Gordon W. Bess–Danville’s oldest man at 92 and climbing
By Sharon Lakey
For photo album, gathered and shared by Linda Bess, Gordon and Gerry’s daughter, click here: Gordon Bess
Gordon Bess is an organized man. He credits this to his twenty-year military career. He was born and raised in Meriden, Connecticut, known as the Silver City. His younger brother, Ronald, was also a military man, joining the Marine Corps and serving during the Korean War. Ronald is still living in Meriden. Gordon’s younger sister, Lois, died in January 2004 at the age of 81.
Walter Bess, their father, worked in the silver industry before taking up painting and wallpapering as an occupation. “He had an excellent reputation as a clean worker, and he wallpapered the best houses in the area,” said Gordon, obviously impressed by his father’s skills. From him, he learned how to wallpaper and paint, a skill he practiced when he and Gerry, his wife, bought the house in Danville in 1968. The big, yellow house on Brainerd Street was purchased from Fred Blakeslee, who worked as an artist for a railroad magazine. Gordon remembers that when he and Gerry toured the house it was full of railroad artwork that Blakeslee had painted. Blakeslee left one incomplete painting for the couple, and it appears in some of the family photos that Gordon shared.
Gordon’s military career began when he entered the service in 1938 from Meriden and served at Ft. Wright on Fishers Island, NY, in the Army artillery. He then attended officer-candidate school , from which he graduated in 1942 as a 2nd LT. During WWII, he served in the Panama Canal zone with an anti-aircraft unit. Maintaining the Panama Canal was critical to the war effort, so critical that 40-mm anti-aircraft shells were shipped from London to keep air and water connections for America and its allies safe. He was stationed right on the locks for the duration of the war. When the war ended, he was ranked as a Major.
Gordon met his wife, Gerry, when he was being processed out of the Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in the summer of 1946.. She had served in the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) in the postal service APO New York and also as a cook and baker at Ft. Oglethorpe, GA. He was in the process of re-enlisting when they met on a bus that was going to New York City. As Gerry told the story, Gordon was on the bus in a seat by himself, and Gerry was looking for a seat. “Is this seat taken,” she asked.
“Does it look like it is?” he replied.
She sat down and, according to Gerry, “it was love at first sight.” Gordon and Gerry enjoyed seeing the sights of New York together over the next six weeks. He proposed; she accepted.
Since Gordon was being shipped back to Panama shortly, telephone calls were exchanged with Gordon’s parents introducing Gerry as his future wife. Preparations were made for Gerry to stay with her future in-laws in Meriden until arrangements could be made for her travel to Panama to join Gordon. Gerry and her future mother-in-law, Mildred, got along famously from the beginning, a relationship that continued until Mildred’s passing in 1981. She also got a chance to visit Dexter, Maine, to visit her own family before flying to Panama where she and Gordon were married. They remained there for four years. Gordon had a reserve commission as Major and served in office headquarters as administrator at Ft. Clayton in Panama. Daughters Linda (b. 1948) and Laura (b. 1950) were born in the Canal Zone.
Being a military family, they spent time in different states, including Oklahoma where son Richard was welcomed ( b. 1954), and North Carolina where son Kenneth joined the family (b. 1959). After retiring from the service, Gordon and family moved back to Meriden, CT, where their son Alan (b. 1961) and daughter Judy (1962) were born.
In 1955, the family was stationed on the island of Taiwan. Gordon took part in teaching at an artillery school that trained the Taiwanese army, who were holding their own against mainland China at the time. Gordon shipped out ahead of the family to line up housing, so Gerry was charged with facilitating her own travel itinerary with three young children in tow, Richard being just a baby. Linda has a letter written by Gerry where she describes how she got the three children to New York, boarded a plan in Newark (after their flight from LaGuardia was cancelled) to fly to California where they boarded a military transport ship to take them to Taiwan. Laura and Linda enjoyed spending time watching westerns in a small projection room set up to occupy the kids aboard. Laura, particularly, was enthralled with the movie projectionist, who wore shiny black boots. During the trip, Richard, Linda and Gerry were seasick; Laura was not, but she remembers Linda coming down with the chicken pox just prior to disembarking.
