Gilbert was so much more than a coach

Mike Tupa
Joe Gilbert spent more than 65 years at Barnsdall High School either in a dugout or on a basketball sideline coaching many generations of Panther and Lady Panther athletes. Mike Tupa/Examiner-Enterprise file

So, how does one measure the value of a life?

How does one measure the value of a man?

Twenty-five years or 90 years?

Does a life consist only of the sum total of seemingly countless sunsets, laughs, disappointments, joys, opportunities — miles and miles of swirling activity.

Is mortality an eternity — swallowed up in a flash, streaking across the night sky of finality like a darting, fiery comet and out of sight?

Perhaps it’s easier to answer these questions than it is to try to capture in words the essence of Joe Gilbert.

You just had to know Joe to comprehend the breadth of his personality, the depth of his devotion and the warmth of his humanity.

He was as down to earth as a tumbleweed bring pushed by wind through thick dust. He was a combination of down-home humility, rapt boyish enthusiasm for sports and a brilliant coaching mind — to those who would list.

During his 66 years of coaching at Barnsdall High School, Gilbert didn’t seem to try to force his philosophy and his knowledge on his student-athletes. He gave them as much as they were willing to take and to the level of their commitment.

He worked tirelessly — even into his late 80s — trying to wrestle ball diamonds or basketball courts into shape. He did the dirty work — haul sand, fix damaged mounds or pitching circles, rake basepaths, care for the grass, dust the floors and clean.

And no one will ever know how many conflicts he settled behind closed doors with troubled players, upset parents and all the other hidden heartaches and headaches that come with being a high school coach.

It was sometime in 1954, probably in the late spring or early summer, when fresh college graduate Joe Gilbert arrived — as a lanky, unflappable stranger — in Barnsdall. Legend has it that he hitch-hiked into town, likely starting out from either Tahlequah, where he had played multiple sports for Northeastern Oklahoma State University, or from his small hometown in Missouri.

A NSU coach had opened the door for Gilbert to interview for the opening at Barnsdall for a coach and educator.

When Gilbert secured the job, he went to work for Barnsdall — and never left for the next 66 years, despite numerous opportunities for new jobs with bigger pay and in larger competitive divisions.

Why he chose to stay in Barnsdall, only Gilbert could fully answer. He explained in an interview a couple of years ago — on the occasion of his induction into a national hall of fame — that the honor belonged to all the people of Barnsdall and not to him. He expressed his gratitude for having simply been a resident of Barnsdall for nearly his entire life.

I don’t recall the first time I saw or spoke to Joe Gilbert. I know that before the end of my first fall sports season (1996) in Bartlesville, I already felt a deep friendship with Joe and his wife, Joyce.

The memories from that autumn covering Joe are fresh and sweet. The highlight proved to be a regional softball matchup between Barnsdall and Copan — and its exceptional coach Randy Davis.

As I shot photos and recorded the action in my notebook, I realized I was recording a piece of history — between two amiable softball warlords and their determined crews — that I would never enjoy as much again.

And I haven’t.

Truth is, I don’t even remember now which team won the regional title. Somehow, who won or lost didn’t seem as important as just being an up-close spectator to the drama and the showdown between two of the best-ever prep softball coaches in Oklahoma history.

Joe would go on to win a state crown in 2013 — in slowpitch softball. That was one of two state championship trophies Gilbert’s teams would bring back to Barnsdall. His 1980 Panther squad — led by future Oklahoma State star Brad Bell — also claimed state supremacy.

Several other Gilbert teams advanced to state finals games and came up just short of adding more titles to his resume.

But, if one defines Gilbert’s career only by wins and trophies — and he reportedly held the national record for the most varsity wins in all his sports combined — they are missing the point.

For more than six decades he connected with rising generation after rising generation, providing a rock of stability of sports and life’s values — such as loyalty, grit, hard work, team-first attitude, an honest effort, self-discipline, hustle and persistence — that transcended the waves of moral laxity that have deepened during the years.

He wasn’t old-fashioned — but a paragon of the tried and true.

As the years passed, I got to know Joe in a thousand different ways. He would always call me — or at least take my phone calls — to give a report on his team, win big or lose ugly.

I remember that for many years after I started my time in Bartlesville, Joe would make the trek to Missouri two or more times a month to care for his mother’s yard — and this was when well into his 70s — until she passed away.

Whenever I called him, I could always expect a cheery, energetic, friendly “Hello”, even up until last week when I last spoke to him.

Even into his late 80s, he retained an enthusiasm for sports and for the world around him.

I think one of his most important traits throughout the years as a coach was that he expected his athletes to be partially responsible for their own success. He didn’t try to bribe them, nag them or intimidate them to be good — he respected their personalities and individualism and trusted that most of them would choose to work hard and to trust in each other.

Now, Joe Gilbert is gone.

My sympathy goes to his lovely and wonderful wife Joyce, who during the years ran the concession stand, kept scorebooks and I’m sure supported Joe in many ways of which I’m not aware.

I felt so privileged they accepted the gracious invitation of the Bartlesville Sports Commission to sit at my table during the night I was inducted along with so many other wonderful people. My sister also was in attendance, and throughout the past eight months, Joe has asked me many times about her and expressed to me many times how much he appreciated her personality.

As I contemplate that Joe has left us, I want to call his number and hear his voice once more. I want to return through all those years and hundreds of conversations and see the world and his teams and players once more through his eyes.

What is the value of a life?

Thanks friend.