Buck Gillispie: Model of Service
By Bob Ashmore
George Milburn “Buck” Gillispie was born on April 28, 1917 in Dorena, Oregon. I wish to share some of my most cherished memories of a key figure in BVA’s past. It is only coincidence that he would have turned 100 years old just months from now.
Buck Gillispie is known in BVA circles as the only National President to serve two terms in two different decades, once in 1950 and again in 1961. He was also BVA’s Executive Director during 1961-63. Prior to working at BVA National Headquarters, he was the Association’s first Field Service Representative covering the New England states beginning in 1953.
Historic Veterans Day 1962 photo of then BVA Executive Director Buck Gillispie with Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird.
In 1956, Buck was hired by the then Veterans Administration to work with blinded veterans throughout the country. He served as the Chief of Blind Rehabilitation at the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Center at West Haven from 1969 until 1976 and as the VA National Director of Blind Rehabilitation from 1976 to 1979. He was the recipient of the Melvin J. Maas Award in 1979 and received the second ever BVA Irving Diener Award in 1963.
“Due to the nature of our disability, many of us never read the inscription announcing entry into the George ‘Buck’ Gillispie Blind Rehabilitation Center at the West Haven VA Medical Center,” wrote BVA Past National President Gerard McDonnell upon Buck’s passing. “Words on a cold metal plaque could never take the place of the warmth of contact with Buck during a stay at the Center.”
Buck enlisted in the U.S. Army on March 14, 1941 from Alturas, California, where his parents owned a service station and a motel. He served in the 756th Tank Battalion and was blinded near Colmar, France on January 28, 1945. He was initially thought to be dead but a French medical team nearby rendered assistance.
He was treated at Third Division Field Hospital and then at Army General Hospital in Epinal in southeastern France. When he regained consciousness five days later, he heard his attending physician’s name and said:
“Major, am I blind?”
“Yes, you’re blind,” was the response.
“Well, then, why didn’t you let me die?” Buck asked.
“I’ll tell you something, young man,” the doctor replied. “They sent you over here to fight in this war, and you’ve done all the fighting you’re going to do. They sent me over to patch you up. So, if you’ll shut up, I’ll get on with what I have to do.”
Buck was evacuated to the U.S. and sent to McCormick General Hospital in Pasadena, California. He was honorably discharged from the Army on November 21, 1947. He had endured 47 operations.
Buck “married” me when I was an 8-year-old boy. At least that’s how he put it to me. My dad had been killed in World War II. My mom, Jean Ashmore, met Buck who was dating Jean’s best friend. That soon changed and Buck and Jean were married in 1948. He was at McCormick General Hospital when Jean met him. I recall visiting him there often.
Buck had a wide circle of friends who did things together. One of the things they did regularly was attend Triple-A baseball games.
After we moved to Monrovia, California, Buck and his friends would sit on the floor of our living room, put a bottle of whisky in the center, and argue which branch of service won the war. PTSD did not seem to be an issue with them and, contrary to the silence of some World War II veterans, they were quite open about the war and their experiences.
Buck was a body and fender man when he enlisted. He had an eighth grade education. He decided that he couldn’t be a very good painter and went back to school, attending high school at night. He decided that he needed to go to class to do that, not just pass a test. So, off we went together—Buck, Mom, and I—to Monrovia Arcadia Duarte High School several nights a week. The teacher lectured and my mom took notes. I sat in the back and did my homework—well, that’s what I was supposed to be doing. We always stopped at a Foster Freeze on the way home so I could get a nickel Frosty!
Following high school, Buck attended Pasadena Junior College for two years before attending Occidental College to get his Bachelor of Arts degree.
Following his graduation from Occidental, Buck became more active in BVA. My mom acted as both his secretary and chauffer in the Los Angeles area. He was soon hired as a Field Officer in the New England area to ensure that all blinded veterans were receiving the benefits they had earned. He moved the family to Bloomfield, a town near Hartford, Connecticut.
Mom helped him out the way she always had for a short time, but he soon started traveling all over New England by himself using only his cane. He was now able to visit his fellow blinded veterans on his own. Maine, however, proved more difficult as the veterans were spread throughout the state and there was little or no bus service where they lived.
During the summer before my junior year of high school, Buck and I packed a five-horse Eventide motor in the back of our station wagon and drove to Maine where we visited every vet in the state, fishing along the way. The most memorable part of the trip for me, other than just being with Buck, was visiting a home out in the sticks.
One time we were invited in and told to take a seat in an unlighted front room. Buck promptly sat on some poor guy’s head. The guy had been sleeping on the couch.
My mom continued to be Buck’s helpmate and “right-hand man” until her untimely death at age 53. Was it always a bed of roses? Of course it was not. One of the things that helped is that the two shared a belief in the Blinded Veterans Association and the good it could do. The organization was always a significant part of their marriage.
Several years into my own adult life, while I was living in Maryland, Buck and Carol Esposito came down for a weekend. Carol was younger than I, the stepson, was. He told me that they planned to get married. On the trip to the train station, my three little girls accompanied us.
Buck said to the girls, “How would you like me to make Carol a member of the family?”
Suzy, age 9, said, “Oh, Grandpa Buck, are you going to adopt her?”
Left to right, BVA legendary figure Buck Gillispie with Alice Brazier Cooper, mother of film legend Gary Cooper; Gary Cooper himself; and Buck’s first wife, Jean Ashmore Gillispie.
It only took Buck a few decades to see the humor in that comment. Carol was truly the best thing that ever happened to Buck. She was a remarkable woman, blind from a cancerous condition of her eyes that had caused total blindness while she was still a preschooler.
I know a couple of things about Buck that are largely unknown. First, the Naval Base near Boston had a workforce composed almost totally of Caucasians. Buck was able to help an African-American blinded vet get a job there, opening the way for an integrated base. At a Naval station in California, he landed a job for a blind man as an electrician! Two Members of Congress are still recognized annually with the Buck Gillispie Congressional Award for their excellent work on behalf of veterans. The awards are presented in the House Veterans Affairs Committee Room on Flag Day.
My contacts with Buck and BVA eventually became less frequent. I visited him when my Navy career took me to the Washington area and later he and I again fished together during his tenure at West Haven. Buck always caught the biggest and greatest number of fish on our outings. I repeat: Always.
Buck was asked by VA after his retirement to visit Washington as a consultant. He and Carol arrived for one of those trips. He took sick abruptly and suddenly passed away at his hotel in Alexandria, Virginia on September 21, 1995. Carol passed away a little over three years ago in June 2013.
Two books have been written about the 756th Tank Battalion. The first is The 756th Tank Battalion in the Battle of Cassino, 1944 by Roger Fazendin. The second, The 756th Tank in the European Theatre, was written by his wife, Carol, and published in 1999.