One of our older alums came to our March gala and charmed our present staff with tales of his days at Maryville’s predecessor, St. Mary’s, during the Great Depression.
Now an 83-year-old retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel, John Gilbert was kind enough to send us an email called “Letter of Life” in which he described his life at St. Mary’s and his life thereafter, a remarkable and successful odyssey, by any measure.
John arrived at the age of nine at St. Mary’s and now describes himself as a “normal kid” who got into his share of trouble but got good grades. He worked in the shoe factory, learned lots of trades, set up traps by the river to catch mink and muskrat and then skinned them and peddled the pelts. Very enterprising.
When he graduated in 1946, he had finished his formal education. There were 15 students in his class, eight girls and seven boys.
“When I graduated, I looked down at my hands and told myself ‘nobody is going to hand it to you anymore’ and from that point I made a plan for my life,” John wrote.
He went on to learn a lot more about the world in the U.S. Army, where he became an officer, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was married twice and fathered eight children, and served in Korea, Vietnam, and Germany. He was decorated numerous times for his service, including the Legion of Merit. In addition, he was honored by the Korean and Vietnamese governments. He’s been a survivor.
“While in the service I was in a jeep accident, a plane crash and I fell in a foxhole at night– all of which damaged my spine. I have had four back surgeries, have only one eye left, and I have a profound hearing loss,” John wrote.
After he left the Army, he worked as a civilian in Vietnam (he was one of the last Americans to leave when the South Vietnam government collapsed in 1975) and for Bell Helicopter in Iran. He also worked for 15 years for General Dynamics in Indonesia, Venezuela, Egypt and Israel.
“It has been almost 20 years since I last retired. What I have been doing to keep busy? First, I do a lot of pro bono work in the fields of taxes, financial planning, immigration, helping veterans and assisting people with their problems. I recently worked a gas and oil well evaluation issue. I still do odd repair jobs in the trades I learned at St. Mary’s. I have traveled a lot. My children are scattered all over the United States. I visit them. We gather together for vacations. A couple of years ago I hosted 28 of the family at Lake Tahoe for a ski adventure.”
Bob Hope would sing “Thanks for the Memories” and Jimmy Stewart could star in what could be called a “Wonderful Life.” We at Maryville are grateful to John Gilbert, who was known at St. Mary’s as John Russell Pelletier, for keeping in touch and sharing his rich and full life.