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How John Gibson helped save the G.I. Bill

    (Note: The following is an excerpt from “When Dreams Came True,” a book about the passage of the G.I. Bill and how it helped shape modern America.)
    
    “A desperate search by military and police officers, a high-speed, midnight car ride through a thunderstorm, and a last-minute flight to the nation’s capital enabled a south Georgia Congressman to save the G.I. Bill in 1944.
    The very week of the D-Day invasion, a House and Senate conference committee was deadlocked on the bill. On Friday, June 9, after the committee adjourned at 6 p.m., Representative Pat Kearney of New York told John Stelle, an American Legion lobbyist, that the committee would meet at 10 the next morning for one last vote.
    Stelle asked, “What can we do?”
    “Get John Gibson up here from Georgia, “ Kearney replied. “He’ll vote the right way. He’s the only one who can save the bill.”
    The second-term congressman had returned to his home in Douglas, Georgia, a couple weeks earlier to recuperate from an illness. Now recovered. Gibson spent the day at his favorite hobby, fox hunting, unaware that the G.I. Bill he supported was in any danger.
    With his wife and children out of town, Gibson arrived home late, expecting a quiet night. He stepped out of his car, heard his telephone ring and ran into the house.
    It was the local operator calling, well past her normal quitting time. She jabbered something about patching him through to the Atlanta Constitution. Veteran reporter Rolphe Edmondson described the situation and said Clark Luke, American Legion Commander for Georgia, would pick up the congressman in a few minutes. Priority travel plans which had already been authorized.
    “You bet I’ll get to Washington,”Gibson barked. They promised to vote my proxy.” He paused a moment. “I just remembered, I haven’t got any cash on me.” But a second later he continued, “Never mind. There’s always a poker game at the Elks Club on Friday night. I’ll get some money from the boys.”
    Gibson saw headlights turn into his yard and ended the call. After a stop at the Elks Club, Luke sped him out of town as rain began to fall. By the time they reached the Waycross Army Air Base it was pouring.
    Gibson jumped into a waiting Army auto driven by Corporal Jack Hunter, a former Notre Dame track star. In one of the most important races of his life, Hunter gunned the car over gravel roads at up to 90 mph, on a mad dash for the Florida border.
    At one point they zoomed up behind a truck, and the corporal swerved into the left lane to pass, just as the road banked into a sharp curve. Hunter hit the brakes, the tires screamed, and two wheels actually left the road. “I thought my feet would go through the floor boards,” Gibson later recalled. Fortunately the wheels returned to earth, and Hunter drove on.
    At the state line, Florida police met the congressman’s car and supplied a high-speed escort to the Jacksonville airport. Once there, Gibson leaped from the car and ran up the boarding ramp of a waiting Eastern Airlines plane. Its twin propellers roared as soon as he was seated.
    According to David Camelon, a newspaper reporter who covered the passage of the G.I. Bill, the Legion’s effort to bring Gibson to Washington involved dozens of people across the country.
    With wartime restrictions on telephone service, the Constitution editors used their newspaper clearance to place calls throughout the state in search of Gibson. City, county and state police stopped cars on the roads between Douglas and Valdosta, where he had reportedly been visiting. Radio station WSB in Atlanta and WGOV in Valdosta broadcast constant appeals to “anyone knowing the whereabouts of Congressman John Gibson.”
    Reporters at the Los Angeles Examiner located the chief of Air Force public relations, who arranged for the car at Waycross. Meanwhile, the New York editor of the Hearst wire service woke up Eastern Airlines national traffic manager, who ordered the plane in Jacksonville to be held at the terminal until Gibson arrived.
    The flight was long enough for Gibson’s temper to simmer and reach a boil. Before leaving the Capital, he had given authority to cast his vote in favor of the bill to Rep. John Rankin of Mississippi. The conference committee’s seven senators voted unanimously for a compromise version. A majority of the House members had to agree, but the six attending representatives were evenly split, three for and three against. As one of those opposed, Rankin had blocked passage of the legislation by refusing to cast Gibson’s absentee vote.
    American Legion staff met an angry congressman at Washington National Airport Saturday morning. At 10:00, he marched into the committee room and thundered, “Americans are dying toddy in Normandy in the greatest invasion in all history. I’m going to hold a press conference after this meeting and castigate anyone who dares to vote against this bill!”
    The committee passed the legislation 14-0. Rep. Gibson supported many important war and relief measures during his three terms in Congress, and won scores of significant cases during a long career as a Coffee County lawyer. For the rest of his life, though, he admitted special satisfaction with his last-minute victory on the G.I. Bill.
    Two weeks after the vote, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the measure into law. Since then, billions of dollars in benefits have helped millions of veterans reenter civilian life, thanks in part to the midnight ride of John S. Gibson.

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