Jerry Tagge and Jen McBride flank Gib Babcock at 2011 Heroes Game.
By Randy York
On New Year’s Day, Nebraska upset Georgia in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville and no one wanted to hear that result more than Gilbert “Gib” Babcock, a sharp-minded centenarian who was on his death bed at Valley View Living Center in Ord, Neb., at the time. Gib worked under coaching legends Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne and even attended the Nebraska-Iowa Heroes Game two years ago at the tender young age of 98. His caretakers knew how much he wanted his Huskers to win a bowl game against an SEC team, so they kept him updated throughout the national ESPN2 telecast that set a Gator Bowl record with more than 3 million viewers and a 94-percent TV ratings improvement over last season.
Marcia Reznicek went straight to her close friend when the game ended. She leaned over and whispered words she knew he wanted to hear. “Gib, the game’s over,” she said. “Nebraska won the Gator Bowl!”
The former Husker groundskeeper, who became Nebraska’s legendary equipment manager for football, baseball and track and field, opened his eyes for three-quarters and smiled his silent but emotional approval. Four hours later, Gib Babcock died a happy, contented man. His beloved Huskers came into 2014 with a bang and one of their favorite fans went out with a boom.
Care-Giver Sets Up a Game Day that Includes Tagge
“It was so symbolic to all of us who knew and loved Gib,” said Jennifer McBride, the Valley View activities director who spearheaded a 170-mile trip to Lincoln in a wheelchair-equipped van two years ago to watch Nebraska and Iowa play in the Heroes Game. Once Gib was wheeled inside his old Memorial Stadium stomping grounds, one of the first Huskers he met was Jerry Tagge, the quarterback of Nebraska’s first two of five national championship teams.
If you want to know how razor-sharp Gib’s mind was when he was 98, we have the perfect anecdote. “I went to see Gib in Ord one day, expecting it to be the first of three stops I had to make that day,” said Jack Pierce, a former assistant coach under Osborne and now an employee in the Huskers Athletic Fund group. “I’ll never forget meeting Jen and her taking me across the room to see Gib again. He was in his wheelchair with his back to us. She tapped him on a shoulder next to his oxygen tube and said: ‘Gib, Jack Pierce has come all the way from Lincoln to see you today.’ Before Gib turned around to look at me over his shoulder, he said: ‘Jack wouldn’t even be in Nebraska if he hadn’t recruited Andra Franklin.’”
Pierce, who coached Franklin in high school in Anniston, Ala., and later followed him to Lincoln, was flabbergasted. “I intended to talk to Gib about 15 minutes and move on, but we must have talked for 2½ to 3 hours straight, and there’s no question whose mind was sharper. His was. We talked about all kinds of things, and he didn’t miss a beat. He talked about playing pitch or cribbage in the old equipment room almost every lunch hour with (trainer) George Sullivan and(groundskeeper) Bill “Shep” Shepard. Mike Corgan, Clete Fischer and Jim Ross(deceased coaches) played whenever they could, too. Gib loved Devaney, and now he’s up there with Bob and all the others.”
Gib Babcock: Industrious Worker with Big Red Heart
Sullivan, Nebraska’s legendary trainer, said staff friendships with Babcock went beyond cards. Many of his cohorts would go fishing at Sherman Lake or hunting for pheasant and quail. “Sully” laughs heartily about how efficient and resourceful his old friend was. “We didn’t have the money back then like we do now,” he said. “Gib was so industrious. I can still hear that old washing machine today. He washed all those grey shorts for everybody for so long, that the N on the shorts ended up looking like a lopsided V. Gib always put the players first. Coaches would try to get their stuff done, and he’d tell ‘em they had to wait until the next morning. Black and grey were the cheapest colors and the longest lasting, so everything he purchased was grey or black. Gib and Shep were quite a pair in their day. I remember some funny things happening at the Orange Bowl.”
One time, for instance, a kid tried to sell Gib autographed jerseys of Johnny Rodgers and Rich Glover in Miami. Gib said, “Yeh, I’ll take ‘em.” And when the kid tried to collect the money, “Gib thanked him for returning the jerseys they’d stolen the day before and they better leave unless they wanted to get in more trouble than they were already in,” related Sully, who also remembers Gib retiring and deciding to mow people’s yards and chop wood for them when he wasn’t fishing or working in his garden. “He tried to help whoever needed help,” Sully said. “Yes, he was quite a gentleman.”
Shepard said Friday that he will attend Saturday’s 2 p.m. funeral at the Ord Memorial Chapel. Burial will be in Hillside Cemetery at North Loup, the longtime Nebraska home for Babcock, a farmer who couldn’t resist becoming the Huskers’ groundskeeper when Devaney arrived in 1962 and asked him to join the new team.
“Shep” Made Quarterly Visits to See His Good Friend
Through the help of Sharon Wacker, a longtime mutual friend of both, Shepard was able to visit Babcock about four times a year when he moved into a rest home five years ago. “We’d drive to North Loup and eat in his hometown,” Shep recalled. “And we’d go out and pick diamond willows, which Gib used to make all kinds of things. He always said there were only two places in the world that had diamond willows like that – North Loup and someplace in Alaska. He loved working with them.”
