The man who saved the GI Bill
American Legion Riders escort the GI Bill exhibit to the Satilla Regional Library, hosted by 12th District American Legion Family of Georgia. Photo by Holly K. Soria/The American Legion

The man who saved the GI Bill

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Nearly 75 years ago, on a stormy night in southern Georgia, U.S. Rep. John S. Gibson was rushed by a police motorcycle escort from his hometown of Douglas to Jacksonville, Fla., where a plane awaited him. He flew off to Washington, D.C., arriving just in time to cast his vote to break the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act out of a conference committee deadlock on June 10, 1944, the final day the lawmakers would meet about it. That dramatic overnight journey, arranged by The American Legion, changed the course of U.S. history.

On Feb. 15, 2019, escorted by a cadre of American Legion Riders, a trailer carrying an exhibit telling the story of the historic legislation known as the GI Bill, paralleled Gibson’s 1944 route and arrived in Douglas, Ga., for a month-long installation in celebration of The American Legion’s 100th anniversary. “The Greatest Legislation: An American Legion Centennial Salute to the GI Bill” is on display through March 12 at the Douglas branch of the Satilla Regional Library, hosted by the library and 12th District American Legion Family of the Department of Georgia. Hours are 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Saturday.

Two great nephews of Rep. Gibson, area American Legion Family members and local dignitaries gathered Feb. 16 to welcome the exhibit to Douglas, a city of nearly 12,000, Post 515 member and Mayor Tony Paulk proudly describes as a “veteran-friendly community.”

“I think it’s a wonderful thing, to educate the citizens of this country, particularly the veterans,” said Walter Gibson, the congressman’s great nephew, now a Bulloch County, Ga., commissioner. “Some of our veterans say it’s the greatest legislation that’s ever passed – they really feel that way.”

He was joined at the opening event by his cousin, Cedric Sweat, also a great nephew of Rep. Gibson. “We’ve heard a lot about it a lot over the years, mostly at family reunions, and to see it get more national display is really wonderful,” Sweat said.

Mayor Paulk, who works for the Social Security Administration as his day job, said prior to the exhibit installation that staff in his office “started talking about this display. Our office is about 50 percent veterans. Eight of them went to school on the GI Bill, and some of them have children going to school on the GI Bill. So, we started talking about what kind of impact there would be on the United States of America if the GI Bill did not exist. We quickly came to – where would (the United States) be in the world if the GI Bill did not exist?”

The exhibit traces the story of the GI Bill from the days in 1943 when disabled World War II GIs were coming home to few resources or opportunities at a clip of about 75,000 per month. The American Legion’s solution was an omnibus bill that would not only give those veterans health care, hospitals and all veteran services under one federal Veterans Administration but also college, career and home-ownership opportunities through free tuition and no-down-payment, low-interest mortgages.

“This is history in the making not only for our organization, but it’s history for Georgia,” American Legion Department of Georgia Past Commander Randy Goodman told the crowd, noting that hundreds of bills were languishing in Congress in 1943 to address the situation confronting returning veterans. There were various versions of a GI Bill in Congress in the 1940s. What should we do to pay respect or tribute to our veterans who saved this country? I am glad that Rep. Gibson was on the side of The American Legion’s version. It included males, females and minorities. Other versions did not include women and minorities. We are glad that Rep. Gibson broke the 3-3 deadlock and was on the side of having veterans benefits for all veterans. That’s significant for Georgia… today, we can enjoy a wholesome family of veterans, not just one particular race, but all veterans.”

That point is not lost on Douglas Post 515 member and Past District 12 Commander Jerome Loving, a Vietnam War combat veteran, who organized the opening event. “They didn’t want blacks to be covered under the GI Bill, but The American Legion stood up and pushed it forward and said, ‘All of the veterans.’” Loving used his GI Bill benefits for college education and two home loans.

“I wouldn’t have been able to go to school without it,” said Greg Rothfuss, a Marine Corps veteran and member of Post 13 in Valdosta who used his GI Bill benefits to earn a degree in computer science and rode in the Feb. 15 motorcycle escort from Valdosta to Douglas. “It was very important.”

