Even in death, Doug Gibbs amazed those around him. While preparing for Gibber’s funeral, his father, Jack Gibbs, and brother, Ken Gibbs, were searching for photos in the family’s real-estate office. They discovered an envelope, with the words, “Important Papers,” written on the front.
Inside, was Gibber’s goodbye letter — a document he wrote more than two decades ago. And in true Gibber fashion, its message is sweet, amusing and, most of all, honest.
“Well, I guess since someone is reading this, it must mean that I’m gone or that someone is awful nosy,” it begins. “This letter is just really to comfort my parents, which I can imagine are in a lot of grief. To start off with, I am very grateful to my parents for bringing me up in a loving and Christian family, even though I was spanked every day in my childhood days.
“Dad and Mom: You both were always there for me when I was hurt or needed someone to talk to — especially when I was wrong, which, of course, wasn’t that often.”
Gibber continued with a special message for Ken, his wife, Debbie, and their children and then concluded with a note to his friends.
“I know that I was really blessed to have so many good friends,” he wrote. “I can’t reminisce too much of what we did, because y’all could still get in trouble. ... (There is) the saying, ‘If you go through life with one true friend, then you’re lucky.’ Well, I must have been one of the luckiest people in the world to have so many friends.”
The Rev. Tommy Warnock, who officiated Gibber’s funeral May 17, at Plant City’s First Baptist Church, read the letter for the nearly 1,000 in attendance.
“What blows my mind is that at 23 years old, he was thinking about this,” says Gibber’s father, Jack.
On the second page of the letter, written in 1991, Gibber included a list of friends who should serve as his pallbearers. Unbelievably, those friends were the same ones who helped bring Gibber home.
Doug Felton Gibbs, Plant City civic leader, died May 14, 2014, following complications during surgery.
He was just 45 years old.
Survivors include his parents, Jack and Elizabeth Gibbs; a brother, Ken Gibbs, and his wife, Debbie; grandmother, Margaret Gibbs; his loving life partner of 11 years, Carole Wright; two nieces, Sara and Anna; and nephews, Andrew, Paul, Luke, Nathaniel and Philip Gibbs.
LARGER THAN LIFE
In the days following his death, friends compared Gibber to Will Rogers and Elvis Presley. Others called him the “unofficial mayor of Plant City.” Still others said he was the glue that not only kept their circle of friends together but also Plant City as a whole.
But, above all, the word used universally was loyal.
Gibber was born June 17, 1968. Instantly, he and brother Ken forged a deep relationship that lasted throughout Gibber’s life.
“We got in some trouble together,” Ken says. “We were always tussling. We broke several things in the house; it was hard for Mom to have nice things.”
Jack clarifies: “Tussling — not fighting.”
Eric Schulte met Gibber when they were 7 years old and in the second grade at Bryan Elementary School.
“We became pretty fast friends and inseparable soon thereafter,” Schulte says. “I remember spending plenty of time at Doug’s house when we were little. We’d play ‘army’ and G.I. Joes in the fort in the back of his house.
“We spent as much time at each other’s houses as we did our own,” he says. “I remember the first time Doug attempted to spend the night at my house. I say, ‘attempted,’ because he called his mom to pick him up pretty soon after getting there. My brother and I had gotten into a fight, which I believe scared him and probably made him question his new friendship. I remember being pretty upset and sad that my friend wasn’t going to be sticking around to play that night. Similar to now. I wish I had one more day to play with my friend.”
As the boys grew older, different interests pulled them apart for a few years. But, when they rekindled their friendship in high school, it was as if no time had passed at all.
“We started right where we left off,” Schulte says. “And in college, he was the first guy I’d see when I’d come home to visit. We’d just vanish for the entire weekend.
“He was just larger than life,” he says. “When he was in the hospital, I visited every day. ... I would have expected nothing less of Doug, so that’s what I was going to do for him.”
Schulte isn’t alone in his memories of Gibber. Tim Shuff, who also met Doug in elementary school, later became Gibber’s tennis partner.
“He had a wicked two-handed backhand,” Shuff says.
Gibber even introduced Shuff to his future wife, Stephanie.
“Everybody loved him; he was like a rock — always reliable.” he says. “One of the last memories I have was my wife and I going to see STYX at the Florida Strawberry Festival with Doug and Carole. We were just reminiscing and sharing good stories and memories.”
Although the best of those stories likely never made it to Jack’s ears, he remembers getting a phone call or two that would spark concern in any parent.
“We’d get phone calls that would start with, ‘Mr. Gibbs: First of all, Doug is OK,’” Jack remembers, smiling. “And that did happen more than once.
