Gibson remembered as a great player, coach and friend
They called him Pee Wee, but James Gibson was bigger than life to his friends.
The longtime teacher and coach and former great athlete died last Thursday due to injuries he suffered in an automobile accident five days earlier.
Former Ironton athlete, coach and athletic director Mike Burcham was close friends with Gibson dating back to their playing days at Rio Grande University. Burcham was saddened with the news of his death but remembered his friend fondly.
“He was a good athlete. He played for South Point. He was the quarterback on the football team, the point guard in basketball and the shortstop in baseball,” said Burcham.
“He was a little chubby, but he could play and he took no BS off anybody. When Art’s Superette was so great for all those years, (in men’s softball and baseball), he was the main cog, fielding and everything around. I hate that. I really loved Pee Wee.”
Former long-time football coach Merril Triplett got the news from Gibson’s wife Judy. Triplett was the head coach at Symmes Valley for nine years and Gibson was his right-hand man.
“People ask me where was the best place I coached and I said Symmes Valley. Those were the best nine years of my life,” said Triplett.
“It was like a family thing out there. Me and Pee Wee coached the varsity, the reserves and the freshmen one year. Then the next year, Terry Saunders came on board and there were three of us,” said Triplett.
“We didn’t have any (athletic) money so we’d put our money together and take those kids up to Ducky’s, a smorgasbord type up there like Golden Corral. He was just a big part of my life. I talked to him not long ago and he was doing great. I can’t believe he’s gone.”
One of the most colorful personalities known in the area, Burcham told a story when they were young about going to an Ohio State-Michigan game. He said Gibson sold their tickets and then found a way to sneak into the game.
“I asked him why he sold the tickets and he said, ‘we have to practice for a time when we don’t have tickets,’” said Burcham. “That was Pee Wee. We could sit around and tell Pee Wee Gibson stories for hours and hours.”
During the early to mid-1960s, there were some close bonds formed among players from Lawrence County who attended Rio Grande. Burcham was a freshman when Gibson was a junior and they have remained close ever since.
“We were hardly on the same teams except in the summer time in softball. When he was coaching South Point baseball and I was coaching Ironton, we were in the field and he was coaching third base. He was going ‘38,’ and other numbers. I was wondering what he was doing and finally I asked him,” said Burcham.
“What do all these numbers mean? He said, ‘these guys I’ve got can’t read signals when you touch your belt and your hat and all that. I go by their position like one is the pitcher, two the catcher and so on. Then you add a one and that means bunt, two means hit away and like that, so 38 means the first baseman takes a pitch.’ You could tell stories on him all day. He was at the top of my list. (My wife) Linda loved him, too.
“If we sat down with guys like (the late) Bill Morgan, Bob Lester, Dave Waller and all those guys from that era, it would take hours to run out of stories. He was always the center of them. He took care of so many people. You don’t realize how many people he took care of. He took care of Bill Morgan when he had his stroke. Pee Wee would go pick him up and take him out to eat or here and there better than anybody.”
It was Gibson who got the group together for lunch each Wednesday in recent years. They would go to different places to eat and just tell stories.
“Everybody liked Pee Wee. He didn’t start stuff, but he didn’t take stuff. He really knew how to organize. He was a great coach,” said Burcham.
And, as Burcham noted, he was a great player as well.
“We were playing for Art’s in fastpitch baseball in the old Twi-light League. We were playing out at Gallipolis in a doubleheader. We won the first game and we were the home team in the second game. The game was tied in the bottom of the ninth and Pee Wee always batted third and I batted fourth. I said, ‘you get on and I’ll end this.’ He said, ‘you won’t even bat, Boomer.’ And the first pitch he hit over the centerfield fence,” said Burcham.
When Gibson played at Rio Grande he was two years ahead the other group of Lawrence and Gallia County players who ended up playing at Rio Grande like Burcham, Bob Leith, Paul Dillon, Morgan and many others.
Gibson also served as an assistant to Art Lanham who was the basketball and baseball coach and the athletic director.
“Pee Wee became his right-hand man. In baseball, Pee Wee ran the whole team even though coach Lanham was the head coach. (Rio Grande) just didn’t have any money back then and we had a great bunch of athletes who went there at that time and we beat the daylights out of everyone in every sport,” said Burcham.
“And Pee Wee was the main cog. He was the organizer.”
It was at that time Rio Grande was trying to join a league but needed to have six sports to be accepted. Rio Grande didn’t have a track team at the time to make it eligible.
The league meet was to be held at Ohio University and Gibson went around the school to put a team together.
“Dillon threw the shot put, I threw the discus, everyone did something. Pee Wee went through Ironton and South Point and picked up some guys. He gave them all names and we went up there and got second place and half the guys didn’t even go to Rio Grande,” Burcham said with a laugh.