointed him Ambassador to Italy in 2001. Whether they were raising a family, growing a business, advocating for addiction research, prevention and treatment, Betty and Mel Sembler were a team. Betty received many accolades for her life’s work including; the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Museum Foundation (now the DEA Educational Foundation) Lifetime Achievement Award; Honorary Agent Status by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Betty was honored March 6, 2008, in Washington DC for her Lifetime Achievements by the DEA Educational Foundation in a luncheon gala led by former DEA Administrators Jack Lawn and Peter Bensinger. The standing room only event was attended by Ambassadors from Italy and Australia where Betty and Mel served as well as US Senators, US Representatives, US Drug Czars, DEA Administrators, Founding Director of the National Institutes on Drug Abuse Robert Dupont MD and other philanthropists like Sheldon Adelson.

Betty received many other awards including Tampa Bay Community Hero of the 2016-2017 season; Five Fabulous Female Award from Academy Prep., St. Petersburg in 2016, Great Floridian Award; Inducted into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame; The Houston Drug Free Business Initiative; and the Girl Scouts of Suncoast Council, “Woman of Distinction” 2000; Aug. 8, 2000; and “Betty Sembler Day” in Florida. In addition to her work with Drug Free America Foundation, Betty also served as board member of DARE Florida; Florida Governors Drug Free Task Force; Operation PAR in Pinellas County; Republican Jewish Coalition; The Florida Holocaust Museum; Florida Governor’s Mansion Foundation; Florida National Guard Multi-jurisdictional Counter Draw Training Advisory Board; The Jewish Policy Center; St. Petersburg’s Menorah Manor; DARE International as Vice Chair; University of Florida Brain Institute Research Advisory Council; the Florida House in Washington, D.C.

After news broke of Mrs. Sembler’s passing, politicians of all political stripes eulogized the political matriarch, who had three children and 11 grandchildren. Find tributes and comments on her passing »

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