What do you do after 30-plus years of teaching high school? If you’re John Gibbs, you become an award-winning local columnist for the Independent-Scout.
With his tale about an alligator in the Kickapoo Valley, reflections on the joy of napping, and thoughts on how to stay young-at-heart, John won first place this year in the local column category for small weeklies in the Wisconsin Newspaper Association’s Better Newspaper Contest.
“It was a pleasant surprise,” John said with an easy smile, as he leaned back in the most broken chair in our office last Friday. “I didn’t know I was being put up for this, so it was a nice thing to have happen. It’s a jury of your peers, so it is kind of fun to share your stuff and find out what people think.”
That’s no small feat. Local columns are a very competitive category for small weeklies, according to Independent-Scout editor Charley Preusser.
“Gibbs offers the best reading among the entries,” wrote the judge provided by the Michigan Newspaper Association. “…he covers a wide variety of topics and does it in an entertaining style.”
John began writing his column, ‘Drift from a Driftless Place,’ in 2004. He had just retired from teaching and was busy discovering how he wanted to use his new-found free time, when the newspaper announced that they were looking for a columnist to provide 500 words a week. The person who took this on would be filling some big shoes. Pearl Swiggum, the author of the ‘Stump Ridge Farm’ column, was retiring.
“I tried a few columns and then Margie (Jurgensen, the editor) gave me a call to offer me the column,” John recalled.
Eleven year later, he has lost count of how many columns he has written, saying only that it has been more than 500. And, it’s not looking like John is likely to run out of ideas any time soon.
“I am always looking around and thinking about things,” John explained.
The columnist just keeps jotting down ideas and readily admitted he has plenty of topics from which to choose. However, his first inspiration is outside in the hills and valleys of the Driftless land he loves so dearly.
“Nature is a really easy topic when you live here,” Gibbs said with a deprecating laugh and a wave of his hand toward the newspaper office window and its dynamic view overlooking the wetlands and hills at the north end of Gays Mills.
John admits to keeping a list of ideas that are culled not only from the scenery surrounding him. He jots down ideas from conversations he has with friends and neighbors, from thoughts inspired by the books and magazines he reads, from topics heard on the radio and television.
“It helps to have a good editor, hey Charley?” he called out, teasing the editor with labels like indispensable, stern, and taskmaster.
“I can always tell when he’s struggling,” Preusser responded with an easy and well-practiced repartee. “That’s when he comes out with a list.”
The two have known each many years and both break into quiet laughter at the mention of “the list.”
John was quick to admit that when inspiration was feeling a bit scarce or time gets a little too pressured, he could find plenty of humor worth sharing in a well-made list.
There are things John won’t write about. No religion, no politics and no vulgarity. His is a column of homespun observation and gentle humor.
“It’s hard sometimes to not touch on politics,” John said. “But, I am not going to tell folks how to vote. What I want is to provoke thought.”
And there is plenty to think about, in his opinion.
John draws on his background frequently as he writes.
John was born in Madison at the end of World War II. His father was serving in the armed forces. After being discharged, the young family came to Gays Mills, where his father opened an IGA grocery store and his mother taught English in the village school. The young boy began his education in the brick elementary school on the banks of the Kickapoo River.
After first grade, John’s parents moved the family to Fullerton, California where he stayed until he left for college. He attended Cal Poly (California Polytechnic State University) in San Luis Obispo.
While in college, John met his future wife Sarah (also studying to be a teacher) on a blind date arranged by his father. Upon graduation, the young and newly married couple moved to Ramona, California. Four years later, they packed their bags and headed to Brillion, Wisconsin.
After a brief teaching stint in Brillion, John became a farm consultant with Brookside Laboratories.
“I wasn’t that successful, but I learned a lot,” John said with a slightly rueful shake of his head.
John and Sarah came back to visit Gays Mills regularly during their time in Brillion. It was on one of those visits that former village resident Leita Slayton informed him that the position of ag-teacher had just opened up. He went to visit Wendell Showen, the president of the North Crawford School Board to find out more.
“I ended up being hired without ever having a formal interview,” John recounted.
That was in 1977. John stayed with the school as the ag instructor until his retirement in 2003.
During those years, John tried his hand as an entrepreneur. Those efforts didn’t always pan out. His travel business “flopped” and he only managed to sell one fence from his fences made from old pallets.
But that hasn’t stopped John, and now that he is retired, he seems to have hit on a business idea that will take off – making charcoal. He sold 1,000 pounds in his first year and grew three-fold by his third. Heading into his fourth year, he has visions of expanding sales by selling a secondary product – bio-char – for use in gardening and perhaps farming.
“Charcoal is used for all sort of things,” John said, sitting forward and resettling his ever-preset baseball cap, as he got excited about describing the details of his latest project. “It’s not just for cooking. It is used for all kinds of filtering. And they use it in medicine. You can buy little bottles of it at the pharmacy. But if you charge it by soaking it in a water and compost, it will help build carbon (biomass) in the soil and make it more fertile.”
The charcoal business sprang from a teaching/learning experiment John conducted with his forestry class at North Crawford. That enthusiasm for this project has leaked into the written word, fueling more than one column.
“Agriculture is a big topic, always food for thought,” John said. “And, I often reflect on my time teaching. It left me with a lot of good memories. And then, there is Gays Mills. It is a great community. People here are a lot more open than a lot of places I have been. Folks here are more than willing to let you get involved.”
John is looking forward to the columns he has yet to write.
“I would like to do more about money, about frugality. I like to think about small business. Sarah and I often talk about what kind of businesses could make a go of it here,” John said with a sweep of his hand toward the hallway of the Gays Mills Mercantile Canter and the many spaces still waiting for tenants.
Gibbs’ column beat out competitors from newspapers with larger populations. Ironically, the Brillion News took second place—remember John lived in worked in Brillion for a few years before returning to Gays Mills. The DeForest Times-Tribune was in third, and Manawa Messenger (Clintonville) was awarded Honorable Mention.
Local columnists are definitely a solid asset for the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout. John Gibbs’ fellow columnist, Jane Schmidt, won first place in the same category last year.
“It’s really pretty impressive that we’ve had the columnist of the year for two years in a row at the Independent-Scout,” Preusser noted. “It speaks well to the strengths of our paper. John brings a unique perspective and approach to writing that engages our readers. We’re lucky to have him and Jane.”