“His friends identify with two vehicles of his — the Scottsdale (which was passed down from his grandfather and father) and a maroon Jeep that once ended up in a pond out in Walden Lake. In fact, his class ring is in the middle of one of those lakes.”
Brian West, another of Gibber’s boyhood friends, says he treasures the memories they made together.
“Any time I begin to tell a story from my youth, my wife must see it in my eyes,” he says. “She’ll chime in with, ‘Let me guess: One time, you and Doug …’ She’s usually right. As many times as that has happened over the years, I’m just now realizing how big a part he played in my life. Doug was a great friend and a best friend to a lot of people. If he was your friend, you had a friend for life. He spent his life going out of his way to be there for others, including me.”
Brannon Wright, a friend of Gibber’s since freshman year of high school, has a name for Gibber’s ability to connect with people.
“Gibber had a gift, I called his ‘Gibber Glue,’” he says. “He had this unique ability to bond people. … He was responsible for connecting more people than Facebook, Christian Mingle and Match.com all combined. Most all of his closest friends were introduced to each other through the Gibber. It truly was remarkable his ability to put people together.”
Following high school, Gibber attended Hillsborough Community College and then in 1985, began working at his family’s real-estate company. Two years later, Ken also joined the firm, and since then, the trio — Jack, Gibber and Ken — operated in all facets of the industry: residential, commercial, industrial and acreage.
“We were the Three Musketeers,” Ken says. “We all handled everything, and whatever needed to get done, any of us could fill in. ... We were together every day for six to eight hours a day. Now, one-third of the team is gone.”
Gibber’s office was situated within Jack’s eyesight; they looked at each other all day. And if the two needed to communicate, all Jack had to do was look up and talk to his son.
“That’s the hardest part,” Jack says. “I had breakfast with Doug every weekday morning for almost 30 years. ... After my dad died, I’d sometimes catch myself heading back to the office from a meeting and wanting to tell him something. Now, I’m having that same thing happen with Doug.”
Indeed, Gibber’s presence likely will be felt in Plant City for years. His work as a civil leader in the community included appointments as chairman of Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce, president of Plant City Lions Club, director in the Plant City Rotary Club and chairman of the East Hillsborough County Law Enforcement Appreciation Association. He also served on the Advisory Council of the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center.
As a Realtor, Gibber was a member of the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors, the Florida Association of Realtors and the National Association of Realtors.
“He had a vision of what Plant City could be,” says longtime friend Lee Williams, owner of Felton’s Market. “He wanted Plant City to grow but wanted it to maintain its charm. He had a great deal of common sense.”
In fact, Gibber was responsible for involving Williams in the Lions Club in the early- to mid-1990s. Tired of his friend arriving late, Gibber eventually offered to drive Williams to and from meetings and events.
“He’d be the first one there and the last one out,” Williams says. “He picked me up, and then I realized I was stuck with him.
“He was the great encourager,” he says. “He’d pat you on the back if you needed it. He’d also kick you in the pants if you needed that, too.”
And, of course, there was that Gibber charm.
GIBBER’S GIFT OF GAB
“I’d introduce him to some friends who don’t live (in Plant City), and then when they’d call, they’d ask, ‘Hey, how’s your buddy, Gibber?’” Williams says. “He just had that way, that smile, that charisma, and everybody was attracted to it.”
Longtime friend and Plant City Commissioner Billy Keel saw it for himself when he went on a vacation cruise with Gibber.
“He could make friends anywhere and never met a stranger,” he remembers. “The cruise itself — I don’t remember very much about, (because) it was pretty uneventful. However, the thing that stands out in my mind is how many people Gibber became friends with there. ... As we were leaving the ship and walking down long hallways, I began to notice people saying goodbye to Doug. Nearly every person we passed said, ‘Bye Gibber,’ or, ‘Great to meet you, Gibber.’ One even high-fived him, and another took a picture with him.
“Doug was the type of person you could talk to about anything,” Keel says. “And you knew that whatever was said, it wasn’t going anywhere. He would keep it in the vault. ... I’m going to miss him every day. No matter what was happening in my life — good, bad or ugly — Doug was going to be there, and I could count on him. I lost one of my best friends.”
Friend Billy Herold says he, too, saw Gibber’s charm in action. During one of their vacations to Anna Maria Island, Herold and Gibber discovered a little burger joint called Skinny’s. They sat down at the bar and ordered some food and drinks. Within minutes, Gibber seemed to have met every other person in the restaurant — including all the waitstaff and bartenders.
The next day, the two returned to Skinny’s.
Hey, Gibber! someone shouted.
Gibber! an employee exclaimed.
You want your usual? another said.
