Remember the hotbed of reader responses in July and August 2017 Etcetera columns regarding the identity of a mystery man pictured standing near B. Barer & Sons on Fourth Avenue between Main and Rose streets?
Readers speculated maybe it was George or Roy Gibbs of Walla Walla, Alvin Fry of Old Wallula and Walla Walla, or Laurence “Laurency” Henderson from Weston and occasionally Walla Walla. His identity was never definitively settled.
However, because of some in-depth research by Joe Drazan of the online Bygone Walla Walla blog, one of the subjects is back for more scrutiny.
Joe wishes to correct a misidentification from the Aug. 7 Etcetera column. “That photo is not Roy Gibbs — it is George Gibbs,” Joe emailed. “Calling him Roy was a false assumption based on not knowing more about George Gibbs and presuming too much about those street addresses. My apologies,” Joe said.
Roy Gibbs was an occupational therapist at the VA Hospital those years and lived at 20 W. Cherry St. with wife Helen. A Robert Gibbs worked at Tompkins & Nibler Seed Co.
Joe emailed several clippings about and photos of George Gibbs, who managed to live into his 110th year, depending on his actual birth year, which was in question.
For a little historical perspective, Kelly Severns reported in the U-B on March 19, 1971, that George was 4 when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated; 15 years old when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone; at 37 was too old to participate in the Spanish-American War; was 42 when the Wright brothers flew the first airplane; and in his 80th decade, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, drawing the U.S. into World War II.
He was reportedly born March 20, 1861, in Fort Worth, Texas. But it could have been 1863. He came west by ox cart to Colfax at age 12.
At age 80, George and five other octogenarian ex-cowhands participated in the Walla Walla Frontier Days parade. Sheriff John Cummins was one of them and coordinated the senior cowhands project. George eschewed horseback for a buggy seat, according to a photo caption from Aug. 29, 1961.
A clipping from March 20, 1964, shows an ax-wielding George Gibbs fit enough to cut his own wood that day — his 103rd birthday.
And to mark the big day, all he wished for was a big, fat pillow, the U-B reported. “Mine is sort of thin,” he said.
Three groups of Camp Fire and Blue Bird girls raised funds for the fluffiest bed pillow they could buy after hearing about his desire.
Round Table Blue Birds from Sharpstein School, led by Bernadine Engdahl, made the presentation, the U-B reported. Fundraising was also conducted by Camp Fire girls in Koda Tamikata Group, led by Wilma Bristol and Elutakoda Group led by Audrey Matuski, both of Berney School.
George was a Texas native and lifelong bachelor who lived alone at 221 E. Oak St. Believed to be Walla Walla’s oldest resident, he moved here before 1900, the newspaper reported.
On a recent foray into the Whitman College Archives, Joe came across photos U-B photographer Bill Lilley took in March 1965 of George with a group of Girl Scouts who helped him celebrate his 104th birthday with a cake and cards. Splitting firewood was still part of his routine.
When George was 105, the U-B ran a photo and caption on March 18, 1966, with the heading “Never too late — for school.” George is shown with Philipp Scott, acting director of the Walla Walla Vocational School, who discussed with George possibilities of a basic adult education course enrollment.
“If there’s a tongue in cheek, it doesn’t show,” the photo caption states. Once George gained centenarian status, he was described most years as spry.
The voc-ed director stopped by George’s home after hearing he had not had much schooling in his first 100 years, was of age in his second century and really should be going back to the classroom.
The accompanying article reports George gave Philipp a brief St. Patrick’s Day Irish jig after rhythmically chopping wood. “I just don’t believe it,” Philipp exclaimed of George’s physical ability.
For this birthday, Sharpstein third-graders in the Happy Blue Birds troop and leader Elaine Rice presented him with a birthday cake.
George credited heaping doses of cayenne pepper in his cooking to his longevity and very active life, according to the 1966 article.
U-B writer Claude Gray noted on March 19, 1967, that at 106, George was a mighty spry old gentleman.
He said the ex-bronc buster performed at the first Frontier Days exhibition, had homesteaded at age 22 on the Butler Grade south of Touchet in Oregon and farmed in the Umapine area. Rattlesnakes invaded his remote house there and drove him out. He later worked at various jobs in this part of the Inland Empire.
In addition to cleaning his home and cooking lots of fried foods, from eggs to pork chops to chicken and turkey, he was chopping his own firewood in 1967.
His irrepressible humor was evident as a newspaperman and photographer departed his home. “You left something there,” he yelled. “What was that?” the reporter asked. “Your tracks,” George chuckled.
His wisecracks were typical, Claude noted in his article. Every reporter who wrote about him when he turned 98 and onward commented on George’s humor.
“He attributes his longevity to the fact he has never married and to using quantities of cayenne pepper as food seasoning,” Claude reported.
“Students learn about the aged,” the March 28, 1969, U-B headline reported in George’s 108th birth year.
Students in Elton Fenno’s socioeconomics class at Walla Walla High School considered the generation gap and plight of the elderly a hot topic at the time.
More than 20 classmates searching for a cuspidor bought one in Milton-Freewater and gave the shiny brass spittoon to George. He had previously used a tin can for expectorating purposes, the U-B reported. Sandi Martin decorated a birthday cake that was loaded with 108 candles.
The article reported the students learned many people will pay to see that aged residents have flowers and gifts, but little is done to keep elderly minds active or present them a challenge to stimulate interest.
“It’s the face-to-face relationship with people of all ages that the elderly want and need, class members found,” they concluded
On April 19, 1971, Kelly Severns wrote that fans filled Gibb’s mailbox with letters from around the country after The Associate Press picked up his photo and an article that ran after his 110th birthday on March 20, 1971.
President Richard Nixon and wife Patricia were among well-wishers for his 110th birthday, and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson also sent greetings during their administrations.
In his 110th year, George still cleaned his home, cooked for himself and chopped firewood, although his eyes were failing and his bones ached some.
And his humor? Still evident:
“Did you know you’ve got a hole in your shoe,” George asked Kelly.
“Which one?” Kelly said.
“Both of them. If they didn’t have holes in them you couldn’t get your feet into ‘em.”
Joe couldn’t locate an obituary for George, but said he lived on Morton Street until he moved to his Oak Street address at about age 100.
“He appeared in U-B news photos, often with different groups that brought him cakes, etc. He died Dec. 28, 1972, and is buried in Mountain View Cemetery, which says he was born in 1863 — although some clippings have him born in 1861,” Joe said, noting the online archive service he uses has no papers from 1972.
Cayenne pepper doesn’t seem to have hurt the man with the long life, but a friend of his noted George spent most of his working life outdoors, which perhaps was the key to his longevity.