Gib loved those willows so much that he gave Shep most of his best work when he moved out of his house. “I have a lamp he made, a coat rack, a hat rack…he made some special cutting wires for both Sharon and me and we use them all the time.”
There are so many memories of Gib Babcock, the second of 10 children in a family that moved from Kansas to North Loup Valley when he was 10 years old. Among Gib’s survivors are son Loren and daughter-in-law Mary Babcock who live in North Platte, Neb., plus daughter and son-in-law Barbara and Galen Anderson of Gilbert, Ariz.; and daughter-in-law Martha Williams of Washington, D.C.
Son Died at Sea in Nuclear Submarine Accident
One son, Ronald “Ronnie” Babcock, preceded Gib in death. At Ord High School, he was an all-state running back on an unbeaten 9-0 Class B team. He was farm boy who was nervous about fumbling as a freshman, so Gib suggested a solution for being tense – get friendlier with a football. That next summer Ronnie had his hands on a football when he was riding in his tractor and when he rode his quarter-horse. He went on to graduate in 1956 and was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he graduated and had a bit part in a television series called Men of Annapolis and was included in a scene where football players ran out onto the field. Last spring was the 50th anniversary of the Thresher, a pioneering nuclear-propelled submarine that sank in 1963. Ronnie Babcock was one of 129 on board. It remains the world’s worst submarine disaster in terms of lives lost, and a half-century later the loss of that sub remains a controversy.
To lose a son in the Navy’s most advanced submarine and the world’s first nuclear sub was a crushing blow to a father who chose to live the last 50 years of his life with energy, a generous spirit and a heart of gold. “Gib had a great sense of humor. He loved visiting with people and talking about the ‘good old days,’” said McBride, his primary care-giver. “He enjoyed his family and was a Husker through and through.
“I was lucky to know him and be close to him almost every day for five years,” she said. “I’m so glad that Jack Pierce drove up to see him one day. Jack’s the one who gave me the inspiration to make sure Gib could attend one last Husker game. It was a Bucket List thing for him, and we made it happen. I have a whole scrapbook of everything that Chris Anderson helped us set up and put together when we made the trip. She even gave him a poster signed by Tom Osborne. It featured all the football tickets from the decades before. His daughter, Barbara, had it framed and hung in his room. When Gib and Jerry Tagge hooked up on the field that day, they were like two long lost brothers.”
Care-Giver Feels Like She Lost Her Own Grandpa
McBride also had the privilege to care for Gib’s wife, who died seven years before he did. “They loved life, loved kids and grandkids and great grandkids,” she said. “I know that Gib loved every minute he had living in Nebraska.”
Suddenly, there’s a long pause … for both of us on a telephone. “I’m sorry. I know I’m choking up. I just feel like I lost my grandpa,” Jen said before adding: “I got so much more than I gave to him. His kids and grandkids always sent him the sweetest cards and pictures. He and his wife loved Nebraska so much. That day we went to Nebraska and watched the Huskers beat Iowa will remain one of my best memories ever. I remember what I was thinking when we left Memorial Stadium that day. I thought to myself, ‘If Gib dies right here, right now, he will be one happy, loving man.”
Somehow, Gilbert “Gib” Babcock was able to live two more years. He was able to leave the world knowing that his Nebraska Cornhuskers had beaten an SEC team on New Year’s Day. That accomplishment may not match Nebraska’s first two national championship teams that he served so well, but it made him open his eyes and smile one last time.
Gib was fully prepared and ready to join his loving wife and the son he hadn’t seen for half a century. Last summer, Jen McBride took Gib Babcock, her adopted grandpa, to Auble’s Pond in an Ord park. Ronnie’s classmates sponsored a bench that looks out over that pond and includes a memorial that honors a local son lost at sea. Jen and Gib sat on that bench and listened to the only thing that made sense to both at the time…the sound of silence, the same silence that spoke volumes when Gib opened his eyes and smiled after someone told him Nebraska had just beaten Georgia.
Successor Created a Legacy to Honor Gib Babcock
What a bang for 2014 and Gib’s Huskers.
And what a boom for a man who told his family his goal was to live to be 100. He reached that goal and was totally at peace with every hand he was dealt and everything he chose to pass on from this life to the next.
And here’s the coolest thing about that. Gib’s legacy in Nebraska Athletics lives on because of Glen Abbott, the guy who replaced him as Nebraska’s equipment manager in 1977. Abbott admired Gib so much that he made it a point to hire natives of the same North Central Nebraska communities that produced such a gem of a man.
And to this day, more than 3½ decades after Gib’s departure, you’ll find workers from the same rural areas that he served and farmed … students from North Loup, Scotia, Ord, Arcadia, Burwell, Loup City, St. Paul, Bartlett, Taylor, Greeley and Ericson. Abbott figured every community in that basic rural area sends kids every year to the University of Nebraska…kids equipped with the same caring, blue-collar work ethic. If they want to give a lot just to be part of the program, they will be considered for employment. That’s what opportunity is – a chance to serve others…the Gib Babcock Way…the Nebraska Way!
Gib’s grandson, Doug, worked with Abbott when he went to Nebraska. At Saturday afternoon’s memorial service, Doug can uniquely honor his grandpa. He can open his eyes when it matters most and then smile in his own silent but emotional way.