SI writer Bil Gilbert was one of kind
Gilbert, who eloquently wrote about the environment for SI, died last week at 85
One of his most famous stories was on the mountain man Joseph Walker
Gilbert's collections of nature essays are equaled in the postwar era by few others
When I was a kid and realized I wasn't going to be Carl Yastrzemski or Babe Parilli, I began wanting to be a Sports Illustrated writer one day. Not an unusual aspiration. However, the seeds of desire had as much to do with the bylines Robert H. Boyle, Jack Olsen, Robert T. Jones and Bil Gilbert as they did with those of Frank Deford, Robert W. Creamer, Dan Jenkins and all the other greats. I did not know at the time (but appreciated later) that SI's lineup of writers who could swing from both sides -- sports and games, nature and the environment -- was as formidable as any ever assembled. In the 1960s, The New Yorker had Rachel Carson, sure, but SI had a Murderer's Row. I'm was not sure why I was so interested, by the time I graduated from college and started to look for work, in the outdoors. Perhaps it was that I had been raised a dozen miles from Walden Park. Perhaps it was these Thoreauvian descendants who were gracing the pages of SI.
When I joined the magazine as a kid in 1980, I met the pantheon -- Jenkins, Deford, Creamer, Jones, Boyle -- and they were the most approachable, helpful, welcoming gods one might hope to encounter. I hadn't met Gilbert yet, but I distinctly remember a phone conversation with my college buddy Artie, who was working in New Jersey and was a religious stick-and-ball guy.
"God, Artie, I was just talking baseball in the hall with Frank Deford and Bob Creamer!"
"Wow!" he said, or something louder and more unprintable. "But you know what? I spent a half hour last week reading about Tasmanian Devils!"
That was one of Bil's classics -- one of 400 or so in SI's pages (and those of Smithsonian and other magazines). Bil could suck Artie in, luring him away from the baseball or football coverage with his words and his smarts. When Bil died last week at age 85 and e-mails started circulating among the old crew, I shared with my 32-year SI-football-pool partner Craig Neff, "I miss Bil already. He was about as close to a mentor as I ever had on that enviro beat (he and Boyle, two very different yet oddly similar and equally vibrant characters), and we became close friends. In recent years he has shared with me and a few others some Kalamazoo reflections he's been typing (on that crummy old typewriter) and then Xeroxing (surprised he didn't use carbon paper). It was always a pleasure to get those writings, and then talk them over with Bil after reading. They were as characteristically wonderful as anything he wrote thirty years ago. My opinion: he was one of the very best writers and certainly one of the most original thinkers our old ship ever had."
Gilbert was born in Kalamazoo but when I met him, he and his wife, Ann, and family were living streamside in Pennsylvania. I was assigned to help report a Gilbert extravaganza: a deep look at James Watt's Interior Department (it would eventually stretch to a couple dozen pages over two issues). I was instructed to meet Bil in the bar of an unknown, even weird hotel in Washington, D.C., a hotel that was far less expensive than Time Inc. policies allowed back in the day. But Bil had made friends there. Why? Well, he had taught a barman who couldn't speak English very well how to make a proper Old Fashioned, really putting the screws to the fruit. Bil knew who I was as soon as I walked into the all-but-empty room, and I sure knew who he was. He was burly, ill-shaven, generous and happy, not unlike his stories: the ones I had already read, and the many I would be told by the campfire.
Bil won a hundred prizes through the years. Praise was general and it can be said that it was widespread, if Bil Gilbert never gained the fame he deserved. His histories of mountain man Joseph Walker and the great Native American chief Tekamthi (you know him as Tecumseh) are exemplary, and his collections of nature essays are equaled in the postwar era by few others -- perhaps only by those of Edward Hoagland or those of Bil's own sister, Sue Hubbell.
Some of the plaudits thrown Bil's way I concur with entirely ("our best full-time environmental journalist" -- The Washington Post) and some I would quarrel with. The Smithsonian, Bil's second home after SI, said that Bil "has been writing about nature so well, so sensibly and so long that he's become a kind of natural resource to be cherished for his own sake, like the rivers, hawks, grizzlies and other wonders he evokes with low-key eloquence." True enough, I suppose, but I always found Bil's eloquence extraordinary -- the highest key. I would quote from him here if I thought it would profit the reader. But Bil Gilbert is best appreciated at length, whatever length Bil thought the topic or description deserved. I encourage any of you who do not know him, to find him.
After I had the distinct pleasure of sitting in a high-ceilinged Washington office, watching Bil and Senator Alan K. Simpson spar genially (and, beyond the profane commentary, with great politeness and mutual respect) -- two pairs of boots on the desktop and two whiskeys from Simpson's desk-drawer bottle at the ready -- Bil and I went to a ranch in Arizona to put together the Interior Department pieces. During recess, I would hike into the snow-filled mountains with the Gilberts' two dogs, or Bil would take me deep into a local cave and then turn off the flashlight. Later, we ventured with two others to the Arctic Circle. We were dropped off at an unnamed pond, no one within three hundred miles. Our dried food was supplanted by whatever fish we might catch during the day.
The days quickly became colder; summer rushed through autumn and by August's end had arrived at a kind of winter. Our four-hand game of Spit in the main tent each night wound to a conclusion that, we knew, would signal the end of this wonderful vacation from life itself. Thousands of points piled up in that game, and I was chasing my hero feverishly. Bil had a bad knee at the time, and on the last night before the bushplane came to retrieve us, he shared the remainder of his prescribed morphine with his three friends. That was interesting, particularly when the last night's Northern Lights soared to the very dome of the sky -- no pastel horizon hazes, the full primary-color Monty -- and we lay on our backs on the hilltop, zipped into our downfilled mummy bags, and said "Wow." Or something slightly louder, and a bit less printable.
I remember thinking that night: I can't wait to read what Bil Gilbert writes about this.
I couldn't wait to read it because he was one of the best writers I've ever read. And because he was a friend who would properly remember that moment in time for his other friends who were there.
Robert Sullivan, a former SI staffer from 1980-92, is the managing editor of LIFE Books.