And then, to Herold: Hello, sir. What would you like?
On one particular night, Herold remembers putting his arm around Gibber and telling him: You’re one of my best friends.
Gibber responded: How many best friends you got?
Counting you, about three, Herold told him.
A few minutes later, Gibber said: You’re one of my best friends, too.
How many best friends you got? Herold asked.
About 400! Gibber said, grinning.
“A lot of people invest in different things — the stock market, real estate, their business,” Herold says. “And then, they want a return on their investment.
“Gibber invested in relationships,” he says. “He put a lot of stock in relationships, and he cultivated those over the years. He got back 100% on his investment. (In that regard), he died a very wealthy man.”
Indeed. Six men were named pallbearers for the funeral and another 11 as honorary pallbearers.
“The first thing that you did when you saw Doug is smile, and the next thing is you laughed together,” says friend Duane Gay. “What a gift Doug had for doing that, and I hope I never took it for granted.
“Doug never made any enemies — but the way he made instant friends was always a mystery to me,” he says. “He would say things to someone upon first meeting them that — if I were to make those same comments — would get me run out of the room. But 20 minutes after, he said them he would be arm-in-arm with whomever he had just met. Everyone (who) knew Doug was blessed to know him. He had more friends than anyone that I know, and his friendship was special, because it never wavered.”
But, perhaps none knew him better than the love of his life.
Gibber text-messaged Carole Wright every single day.
Sometimes, it was just to tell her she was beautiful. Other times, he’d wish her a nice day.
“He just wanted to make sure I knew he was thinking about me,” Wright says through tears. “That’s what I’m going to miss the most. He was more romantic than me. He remembered the actual day of our very first date. He always had an anniversary card for me.
“And on our first Christmas together, he did the whole 12 days of Christmas,” she remembers. “Some of the gifts were small — from the dollar store or something. But from the 13th to the 25th, I got one present every day.”
Their love story began almost like a sappy chick flick. It was the summer of 2001, and Wright’s friends had taken her out to set her up with someone. Gibber was at the bar that night.
“Gibber just walked up, and I never even met the person I was supposed to meet,” Wright says. “That began a two-year friendship.”
But, clearly, there was more, and finally, Gibber asked Wright out on a date in June 2003, to the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center’s first Evening of Picture Perfect Memories.
“I just loved his heart,” she says. “He had a big, big heart — a true heart for people.”
Throughout their entire relationship, Gibber never once silenced his cell phone.
“Sometimes, I would beg him to put that thing on silent, but he always said, ‘Somebody might need me,’” Wright says. “We were having dinner one night, and he got a text from a friend’s wife that said, ‘He needs you.’ He stood up and said, ‘I gotta go.’
“He just wanted to take care of people,” she says. “That’s who he was, and I loved that about him. I always knew, and I understood. I wouldn’t have wanted to change that for anything.”
Although they never signed papers officially, Gibber and Wright operated just as a married couple would.
“I know that Doug loved Carole so much, and we spoke about their relationship many times,” Keel says. “I would often tease him and tell him that he better marry her quick, because no one else would put up with him the way she does. He would just smile and say, ‘Why would I do that and mess up such a good thing?’
“But the truth is, they were really already married to each other in every real sense of the word,” he says. “No, they didn’t have a marriage license or a wedding, but they were as married and in love as any couple I ever knew.”
The Gibbs family welcomed Wright into its world and vice versa. Gibber even started a family tradition with his five nephews: Upon graduation, he took them out to buy an entire suit and accessories to wear for Commencement. This year, Nathaniel is graduating, and Wright is continuing the tradition.
Together, Gibber and Wright showered their friends with as much love as possible. For those who were widowed or divorced, they hosted an annual Valentine’s Day dinner.
“We started it seven years ago and have done it every single year,” Wright says. “Anyone who needed to be there was welcome.”
They both shared a deep love for Plant City and served in their respective civic organizations. In fact, Gibber loved Plant City so much that he rarely wanted to leave. When they did, it was always for a quick weekend getaway.
“He loved Plant City,” Wright says. “He thought if he left, he’d miss something. And he didn’t want to miss anything.”
Wright always will be grateful for the outpouring of love and support Gibber’s extended family of friends showed throughout his time in the hospital. Many friends visited at least once daily for four weeks; others stopped by twice each day. Some would sit with Gibber’s mother, Liz, and others helped disseminate news when the family was all talked out.
It’s the same kind of love Gibber surely would have shown had the situation been reversed.
“There was so much done for us — bringing food, keeping us company,” Wright says. “There’s no way we could ever thank everyone for what they’ve done for us.”
