DOUGLAS — Although cemeteries are often a vital resource for history, there probably are not many people who come this way to visit the gravesite of John S. Gibson, a onetime member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Not even residents of Coffee County.
Had it not been for the voice of a treasured friend, I likely would not have made my way to the Douglas city cemetery to become indirectly linked with one of the most important men in modern American history.
Today, we hold a jaundiced and cynical view of Congress, its function, and its membership. Have you heard anything positive about the government lately? Government still works in my view. I can’t cite any recent examples, however. Last year, I had a conversation with Tom Osborne, the one-time Nebraska football coach who served three terms in the House of Representatives. He said, “Every day I went to work, I tried my hardest to make life better for the American people.”
I’m sure that John Gibson held the same view. He has a record to substantiate his place in history, which actually was brought about by an accident of timing. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted Congress to pass the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. There was not that much disagreement on doing something for our veterans who fought so gallantly in World War II, but to move the bill to the floor for a vote, it had to get out of committee. There was a 3-3 deadlock, and FDR needed Gibson’s vote. But the congressman was nowhere to be found. He was back home in Douglas — but nobody had an inkling of his whereabouts.
Radio stations broadcast reports, asking for help to locate the congressman. State troopers stopped people on the highway and asked if they might be Gibson. Finally, he arrived home and answered the phone. It was Washington calling, asking that he return to the Capitol post-haste. Eastern Airlines had a 2:30 a.m. flight out of Jacksonville. Gibson was rushed to the Jacksonville airport. The pilot had been told not to take off until Gibson was aboard. The plane landed in Washington at 6:37 a.m. Gibson immediately showed up to cast the tie-breaking vote, which led to the passage of what has become known as the GI Bill.
Passage of the bill was one of the greatest decisions in the history of our government. No only did it show appreciation for our servicemen, it was also an investment in our country that paid far-reaching dividends. It was a salute to higher education. It changed the face of America. It created a vast and productive middle class. More than 14 million servicemen enjoyed benefits as they became educated, when they otherwise could not have afforded it. They became responsible citizens in their communities and succeeded in business, which meant they paid more taxes. Not only did the government get its money back, there was an emotional benefit as former servicemen gave back to their communities.
Bill Hale, former director of communications at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education on the UGA campus, was one of those GIs who benefitted from the passage of the bill. A product of a mill village where everybody survived on minimum wage and owed their soul to the company store, Hale, through the GI bill, earned an undergraduate degree, a master’s and a doctorate. His view is that he has lived a good life, made possible by the G.I. bill.
An enterprising man, Hale has for 15 years made a trip to Douglas on Veterans day to leave a flower on the grave of John Gibson. “I cannot adequately tell you,” Hale says, “how that man’s decision affected my life. When you are given opportunity, you need to show your gratefulness.”
A friend, John Higgs, who runs the local radio station, took me out to the Douglas city cemetery where I met Henry Milhollin, the cemetery superintendent. “I appreciate you coming,” Milhollin said. “Glad somebody is interested in Mr. Gibson. He is special.”
John Gibson, in addition to his remarkable link with history, should be remembered for something else. He was elected to Congress for three terms and went there to serve. That makes him unusually special.