Thursday, September 29, 2005

Remembering Gerald Gilkey

Mr. Mayor.
That was what I always called Gerald Gilkey. I never even thought about calling him by his first name. When I first arrived in Lamar in May 1978 as sports editor of the Daily Democrat, he was already serving his 14th year as mayor, after serving five years on the city council.
When I returned to the Democrat, a weekly by this time, as the editor in November 1982, he was in his 18th year, having served nine two-year terms. I wasn't paid much at the Democrat, though it was more than I had ever made in my life, but one month after I returned to Lamar, Gerald Gilkey and the City Council helped me make ends meet and even have money left over to buy Christmas presents by making a decision that was publicized across the United States.
Thanks to the sound management of the city's electrical system and the deals which the city had with Southwest Power Administration (SWPA) at that time, city residents were given a month without utility bills. Residents did not have to pay for electricity or trash pickup.
When syndicated radio personality Paul Harvey heard about this, the news of the city with the unusual Christmas gift for its residents spread across the nation.
Lamar city officials repeated the gift a few years later.
When I left the Democrat in March 1990 to take a job with The Carthage Press, Gerald Gilkey was still mayor. Nine years later, when I became a teacher, Gerald Gilkey, the body beginning to fail but the spirit ever vibrant had served as mayor for 34 years and was still growing strong. After 38 years, he finally stepped down and enjoyed the fruits of his accomplishments.
Mayor Gilkey, 83, died today, his place in Lamar history secure.
His granddaughter Katie Young, wrote about him in The Lamar Press when he reached his 75th birthday on April 14, 1997. "I never thought I would get this far," he said.
Katie wrote, "Not only has my grandfather aged gracefully, but he has accomplished more in his lifetime than I could even dream about."
Katie's brother, John Gilkey wrote the following history of Gerald Gilkey when his grandfather was named Lamar Chamber of Commerce 1990 Man of the Year on Jan. 28, 1991. It was slightly updated when it ran in the April 18, 1997, Lamar Press:

Gerald William Gilkey was born April 14, 1922, in Sheldon. His father was a carpenter and his mother was a housewife. Gerald respected both parents greatly and learned through them that hard work can get you anything. During the Great Depression, Gerald's father was one of the few to have a job and helped out many of his friends that couldn't even afford food. Through his father's generosity, Gerald learned his strong work ethic.
I always get a kick out of asking my grandfather about some of his boyhood memories of Sheldon. He always mentions his good buddy, Floyd, and as he starts telling me all the mischievous things he and Floyd did his dark brown eyes light up and he has an incredible smile from ear to ear.
Gerald graduated from Sheldon in 1939 and his parents gave him a chance to go to college. He went to Kansas State Teachers College in Pittsburg for a year and decided that education really didn't float his boat. He was young, ambitious and ready to make a fortune. So Gerald and three of his buddies headed out to California to strike it rich. They found jobs as hop pickers and were paid by every pound. Since hops are as light as feathers, being hop pickers didn't really pan out. Gerald then went to Oregon and found a job at a grocery store. After making a little bit of money, he decided he was ready to move back home.
Behind every successful man there is a successful woman and that successful woman in Gerald's case was Betty Jo Medlin. He met this pretty girl around the time World War II broke out. They got married before telling their parents June 18, 1942. The secret of their marriage was revealed the next day when Betty's parents read about it in The Joplin Globe. Marrying Betty was Gerald's happiest moment. Little did both of them know that five months later Gerald would be drafted by the Army Air Force.
Gerald was stationed in the barren Alaskan Aleutian Islands. Including boot camps and training school, Gerald did not see his wife for the next three years.
Being in charge of air base operation which entailed incoming and outgoing flights, Gerald had 90 soldiers under him. Even being a busy "boss" figure, he desperately missed his inspiration and soul mate, Betty. He wrote her once a week and in return Betty wrote back and send photos of her and her friends for a morale booster.
Even during the war Gerald was thinking about a future business of his own. He started cutting hair and started a photography lab right on base. The extra money that he earned was sent back home to Betty to save. This money would later be used to start a business.
Gerald requested a 45-day R and R pass after spending 37 months on the Aleutian Islands. Gerald was home for only a couple of days when he heard on the radio that the war was over. Besides being married, this was one of his happiest moments.
Moving back to Sheldon, he used the money he had saved from the Aleutians and bought Marshall Auto Supply. During this period, one son was born. I remember Papa telling me that he got to knock out my grandmother for the first and last time. What he was referring to was the ether he helped apply to my grandmother during delivery.
After two years, the auto parts business wasn't doing well, so he sold the business and started working for his brother-in-laws, Jewell and Gerald Medlin, at an Oldsmobile dealership at Fort Scott, Kan. The day he started he sold the highest priced car that Oldsmobile made, the Olds 98. To this day, Gerald still drives the make of car that broke him into the car business.
Business was very good, but Jewell and Gerald wanted to relocate back to Lamar where their family was from. They bought the Ford dealership in Lamar and left Gerald to sell the remaining 14 cars before closing out the dealership. Gerald took out a full page ad in the local newspaper and advertised on the radio and sold all 14 cars at retail price that same day.
Working for the Ford dealership in Lamar, Gerald met all new people to sell to. Meeting people and making friendships was something that just came naturally to Gerald. To him the friendships he had made were more important than just selling cars. Gerald established many customers in town and became very reputable for his honesty and hard work. The local newspaper publisher and an insurance agent, both prominent figures in Lamar, approached Gerald to run for city council. They had faith in him that he would work for the people, not against them. He ran for city council in 1959 and won by a decisive margin.
In 1960, the Chevrolet dealer in town offered to sell his agency to Gerald, but Gerald would have nothing to do with it because of his loyalty to his brother-in-laws to go into competition with. Given the opportunity of owning his own car dealership overwhelmed him. He found a dealership in Abilene, Kan., and was getting ready to buy it; but when his brother-in-law Jewell found out what Gerald was about to do, he offered to sell the Ford dealership so Gerald and Betty wouldn't have to move away from the family.
Immediately after buying the dealership, he also obtained the Oldsmobile franchise. He started out with five employees. Things were tough at first. The facilities weren't adequate, there were few customers and the dealership was short on operating capital. He was away from home seven days a week, 12 or more hours a day. Just to make payroll on Friday, he had to go to auction on Thursday night to sell cars. All his hard work and dedication would finally pay off. He hired experienced mechanics and brought the company up month by month. In 1962, with the motto that read "Putting you first...keeps us first." People believed this because they now knew him as a business and political leader.
Car sales started to go up and so did his reputation. He brought his son, Steve, into the business while he was still in high school and taught him everything from washing a car to financial statements. The mayor of Lamar in 1964 approached Gerald and asked him to run for his office because he was wanting to retire.
Running a new business and the town would be a lot of work; but with encouragement from both his family and friends, he ran for the office and won.
With all the contributions the community had put into his business, Gerald began to give back being mayor. In 1980, he had a big hand in getting a desperately needed water plant. In 1982 and 1986, he gave a Christmas gift to the city of Lamar on behalf of the city- free utilities for the month of December, which made national news. After 32 years of being mayor, he has helped by getting a nice auditorium and aquatic park that has added dramatically to our city of less than 4,200.
As far as business, in 1984, he became the first dealer in the nation to have both a General Motors and Ford dealership. He opened the idea of "autoplexes" in the four state area.
After all his business accomplishments, he has given up most of the operating of his business to Steve. He has accomplished passing his work ethic to his son.
Dad is sometimes at the business seven days of the week. He showed a little of his father in him when he acquired the GEO franchise in 1989 and today he is remodeling the business that has been there for 36 years to better accommodate his sales force and customers.
Today Gerald is known as a husband, father, grandfather, mayor, boss, and friend or fatso according to his good buddy Jim Allen. Gerald rides his exercise bike five miles a day and is still as sharp as ever. I've never heard him complain or say a bad word about anyone. I feel very fortunate to have Gerald Gilkey as my grandfather and I hope someday I will be as well liked and successful as he is.
Responding to a question I asked at him at one of the candidate forums the Lamar Democrat held in the 1980s, Mayor Gilkey said what it took to hold that position and to be successful. "You have to be progressive and broadminded. Most of all, you have to be available to the people. You have to love Lamar and the people and be interested in their futures to do this."
That was the secret of Gerald Gilkey's success in politics and in business. It would have been easy for him to coast on his accomplishments in both fields, but he never did. When he could have been looking back, he always had his eye on the future.


Anonymous said...

Nice piece Randy.

Anonymous said...

What a terrifc tribute to Mayor Gilkey. Our paper needs to take lessons from you Randy. Maybe since he was the mayor for more than 30 years they will have something nice for him. I hope anyway.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful tribute to former Mayor Gilkey! Very touching!

Anonymous said...

I only knew Mayor Gilkey for a short time and in that little of time I found great respect for him.
He always had a smile on his face and always spoke to you even if he didn't know who you were. Mayor Gilkey will be greatly missed by all who knew him. My prayers go out to Betty and the rest of the family, but always remember Mr Gilkey is fly'n high, and to be in heaven and not on this earth is so much better. May God bless you and keep you close to him in this time of need.

Anonymous said...

Did you see the piece on KSN last Friday at 6pm? It was done by reporter Brad Douglas, and was touching.

Randy said...

Unfortunately, I wasn't home, so I missed it. I knew Brad had done something on it, because there was a brief story on the KSN site. He does excellent work.