Modern Methuselah: Joe Gilbert has been coaching at Barnsdall for 66 years
BARNSDALL — Joe Gilbert stops the vacuum to welcome a visitor into the lobby of the gymnasium that bears his name. Joe Gilbert Fieldhouse remains a little messy from the ballgame crowd a few nights earlier.
On a cold Tuesday morning, Gilbert is doing what he’s always done: whatever is needed at Barnsdall High School.
Chalk the field, sweep the floor, drive the bus, teach biology or economics, coach up a ballteam, be a bastion of stability in this corner of Osage County. Gilbert has done them all for longer than anyone can believe.
The vacuum bag says it all. "Simplicity," in letters arranged vertically. Vertical simplicity describes the 87-year-old Gilbert, still standing, still coaching, after 66 years.
The math will amaze you. Gilbert has been coaching at Barnsdall for 66 years. This is Old Testament stuff. Did Methuselah really live to be 969? Did Gilbert really start coaching at Barnsdall in 1954, the year Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio, when “The Lone Ranger” was a radio program, when neither the Dodgers nor Disneyland had come to California?
Yes, on Gilbert. Why not, on Methuselah? What isn't believable when a coach can last 66 years at the same place, living on the same street a block up and a block over from the school?
“He lives to still be in the gym,” said Mikki LeFlore, who played on Gilbert’s softball and basketball teams in the 1980s, and whose father, Dale Javine, played for Gilbert in the 1950s, and whose daughter, Kyndal LeFlore, is on this 2020 basketball team.
Gilbert has coached baseball, softball (fastpitch and slow), basketball (boys and girls) and even football. Barnsdall’s head football coach resigned just before practice one summer. The superintendent called and said, “I need you.”
Barnsdall has needed Gilbert for two-thirds of a century.
“Oh geez, he’s meant the world to me and my family,” said Brad Bell, who played on Gilbert’s 1980 state championship baseball team and went on to pitch at Oklahoma State. Bell’s older brothers played for Gilbert; Bell’s 81-year-old mother, Beth (Clark) Bell, played for Gilbert.
“He’s meant the world to the town,” said Brad Bell, who now lives in Colorado but returned to town last weekend for a Gilbert celebration. “Taught a lot of good life lessons to a lot of good people.”
Sixty-six years. Three or four teams per year. That’s a lot of influence.
Gilbert thought about leaving a time or two but never did. “Better stay where you’re happy,” Gilbert said. “I liked it here. Someone would come talk to me and I’d stay. The people especially were always real good to me.”
Gilbert has 3,912 victories: 1,140 in fastpitch; 801 in baseball; 922 in girls basketball; 649 in boys basketball; 395 in slowpitch; and five in football. Gilbert coached softball last school year but gave it up; he’s down to coaching only girls basketball.
The Panthers play Mounds on Friday night in a Class 2A district tournament at Oklahoma Union in South Coffeyville. If Barnsdall loses, its season is over and it’s time for Gilbert to get ready for next year.
That’s right. Gilbert plans to be back for his 67th year.
A sign entering town proclaims Barnsdall as the former home of Anita Bryant and Clark Gable. Bryant, second runner-up Miss America in 1959 and a staple on Bob Hope’s USO tours in the 1960s, moved away as a toddler. Gable, before heading to Hollywood, worked the Osage County oil fields during the early-1920s boom.
Gilbert was the opposite. Born elsewhere, then came to stay.
He grew up in Buffalo, Missouri, not far from Springfield. His father was a pipeline worker who died young. Gilbert lived hardscrabble and made it to Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. He graduated in 1954 and went job-hunting, hitchhiking to interviews.
To Billings, where future Gov. Henry Bellmon was on the school board, and Bristow and some school he’s forgotten down on the Red River. But Gilbert settled on Barnsdall, 40 miles northwest of Tulsa.
“I didn’t have a pot to pee in,” Gilbert said. Tired of walking, he bought a yellow, 1954 Chevrolet. “I couldn’t get fired, because I had to make the car payment.”
In 1954, Barnsdall’s population was about 1,700. Today, it’s 1,150. “The train came through here,” Gilbert said. “The refinery was quite a going place. At least four grocery stores, a theater, a hotel. Four or five automobile agencies. A dentist or two. Four doctors. The town was all together different.”
All that’s left is the refinery, which became a wax factory that remains open.
Gilbert lived in a school-provided apartment. He eventually married Joyce Infield, who had been a senior on his first Barnsdall basketball team. They’ve been married more than 60 years and have lived only two places, a school-owned house and then the house next door they bought some time in the 1970s.
Gilbert went about the business of coaching. He’s survived 14 superintendents and won just two state championships in 66 years — 1980 baseball and 2012 fastpitch, with a bunch of close calls.
“One woman told me, you like silver better than you do gold,” Gilbert deadpanned. “I said, ‘Ma’am, I guess you’re right.’”