Upon reaching Taiwan, the family first lived in a pink house, off base. Most memorable was the smell emanating from the field owned by the neighboring local farmer, who fertilized the field with human every day beside the house. “They use everything there,” said Gordon. “Everything. And he had the most beautiful field of produce.” As Gordon was often away on maneuvers, Gerry took care of the house and the children, sometimes having help from two Taiwanese maids who helped around the house and with language barriers. After the pink house, they moved to a military complex that was made of groupings of small houses, built for the American military families by the Bank of Taiwan.
When Gordon retired from the service in 1958, he and the family moved in with Gordon’s parents, who still lived in the house in which he grew up. Over the next four years, he took advantage of an offer of college from the military and attended Central Connecticut State College from 1958–1962. He received a degree in mathematics. To support his growing family, he worked summers as a straw boss in Connecticut’s tobacco fields. Around the same time renovations were completed on the family home, which extended an upstairs bedroom (living room) out into a kitchenette, bathroom and bedroom for Gordon’s parents, a temporary arrangement until rooms opened up in the Walter Bradley Home for the Aged in Meriden. Mildred and Walter enjoyed the privacy and comfort of their little upstairs “apartment,” but also enjoyed the company of Gordon, Gerry and their grandchildren. Mildred and Gerry spent quite a bit of time together. Mildred loved to hang laundry out to dry and afternoon teatime was a favorite activity.
Gordon taught school in Connecticut for six years, but during the summer months, he and Gerry used to drive up to Vermont and scout around the little towns for available houses. During these drives, they visited St. Johnsbury Academy and submitted an application. In 1968, he was offered a job on the faculty as a mathematics instructor, and he stayed for 14 years.
Needing to house his family, he found the house on Brainerd Street in Danville. “It was a well-built, solid house ‚” said Gordon. “It was close to the Academy and Danville had a good reputation.” When they moved here, Linda was 20 and Laura 18. They attended colleges in Vermont, but the rest of the children are graduates of Danville High School. Of the six children, four of them had military experience as well. Kenneth was a Marine, Richard served in the Army and both Alan and Linda served in the Navy.
Gerry loved living in Danville. She worked in the kitchen at school, was a member of the Pope Library Board of Trustees, Home Dem and a busy Pythian sister. “She loved people and children,” said Linda. Gordon joined in on community affairs as well. One of the most memorable and time consuming was being a school board member when the school was digging out of a financial jumble. “There was no wrong-doing or anything like that. It was just a messy bookkeeping system that needed ironing out,” said Gordon. He worked with Dr. Marc Hull and accountant Debbie Blanchard on this effort and spent many hours looking over and sorting out the records. In addition, for many years he provided routine maintenance as well as financial bookkeeping for the Senior Housing building. He was pleased when they were able to pay off their federal housing loan five years earlier than required.
One would also see Gordon march with the American Legion in every parade on holidays. He gave his time in tending the flower beds around the flagpole, the war monuments and the flowers in front of the town hall. He raised and lowered the flag every day for years on the library lawn. And he kept an immaculate house on Brainerd, a nice large lawn and impeccable yellow paint on a very tall house. Betty Hutchins, who drove school bus for Danville for many years, told him she would have her heart in her stomach on days she would drive by and see Gordon on the 32-foot ladder at the peak of his house. “I’ve given up the ladder,” said Gordon with a slight smile.
As Gordon has achieved the honor of being Danville’s oldest man—92 in March of 2013—I asked him for his advice to us younger people. His answer was clear and prudent: “Live carefully within your means. Don’t get overwhelmed in debt to keep up with the Jones’. Take part in community activities. Accomplish something, even if it is small, that requires your physical involvement. Be part of your town.”