Not sure why things hit us randomly, except maybe God has a plan, and things only look random to us. Perhaps it is Easter or the record number of police shot that brings him to mind. Maybe the partisanship, how people in the Capitol forget important things, not sure.
It was a bright day, July 24, 1998. Working for U.S. House leadership, my job drew me from Rayburn Office Building to the Rotunda to brief the Chief Deputy Whip, routine. Nothing odd.
The U.S. Capitol was serene. “Good morning” to the officer guarding the Whip’s office was standard. He stood along the hall filled with desks, ending in two offices. Late afternoon, he found me at my desk, television sputtering from a corner as I thinned my in-box.
Suddenly, news of a shooting in the Capitol. A depraved gunman came through the Capitol’s East Front, shot Officer Jacob Chestnut, pushed into the Whip’s office through a wooden door, and shot Officer John Gibson, a New England native and avid Red Sox fan.
I could picture Gibson at once, congenial, big man, big heart. Growing up in Maine, Red Sox fans clung together, especially in Washington D.C. He was friendly. That day, he was in the wrong place – or maybe, in God’s plan, the right one.
The real story, known to the leadership family, was this. That gunman got into the Capitol, shot Officer Chestnut, and then ascended the marble stairs. Gibson, behind a big wooden door, heard the shots. He immediately got interns under their desks in that Whip’s Office hall.
Gibson had just seconds. He could not know the gunman was coming for that door, but he knew the sound of shots. Every young person hid, as did senior Whip and Chief Deputy Whip’s staff, with a close relative of the Chief Deputy Whip.
Gibson waited behind that door, which immediately opened. He demanded the gunman drop his gun, a dozen innocent lives behind Gibson cowering, at the mercy of the madman. Instead, the gunman shot Gibson point blank, in the stomach.
Any normal person would have fallen, keeled in pain, allowing the gunman to kill one unarmed intern after another. Any normal person would have been unable to stand that shock. Gibson was different. He knew he was the only thing between that gunman and those kids.
Mortally wounded, he died minutes later. But in that critical, all-important, God-give-me-strength moment, Gibson summoned the strength, courage, and focus to return fire. He dropped the gunman, who – as fate would have it – lived. That day, John Gibson – unsung, easy going, quintessential police officer – saved every life on that hallway, and those in the offices beyond.
All those young people were defenseless, would have been killed like fish in a barrel – except that John Gibson could not let that happen, even if shot point blank himself. That is what heroism – courage that elevates a man above mortality – looks like. He did what he had to.
Now, 24 years later – because at Easter and anniversaries we remember what we often forget – he is back in mind. Certain people change everything, even when they are not here, because they were here. Certain people move us, because when called to action, they answered.
Some people’s lives change us, lift us, focus and inspire us. Even from Beyond, they continue to move mountains. John Gibson is one. He had three children. One son, then 15, is now a Capitol Police Officer, deliberately carrying forward from where his father left off.
Life is filled with unexplained things. Personally, I remember that John was about to go on vacation with his wife and kids the next day, a day that never came. I remember the reverence people had for him, largely missed by the hubbub over the event. I recall his likable manner.
Today, things are different. The caliber of firearm Capitol Police carry is bigger, a sprawling Visitors’ Center has layered security, more police are regularly in evidence.
There are memorials, reminders that keep people – and courage – alive. John Gibson and Jacob Chestnut were “lay in state” at the Capitol. They are both buried at Arlington.
Inside the Capitol, a plaque commemorates their courage, and when the right people are asked the love of life both men had is still vividly recalled.
Back in the land of Paul Revere and John’s beloved Red Sox, not far from where Gibson attended high school, across from old St. Mary’s Church, at the corner of Tremont and Broadway – in Cambridge, Massachusetts – there is also a humble memorial.
On a random day, for a random reason, you may stumble on the park or an article about the brave man, Officer John Gibson. Now you know how he spent his last minutes, and why there is, not far from Fenway, a place called “John Gibson Square.”
Not sure why things hit us randomly, except maybe God has a plan, and things only look random to us. Maybe it is Easter, or that honor never dies; faith deserves faith. Sometimes, when the moment moves your heart, pause to remember and be grateful for such people. I truly am.
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