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A touching farewell to a lifelong fan

When Jack Gibbons ’49 was laid to rest last month at age 85, students from the Lehigh Marching 97 offered up a moving tribute befitting the lifelong fan.

They didn’t know Gibbons. They’d never even met him. But the story of how they brought joy to his last days, and honored him at his funeral, is a powerful testament to the quality of heart of the young men and women who make up the Lehigh student body.

Jack and Petch Gibbons

By this fall, Gibbons had been under hospice care for more than eight months in Bethlehem, unable to attend Lehigh football games as he had faithfully done for half a century. So on Oct. 25, his son, Petch Gibbons, attended the Lehigh-Georgetown game in Washington, D.C.

In an effort to bring some joy to his father during this difficult time of illness, he asked the Lehigh Marching 97 band if they would play a fight song for his father. They agreed and he quickly got his dad on the cell phone. Although the elder Gibbons was confined to bed, he was still very alert and thrilled to get the call.

“Hey Pop,” his son told him. “I’m down at the Georgetown game and I’m going to have something played for you.”

The band then struck up the familiar Lehigh Will Shine Tonight. Through his cell phone, Petch Gibbons could hear his father still singing even after the band finished.

“You know Petch,” his father told him, “that is my favorite Lehigh fight song. Lehigh will indeed shine tonight.”

Just a week later, Jack Gibbons died.

Planning the tribute

As he made the preparations for his father’s funeral, Petch Gibbons couldn’t get the call from the game out of his mind. He wanted to do something special, something meaningful to honor his father at the funeral just three days away.

“Most of my uncles went to Lehigh, and my cousins and my dad’s old pals. I knew they would all be there for the funeral,” Petch Gibbons recalls. “I thought I would call Lehigh University and get a few people from the band to show up at the church.”

Pete Matt

The music department gave him the number for Pete Matt, a senior engineering student who plays alto saxophone in the university marching band and Wind Ensemble.

“I called Pete and left him the message: ‘My dad is a Lehigh fan and I was wondering if I could get a few of the members to play at the funeral.’ I understood that Pete did not know me from anyone and that Pete is a busy Lehigh student and has his own academic and social life. I really was not anticipating a return call.”

The request did not fall on indifferent ears. Matt returned Gibbons’ call and they talked for more than 20 minutes. When Gibbons asked if some members from the band could come and play at the funeral, Matt replied: “We have never done that before to my knowledge, but I’ll do what I can to help. I’ll try and get a couple of the band members to show up. If no one else shows up, I will come by myself.”

“This is above and beyond the call of duty,” Gibbons told Matt, “and I cannot tell you what a meaningful gift it will be.”

Matt then politely, but firmly, turned down Gibbons’ offer to pay band members for the performance. And he was unsure whether he would succeed in getting anyone to join him in honoring this very unusual request.

Two days was short notice to organize a group. And the timing made things all the more difficult. The funeral was scheduled for 10 a.m., prime class hour for most students. Matt knew he could not make any promises. He could only do his best to get the word out.

Rounding up the band

Gibbons and Matt touched base again on Tuesday. Matt told him the band had practice later that day and that he was confident he could get a couple of band members to come play on Wednesday morning.

“Through e-mail, calling people, text messaging, and practice, I pulled together about 22 people,” Matt recalls. “About everyone there had to skip class to go.”

Taking time out on a weekday morning to play marching band music at an alum’s funeral is not part of a typical student’s routine, especially with no previous relationship between the honored and the student. So what motivated Matt to take the initiative to round up other students to honor such a request?

“Honestly, I really don’t know,” he says. “It just seemed like a good thing to do. Just by talking to Petch, I could tell what it would mean to him and his family. The interesting thing was what he asked us to play. We have our fight songs and we have some more reverent tunes like our alma mater or Amazing Grace. He said no, that his dad was such a Lehigh spirit that the fight song is what his dad would have wanted.

“That confused a lot of people in the band," Matt adds. "A lot of people thought it wasn’t the right thing for a funeral.”

The morning of the funeral, 22 students met at Rauch Field House to pick up their instruments and car pool over to the church. Matt was more than a little surprised to see so many students show up.

“There were some people who were a maybe, but they came anyway,” Matt says.

The funeral mass was scheduled at 10 a.m. at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Bethlehem. The students made their way to the location and quickly set up and were ready to play by 10:15 a.m.

Matt had told his fellow band members that they would be finished performing in time for their next classes at 11 a.m., but the service ran over by nearly an hour. The students began to get anxious about the time—and the task.

”Lots of happy tears”

Inside the church, Petch Gibbons was doing one of the hardest things a man ever has to do: eulogize his father.

“In my eulogy, I said, 'It would not surprise me if by the end of the day we are humming some Lehigh fight tunes,'” Gibbons recalls. “Not really knowing whether Pete and his group would show up. I finished my eulogy, got off the podium, and walked out the back of the church.”

Gibbons looked to the right and did not see any musicians. He thought to himself, “Oh well, they must be busy.” Then he looked to his left and there, in the grass next to the church, were 22 members of the band, all in full Lehigh band regalia.

The Lehigh Marching 97 performs outside Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church following the funeral.

“I can’t believe it.” Gibbons said aloud. He greeted each of the band members with a hug and told them, “You can’t imagine what an impact this is going to have on the congregation when they walk out of the back of this church. Don’t be surprised if they break down in tears.”

“What would you like us to do?” asked one of the band members.

“Just play your litany of fight songs,” Gibbons replied.

The band asked if he wanted them to sing after they played. Gibbons agreed that it would be a nice touch.

Posted on Wednesday, December 17, 2003

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