In lieu of flowers family requests memorial to Plant City Rotary Club, P.O. Box 1404, Plant City, FL. 33564, or East Hillsborough County Law Enforcement Appreciation Association, P.O. Box 4807, Plant City, FL. 33563.
TRIBUTES TO THE GIBBER
About seven years ago, Tara and I had gotten two dogs. Halloween was a day away, and we were not sure how the dogs would take all the banging on the door and doorbell ringing from all of the children coming by to trick or treat.
We invited Doug and Carole to come over and just sit out by the driveway and hand out candy. That afternoon, Doug showed up with aluminum pans full of chicken and steak shish kabobs. He went out into my back porch and asked if I could lend him a hand. Thirty minutes later, he had my grill, fire pit, citronella candles, coolers and dozen lawn chairs set up in an amazing front-yard display. He immediately pulled out the food and went to work while fielding calls from everyone wanting to know what he was doing for Halloween. With every caller, he would say to “just stop on by,” because he had plenty of food for friends.
That night, the entire group had such a great evening handing out candy to children, while Gibber was handing out shish kabobs to everyone who asked. By 8 p.m., the entire driveway was filled with friends just stopping in to say, “Hello,” and grab a bite of what Gibber was grilling.
Later that night, Tara and I sat in awe at how he had taken such a small idea and in one day made it into such a huge social evening for everyone.
Every year after that, we decided that we would all continue on the tradition bringing on more friends each year to Gibber’s lake house for Halloween.
— Charles Harris
There are many describing words one can use to define Doug as a person. For me, the most fitting word is “genuine.” Of all the souls I have encountered in my life, Doug’s was the most genuine. He was always true to himself, his family and his friends. I have never known any one person that was so loved by as many people as Doug was. He touched more people’s lives and connected more people than he probably even knew. This would not have been possible without possessing a soul as genuine as Doug’s. He never tried to be anything other than what he was. He never faltered in his beliefs and lived his life to his fullest. I consider myself fortunate to have had a friend like Doug in my life for as long as I did. He was more than a just a friend to me — knowing him since preschool. He was another source of security I had in my life. I loved Doug with my whole heart and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. He will never be forgotten by any person that was lucky enough to have known him.
— Dave Edison
He knew everybody and everybody knew him. Everyone liked him. I don’t think I’ve met one person who didn’t like him.
— Tommy Sparkman
He was an iconic guy around here. There are so many Gibber stories. It’s amazing how many people he knew. There were 17 pallbearers at the funeral. That should tell you something.
— Chris Sparkman
He had the biggest heart of anybody I have ever met. He was one of those people with the rare gift of being able to light up a room with his mere presence. Doug was also one of the most civic minded and involved people in town; if Plant City every had an unofficial mayor and goodwill ambassador, it was Doug. And he was never boring, Doug had the ability to live life and enjoy the moment — no matter where he was or what he doing (even if it was cooking burgers at the Lions Club booth at the festival and he had to put up with a loudmouth, know-it-all-attorney (me) who was trying to be his assistant chef). Right now, I am sad and I am grieving and wondering what Doug would say if I could talk to him one last time. I imagine that he would say the grieving process is natural, and that when we are done grieving, that we should never stop celebrating his life and his memory. He was a good friend for many years, and I will miss him.
— David Barnhill
Doug: You were such an integral part of Plant City and will be greatly missed by everyone that had the chance to meet you. You were much loved and a friend to all, and our entire community is grieving for our loss. You left us much too soon. My thoughts and prayers are with your family and Carole.
— Stacy Dunn
What a sad day this is. Tears are coming down. I will miss that wonderful smile you always had every time you came to the bank many times, as I waited on you and your family. Love all of your family and a big part of Plant City. Know you are resting in the arms of Jesus now. Rest in peace brother. (We’ll) miss you, but what an angel Jesus has up there now!
— Carol Jenkins
A great and honorable man. A true friend who knew how to be a friend in order to earn friends. A treasure to us all.
— Ed Verner
POEM FOR THE GIBBER
Columbia shirt, khaki shorts, a style all his own
The most down-to-earth person of anyone you’ve known
Doing things that most would say they’d rather be caught dead
He taught us all humility, to laugh at ourselves instead
In times of trouble and days of turmoil, Gibber was always there
To throw an arm around your neck and cast away your care
If a person’s soul is measured by the laughter that they bring
Then Gibber’s soul was wealthier than that of any king
As we celebrate the life of this unique and remarkable person
The pain within our hearts only seems to worsen
We say goodbye to Gibber and though many eyes are crying
For we will never forget the man who taught us how to live like we are dying
Forever in our hearts, he will live on in our laughter
— Brannon Wright