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By Caitlin Wolfe
The beautiful two story home on 305 South Gaskin Avenue was once home to U.S. Rep. John S. Gibson, his wife Jimmie Gibson, and their four children, two of which came from his first marriage. John Gibson’s story is fascinating, in large part because he has become one of the most important figures in post-World War II America. He left not only a mark on his local community, but also an enormous impression on our country.
John Gibson was one of only a couple siblings that would leave the farm where he grew up in Charlton County. After finishing his education in the local Charlton County schools, John set off for Douglas to work his way through Georgia State Normal College and Business Institute. In 1917, he also met and married his first wife, Bessie.
After graduating, John began work as a railroad clerk. This was during World War I, and luckily for him, the railroad system was nationalized. John’s position with the railroad is the only thing that kept him from being drafted and sent off to war.
John kickstarted his legal career by finishing a correspondence course from LaSalle Extension University and began preparing for the exam from the Georgia Bar Association. It is said that John had a photographic memory, which helped him in passing the bar exam on the first try. He began his law practice in 1922 in Douglas. John served as the Solicitor of the city court of Douglas from 1928 to 1934, and was elected Solicitor General (what we now call district attorney) of the Waycross Circuit Court from 1934 to 1940.
He was known for his aggressive tactics and humorous arguments as a courtroom lawyer. It was this colorful personality and intelligence that made him one of the most feared trial lawyers in the area. In one case, he convinced a jury that the prosecutor had not proven there was even a body. Of course, he won the trial and the defendant went free.
In November of 1932, after his first marriage had ended, John married a woman named Jimmie Carmack. Jimmie had moved to Douglas in 1931 to teach home economics at South Georgia College. She was highly intelligent, as she had attended Georgia State College for Women, the University of Georgia, Mercer University, and George Peabody College. By the time they purchased the home on Gaskin Avenue in 1946, they had two children of their own.
In 1941, Gibson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the 8th Congressional District. While he was in Congress, the family of 6 split their time between Douglas and Washington, DC. At the time, John and his family had no idea that just 3 short years later, he would make history by casting the vote that passed the G.I. Bill in June of 1944. The G.I. Bill was a law that provided World War II veterans (including minorities and women) with funds for education, unemployment insurance, and housing.
On Friday, June 9, John Gibson had spent the day participating in his favorite hobby, fox hunting. While he was out enjoying his hunt, he had absolutely no idea that the bill he had supported was in any kind of jeopardy. After the committee in Washington had adjourned at 6 pm that day, the representative of New York at the time stated they would meet one last time at 10 am the next morning for one final vote. The vote that would determine if the G.I. Bill would in fact be passed into law.
According to “Great Moments in Georgia History” by Max Cleland, an American Legion lobbyist named John Stelle asked the New York representative what they could do to save the bill. It was obvious that the stakes were high and they needed another vote in order to get the bill passed. That is when Rep. Pat Keamey of New York said, “Get John Gibson up here from Georgia. He’ll vote the right way. He’s the only one who can save the bill.”
The conference committee’s 7 senators had unanimously voted for the bill, but the majority of the House members had to vote in favor as well. When Rep. Gibson left Washington, he had authorized Rep. John Rankin (Mississippi) to cast his vote in favor of the bill in absentia. However, Rankin, who opposed the bill, wouldn’t do it. Since Gibson’s absentee vote had been blocked, this meant that the House votes were split down the middle, 3 in favor and 3 against. With that being the case, Gibson would have to physically be in attendance to cast his vote.
What would transpire over the next several hours was a desperate search by the military as well as local and state police to locate John Gibson, a 90mph car ride through night to get to the airport, and a gut wrenching flight to Washington. They fought tooth and nail to ensure that John Gibson would make it to Washington that night.
Officials and citizens alike had worked tirelessly for hours to locate Rep. Gibson. State troopers stopped cars along his likely routes checking to see if any of the cars held Gibson. Radio stations broadcast messages asking Gibson to call Washington if by chance he happened to be listening. An operator called his home relentlessly hoping he would answer.
While they were trying to find Gibson, other officials were making travel arrangements. He had to get from Douglas to Waycross, where an Army transport would take him to Jacksonville, Fla., where a plane awaited him. This was in the days before paved roads, well marked highways, unobstructed roads — one major concern was cattle, which often laid down on roadways at night because of the warmth. Motorists couldn’t see them until the last second and such accidents were often devastating. And, to top it all off, a torrential downpour had set in.
As Gibson got out of his car in his driveway around 11 p.m., he heard his phone ringing. He rushed in to take the call. The operator urgently told the congressman that someone would arrive at his home on Gaskin Avenue in just a few short minutes to pick him up.
A priority travel plan had already been authorized. John’s nail-biting trip to Washington was orchestrated by dozens of people all across the country. In spite of the late hour and hazardous conditions, Gibson made it to the committee room in Washington in the nick of time. He did in fact save the bill. Just two weeks after it passed in Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law and the G.I. Bill went into effect. Though the original G.I. Bill expired in 1956, it continues to this day and has been one of the most important pieces of legislation in U.S. history. G.I. Bill funds and programs continue to help veterans return to life after the service.
John and Jimmie Gibson and their children lived out many more happy years in their Gaskin Avenue home. John S. Gibson died on October 19, 1960 at the local hospital in Douglas. He and his wife are both buried in the Douglas City Cemetery.
In addition to Mr. Cleland’s book, “From Graveyard Road to Silk Stocking Row,” a book chronicling the homes and families of Gaskin Avenue in Douglas, contributed to this story.
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