How do you say “goodbye” to your closest friend of over 50 years? And how does a family say “goodbye” to a husband, father, and grandfather?
In the fall of 1958 two new faculty members were added to the science department at Freed-Hardeman. They were Eugene Hibbett and Howard Trull. I was a freshman that fall and had no idea those two men would change my life forever. I had Hibbett for General Chemistry that year and then for Organic Chemistry the next year. I was also his lab. assistant that second year. I had Trull for Biology and Microbiology. Because of my experiences in Hibbett’s classes, I decided upon teaching as a career. Because of my experience in Trull’s classes, I decided to teach biology. At that time I never dreamed of coming back to Freed-Hardeman and being able to work with them for over 30 years. What an absolute joy those 30+ years were. If there ever was a Camelot -- it was then. Through the years we laughed together so often, and yes, there were times we cried together.
For those of you, who do not go that far back with Hibbett, let me say he was known for what became “pulling a Hibbett”, right from the beginning. In General Chemistry that first year he was writing a formula on the chalkboard and all of a sudden there was this big burp. He realized what he had done and turned to the class and said, “When you’ve gotta burp, you’ve gotta burp.”
A few years ago I mentioned in Hagan Wilcoxson’s funeral that as long as there was someone living who knew her, there would be Hagan stories. Well, the same is certainly true of Gene Hibbett. I loved the man for so many reasons and one of them was his complete honesty. Ever so often he would appear at my office door with a big smile on his face and I usually knew what was coming. He would say, “Tucker, I pulled a Hibbett.” Then he would tell me what he had done. Most of us would keep things like that to ourselves and hope no one else would tell it. But not Hibbett, he knew his friends would get a big laugh and so he told on himself. And yes, he laughed at himself.
One summer, I think it was ’84 or ’85; Hibbett, Dwayne Wilson, and I worked on three projects. We made a sizable addition to Hibbett’s house, we re-roofed the house my family was living in and we worked on a barn for Dwayne. One day when we were on top of my house, Hibbett started talking about some property he had bought out in the country. He was talking about whether or not to build out there. Then he started telling us why it would not be a good idea to build out there. He said if anything happened to him Jackie could walk to the grocery store—at the time there was a small grocery store on the White Avenue about two blocks from where they live. He went on to say if anything happened to him, Jackie could walk to church. The Henderson congregation is just a few blocks farther down White Avenue. After a while, Dwayne said, “Hibbett, you could just leave Miss Jackie the car keys.” Remember, we are up on the roof of a house. We laughed so hard, it’s a wonder we didn’t fall off the roof.
Yes, we laugh at Hibbett stories, but did you notice something important in that story; Jackie this, Jackie that – the story was so true to his whole character. In his heart he was always thinking about others. If ever there was a man who fit what Jesus said in Matthew 25, it was Gene Hibbett. Listen as I read vs. 34—40.
“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was hungry and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Let me inject just a few things here;
I was in the nursing home and you came to see me week after week and you visited me in room after room.
I was sick and you took me to the doctor or to the hospital
I got better and you came to get me and take me home from the hospital
My marriage was in trouble and you counseled me and saved my marriage
I was lost and you taught me the gospel and saved my soul
Now back to the text. “Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Don’t you love this Book? Gene Hibbett loved this Book and he taught it to everyone who would listen. No one was more faithful to visit the Nursing Home than Hibbett, even though he did not have a relative there. He would read and study the Bible with the residents. Some have already said they miss his visits. I heard visitors at the hospital say that if it were not for Hibbett, they would not be members of the church. Another man said if it were not for him, he and his wife would probably not still be married. There will be several in heaven who are there because of the love and teaching of Hibbett.
We love the funny stories about Hibbett, but we love even more the stories that show us what a great Christian man, husband, father, grandfather and friend he was.
Don’t you love this Book? Gene Hibbett loved it with all of his heart. This Book tells us about an Almighty God who spoke this entire universe into existence. “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and the host of them by the breath of his mouth. For He spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast.” Psalm 33 verses 6 and 9. Yet Jesus said of this omnipotent God that He loves the world—that’s you and me—He loved the world so much that He sent His own Son for man’s salvation. He sent His Son to die so that people like Gene Hibbett could live forever.
