Shawmut community says goodbye to resident, former revenue commissioner after 85 years

Published 10:45 am Saturday, January 20, 2024

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VALLEY — Many people not just in the local area but also from places far away lost a very good friend in the recent passing of Bill Gilbert. Gilbert was 85 years old when he died in his Shawmut home on January 8th.

For a number of years he had lived right next door to the Shawmut Methodist Church. His visitation took place at 6 p.m. on Thursday and his funeral at 2 p.m. Friday at that church, where he was a member.

Gilbert was always proud to say that he lived about as close to Shawmut Circle as anyone could. He was close enough for hm to walk his pet dogs Speedy and Flash around the Circle many times before having to give them up due to declining health.

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Lots of old friends came by to visit with Gilbert in his Shawmut home. He love being with them on cool, pleasant evenings and talking to them from his front porch swing.

Some of those friends passed on over the years, but most of the ones still left were at his visitation and funeral. Almost every line in the registry book near the church entrance was filled by the signatures of the many people who came by.

“He just had a way of making friends with just about anybody,” said long-time friend Richard Fuller. “He could make friends with someone he’d just met on a street corner. He was the kind of guy who was very generous to those he knew. I can remember driving him to homes during the Christmas season to take presents to them. He told me not to let them know who they came from but to just enjoy Christmas.”

“He was a great, great friend to me for a long time,” said Johnny White. “When I was 16 years old and growing up here in the Valley he arranged for me to take flying lessons from Fred Robison at Shawmut airport.”

With those first lessons White got hooked on flying. It’s been a very good career for him. He’s now retired from the Alabama Air National Guard after having reached the rank of general. He’s also retired from Delta after a career as a commercial pilot.

“Before his eyesight worsened I loved to take Bill up for rides in a small, private plane,” White said. “He loved looking down on familiar places from the air.”

Tommy Lumpkin and wife Suzanne drove down from their home in Mount Juliet, Tennessee to be there. They drove through some wintry weather over icy roads to get there.

“He was such a good friend,” Lumpkin said. “We just wanted to be here.”

“I’ve known him since I was in high school,” said Lee Pitts. “He loved any kind of travel. He loved to fly, and to go places on trains. I remember going out west with him one time and being at a train station in Sacramento. He wanted to stay there awhile and watch the trains come in.”

Three young men at the visitation, Kylar Cannon, Bo Colley and Noah Thompson, said that Gilbert had given them memories that would last for a lifetime. “We went to Europe with them one time, and we’ll never forget it,” Cannon said. “We were in nine different countries in seven days. Because of him we went to places and saw things we’d never otherwise see. He was a good man, as good as gold. He was funny, too. When you’d call him on the phone he’d answer that he was Cedric Weehunt (a character from the Lum and Abner radio show).”

The trip to Europe was a way to thank them for the good work they had done for the Langdale Company. “We helped set up the theater for concerts,” Cannon said. “People loved them, and they always drew large crowds.”

First with The Langdale Company and later on with Bill Gilbert and Associates, Gilbert brought some first-class entertainment to the stage in Langdale Theater. It was the perfect way to showcase a beautiful old building that had undergone a major renovation effort in the late 1980s. People loved the theater’s art deco look and comfortable seating. Performers loved the building’s acoustics. Gilbert loved talking about the grand old building, which opened the year before he was born in 1938.

The performer who came there more often that anyone else, Jason Coleman, came down from the Nashville area for a tribute performance at the funeral. He has talent similar to his late grandfather, Country Music legend Floyd “Last Date” Cramer.

The All-American Boys Chorus gave many memorable performances in Langdale. They very much appreciated singing for local audiences and the way Gilbert treated them when they were here. A few years ago, he received a prestigious award from the Chorus for his long-time support. On many of his trips out west Gilbert would take in their concerts in California.

Gilbert served as Chambers County’s revenue commissioner for a number of years. His two successors, Wendy Williams and current Revenue Commissioner Beth Abney, were both at the visitation. “I learned so much from him,” Williams said. “He was such a good mentor and teacher.”

Abney said Gilbert was a good, good man and ran a first-rate, professional office. “If he didn’t make it to heaven, none of us will,” she said.

It was hard to find a parking space anywhere near Shawmut Methodist Church prior to Friday’s 2 p.m. funeral service. A large gathering was present inside the church, and moderator Paul Meadows said he knew that his long-time friend would want the service to be a celebration of his life and not a sad, mournful occasion. “I got to know Bill in 1976,” he said. “Dennis Carter introduced me to him, and I helped build the stage for a local Bicentennial celebration we were going to have. I still have some of the 1776 ashtrays that were sold back then. A lot of us got to know Bill when we were teenagers. I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today without his influence. We had some great times back then. It’s good to reminisce about those times. You can’t help but smile and laugh a little when you remember some of the things we did.”

Meadows said he took a number of trips with Gilbert. “I went across the pond to Europe three times with him,” he said. “I also took trips with him out west to Las Vegas, which he always called Fun City, and to California, where we saw a performance by the All-American Boys Chorus.”

Meadows remembered Gilbert’s love of planes and trains. “When we flew somewhere he would ask what airline it was – it had better be Delta – and what type of plane we’d be flying on,” he said. “He would know everything about that kind of plane. He loved train travel, too. We went to a lot of railroad museums.”

Meadows said his friend loved the Lord and Shawmut Methodist Church. “His favorite commandments were, first, love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, all thy soul and all thy mind, and second, to love thy neighbor as you love yourself,” he said.

Gilbert always carried a business card with him that carried a simple message on the back: “to have a friend, be a friend.” He followed that throughout life.

“I will never forget him telling me that,” Meadows said. “To have a friend, you have to be a friend. Until we meet again, my friend, I love you.”

Jason Coleman then played beautiful versions of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”

Shawmut Methodist minister Rev. Mark Grizzard continued with the celebration of life theme. “I liked Bill from the start,” he said. “When I first got to know him I could tell he was a prankster. He loved to pull jokes on people. He was a good friend and had a great memory. He lived his final days under difficult circumstances, but I never heard him complain. He was a good man who left a legacy of pointing people to living a good life and having a relationship with Jesus Christ. Each person leaves some kind of legacy, and his was a very good one.”

Bryan Elliott played a lively version of “I’ve Got a Mansion Just Over the Hilltop.” Elliott plays by ear and was one of Gilbert’s favorite performers. He promoted his musical talent from the time he was a child.

The going home service ended with Danny Berry leading the attendees in “Victory in Jesus” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

Aaron Cassaro, the CEO of the All-American Boys Chorus, was present for the service. His wife Kelly and Boys Chorus alumnus Sebastian Acosta-Galvan accompanied him on the flight from California. “Bill meant a great deal to our chorus,” Cassaro said. “We loved coming to Valley, Alabama and performing at Langdale Theater. A number of boys from the chorus got to make trips thanks to Bill Gilbert. They got to see and experience things they may not have been able to do without his friendship.”