Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.


Sonny Gilbert: Inspiration for the Spirit of America

Friday night, July 4, the remarkable Mary Kasten was recognized with the Southeast Missourian Spirit of America Award just before the downtown fireworks in Cape Girardeau. In accepting the award, she eloquently gave tribute to all the great, patriotic men and women in this area, who have helped this nation prosper, and who make this area such a special place to live. One of those people, Gary Gilbert, tragically passed away that day. And, unbeknownst to most, he was one of the inspirations behind the Southeast Missourian Spirit of America award.

Gary, better known as "Sonny," was my uncle. A Marine and longtime school leader and local vocational school founder, star athlete and coach, a historic preservationist and Civil War re-enactor, an American parks ranger, a proud father, grandfather and loving husband, Sonny accomplished much in his life. Among my strongest memories of him, forever, will be his love of our country and its history.

This love showed in ways large and small, including always properly flying a flag in his front yard, and wanting to re-enlist to serve the United States during the first Gulf War, even though he was already in his 50s. Once a Marine, always a Marine!

But it was at his Independence Day celebrations in which his patriotism stood out.

Every Fourth of July growing up and many since, I had the pleasure and honor of attending Sonny's family gathering. There, we would sing the traditional American patriotic tunes. He would churn homemade vanilla ice cream. And, the highlight: He would lecture us all on some aspect of American history. Maybe it would be the story behind our national anthem or the meaning of the symbols on American currency or the policies of the U.S. Constitution or the history of the Founding Fathers and what happened to those who signed the Declaration of Independence. Maybe the lecture was about key moments in American history or trivia about the 50 states.

After the lecture, we'd all receive a test sheet. He'd read the questions; we would fill in the answers. After self-grading, and starting with the person who missed the fewest, we'd each get up and choose a prize from the table that he'd filled with everything from bags of candy to cool promotional items from the military recruitment offices. The biggest reward, though, was just to bask in his genuine pride about America.

It was with Sonny and his history lessons as inspiration that the Southeast Missourian Spirit of America Award was founded. He was what is great about America: quietly working for his family and town and country, because he loved them. He understood duty. And he always did his best to fulfill it.

There is so much more about Sonny that I will remember, including listening to Cardinals baseball games on the radio with him around his swimming pool in the summer. Playing games of Scrabble. Watching him, his son Kenny and my dad go at it on the basketball court. Hearing him brag about his German shepherd named "General," one of the smartest dogs around. Listening to his tales about the Civil War movie shoots he'd been on, or his latest purchased Civil War artifact, or the places out West where he and Aunt Joy volunteered in the summers. But above all, I will remember his love of family, of country, and of God.

This Independence Day, the celebration took place again. And it was afterward, as he was trying to clear a canoe from the Castor River at age 81, by himself, that he was pulled into the water. He yelled out his love for his wife Joy, but couldn't get back to the shore.

His family is in grieving. Today is the funeral.

But Sonny is now memorialized by the holiday that he loved. Along with Founding Fathers and U.S. presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, all who died on July 4, we add the name of another great American: Gary "Sonny" Gilbert. He will be missed. And he will be remembered with fireworks and sparklers, patriotic music, singing and service to others, forever.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.