Barnsdall loses a good man

Robert Smith
Former players, and their friends and family members, thronged Feb. 14 to the fieldhouse in Barnsdall named after Joe Gilbert to pay tribute to the man who has helped to define sportsmanship in Osage County. He is shown here with his wife, Joyce, at his side. Journal-Capital file photo

Monday in Barnsdall was a day of sorrow, as word spread of the passing of Coach Joe Gilbert at age 87.

Gilbert, who gave his life to the town of about 1,150 people, first arrived in 1954.

“Everybody has just been bawling all day,” Karen Overacker, manager of the local bank, said Monday afternoon, reflecting the deep sense of loss caused by Gilbert’s passing. “He was a good-hearted man. He loved Barnsdall.”

On Valentine’s night this year, with Barnsdall and Pawhuska high schools scheduled to play basketball in Barnsdall (and Gilbert at courtside as the mentor of the Barnsdall Lady Panthers), scores of his former players turned out for a special tribute to him. Later, in March, with America shut down to try to avoid the transmission of COVID-19, Gilbert had already been thinking about the future prospects of his girls basketball team.

“His legacy is just the thousands of people he has touched,” Barnsdall boys basketball coach Wade Corder said. “This whole town has roots with Gilbert. Grandparents, parents and these kids who have come up. He really bought into the community and everybody bought into him.

“Staying for 66 years here shows a lot about who he was, his loyalty, and what he stood for. He always said, ‘Sports is sports,’ no matter what level you’re at.”

Lauren Gould Garnett, of Pawhuska, who didn’t play for Gilbert as a youth but benefited from his coaching acumen and interest, remembered him Monday as a person who was willing to go an extra mile to help her succeed.

“I always looked up to him, since the first game we played against him,” Garnett said, recalling how as a little girl playing elementary school level basketball, she figured out there was something special about Gilbert.

“He would literally stand on the side of the court after the game and coach me,” Garnett said, explaining that she would seek out Gilbert, the opposing coach, for advice and he would tell her how to improve her performance. “He did that all through junior high and high school for me.”

Later, when she was transferring from one college to another, Gilbert made telephone calls for Garnett — without her knowing it at the time — to make sure she got a scholarship.

She emphasized that his interest in her success was not the sort of thing one might expect.

“He was the opposing coach,” she said. “I never even played for the man. He still wanted me to succeed at the core of it all.”

Garnett later coached alongside Gilbert, and she recalls how he called her up out of the blue with an offer of a job interview.

“Well, Gould (her maiden name), this is Joe Gilbert, what are you doing?” she recalled him saying. She had been student teaching in Stillwater, but she was soon an assistant coach in Barnsdall.

And one other thing — she recalled how gritty and determined he was. He would just patch a wound with a piece of duct tape and keep moving.

Corder, who begins his fifth season at Barnsdall this fall, said Gilbert could remember nearly everyone’s name, even people from back during his first few years coaching. He has coached numerous kids and grandkids of those on his original teams.

“It was just unreal the amount of people that he knew and he was associated with,” Corder said.

Gilbert was inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame in 2019. He claimed 3,912 victories: 1,140 in fastpitch, 922 in girls basketball, 801 in baseball, 649 in boys basketball, 395 in slowpitch and five in football.

He won two state titles: 1980 in baseball and 2012 in fastpitch softball.

Gilbert was born in Buffalo, Missouri, near Springfield. He attended Northeastern State in Tahlequah and graduated in 1954. He then hitchhiked to different interviews and settled down in Barsndall, where he spent the remainder of his life.

Barnsdall had 14 superintendents during Gilbert’s tenure. There have been 12 United States’ presidents in that span. There were only 48 states when he took over.

“They don’t make ‘em like Gil anymore,” Karen Overacker said.

Cameron Jourdan of the Oklahoman contributed to this story.