Don’t you love this Book? Gene HIbbett did. This Book tells us, “In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33. On Saturday morning, August 18th, Jackie called to let me know that Gene was back in the hospital. When I arrived at the hospital a few minutes later, he was in so much pain. The nurses had to restrain his hands but he was still struggling and you could see the pain in his eyes. This Book tells us of a place where God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.” Those few words have a much greater meaning to me after seeing him in so much pain. It is no wonder this book says “Blessed—Happy—are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth; yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them.” Rev. 14:13. As I left his bedside just a few hours before he died, he looked so tired and exhausted and I knew it would not be long until he would have perfect peace and rest. What an awesome God we have. He has prepared a place for people like Gene Hibbett where there is eternal happiness, and rest. Where there is no pain and no sorrow.
People like Gene Hibbett--- and there are few that are truly like him—people like him don’t just happen. Many in his early years influenced him in a positive way and he was grateful to all of them. But the one thing that influenced him most was this Book. The Book he loved so much and he believed every word of it from Gen 1:1 to Rev. 22:21. He read and studied it with the attitude of “Lord, teach me what you want me to know.” Then his prayer was, Lord help me practice it and teach it to others.
Hibbett has often been referred to as the classic absent minded professor. At school or at church we often knew when Miss Jackie was out of town. Someone would say, “Hibbett, go comb your hair or go zip….” On August 20th each year I would ask him, “Hibbett, do you know what tomorrow is?” There was usually a puzzled look on his face and I would say, “It’s Jackie’s birthday. Don’t forget.” Then about two weeks later I would ask the same question, same puzzled look. “It’s your anniversary.” Most of the time he would say he was glad I reminded him. Sometimes he would say, “Remind me again tomorrow.” Jackie said sometimes they would be sitting down for supper and all of a sudden he would jump up and say, “I’ve got to go do something. In a few minutes he would come back with a birthday or anniversary card.
If you ever walked beside Hibbett he would likely put his arm around you and pull you over next to him. Student, faculty, male or female—it didn’t make any difference, he was an equal opportunity hugger. I recall seeing him walk through the student center one day with his arm around Mary Bloomingburg. Her husband, Wendell, was walking behind them with a smile on his face.
One day when chapel was still being held in Old Chapel Hall, a young man was leading singing. He totally missed the tune. On the second verse someone decided to help him out. They began singing very loud, but also missed the tune. On the third verse President H. A. Dixon decided he would help out, but he too missed the tune. We had three groups singing and none were singing the right tune. Hibbett leaned over to Tom Holland and said, “It shouldn’t happen to a dog!”
One of the simplest things Hibbett taught us in General Chemistry was when you combine an acid and a base, you produce a salt. When you combine Gene Hibbett with this Book, you produce what Jesus in the sermon on the mount called “the salt of the earth.” And like salt to food, Hibbett made everyone around him better.
In all the years that I had Hibbett as my closest friend, I never heard him say, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t said that.” I never heard him use an ugly word, never heard him tell a shady joke. Often when you asked him a question, he would not answer immediately. He was thinking how to answer correctly. It was as if he was saying to himself, “Now how do I want to say this?” In Phil. 4: 8 the Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul gave this list: true, honest, just, pure, lovely, good report, and then he said, “Think on these things.” It was always obvious from Hibbett’s speech and actions that he had spent a lot of time thinking on those things. He loved this Book so much.
One of my favorite passages of scripture is Proverbs 4:1-11. Listen carefully as I read:
Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father, and attend to know understanding. For I give you good doctrine, forsake ye not my law. For I was my father’s son, tender and only beloved in the sight of my mother. He taught me also, and said unto me, Let thine heart retain my words: keep my commandments, and live. Get wisdom, get understanding; forget it not; neither decline from the words of my mouth. Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee: love her, and she shall keep thee. Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. Exalt her, and she shall promote thee: she shall bring thee to honour, when thou dost embrace her. She shall give to thine head an ornament of grace: a crown of glory shall she deliver to thee. Hear, O my son, and receive my sayings; and the years of thy life shall be many. I have taught thee in the way of wisdom; I have led thee in right paths.”