Hard to understand how a guy stays ahead of the posse for 66 years. Especially in recent decades, parents can be difficult.
“Only thing worse than a mama after you in basketball or softball is a bulldog with AIDS,” Gilbert said. “There’s people sometimes hold that age against you, how old I am. I put it down to how long I’ve been around and let it go at that.”
In a 1955 Barnsdall yearbook, Gilbert stands with the junior high football team he helped coach. Someone along the way scribbled “Joe Gilbert sucks.” So he hasn’t always made friends.
But he’s made many along the way.
“His name is synonymous with Barnsdall,” said boys basketball coach Wade Corder. “He’s the most loyal guy. Loyalty is hard to come by in any profession. He just loves what he does.”
Loyalty goes two ways. Gilbert is a special man. But maybe Barnsdall is a special place.
Wilma Logue joined the Barnsdall faculty in 1955, a year after Gilbert. And she’s still teaching, at age 85. Advanced Placement English and world literature.
Just like Gilbert, Logue teaches in a venue named in her honor — the Wilma A. Logue Library & Media Center.
“It’s a nice place,” said Logue on why she never left Barnsdall. “Has good kids. It’s a nice community. Small school, small town, but we thought big.”
Just talking about her craft, Logue can captivate and inspire. If Barnsdall can produce and keep people like Wilma Logue and Joe Gilbert, it must be doing something right.
In 1971 — 49 years ago — Logue began an annual publication of the work of Barnsdall students. She keeps old copies, so that students can go back and read the work of their grandparents. Writing becomes a little more alive. Turns out sports aren’t the only generational link in Barnsdall.
Logue says Gilbert is the same person she met in 1955.
“Everything he does, he does with all of himself,” Logue said. “He has substance. He has a value system that supersedes the criticism he’s received along the way. In the long run, they realized they’d rather have their kids with Joe Gilbert than with anyone else.”
At 2:30 p.m., Gilbert has gone from vacuuming to sweeping. He pushes a broom across the practice-gym floor, the same floor he has refinished himself every year or two all these years. Gilbert refinished the floor up at the main gym last summer and declared that’s it. No more refinishing floors.
You start thinking about how many times over 66 years Gilbert has swept a floor or chalked a field, and you’re back to Old Testament numbers.
“He’s incredible,” said Superintendent Jeff Lay. “Most humble man I’ve ever met. The work ethic, he represents a generation, it’s sad, we’re not going to have much longer.”
Lay’s fifth-grade daughter, Hannah, a basketball junkie, has asked her dad, “Dad, do you think Coach Gilbert will be my coach?”
Lay’s only answer is “who knows?” And who does know? That’s only four years away. Is 70 years at Barnsdall any more amazing than 66?
This year's squad is not one of Gilbert’s better teams. Barnsdall’s girls have just five wins, and a rash of injuries has reduced the roster to seven, counting a girl who went down in practice Tuesday. Last season, Gilbert had 20 players, so he had to alternate uniforms, since he could only suit up 15.
“But it will come back,” Gilbert said. “We’ve got a bunch of young ones coming up.”
The Barnsdall girls arrive for practice, and soon enough, you realize the man who never changes, the man who has been the same since 1954, changes every day.
The slow-to-talk, slow-talking Gilbert is transformed during practice. His commands are steady and never-ceasing.
“Finish it off.”
“Now block out.”
“Move it, move it.”
The Barnsdall practice is efficient. The ball always moves. Shots and passes. Shots and passes. Not much down time. Gilbert calls players by their number; maybe that’s the best way to do it when 66 years of basketball teams roll through your mind.
“If you don’t block out, I won’t be here Monday (for practice) and neither will you,” Gilbert says, which is one of the better motivational speeches you’ll hear.
And this coach from 1954 reminds his team they can watch Mounds, the upcoming opponent, on Hudl, the internet scouting service.
Then when practice ends, another Joe Gilbert emerges. Sheepish, almost uncomfortable, as his players gig him. They call him Gilly and Gilbert and pester him with silly questions. Does he really drink milk over ice? Yes. Has he used the McDonald’s gift card they got him? Yes, for Sunday dinner. Has he been walking his dog, Duke? Yes.
There was no Hudl in 1954. There wasn’t even a McDonald’s. But there was a town called Barnsdall and there was a school with kids who wanted to play ball. And a man who lived simply was willing to invest his time.
Gilbert never had children of his own. But he’s had 66 years worth of Barnsdall kids under his charge.
“I’ve seen ‘em all day long every day, I’ll put it that way,” Gilbert said. “Probably been around kids more than anyone else. It’s kept me going and I love it.”
Joe Gilbert Fieldhouse sits on a hill up from the school. Between the buildings is a major construction project, which will include a health/fitness complex. A retaining wall was replaced just east of the gym, to make sure the ground holds.
“I don’t know if this wall will last as long as the last one,” said Gilbert, who has lasted 66 years at Barnsdall. “That old wall had been there a long time.”
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.