“We’re making history right now,” added Post 515 member Henry Martin, who also escorted the centennial exhibit on his motorcycle, as did Kevin Quigg of Valdosta, an Air Force veteran whose son and daughter are now active-duty staff sergeants who will be using their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

“I grew up here, so it’s good to know that a home guy had such a big play in it,” said David Guest, Air Force veteran and Legion Rider. “It was the saving vote.”

Post 515 member and U.S. Army Vietnam combat veteran Ed Dusi, who helped unpack and assemble the exhibit in the library, said the GI Bill compensated for time spent in service so that when he was discharged he had a career opportunity. “When I first came back, they had an apprenticeship program that was carried under the GI Bill, and I used that. It helped out because it kind of made up for what I wasn’t getting paid. It made life a whole lot easier.” He financed two mortgages using VA Home Loans that were a product of the original GI Bill.

“I used the GI Bill to complete not one, but three degrees,” 12th District Commander Ray Humphreys said. “Growing up a poor country boy, we didn’t have the money to pay for a college education, so it gave me the opportunity. My mother and father both were World War II veterans, and both of them benefited from it. So, we had a lot of benefit from it. I don’t think you can measure the amount that this changed America, or the world, since this bill passed.”

A portrait of Rep. Gibson greets visitors to the display at the library. The great nephews of the so-described “man who saved the GI Bill” told attendees of the colorful character they knew as “Uncle John.”

“He had a lot of humor, and it wasn’t dry humor,” Walter Gibson said. “It could be salty, but as young teenagers, we thought he was funny. He was full of it. He was a dynamic speaker. He could choose his words to make his point.”

The great nephews remember Rep. Gibson from family reunions and other visits, particularly when the historic congressman was serving as solicitor general and appearing in courtrooms. “(People) would quit work and come to the courtroom to see him perform. They said it was better than going to a movie. He was the most theatrical person. He always wore a double-breasted coat, was tall and had a loud voice.”

Even at family reunions, John Gibson was a beacon of attention. “When he was going to make announcements or give an invocation, flat-footed he would jump up on the trunk and get on top of his car. I remember asking my granddaddy, ‘What in the world is he on top of that car for?’

“He said, ‘Son, he likes to be seen. He likes to make a lot of noise.’”

Prior to the opening event, District 12 Legionnaires and Sons of The American Legion placed U.S. flags at the grave of Rep. Gibson, in the Douglas City Cemetery.

Dr. Kit Carson, a member of Post 515 and chairman of teacher education at South Georgia State College, told the group that he worked as an elementary school custodian after he retired from the military, which included two stints in Vietnam, and he used the GI Bill to get the degrees he needed to advance in a civilian career. “You’ve got to have academic credentials. I went straight to Vietnam out of high school, so I didn’t get a chance to go to college. When I got out, things had changed quite a bit, so I needed to get a degree.” He used his veteran benefits to earn bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees. “I am thankful for the GI Bill. It got things rolling for me.”

“I wanted to go to college after high school but really couldn’t figure out how to pay for it,” Goodman explained. “I spoke with an Air Force recruiter who told me about tuition assistance and, of course, the GI Bill. I qualified for the Vietnam era GI Bill.” That led to University of South Carolina degrees – associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s – that qualified Goodman to work in the Department of Labor on a youth-motivation task force to better prepare young people for the workplace, and to connect veterans with employment opportunities. “Employment is a key piece of the GI Bill,” he said.

Post 515 Commander Alfalene Walker, who provided veteran support services in her career with the Georgia Department of Labor, said that after earning her college degrees using the GI Bill and financing a house with a VA Home Loan, she was dedicated to ensuring that all veterans understand the opportunities available to them. “I am able to tell them about education benefits, home loans… a myriad of things,” she said. “My grasp of the GI Bill goes very deep. I took it to heart. I live it and breathe it.

“As a person who resides in Coffee County, I am impressed, honored and blessed, and I will continue to push everything that the GI Bill has. I believe this was all done for us, and that if you are not taking advantage of it, you are losing out. It’s in my heart and my soul. I am thankful for what Rep. Gibson did, because it is what I live, speak and breathe every day.”