The older I get the more I’m aware that to LIVE a life means enjoying every day as much as you can. The curve balls are going to fly, there will be LOTS of stuff coming at you from left field, and yes, there will be sad things, too. But in all of that are the moments that make us who we are: the surprises that alter our path and put us on a road we would never have chosen where we find the most amazing view; the challenges that we face, choosing to stand tall and fight and thereby learn our true strength; and the sorrows that we must endure that bring us together with family and friends, reminding us of great memories, tears, laughter, and the most important things in life. This week our family is gathering for the latter, but in our sorrow we will celebrate the life of someone who absolutely knew how to truly LIVE and taught all of us lessons along the way.
On December 30 the light in the world dimmed when Ward Taylor (Buddy) Gilbert lost his brief battle with cancer. Down to a man, we are truly thankful that, if he had to go, the battle was short. We prayed for miracles, but God clearly had an opening for a gentle giant who could fly, with or without wings. For those of us left behind, though, there are gaping holes in our hearts and crater-like bootprints to fill.
Buddy was always interested and interesting, with a terrific back story. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 21, 1947, to parents Ward Taylor Gilbert and Mary Grotz Gilbert, who later relocated their family to Huntsville, Alabama. After high school he headed to the University of Alabama-Huntsville, but left in his freshman year to enlist in the Army. He served in the elite Special Forces (Green Berets) during the Vietnam war as part of the now famous Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), a highly classified, covert operations unit. Among his decorations are the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, and the Air Medal.
After his honorable discharge in 1973, he returned to Huntsville and began working on his pilot’s license, a decision that would influence the rest of his life. Buddy LOVED anything and everything to do with aviation. He could fly all day and go to an airplane museum when he was done! After receiving his private license, he became an instructor, eventually teaching ground school for Saudia in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. His next step put him in the driver’s seat on commercial airlines, THE place he wanted to be. He was a pilot, instructor, and/or Chief Pilot for several companies including National, Vanguard, Frontier, and Alaska Airlines. When the FAA took away his wings for age-related, mandatory retirement, he wasn’t quite ready to give it up. He went to work for Flight Safety International to teach pilots from around the world to be like him…the best.
A true Renaissance man, he never stopped learning. In his 60s, he went to Apple school to write iPad apps for use in pilot training programs (an intimidating feat in a class of 20-somethings!) and spent the last 10 years learning to play the piano. When he finally decided to truly retire, he honed his woodworking skills, making beautiful furniture pieces, pens, and even taking classes to build a guitar. He also spent time volunteering for military, veteran, and other charitable causes, serving as a Deacon at University Presbyterian Church and President of his neighborhood homeowner’s association, and working on his beloved Porsche 944.
While doing his initial pilot’s training in Huntsville, Buddy met and married Elizabeth (Betsy) Shelton, becoming an instant Dad to her two sons. After her death in 1988, he assumed his life would be devoted to work. God had different plans, however, and put Sandra Gwinn on his flight path, and he was instantly smitten. The two were quickly inseparable and married in 1993.
That’s it…the basics of Buddy’s life in a nutshell…but it is far from the whole story. In his time on this blue marble, he experienced some really bad stuff; probably a lot more than most. He once saw a guy knock another guys head clean off in Vietnam; just one story of many that he rarely shared. When he returned to the U.S. from that ugly war, his homecoming at the airport was being yelled at and spit on by strangers. He had lifelong pain related to leftover shrapnel that could not be removed. He watched as cancer slowly took his first wife. He had plenty of reasons to be angry, to grouse, to look at the world through tainted lenses, and yet he kept an almost childlike fascination until the end. He kept his boots facing forward. He trusted God’s plan and was thankful. Buddy’s life is a true example of LIVING; of keeping the lessons from the curve balls and the worst, while discarding the things that weigh you down; of answering the challenges with honor and dignity; of keeping the truly important stuff in focus; of celebrating.
Today the family will gather to honor the man who showed us all how it is done. I’m so very thankful that life with MW also gave me Buddy. Our initial bonds were MW and all things aviation, but I quickly came to love that giant, brilliant, teddy bear. Will there be tears, laughter, smiles, and great stories at this celebration? In Buddy’s own words, “You betcha!” Afterwards life will go on as we all disperse to our corners of the world, and he would have it no other way. I’m hoping, though, that as we continue our walk, we will occasionally hear the whisper of a familiar, nasal voice nudging us in the right direction…”Oh, no, no, no…”.