I mentioned that Hibbett taught me chemistry, but that’s not all he taught. More importantly, he taught me how to live, both by word and deed. I am sure many of his students would agree that as the Proverb writer said, he taught us “sound wisdom and he did lead us in right paths.” So often he was a much better teacher than I was student.
I know his family is very appreciative that so many of his former students have visited, called, sent messages and cards and have even provided a place for them to stay while he was in the hospital in Memphis. Those students are also thankful for his teaching and his example.
Now as to husband, father, grandfather and friend, I won’t even try to describe him. I will simply say, no one could ever ask for a better one. If in this life I could have had only one friend, I would have wanted it to be Hibbett.
Hibbett carried his Bible with him almost all of the time. At the Knoxville World’s Fair he read all four of the gospels while waiting in line. That tells you two things, he loved the Bible and the lines were long. One Wednesday night at Estes, Hibbett came in and sat down by me. Apparently that night he had forgotten his Bible because when the speaker said turn to a certain passage, Hibbett reached over and took my Bible out of my hands. I thought he will find the passage and then hand my Bible back to me. No, it was not until the class was over that he handed it back to me without a single word.
One word that has been bouncing around in my head these past few weeks as I thought about Hibbett is “innocence.” His speech—innocence, his hugging you as he walked beside you—innocence, his taking my Bible—innocence, his telling on himself when he pulled a Hibbett—innocence. We often speak of the innocence of a child, but most of us grow out of that rather early in life. Not so with Hibbett, he kept a lot of that innocence all his life. I know that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God, but I would be hard pressed to name one sin that I knew he committed in all the years of our togetherness.
Hibbett celebrated his 80th birthday on July 17 this year. When it came time to light the candle they told him to make a wish and blow it out. He kept waiting as the candle melted on to the cake and finally they said aren’t you going to blow out the candle? He said, “I can’t think of anything to wish for.” How many people do you know like that? Like the apostle Paul in Phil. 4:11, he had learned, in whatever state he was in, to be content.
I borrow the words of King David in II Sam. 3: 38, “Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel.” Indeed, a prince and a great man in spiritual Israel fell Oct. 6, 2012. But instead of mourning a defeat, we celebrate a victory of life. Because of this Book we don’t have to say goodbye today. Yes, there is going to be a space in our togetherness, but before long we too will pass to the other side and Gene Hibbett will be there to greet us. Don’t you love this Book? Gene Hibbett surely did.
In Acts 20: 36-38 we have these words as the apostle Paul left the elders of the church at Ephesus, “And when he had thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all. And they all wept sore, and fell on Paul’s neck, and kissed him, Sorrowing most of all for the words which he spake, that they should see his face no more. And they accompanied him unto the ship.” It is all together fitting that we weep because we will never see Gene’s face again in this life. But, we have full confidence that he is with the Lord.
I asked at the beginning , “How do you say goodbye to your closest friend? How do you say goodbye to a husband, father, and grandfather?” We don’t have to say goodbye, because of this Book we can say with confidence, I’ll see you later Hibbett.
Again, I borrow King David’s words, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” I will miss my friend until that day.
As we celebrate the life of this unique man, I thank God for the precious memories he has given us. Let us look forward to a great reunion with him and all the righteous before very long.
Dear Almighty God, our heavenly Father, Hallowed be Your name,
Father, we feel very special because you allow us to call you Father.
We feel very special because you loved us so much You sent Jesus to show us how to live and then to give His life for our sins.
We feel special because You allow us to be a part of the body of Christ, the church.
We feel special because we had Gene Hibbett as our teacher and mentor.
We feel special because we had him as a family member or friend.
And Father, I feel special because I have been allowed to talk about this great man who was full of good works and loving deeds.
Father, I simply ask that You continue to bless his family and friends as You have in the past.
We love You Father and we look forward to the day when we too can cross to the other side and be in Abraham’s bosom.
In Jesus Name